"The Flames Will Have Consumed Me": Abandonment, Death and Self-Expression in Christine De Pizan and Louise Labe

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The theme of abandonment and the image of the abandoned woman have been staples of the poetic canon since the dawn of literature. As Lawrence Lipking states regarding the tradition launched by Ovid's Heroides, "to be a heroine ... means being abandoned." (1) Ovid's series of plaintive epistles, almost all in the voices of women of legend addressing their absent lovers, presents the "other" side of an age-old story. In the dominant literary models which generally tell their tales from the masculine perspective, the woman who is left behind essentially ceases to exist. When the man sails away to epic conquest or spurs his steed on toward chivalric adventure or simply loses interest once his desire has been assuaged, for him that is the end of the episode. For the woman, however, that is where a new story begins. Hers is the tale of the ugly aftermath, the often unseen consequences of love. Naturally, then, love's ending is a different story altogether when the woman is given voice, and especially when there is a woman author-figure behind it.

The abandoned woman who speaks, who opts not to suffer in silence, can be unnerving, because while she suffers, she is also unrestrained--"those who are banished are also let loose" (Lipking xvii). Expressing herself through lament, while at the same time unable to control her lover or her own late, she subverts the basic Aristotelian principle that poetry requires action and closure (Lipking 3) and must not be allowed to languish unresolved. This woman, who has nothing left to lose and who is therefore not bound by such rules, dares to (or cannot help but) speak truths glossed over or left in the margins of conventional literary models, and even of social and historical perceptions that privilege the experience of the man and that do not necessarily offer neat resolutions. The one positive, however, is that through expression she can turn her suffering into a sustained creative impulse that is both an antidote to the heartache and a claim to power and self-determination. Writing is also permanence (2)--pain inscribed in poetry takes on a lasting form, standing as a monument to the woman's suffering and to her art and her selfhood. One could argue that for such feminine voices, expression is action, defying masculine discourse and shattering conventional limits.

For both the late-medieval writer Christine de Pizan and her Renaissance counterpart Louise Labe, the figure of the abandoned woman suffering the pain of loss and unanswered desire is central as subject matter and as a foundation for the poet-personae behind their works. (3) In their poems, the feminine protagonists work in gender parallel with poet-figures who are self-consciously constructed as feminine, and the boundaries between them are provocatively blurred. Interestingly, Mireille Huchon has recently put forth the theory that Labe was but a persona created by a group of male poets in Lyon, whom Huchon credits as the true authors of the texts written under Labe's name. (4) While that theory has yet to be universally accepted, it adds an intriguing wrinkle to the construct of the author figure, specifically presented as feminine, who functions in parallel with her feminine protagonist-speaker. If Labe was the creation of a group of men inspired by Labe's medieval predecessor, the constructed nature of the poet-protagonist couple of which she is part is all the more pronounced because all the more artificial. That, in turn, speaks volumes about the extent to which abandonment is presumed, in literature at least, to be a quintessentially feminine experience. Whether she is imaginary or backed up by a historically real woman, the fact remains that Louise Labe's poet-persona resonates strikingly with that of Christine. For both, it is not only the feminine lyric voice, but the poet-figure herself who speaks from the margins, confronting tradition to expose issues that are typically downplayed or ignored, boldly challenging literary and even social norms. …