The French poet Louise Labé, who wrote Sonnet 8, lived as a middle-class citizen in 16th century France. Labé’s father differed from almost all fathers of his time in that he provided his daughter, Louise, with the same educational opportunities he offered to his sons. Louise had a private tutor who encouraged her to read Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Labé eventually formed her own literary group which met in her garden. Her love for literature resulted in her production of her own poems and writings, which would someday be revered in France. Labé wrote love sonnets in the traditional Petrarchan form, which assumes the speaker to be male and the object of his affection, female. Labé honors this tradition, but presents her own ideas which elevate women. Labé was born around 1524 and died in 1566 at the age of forty-two.
In Sonnet 8, Labé expresses the human experience of emotions as the swinging of a pendulum. In the Petrarchan form, she explains the positive and negative effects of love in a much more realistic way than many of her male counterparts. Through her use of hyperbole, she describes the opposing effects that love can have on a person.
Sonnet 8 Analysis
I live, I die: I burn myself, I drown.
She begins with the juxtaposition of the words “live” and “die” as well as the opposing ideas of “burn[ing]” and “drown[ing]”. The reader can immediately see that this poem will consist of the pairing of opposites in order to use hyperbole to make relevant points.
I’m hot in the extreme while suffering cold.
Labé continues her use of juxtaposition of opposites to portray the effects love has on her when she describes herself as “extremely hot in suffering cold”
Life is too soft for me, too hard to hold.
She continues to describe not only the drastically different effects of love, but also that the feelings, whether they are “soft” or “hard” are always “uncontrolled”. This line gives the reader the sense that the speaker, under the influence of love, has lost all control.
My joy and heavy ache are mixed in one
The speaker, once she has admitted that she is not in control of her emotions, then continues to describe the effects of love in detail. She explains that although she feels happy, she also “ache[s] and frown[s]” which suggests that Sonnet 8 may be about the age old idea of unrequited love.
At once I laugh and smile, and weep and frown
In pleasure, my heart finds great pangs and grief.
Because the speaker “suddenly” finds herself laughing while she cries, the reader can sense that the speaker experiences joy from this feeling of love, even if the joyful feeling often ends in tears because the love is not returned. This idea is reiterated when the speaker claims to “endure deep grief”. At this point in Sonnet 8, the reader is unsure whether the speaker has mostly positive or mostly negative feelings about love.
The good flies off, yet stays without relief.
This line is an oxymoron, as the speaker says in one line without so much as a pause that her joy “remains and slips out like a thief”. The reader must question how a feeling could possibly “remain” and yet simultaneously “slip out”. The speaker intends for the reader to question this, perhaps because she herself cannot understand it.
At once I blossom green, and wither brown.
This line describes how quickly her feelings can change from pleasure to grief when she uses the word “suddenly” followed by the description of “blooming” and then instantly “turn[ing] dry”. This is all said in one breath. There is not even a moment to enjoy a fully bloomed flower before it turns dry. She simply “bloom[s] and turn[s] dry” all in one fleeting moment.
Thus does Love lead me on capriciously,
Here, Love is personified and viewed as the enemy. He is one who “inconstantly leads”. This implies that love is not to be trusted, for it is not stable or concrete. Rather, it is always shifting and changing. The personified Love is further demonized as the speaker reveals that Love has led her in vain. Not only has Love been unstable and unreliable, but it has also lead her through a variety of extreme emotion, and all for no reason. At this point in Sonnet 8, the reader can begin to sense that although love has brought some joy to the speaker, it is primarily the enemy because the joy it brought only ended in more sadness.
And when I think my lot is but more pain
With scarce a thought I find myself pain-free.
Here, after becoming aware that Love has been leading her around in vain, the speaker feels as though her “sorrow has no end”, but just when she is in the depths of utter despair, Love does it once again and leads her to suddenly and “unthinkingly” feel “no pain”. Just when the reader begins to blame love and view the personified Love as a perpetrator, the speaker shifts tones yet again and describes Love as the very one who causes her to suddenly feel no pain. Perhaps at this point, the speaker has experienced so much emotion at the hands of Love, that she has grown numb. Notice, she doesn’t say that she feels joy or happiness, but rather that for a moment, the pain lets up and she feels nothing.
Then when I think my joy a certainty
And fortune’s peak is finally my domain,
Yet another shift occurs here. The speaker felt no pain in line 11, and here she has a fleeting thought that perhaps she might actually feel joy again. She believes that she may experience a time of peace and in, or in her words an “ecstatic hour”, but she never does hold onto joy long enough to experience its effects.
He casts me down to deep old grief again.
The last line of this poem leaves the reader feeling quite sure that Love is to blame for all of the misery and grief experienced. For as soon as “He [love] comes” the speaker again “descend[s] into grief”.
Sonnet 8 seems to convey the idea that to lose control of one’s emotions, to let Love take over, is to lose the battle for joy and happiness. In this poem, love is not the goal. It is not the means to happiness. Rather, it is the enemy who teases with the idea of joy and pleasure, but never makes good on his promise. Instead, Love leaves his victim in the depths of despair. The sonnet seems to imply that although at first taste, Love might seem like it will bring joy and pleasure, it will leave you in grief. The reader can imply that Love, especially if unrequited, leaves it’s victims more lonely and desperate than ever. Labé seems to encourage her readers to remain in control of their emotions and not to let Love lead them around in vain, but rather to keep control of these emotions, perhaps only to let go when one can be confident that the love will be returned.
- Chin, Beverly Ann. Glencoe Literature: The Reader’s Choice. New York, NY: Glencoe McGraw-Hill, 2002. Print.