Louise Labé's most powerful legacy to posterity is her small collection of twenty-four sonnets. The fact that the author of these sonnets is a woman accounts for some of the poems' novelty in the sixteenth century and perhaps since. As one Renaissance historian remarked: "Love is primarily a game at which men play, and women are involved because there have to be two to play it." There was an element of originality in the reading of poems describing the passion of a woman neglected and separated from the object of her affections. Yet, this alone would not ensure the lasting success of her writing. The secret must lie in the way in which the poems are assembled, in the degree of sincerity which emanates from them, in the timelessness of the sentiments and feelings which she analyses in depth. Indeed poems in the sixteenth century obeyed certain rules of stylisation and of structure, but within these confines, Louise Labé has managed to express feelings which strike us by their freshness and their forcefulness. She has shown herself capable of capturing within her verse the psychology of the woman in love; the reader/listener is allowed to penetrate, through the medium of images and sound, into the recesses of a mind tortured with frustration and passion.
After the prefatory poem referring to Ulysses, she reveals her full awareness of the boldness of her undertaking to write about her love experiences as a woman. From the outset we can glimpse within these sonnets some of the redeeming qualities which distinguish Labé from her contemporaries. Her poems also illustrate the wonderful economy of language which is one of the characteristics of her verse. She shows herself capable of using a form, rapidly on the way to becoming traditional, in a very personal manner. She takes those expressions so often of the gender preserve of the male and makes them into an expression of female feelings, with the added dimension of passion and deepest feeling.
One can certainly imagine the effect that such a revelation of passion could have had on a sixteenth century audience. Normally, in the Petrarchist mould, it is the male poet who writes and describes his love. Traditionally, the woman is remote and does not respond to his long-suffering passion. Here we have the image of a woman absolutely bubbling over with enthusiasm for the return of her beloved. Labé seems intent on righting any misconceptions on the role of women in relationships.
Indirectly, Labé is emphasising throughout her verse the strength and validity of her love, of her love as an individual but, equally, of her love as a woman. Indeed it is apparent to the reader that Labé loves in a powerful manner. It is not a purely intellectual love but an all-embracing and all-encompassing love that governs her heart and mind wholeheartedly. In the absence of her beloved, she portrays her constancy, her tenacity, her devotion, her longing as well as her need for self-delusion. She also draws a revealing portrait of the object of her affections. This constant challenging of the male-female relationship endows her verse with a delicious questioning of accepted views. She is turning against her beloved those very weapons which he would have been traditionally expected to use in his address towards her.
Love is equated with the life force and the will to love provides her with a purpose and a reason for living, something that gives shape to her existence. Labé is the unwilling martyr of her love, and yet it is that very love which keeps her alive. Ever present in our minds must be the profound impact that Labé created by the very fact that she, a woman, was positing her feminine views through a male-dominated medium. Her writings reinforce her struggle for the recognition of feminine rights.
Others have sung of the superlative nature of their love, but Labé, a woman of some courage and great depth of feeling, proclaims that her love is unequalled on both the intellectual and physical planes. In addition, she is also raising the question of criteria for the judging of beauty, in this instance, male beauty. She reflects on a list of Petrarchan points, usually used by the male to describe his beloved; she turns them around, and instead of a series of superlative statements about her beloved's physical charms, she produces a host of interrogations. She is apparently throwing back at the Petrarchists their well-accepted standards and doubting their very accuracy: "Labé reverses the roles of observer and observed that underlie poetry in praise of women; and she is led by the absence of a standard for masculine beauty to interrogate any poetic system for defining beauty." She has constantly used Petrarchan motifs and conventions in a manner which has obliquely challenged the stance taken by her male contemporaries and predecessors. Labé indeed presents her readers with a novel and lively picture of a woman in love; a picture which shows the woman to be capable of deep and passionate emotions, ready to share her love, quite unlike the cold, remote figure by which she is represented in the Petrarchist tradition.
Regarded from her personal point of view, considerable courage was demanded of her to have this, albeit short, collection of poetry published. At the time of its publication she was a married woman and apparently well-known in Lyonnese society. To have made public a suite of sonnets of such ardent intensity, in view of the contemporary climate and her own position, implies that she was either a bold and brazen individual or one who felt strongly that her love was such that it needed to be made public. In Petrarchan terms, love is a fiery force: it would seem that Labé went through the ordeal by fire and emerged pure.
By publishing her work, Labé brought herself to the attention of others; she became a martyr for her love, and at the same time, she offered herself as an example and warning to other women. It is as though she appreciated that her mission was to speak up for members of her sex. She was undoubtedly intelligent and sensitive; she knew the reputation of women in the literary tradition and in the judgemental attitudes of men.
Hence, from her position on the margins of patriarchal literature and history, Louise Labé quietly challenged the norms of male-dominated poetry. Her works provided a space for sociopolitical debate in which women's voices and desires could be expressed and heard. Indeed for Louise Labé the act of writing itself was a manifestation of protest.