When common notions of love and romance aresteeped in patriarchy and informed heavily by the male gaze, male poets oftenlack the ability to love, and therefore write about, women as three-dimensionalhuman beings rather than objects onto which they project their own fantasiesand desires. Women, in the work of male artists, are assigned little to novoice: they are instead unwittingly and forcibly assigned the role of the ‘obliging prop,’ the celebration of their bodies making themthe ‘beautifulobject of contemplation’ (Irigaray,1985: p. 25) in male works from Marot to Baudelaire.1However, in the instances where women have managed to penetrate themale-dominated field of the arts between the 16th and 20thcenturies, female characters do not take on this role either actively orpassively; female-authored work provides female characters with a literaryspace to flourish and to be presented as multi-faceted, well-rounded figureswho do not solely serve the purpose of the object of male desire.
The femaleexperience both of the writer and of the characters is demonstrated to besteeped in complex emotion and human sensual and physical desire, which israrely seen in male-written female characters. This essay will explore the chasmbetween the humanity and emotional complexity assigned to female characters inmale-written and female-written poetry: firstly, in the explicit disconnectbetween the body of the muse and the muse herself created by Marot and Baudelaire,and in comparison, how female desire, freedom and experience of love is approachedin female-written work, specifically that of Louise Labé. By detaching the innercharacter of the female muse from her body or outward appearance, the male poetallows himself an unresisting, silent but physically appealing ‘shell’ fromwhich he can construct his own ideal, chaste and obliging woman. In Marot’s ‘A la bouche de Diane,’2 the musein question is characterised solely by her mouth ‘de Coral precieux’ (a ‘visuallyiconic image,’ accordingto Lawrence Kritzman (1991: p. 106)).
3 Despitethe mouth’s supposed quicknessto anger (‘Voulez biencelluy occire | Qui crainct vous estre desplaisant?’ (L7-8)),which could be interpreted as an indication of the muse’sresistance to the poet’s advances and thus the poet’sacknowledgement of her autonomy, the speaker’s almost immediate projection of his own innerdesires onto the muse, ‘qui à baiser semble semondre’ (L2)arguably overrides this. She is portrayed merely as one body part, separatefrom a self which possesses agency, free will, and desires of its own, whichallows the poet an unresisting object, almost a ‘blank canvas,’ onto which he can offload his fantasies: soempowered is he by the fact that he is the one who ascribes value to hisconstruction of his muse, that, in the imperative command ‘Dictes nenny, en me baisant,’ (L10), he orders her to kiss him against her will. He isincapable of loving the woman in her entirety and in a capacity that operatesindependently from him, and therefore must reduce her to the bare minimum,erasing any sense of her individual identity and personhood, in order toconstruct a silent, obliging, ‘gracious-hearted’ image ofher which is most appealing to his own imagination. Kritzman assertsthat the blason anatomique genre thatthe poem conforms to ‘depicts that of the poet’s imaginaryprojection of the reality of his desire onto an object that is narcissisticallysubjectivised'(1991: p. 97). This is a highly pertinent deduction, but could be taken furtherin that Marot’smuse is not only ‘subjectivised’ – any essence of her character is eradicated,and the worth and substance of any of her non-physical features revolves aroundthe male poet’sdefinition of them – she is denigrated to ‘a nothing out of which meaning is made,’ as NancyRoberts asserts (1997: p. 13).4 With this inmind, the insidious misogyny which fuels the male tendency to erase the femalepersona from the female body is not restricted to the 16th century.
Baudelaire’s ‘Le Serpentqui Danse,’5 despitebeing written centuries later than the popular blasons of Marot’s era, employs many of the same devices. Baudelairefirstly presents the muse’s body as a whole, then verse by verse describesdifferent fragmented parts; while, unlike Marot’s work, it is not overtly an expression ofadulation for how closely each body part prescribes to ideals of female beauty ofthe era, it evokes an image of the poet’s own ideal, sensually and physically appealingwoman: Que j’aime voir,che?re indolente, De toncorps si beau,Comme une e?toffe vacillante, Miroiter la peau! (L1-4) As the title anticipates, the imagery of themuse’s body as ‘une étoffe vacillante’ with skinthat ‘shimmers’ isevocative not just of a serpent, but of a captivating, seductive temptress. Thesnake imagery is also reminiscent of Biblical symbolism: the muse representsthe temptation of which the only purpose is to lead her male admirer into sin.In this way, Baudelaire creates an image of his muse which starts and ends withhim, as she merely serves to entice him and satiate his sexual desires. Accordingto Robert James Belton, In such a mysterious light, the Surrealist seems to makewhores of all women.
Despite their exaltation, they are ‘fleshyconveniences’ … A woman, Baudelaire had written … is morethan a female human; she is a divinity, a star, an idol. But although heimplied she is more than mere nature, he refused her the right to anintellectual or cultural identity. (Belton 1995: 96)6 In terms of the reality of the muse, malepoets are solely concerned with their corporeal form: what they cannot see,they will construct from their own imagination, usually in the form of avoiceless, one-dimensional woman whose In contrast to the complete lack of agency ascribed to femalecharacters featuring in male-authored poetry, those of female-written works aremarkedly more well-rounded and exist independently, even if engaged in aheterosexual relationship, from men – after all, those who know howto write female characters best are women themselves. Although, for the mostpart, Louise Labé’s poetry centres herself as thespeaker and thus the primary character of her work, this not only allows herwork to showcase a rich and complex scope of inner thoughts, desires and emotionsand a unique female identity which is not influenced by phallocentrism; it isalso revolutionary for its time. Labé’s takesa traditional poetic convention, the Petrarchan form, which primarilyallows for free expression of male heterosexual desire (i.
e., the male poet asthe admirer and thus the one with agency and the female muse as the beloved,obliging object of his affections) and inverts it in order to give the femalespeaker agency, as Karen F. Wiley elaborates in ‘LouiseLabé’s Deceptive Petrarchism:’Two areasof her skill merit particular attention. The first is her manipulation of themale and female roles we come to expect in Petrarchistic love poetry. Since thepoet-lover is the she and the beloved is the he in Labe’s amorous schema, thereader is already in unfamiliar territory. In some of the sonnets, Labe merelyadapts the format to her particular relationship …’ (1981: p51)7A prime example of the ‘manipulation of female and male roles’ that Wiley discusses is apparentin ‘II’ (p4).8As well as the Petrarchan form, Labé’s references to many differentparts of the body of her beloved (‘O ris, ô front, cheveus, bras, mains et doits’ (L9)) isreminiscent of the blason anatomique,?a genre created by men, for men,as a vehicle for expression of male heterosexuality. However, it is explicitthat it is female desire which drives this poem: Tant de flambeaus pour ardre une femmelle!De toy me plein, que tant defeus portant,?En tant d’endrois d’iceus mon cœurtatant (L11-13).
Following Irigaray’s school of thought, having asserted that ‘Femalesexuality has always been conceptualized on the basis of masculine parameters,’ (1985: p23) it may be argued that Labé’s expression of desire throughthe Petrarchan form is in a masculine rather than feminine manner is merely indicativeof male sexuality maintaining its hegemony. However, this would be anoversight: the reason why it is so revolutionary is that she navigates a form usuallycatered to the expression of male sexuality, yet manipulates it to communicatean active, rather than passive, and explicitly feminine expression of her own desire.Conversely, in ‘XXIII,’ the reader experiences a rare glimpse into the reaction of awoman who resents being the object of her admirer’s affections, aware thatHere we see more evidence that men are largely incapable of loving women intheir entirety rather than simply projecting their own ideals onto a woman’s body, but from the perspective of the woman herself. In essence, Irigaray’s statement, that womentake on the role of the ‘obliging prop’ and the ‘beautiful object of contemplation’ (1985: p. 25) is validwith regard to male-authored poetry, as male poets are primarily concerned witha woman’s corporeal form over her character as a whole, and must be as reductiveas possible in the way they think about, and therefore write, women in order tobe able to desire them. However, given the authority to write poetry themselvesabout their own desires and emotional experience, female poets allow boththemselves as writers and their female characters or speakers to demonstratethat they possess more emotional depth than would ever be assigned to them by amale poet, and 1 LuceIrigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, trans. by Catherine Porter (Ithaca, New York: Cornell UniversityPress, 1985), p. 2.
2 Marot, A la bouche de Diane, in Cultural LandmarksPoetry Anthology, ed. by Cathy Hampton and Clément Dessy (Warwick, 2017), p. 2.3 LawrenceD. Kritzman, ‘Architectureof the Utopian Body: the Blasons of Marot and Ronsard,’ in TheRhetoric of Sexuality and the Literature of the French Renaissance,Cambridge Studies in French (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p97.
4 Nancy Roberts, Schools of Sympathy: Gender and Identification Throughthe Novel (Ontario: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997), p. 13 in JSTOR,
22. 6 Robert James Belton, The Beribboned Bomb: The Image of Woman inMale Surrealist Art (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1995), p.96.7 Karen F. Wiley, ‘Louise Labé’s DeceptivePetrarchism’, Modern Language Studies, 11.3, (1981), 51-60 (p.