This episode takes a poetic tour through expressions of, and reactions to, love between women in 16th and 17th century Europe. This is a reprise of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 25d which originally aired on 26 August 2018.
Listen to this episode here.
In this episode we talk about:
- Poems about the pangs of love
- “To Mrs M Awbrye” by Katherine Philips
- “A Song” by Aphra Behn
- “Love and Friendship: A Pastoral” by Elizabeth Singer Rowe
- “On the Death of my Dear Friend and Play-fellow” by Jane Barker
- Men jealous of women’s love for each other
- “Elegy for a Lady Enamoured of Another Lady” by Pontus de Tyard
- “On the Friendship Betwixt Two Ladies” by Edmund Waller
- “Two Beauties, Tender Lovers” by Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin
- Men appropriating lesbian imagery
- “Sappho to Philaenis” by John Donne
- “To Mr. J.D. (T.W.)” by Thomas Woodward
- Poems of satire and vituperation
- “Epigram on Cecilia Bulstrode” by Ben Johnson
- “Tribades or Lesbia” by François de Maynard
- “Women’s Complaint to Venus” and “Venus’s Reply” by anonymous
- The triumph of love
- Maitland Quarto MS Poem 49
- ”My Divine Lysi” by Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz
- “On a Lady Named Beloved” by Anne de Rohan-Chabot
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
There’s an ulterior motive behind this podcast. A couple of them, actually. You see, I’ve discovered that I really like reciting old poetry as part of this podcast. And I think you like it too, because the shows that focus on poetry have been fairly popular, like the one looking at translations of Sappho’s poetry, and the one about medieval love poetry. The second ulterior motive is that putting together an episode involving lots of poetry means I don’t have to write as much. And when I’m feeling in a bit of a time crunch, that’s a good thing. Although, as I found, when putting this show together, just because a lot of the text comes from somewhere else, doesn’t mean it doesn’t take a long time to prepare.
So I thought I’d do a few episodes looking at poetry about love between women in various different eras. As usual, there’s a bit of a European and an English language bias simply because of the sources I have easily available, though I may do one specifically on Arabic poetry if I can find some complete texts in translation, rather than just excerpts. And the non-English material will be in translation, which rather undermines the point of it being poetry. As a wise person once said in Italian, “Traduttore, traditore,” a translator is a traitor. Or in the decidedly misogynistic but more flowery version: a translation is like a mistress, if it is beautiful it will not be faithful, and if it is faithful it is probably ugly. But communication is as essential as beauty, so I’ll try for a happy medium. I’ll include the original versions of the non-English works in the transcript for you to read if you like.
Today’s show is about poetry of the Renaissance and early modern period–for all practical purposes, the 16th and 17th centuries. The works are by both women and men. There is a tendency–though not an absolute rule–for the poems by women to be tender and devoted, while the poems by men are cynical and satirical. But there are some interesting exceptions. Rather than doing a strict chronology, I’ve grouped them into some general themes. I’m calling the first group…
The Pangs of Love
These are poems written by women about the sadder side of love or intimacy with other women. It might be jealousy or unfulfilled yearning or mourning for a lost love. We’ll start out with 17th century English poet Katherine Philips.
There is an ongoing debate on whether Katherine Philips can or should be considered a lesbian poet. She was a significant figure in the expression of Neo-Platonic philosophy among women and founded a social circle called the Society of Friendship that embodied those ideals. Her poems are full of sentiments of intense love and devotion for her closest female friends, especially Anne Owen, who is referred to with the poetic nickname Lucasia, while Philips used the name Orinda. Philips created and promoted a community of women’s passionate friendships–this was well before the official era of romantic friendship. But the traces of her intense same-sex relationships in her poetry also document her frustration with the social dynamics that made such friendships tenuous and often subordinated them to marriage. When her beloved Lucasia married, she wrote, “I find too there are few friendships in the world marriage-proof, especially when the person our friend marries has not a soul particularly capable of the tenderness of that endearment. … Such a temper is so rarely found, that we may generally conclude the marriage of a friend to be the funeral of a friendship.”
The poem I’ve chosen is not one of the more familiar ones written to Lucasia, but one addressed to Mary Awbrey, who had a place in her heart before Lucasia came along. The verses speak of how love makes two beings seem a single person, and how such a love can be a shield against the world. Philips speaks of two souls, minds, and hearts becoming one. When she says, “my breast is thy provate cabinet” she isn’t speaking of a type of closeting to hide their love away, but rather refers to a private intimate space where they can express their true thoughts to each other. Strengthened by their love, they can ignore the troubles of the “dull world” and count themselves rich–a sentiment many can sympathize with today!
To Mrs M Awbrye
by Katherine Philips
(from Faderman Chloe Plus Olivia)
Soul of my Soul, my Joy, my Crown, my Friend,
A name which all the rest doth comprehend;
How happy are we now, whose Souls are grown,
By an incomparable mixture, one:
Whose well-acquainted Minds are now so near
As Love, or Vows, or Friendship can endear?
I have no thought, but what’s to thee reveal’d,
Nor thou desire that is from me conceal’d.
Thy Heart locks up my Secrets richly set,
And my Breast is thy private Cabinet,
Thou shed’st no tear but what my moisture lent,
And if I sigh, it is thy breath is spent.
United thus, what Horrour can appear
Worthy our Sorrow, Anger, or our Fear?
Let the dull World alone to talk and fight,
And with their vast Ambitions Nature fright;
Let them despise so Innocent a Flame,
While Envy, Pride, and Faction play their game:
But we by Love sublim’d so high shall rise,
To pity Kings, and Conquerours despise,
Since we that Sacred Union have engrost,
Which they and all the factious World have lost.
When I did an entire podcast episode about Aphra Behn, the 17th century poet, playwright, and some-time spy, I included several of her more popular works, especially the gender-bending “To the fair Clorinda, who made love to me, imagin’d more than woman.” Rather than repeating any of the poems I used before, here I offer a somewhat bittersweet verse in which Aphra offers her heart to a woman who…well, alas, you’ll find out in the end. Behn was a bit more forthright than Philips in expressing her desire. (And Behn wrote romantic poems addressed to both women and men.) While Philips’ poem danced at the edge of being interpretable as an expression of intense friendship, Behn’s offering is striking in its physicality.
by Aphra Behn
(from Faderman Chloe Plus Olivia)
While, Iris, I at distance gaze,
And feed my greedy eyes,
That wounded heart, that dies for you,
Dull gazing can’t suffice;
Hope is the food of love-sick minds,
On that alone ‘twill feast,
The nobler part which loves refines,
No other can digest.
In vain, too nice and chaming maid,
I did suppress my cares;
In vain my rising sighs I stay’d,
And stop’d my falling tears;
The flood would swell, the tempest rise,
As my despair came on;
When from her lovely cruel eyes,
I found I was undone.
Yet at your feet, while thus I lie,
And languish by your eyes,
‘Tis far more glorious here to die,
Than gain another prize.
Here let me sigh, here let me gaze,
And wish at least to find
As raptur’d nights, and tender days,
As he to whom you’re kind.
Elizabeth Singer Rowe, like many 17th century poets, was fond of neo-Classical imagery of nymphs and shepherds, as in the chosen selection here. She used the pen name Philomela for her first published collection at age 22. Much of her poetry was religious in nature and she seems to have had an almost neo-Gothick preoccupation with death in her best known collection Letters from the Dead to the Living. In addition to a happy but tragically brief marriage to poet Thomas Rowe, she had an earlier friendship with publisher John Dunton that he, at least, considered romantic though she called it platonic. The same-sex sentiments expressed in her poem “Love and Friendship” don’t seem to correspond to a romantic relationship in Rowe’s own life, and the title gives us a hint that we may be intended to understand a categorical distinction between the love that Amaryllis expresses for her shepherd swain Alexis, and the “nobler warmth of friendship” that Sylvia offers for Aminta. But Sylvia’s sentiments are framed as an “amorous secret”, and the simple act of setting a heterosexual and a same-sex relationship on an equal standing is meaningful. Take note of Sylvia’s appeal to the “chaste goddess of the groves”, which is of course Diana, closely associated with the imagery of women’s same-sex relationships at this time.
Love and Friendship: A Pastoral
by Elizabeth Singer Rowe
While from the skies the ruddy sun descends,
And rising night the evening shade extends;
While pearly dews o’erspread the fruitful field,
And closing flowers reviving odours yield,
Let us, beneath these spreading trees, recite
What from our hearts our Muses may indite:
Nor need we in this close retirement fear
Lest any swain our amorous secrets hear.
To every shepherd I would mine proclaim,
Since fair Aminta is my softest theme:
A stranger to the loose delights of love,
My thoughts the nobler warmth of friendship prove,
And, while its pure and sacred fire I sing,
Chaste goddess of the Groves, thy succour bring.
Propitious god of Love, my breast inspire
With all thy charms, with all thy pleasing fire;
Propitious god of Love, thy succour bring,
Whilst I thy darling, thy Alexis sing;
Alexis, as the opening blossoms fair,
Lovely as light, and soft as yielding air:
For him each virgin sighs, and on the plains
The happy youth above each rival reigns;
Nor to the echoing groves and whispering spring
In sweeter strains does artful Conon sing,
When loud applauses fill the crowded groves,
And Phoebus the superior song approves.
Beauteous Aminta is as early light
Breaking the melancholy shades of night.
When she is near all anxious trouble flies,
And our reviving hearts confess her eyes.
Young Love, and blooming Joy, and gay Desires,
In every breast the beauteous nymph inspires;
And on the plain when she no more appears,
The plain a dark and gloomy prospect wears.
In vain the streams roll on; the eastern breeze
And to the silent night their notes prolong,
Nor groves, nor crystal streams, nor verdant field,
Does wonted pleasure in her absence yield.
And in his absence all the pensive day
In some obscure retreat I lonely stray;
All day, to the repeating caves, complain
In mournful accents and a dying strain:
Dear lovely youth I cry to all around;
Dear lovely youth the flattering vales resound.
On flowery banks, by every murmuring stream,
Aminta is my Muse’s softest theme;
‘Tis she that does my artful notes refine;
With fair Aminta’s name my noblest verse shall shine.
I’ll twine fresh garlands for Alexis’ brows,
And consecrate to him eternal vows;
The charming youth shall my Apollo prove;
He shall adorn my songs, and tune my voice to love.
With Jane Barker’s “On the Death of my Dear Friend and Play-fellow” we are offered the pains of love experienced and then lost. Like the other poets in this group, Barker was forthright in taking feminist stands and arguing for the rights of women–though the poets collected here are otherwise quite diverse in their politics. Barker’s writings were typically aimed at a female audience, as with her structurally innovative work A Patchwork Screen for Ladies which combines romance, poetry, recipes, hymns, and philosophy. She did not marry and expressed disinterest in men, while including homoerotic themes in her writing. We can see that in this presumably autobiographical reminiscence on the death of a close female friend, written in 1688.
Because it comes up in multiple poems of this era, I thought I’d note that the reference to a “turtle” means a turtledove, a common symbol of romantic love and courtship, and is not a reference to a hard-shelled aquatic reptile. Another now-obscure allusion is to Heraclitus, a classical Greek philosopher, nicknamed “the weeping philosopher” for his generally gloomy take on life.
On the Death of my Dear Friend and Play-fellow
by Jane Barker
I dream’d I lost a pearl, and so it prov’d;
I lost a Friend much above Pearls belov’d:
A Pearl perhaps adorns some outward part,
But Friendship decks each corner of the heart;
Friendship’s a Gem , whose Lustre does out-shine
All that’s below the heav’nly Crystaline.
Friendship is that mysterious thing alone,
Which can unite, and make two Hearts but one;
It purifies our Love, and makes it flow
I’th’ clearest stream that’s found in Love below;
It sublimates the Soul, and makes it move
Towards Perfection and Celestial Love.
We had no by-designs, nor hop’d to get
Each, by the other, place among the great;
Nor Riches hop’d, nor Poverty we fear’d,
‘Twas Innocence in both, which both rever’d
Witness this truth the Wilsthorp-Fields, where we
So oft enjoy’d a harmless Luxury;
Where we indulg’d our easy Appetites,
With Pocket-Apples, Plums, and such delights,
Then we contriv’d to spend the rest o’th’day,
In making Chaplets, or at Check-stone play;
When weary, we our selves supinely laid
On beds of Violets under some cool shade,
Where the Sun in vain strove to dart through his Rays
Whilst Birds around us chanted forth their Lays ;
Ev’n those we had bereaved of their young
Would greet us with a Querimonious Song.
Stay here, my Muse, and of these let us learn,
The loss of our deceased Friend to mourn:
Learn did I say? alas, that cannot be,
We can teach Clouds to weep, and Winds to sigh at Sea,
Teach Brooks to murmer, Rivers to over-flow
We can add Solitude to Shades of Yew.
Were Turtles to be witness of our moan,
They’d in compassion quite forget their own:
Nor shall hereafter Heraclitus be
Fam’d for his Tears, but to my Muse and me;
Fate shall give all that Fame can comprehend,
Ah poor repair for th’loss of such a Friend.
Men Jealous of Women’s Love for Each Other
One of the clues we have that love between women was beginning to be taken seriously in the 16th and 17th centuries is that men were writing about it. And especially when men began to express jealousy about women’s devotion to each other. But in this first poem by French poet Pontus de Tyard, we see an older motif: that of a woman unhappy that the love she feels for another woman is in vain and, by its nature, cannot be achieved. This was a common trope in versions of the classical story of Iphis and Ianthe, but by the Renaissance, women were beginning to contradict that position. Perhaps writers like Pontus needed to reassure themselves that men weren’t being made obsolete.
Like another poem I include in this episode, this one makes a direct connection between the female pair and historical pairs of famous male devoted friends who often featured at this time in discussions of neo-platonic friendships between men that had homoerotic elements.
The original poem is in French and is included in the transcript. The translation I use is from Terry Castle’s The Literature of Lesbiannism and has aimed for a more literal and vernacular style, rather than being strictly metrical or aiming for the feel of 16th century English poetry.
élégie pour une dame énamourée d’une autre dame – Poéme
by Pontus de Tyard
J’avois tousjours pensé que d’amour et d’honneur,
Les deux seulles ardeurs qui me bruslent le cueur,
Se pouvoit allumer une si belle flame
Que plus belle clarté ne luisoit dedans l’Ame:
Mais je ne me pouvois en l’Esprit imprimer
Comme ensemble on devoit ces deux feux allumer :
Car combien que ‘ d’Amour beauté soit la matière,
Et qu’en l’honneur entier la beauté soit entière,
Il ne me sembloit point qu’une mesme beauté
Deust servir à l’Amour et à l’honnesteté.
Je disois : ma beauté d’honneur est en moy-mesme,
Mais non pas la beauté, laquelle il faut que j’aime :
Car la seule beauté de moy-mesme estimer
Ne serait seulement que mon honneur aimer,
Et il faut que l’Amante hors de soy face queste
De la beauté, qu’Amour luy donne pous conqueste :
Donq’ l’ardeur de l’honneur en moy seulle aura lieu?
Donques doy-je fuir l’ardeur de l’autre Dieu?
Helas ! beauté d’Amour, te choisiray je aux hommes !
Ha, non : je cognois trop le siècle auquel nous sommes.
L’homme aime la beauté et de l’honneur se rit,
Plus la beauté luy plait, plustost l’honneur périt.
Ainsi du seul honneur chèrement curieuse
Libre je desdaignois toute flame amoureuse,
Quand de ma liberté Amour trop offensé
Un aguet me tendit subtilement pensé.
Il t’enrichit l’Esprit: il te sucre la bouche
Et le parler disert: En tes yeux il se couche,
En tes cheveux il lace un nœud non jamais veu,
Dont il m’estreint à toy : il fait ardoir ‘ un feu —
Helas qui me croira ! — de si nouvelle flame
Que femme il m’énamoure, helas! d’une autre femme.
Jamais plus mollement Amour n’avoit glissé
Dedans un autre cueur: car l’honneur non blessé
Retenoit sa beauté nullement entamée,
Et l’Amant jouissoit de la beauté aimée
En un mesme suject, ô quel contentement!
Si — légère — il t’eust pieu n’aimer légèrement:
Mais le cruel Amour m’ayant au vif blessée
S’est tout poussé dans moy, et vuide il t’a laissée
Autant vuide d’Amour, vuide d’affection,
Comme il remplit mon cueur de triste passion
Et de juste despit, qu’il faut que je te prie,
Ingrate, et que de moy ta liberté se rie.
Où est ta foy promise et tes sermens prestez?
Où sont de tes discours les beaux mots inventez?
Comme d’une Python feinte et persuasive
Qui m’as sceu enchaîner par l’oreille, captive!
Helas! que j’ay en vain espanché mes discours!
Que j’ay fuy en vain tous les autres Amours!
Qu’en vain seule je t’ay — dédaigneuse — choisie
Pour l’unique plaisir de ma plus douce vie!
Qu’en vain j’avois pensé que le temps advenir
Nous devroit pour miracle en longs siècles tenir:
Et que d’un seul exemple, en la françoise histoire,
Nostre Amour serviroit d’éternelle mémoire,
Pour prouver que l’Amour de femme à femme épris
Sur les masles Amours emporteroit le pris.
Un Damon à Pythie, un Aenée à Achate,
Un Hercule à Nestor, Cherephon à Socrate,
Un Hoppie à Dimante ont seurement monstre,
Que l’Amour d’homme à homme entier s’est rencontré :
De l’Amour d’homme à femme est la preuve si ample
Qu’il ne m’est jà besoin d’en alléguer exemple:
Mais d’une femme à femme, il ne se trouve encore
Souz l’empire d’Amour un si riche thresor,
Et ne se peut trouver, ô trop et trop légère,
Puis qu’à ma foy la tienne est faite mensongère.
Car jamais purité ne fust plus grande au Ciel,
Plus grande ardeur au feu, plus grand douceur au miel,
Plus grand bonté ne fust au reste de nature
Qu’en mon cueur, où l’Amour a pris sa nourriture.
Mais plus qu’un Roc marin ton cueur a de durté,
Plus qu’un Scythe barbare il a de cruauté :
Et l’Ourse Caliston ne voit point tant de glace
Que tu en as au seing : Ny la muable face
Du Nocturne Morphé n’a de formes autant
Qu’a de pensers divers ton esprit inconstant.
Helas ! que le despit loing de moye me transporte !
Ouvre à l’Amour, ingrate !
Ouvre à l’Amour la porte :
Souffre que le doux trait, qui nos cueurs a percé,
R’entame de nouveau le tien trop peu blessé,
Recerche en tes discours l’affection passée :
Resserre le doux nœud dont estoit enlacée
L’affection commune et à toy et à moy,
Et rejoignons ces mains qui jurèrent la foy :
La foy dans mon esprit tellement asseurée,
Qu’elle ne sera point par la mort parjurée.
Mais si nouvel Amour t’embrase une autre ardeur,
Je supply, Contr’Amour, Contr’Amour Dieu vengeur!
Qu’avant que la douleur dedans mon cueur enclose
Me puisse transformer, et me faire autre chose
Que ce qu’ores ‘ je suis, soit que ma triste voix
Reste seule de moy errante par ce bois,
Ou soit qu’en peu de temps ma larmoyante peine
Me distille en un fleuve, ou m’escoule en fonteine,
Et pendant que je dy et aux Cerfs et aux Dains,
Seule en ce bois touffu, ingrate, tes dédains,
Tu puisses, d’un suject indigne consumée,
Aimer languissamment, et n’estre point aimée!
Elegy for a Lady enamoured of another Lady
by Pontus de Tyard
(English from Castle The Literature of Lesbianism)
I have ever fixed Love and honour’s bright part
As the only two ardors that burn in my heart,
Could such a magnificent flame ignite
That no brighter Soul could ever alight,
But I knew not how to envision in Thought
How the two fires at once could be wrought
For, as much as beauty is the stuff of Love,
And in Honour entire lies beauty entire,
I could not see how this very beauty
Could be part of both Love and integrity.
Thus I spake: My beauty in honour within myself doth lie,
But not that beauty to myself of value
Would be nought but mine own honour true,
Yet the Lover outside the self must not rest
But seek the beauty afforded Love thorugh conquest:
Thus only honour’s heat will exist in me;
Must I thus flee the ardor of the other Deity?
Alas! Love’s beauty, would I choose you over men?
Aha! no; I know too well this century we are in:
Man loves beauty, and honour doth mock, not cherish;
When beauty pleases him, honour doth perish.
So, as one of one honour alone dearly curious,
And free, I disdained all flame amorous,
When Love by my freedom took offense,
And handed me a decoy immune to my defense.
It enriches the Mind; the mouth it refines,
It sweetens your speech; in your eye it reclines;
In your hair it weaves a knot that fain does amaze,
That binds me to you; it fans a blaze,
(Alas! who will believe?) with such new heat,
That my heart–a woman’s alas! for another woman beats.
Never more softly Love did cruise
Into another heart, with honor unbruised
Retaining there its untarnished beauty
The Lover enjoying this beloved beauty
In the same subject, o Felicity above,
If lightly had it pleased you not lightly to love!
But cruelest Love, having wounded me bereft,
Dislodged all within me and emptiness left,
Emptied of Love, no affection it fashioned,
While filling my heart with miserable passion
And by fair spite, I just cry out my plea,
You’re an ingrate, and your freedom mocks me.
Where is your pledged troth, the oaths you did lend,
Where from your speeches are the words that pretend
Like a python that feints and attracts,
That knew how to chain me by ear to those pacts?
Alas! How I’ve spilled my guts in vain!
How I fled every other Love the same!
How in vain you (scornful one) I chose,
As my one delight, as my life’s rose!
How in vain did I think the time ahead
Would by miracle through the centuries us wed
And that, unique example in French history,
Our Love would serve as eternal memory
Proof that Love of woman by woman may arise
And from all manly Lovers seize the prize.
A Damon for Pythias, an Aeneas for Achates,
A Hercules for Nestor, Cherephon for Socrates,
Hoppius for Diamantus, have shown us yet
That Love of man for man is wholly met.
Of Love of man for woman does proof so abound
There is no need for me to cast around
But of woman for woman there is not yet
In the empire of Love, a trove so richly set,
And it cannot be found, as your flight bespeaks!
Since to my faith your in return was weak,
For never beneath the sun was greater purity,
Nor hotter heat in fire, nor sweeter lick in honey,
No greater bounty found in all of nature,
Than in my heart, where Love had come for nurture!
But harder than the Rock Giraltar is your heart’s rule;
More even than a barbarous Scythian is it cruel.
And Ursa Major has seen less ice eternal
Than you have in your veins; nor does Nocturnal
Morpheus’ shifting visage alter its line
As much as thought transforms in your inconstant mind.
Alas! How spite does from me mine own self remove!
Open up to Love, ingrate, open up to Love!
Suffer that the sweet barb that pierced our heart
Might once more enter yours, too much unhurt;
Seek out in your speeech the affection it once drove;
And retie the sweet knot in which was wove
The common bond that you to me once led,
And let our hands rejoin in vows we pled,
The vow that in my spirit is secure,
That even in death will endure.
But if a new Love enfold you in its fire,
I implore Counter-Love, Anteros, a God so dire
That before the pain within my heart immure
I be transformed, achieving one thing more
Than what I was before, to wit, that my voice alone
Despondent, endure when through this wood I roam
Where in a little time my weeping pain
Would flow in a river or shower from a fountain,
While I tell both Stag and Buck behorned,
Alone in tufted woods, ingrate, of your scorn,
That you might of a subject all unworthy be subsumed,
To pine forlornly, languish, and in your love be doomed!
Edmund Waller’s poem “On the Friendship Betwixt Two Ladies” shows a bit of unease about whether such a close relationship might interfere with the natural order of things. Women, after all, must be available to men! Waller was a 17th century English poet and politician, being active on the royalist side in the English Civil War. Much of his verse, like this one, is of a relatively simple structure rather than following formal conventions, packed with classical allusions. Many of his occasional poems referred to people in his social circle and we can probably assume that the “two ladies” of this poem were inspired by people he knew, but I haven’t been able to track down any guesses of their identities. Waller uses several interesting metaphors, such as comparing a woman’s love to a debt (that she presumably owes so some generic man) and that loving another woman is like a debtor giving away his money so that he can avoid paying the debt. The reference to “the boy’s eluded darts” is, of course, to Cupid’s arrows and Cytherea is another name for Venus who was said to travel in a chariot drawn by doves.
On the Friendship Betwixt Two Ladies
by Edmund Waller
Tell me, lovely, loving pair!
Why so kind, and so severe?
Why so careless of our care,
Only to yourselves so dear?
By this cunning change of hearts,
You the power of love control;
While the boy’s eluded darts
Can arrive at neither soul.
For in vain to either breast
Still beguiled love does come,
Where he finds a foreign guest,
Neither of your hearts at home.
Debtors thus with like design,
When they never mean to pay,
That they may the law decline,
To some friend make all away.
Not the silver doves that fly,
Yoked in Cytherea’s car;
Not the wings that lift so high,
And convey her son so far;
Are so lovely, sweet, and fair,
Or do more ennoble love;
Are so choicely matched a pair,
Or with more consent do move.
Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin was a bit more waspish in his jealousy for women’s mutual affections. He was a French libertine, famed for his lascivious poetry and later nicknamed “the king of Sodom” for his bisexuality. Although the 17th century libertines gave the impression of supporting free love, it often came in a predatory misogynistic flavor. His poem “Two Beauties, Tender Lovers” was not published until two centuries after his death, no doubt due to the subject matter. As with Waller’s poem previously, Saint-Pavin presents love between women as vain and pointless. Women, he claims, cannot satisfy each other, being too similar, so there’s no benefit to denying themselves to men.
Deux belles s’ayment tendrement
by Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin
Deux belles s’aiment tendrement,
L’une pour l’autre s’intéresse.
Et du mesme trcdt qui les blesse
Elles souffrent également.
Sans se plaindre de leur tourment.
Toutes deux soupirent sans cesse,
Tantost l’amant est la maistresse,
Tanlost la mais tresse est l’aniaid ;
Quoy qu’elles fasserd pour se plaire,
Leur cœur ne se peut satisfaire,
Elles perdent leurs plus beaux jours ;
Ces innocentes qui s’abusent
Cherchent en vain dans leurs amours
Les pkdsirs qu’elles nous refusent.
Two Beauties Tender Lovers
by Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin
(English from Castle The Literature of Lesbianism)
Two beauties, tender lovers,
One attends the other equally,
Equally wounded by the same
Affliction, suffering equally.
Uncomplaining in their torment
Both ceaselessly do sigh:
Now the one lover is mistress,
Now the mistress is lover.
Whatever they do for pleasure,
Their hearts are not content,
Wasting thus their daily treasure,
These Innocents, in self-abuse,
Seek pointlessly in their loving
Pleasures which to us they do refuse.
Men Appropriating Lesbian Imagery
If you think that men appropriating the language of lesbianism is a modern invention–that whole annoying thing about, “Oh, I’m a lesbian trapped in a man’s body because I love women too”–rest assured that 16th century dudes were just as annoying. Poetry, after all, was thought to be a manly art, so even the famous Sappho was considered the literary property of men. The following poetic exchange between John Donne and his friend Thomas Woodward is fascinating because not only does it frame Sappho’s love for women in a positive way, but because of how it appropriates that imagery for themselves. Although Donne wrote a fair amount of sensual poetry, probably his most famous work is the meditation that concludes, “any man’s death diminishes me for I am involved with mankind. Therefore do not send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Donne’s poem “Sappho to Philaenis” written in 1633 imagines the ancient poet lamenting that her poetry has failed to secure the heart of her beloved. The poem includes a number of references to Sappho’s poem “He seems like a god to me” but also makes the argument for the greater desirability of same-sex love for women in that it creates no risk of pregnancy. To this end, Donne uses some rather colorful agricultural metaphors. I’m not sure that I’d risk calling my beloved “a natural paradise…unmanured!” Another theme is that love between women is natural because the touch of two women’s bodies is like a body touching itself. This is one of the themes common in this era that simultaneously supports and undermines same-sex love, that a woman loving another woman is like a woman loving herself.
Sappho to Philaenis
by John Donne
WHERE is that holy fire, which verse is said
To have? Is that enchanting force decay’d?
Verse that draws nature’s works from nature’s law,
Thee, her best work, to her work cannot draw.
Have my tears quench’d my old poetic fire?
Why quench’d they not as well that of desire?
Thoughts, my mind’s creatures, often are with thee,
But I, their maker, want their liberty.
Only thine image in my heart doth sit,
But that is wax, and fires environ it.
My fires have driven, thine have drawn it hence;
And I am robb’d of picture, heart, and sense.
Dwells with me still mine irksome memory,
Which, both to keep and lose, grieves equally.
That tells me how fair thou art; thou art so fair
As gods, when gods to thee I do compare,
Are graced thereby; and to make blind men see,
What things gods are, I say they’re like to thee.
For if we justly call each silly man
A little world, what shall we call thee then?
Thou art not soft, and clear, and straight, and fair,
As down, as stars, cedars, and lilies are;
But thy right hand, and cheek, and eye, only
Are like thy other hand, and cheek, and eye.
Such was my Phao awhile, but shall be never,
As thou wast, art, and O, mayst thou be ever.
Here lovers swear in their idolatry,
That I am such; but grief discolours me.
And yet I grieve the less, lest grief remove
My beauty, and make me unworthy of thy love.
Plays some soft boy with thee, O, there wants yet
A mutual feeling which should sweeten it.
His chin, a thorny, hairy unevenness
Doth threaten, and some daily change possess.
Thy body is a natural paradise
In whose self, unmanured, all pleasure lies,
Nor needs perfection; why shouldst thou then
Admit the tillage of a harsh rough man?
Men leave behind them that which their sin shows,
And are as thieves traced, which rob when it snows.
But of our dalliance no more signs there are,
Than fishes leave in streams, or birds in air;
And between us all sweetness may be had,
All, all that nature yields, or art can add.
My two lips, eyes, thighs, differ from thy two
But so, as thine from one another do,
And, O, no more; the likeness being such,
Why should they not alike in all parts touch?
Hand to strange hand, lip to lip none denies;
Why should they breast to breast, or thighs to thighs?
Likeness begets such strange self-flattery,
That touching myself all seems done to thee.
Myself I embrace, and mine own hands I kiss,
And amorously thank myself for this.
Me, in my glass, I call thee; but alas,
When I would kiss, tears dim mine eyes and glass.
O cure this loving madness, and restore
Me to thee, thee my half, my all, my more.
So may thy cheeks’ red outwear scarlet dye,
And their white, whiteness of the Galaxy;
So may thy mighty, amazing beauty move
Envy in all women, and in all men love;
And so be change and sickness far from thee,
As thou by coming near keep’st them from me.
The attribution of the next poem to John Donne’s friend Thomas Woodward is in part conjuctural. The poem appears in a 1620 collection of Donne’s work with the heading “To Mr. J.D. (T.W.).” Scholars are fairly certain of the attribution to Woodward. Donne and Woodward were certainly close friends. There are suggestions that there may have been an erotic aspect to their relationship. The imagery in this poem is clearly intended as a response to that in the previous, though in a decidedly less elevated vein. Woodward envisions the two female figures as their respective muses, engaged in “mystic tribadry” resulting in an orgasm–spending her pith–that is this poem. The classical reference “Bassa’s adultery no fruit did leave” refers to the classical Roman writer Martial’s riddle about how a woman named Bassa could commit adultery with no man present.
To Mr. J.D. (T.W.)
attributed to Thomas Woodward
Thou sendst me prose and rimes, I send for those
Lynes, which, being neither, seem or verse or prose.
They’are lame and harsh, and have no heat at all
But what thy Liberall beams on them let fall.
The nimble fyre which in thy braynes doth dwell
Is it the fyre of heaven or that of hell ?
It doth beget and comfort like Heavens eye,
And like hells fyre it burnes eternally.
And those whom in thy fury and judgment
Thy verse shall skourge like hell it will torment.
Have mercy on mee and my sinful! Muse
Which rub’d and tickled with thine could not chuse
But spend some of her pith, and yeild to bee
One in that chaste and mistique Tribadree.
Bassae’s adultery no fruit did Leave,
Nor theirs, which their swollen thighs did nimbly weave,
And with new armes and mouths embrace and kiss.
Though they had issue was not like to this.
They Muse, oh strange and holy lecheree,
Beeing a mayd still, gott this song on mee.
Satire and Vituperation
Of course, the ribald and teasing imagery of Woodward’s verse is only one small step from satire and vituperation aimed at actual women. The accuastion of lesbianism has long been a staple of men’s attempts to control women’s entrance into realms they considered exclusively male. As I noted above, in the Renaissance, men overtly claimed that poety was a quintessentially masculine art. One of the reasons for male fascination with the figure of Sappho was to identify ways to masculinize her or to appropriate her work in order to remove her apparent exception to this claim.
English poet and playwright Ben Johnson considered the poetic career of courtier Cecilia Bulstrode to be almost a personal affront, perhaps because he thought Bulstrode’s patroness, the Countess of Bedford, should have patronized his work instead. But also because–as he implies in his opening salvo–that she’d dared to criticize him. His venom took the form in 1640 of suggesting rather crudely that she had homoerotic tendencies, implying that her poetry could only result from raping her poetic muse. There’s no evidence that Cecilia Bulstrode had any more pointed interest in women than usual. In fact, another contemporary who satirized her did so after jilting her after she pursued him romantically. But it scarcely matters in what direction Bulstrode’s desires lay. For men, it was enough that she dared to rival them and must be torn down. And one of the easiest ways to do so was to frame her as mannish and perverse.
In the first line of the poem, people may be familiar with the French word pucelle as being an epithet of the medieval heroine Joan of Arc, known as “La Pucelle” or “the maiden”. But by the 17th century, it had picked up a derogatory sense and probably was a fancy way of saying whore. But Johnson doesn’t restrict himself to sexual insults. He accuses her of vanity, then turns around and suggests she feigns too much piety. That she loves fine clothes, yet is ugly and that no man would want her. I confess the more he goes on, the more I’m cheering for Cecilia.
Epigram on Cecilia Bulstrode
by Ben Johnson
(from Castle The Literature of Lesbianism)
Does the court pucelle then so censure me,
And thinks I dare not her? Let the world see.
What though her chamber be the very pit
Where fight the prime cocks of the game, for wit?
And that as any are struck, her breath creates
New in their stead, out of the candidates?
What though with tribade lust she force a muse,
And in an epicoene fury can write news
Equal with that which for the best news goes,
As airy, light, and as like wit as those?
What though she talk, and can at once with them
Make state, religion , bawdry, all a theme?
And as lip-thirsty, in each word’s expense,
Doth labour with the phrase more than the sense?
What though she ride two mile on holidays
To church, as others do to feasts and plays,
To show their ‘tires, to view and to be viewed?
What though she be with velvet gown endued,
And spangled petticoats brought forth to eye,
As new rewards of her old secrecy?
What though she hath won on trust, as many do,
And that her truster fears her: must I too?
I never stood for any place: my wit
Thinks itself nought, though she should value it.
I am no statesman, and much less divine;
For bawdry, ‘tis her language, and not mine.
Farthest I am from the idolatry
To stuffs and laces: those my man can buy.
And trust her I would least, that hath foreswore
In contract twice; what can she perjure more?
Indeed, her dressing some man might delight,
Her face there’s none can like by candle-light.
Not he that should the body have, for case
To his poor instrument, now out of grace.
Shall I advise thee, pucelle? Steal away
From court, while yet thy fame hath some small day;
The wits will leave you, if they once perceive
You cling to lords, and lords, if them you leave
For sermoneers: of which now one, now other
They say you weekly invite with fits of the mother,
And practise for a miracle; take heed
This age would lend no faith to Darrel’s deed:
Or if it would, the court is the worst place,
Both for the mothers and the babes of grace;
For there the wicked in the chair of scorn
Will call it a bastard, when a prophet’s born.
The French poet François de Maynard was even more forthright in what he accused his subjects of, though he had the courtesy (or perhaps the sense) to cloak them in pastoral nicknames. De Maynard was a contemporary of the French courtier Brantôme who wrote very explicitly of the homoerotic exploits of the women of the French court. Here, writing in 1646, he makes the intent of his verse plain in titling it “Tribades, or Lesbians.” The translation, taken from Terry Castle’s The Literature of Lesbianism, uses modern slang to match the sense and tone of the original. It keeps the rhyme scheme but doesn’t attempt to match the meter.
Tribades seu lesbia
by François de Maynard
Ils sont bien battus, vos beaux yeux,
N’en accusez pas la migraine,
Mais bien la fureur de Clymene
Et vos doits, à qui serrait mieux
Braguette que gant ni mitaine.
Si votre doigt savait pisser,
Avec ce qu’il sait deja faire,
Belle Phyllis, c’est chose claire
Qu’on le pourrait faire passer
Pour quelque chose qu’il faut taire.
Pour avoir, comme vous avez,
Une main si blanche et si nette,
Comment diable est-ce que vous faite,
Car le trou où vous la lavez
Est une étrange savonette ?
Tribades or Lesbia by François de Maynard
by François de Maynard
(English from Castle The Literature of Lesbianism)
Your gorgeous eyes are sorely wrecked
And migraine’s not the wind that’s bitten
But rather Clymena’s fierce delect
And your fingers, better fitting
In an open fly than a glove or mitten.
If your finger could shoot its wad
With all it knows to do to date
Sweet Phyllis, there’s no debate
That readily it could masquerade
For something much too crude to name.
To have, as is your pride,
A hand so white and clean
How in hell do you keep it preened
When the tub in which you slide
It has such strange soap, I mean?
17th century England saw a great deal of anxiety and debate on the proper distinction of the genders and the disaster that would come from men appropriating feminine tastes and women claiming masculine prerogatives. This played out in religious polemics, on the stage, and in popular verse. The following are two anonymous linked broadside ballads published in 1698, verging on the pornographic in tone, that form a satirical dialogue. The first is entitled “The Women’s Complaint to Venus” purporting to be the voice of English women complaining that the men were all turned into sodomites, though there are also several political jabs included, such as the quite accurate suggestion that King Charles II was prone to ennobling his mistresses.
Women’s complaint to Venus
How happy were good English Faces
Till Mounsieur from France
Taught Pego a Dance
To the tune of old Sodom’s Embraces.
But now we are quite out of Fashion:
Poor Whores may be Nuns
Since Men turn their Guns
And vent on each other their passion.
In the Raign of Good Charles the Second
Full many a Jade
A Lady was made
And the Issue Right Noble was reckon’d:
But now we find to our Sorrow
We are overrun
By Sparks of the Bum
And peers of the Land of Gommorah.
The Beaus too, whom most we rely’d on
At Night make a punk
Of him that’s first drunk
Tho’ unfit for the Sport as John Dryden.
The Souldiers, whom next we put trust in,
No widdow can tame
Or virgin reclaim
But at the wrong Place will be thrusting.
Fair Venus, thou Goddess of Beauty,
Receive our Complaint.
Make Rigby Recant
And the Souldiers henceforth do their duty.
The second broadside offers “Venus’s Reply” retorting that the women brought this all on themselves by preferring lesbian sex, using possibly the earliest known use of the slang phrase “the game of flats”. In fact, this broadside is quite educational with all its synonyms for fucking: “tup”, “swinge”. The ballad also mentions Green Sickness, which was thought to be an illness suffered by women who weren’t getting enough sex.
Why Nymphs, these pitiful stories,
But you are to blame,
And have got a new game
Call’d Flatts with a swinging Clitoris.
Besides I have heard of wax tapers
With which you get up
And each other Tup
To cure the Green Sickness and Vapours.
I am told by a delicate Seignior
Some Matrons do ease
Their Lust, and so please
They’ve not been laid with these ten years.
Your Frogmore frolicks discover
Some Reasons of Art
So play the man’s part
You are for no Masculine Lover.
At all which I am so offended
My Son at Men’s hearts
Will throw no more darts
Till your Lust and your lives are amended.
Forsake but these odd ways of sinning,
And I’ll undertake
The arrantest Rake
Shall swinge you as at the beginning.
The Triumph of Love
I’ve saved the most positive and most lyrical poems for last, in a group I call The Triumph of Love. These poems are all written by women and addressed to the women they loved, in a myriad of ways. It includes romantic love, near-worshipful devotion, and simply reveling in the excellence of one’s beloved. The poems are in Scots, Spanish, and French, all providing evidence of the emotions we lose when women’s voices are suppressed in the historic record.
The first is anonymous, and the female authorship is attributed largely on the basis of the viewpoint and treatment of the subject, as well as the female persona of the poem’s voice. It comes from a collection called the Maitland Quarto Manuscript dating the 16th century that is a major source of Scots literature of that era. By “Scots” this means neither Scottish Gaelic nor English with a Scottish accent, but the close relative of English that developed along its own path in Scotland. If you’ve ever read the poetry of Robert Burns, you’ve encountered the Scots language. The verse can be rended fairly closely in English by tweaking a handful of words, but the rhymes are sometimes impaired. The adaptation to English is my own work.
There are a lot of classical and biblical references in this piece. Rather than listing them all, I’ll just note that if you hear two names being mentioned together, they’re either famous lovers or famous male platonic friends. The poem is innovative in claiming for a female couple the right to be set beside those well-known pairs.
Maitland Quarto Manuscript, Poem 49
As Phoebus in his spheris hicht
precellis the kaip Crepusculein
And phoebe all the starris licht
3our splendour so madame I wein
Dois onlie pas all feminine
In sapience superlative
Indewit with vertewis sa devine
as leirned pallas rediviue.
And as be hid vertew vnknawin
The adamant drawis yron thairtill
3our courtes nature so hes drawin
My hairt 3ouris to continew still
Sa greit Ioy dois my spreit fulfill
contempling 3our perfectioun
3e weild me holie at 3our will
and raviss my affectioun.
3our perles Vertew dois provoike
and loving kyndnes so dois move
My Mynd to freindschip reciproc
That treuth sall try sa far above
The auntient heroicis love
as salbe thocht prodigious
and plaine experience sall prove
Mair holie and religious.
In amitie perithous
To theseus wes not so traist
Nor Till Achilles patroclus
nor pilades to trew orest
Nor 3it achates luif so lest
to gud AEnee nor sic freindschip
Dauid to Ionathan profest
nor Titus trew to kynd Iofip.
Nor 3it Penelope I wiss
so luiffed vlisses in hir dayis
Nor Ruth the kynd moabitiss
Nohemie as the scripture sayis
nor portia quhais worthie prayiss
In romaine historeis we reid
Quha did devoir the fyrie brayiss
To follow brutus to the deid.
Wald michtie Iove grant me the hap
With 3ow to haue 3oar brutus pairt
and metamorphosing our schap
My sex intill his vaill convert
No brutus then sould caus ws smart
as we doe now vnhappie wemen
Then sould we bayth with Ioyfull hairt
honour and bliss the band of hymen.
3ea certainlie we sould efface
Pollux and castoris memorie
and gif that thay desseruit place
amang the starris for loyaltie
Then our mair perfyte amitie
mair worthie recompence sould merit
In hevin eternall deitie
amang the goddis till Inherit.
And as we ar thocht till our wo
nature and fortoun doe coniure
and hymen also be our fo
3it luif of vertew dois procuire
freindschip and amitie sa suire
with sa greit feruencie and force
Sa constantlie quhilk sall Induire
That not bot deid sall ws divorce.
And thocht aduersitie ws vex
3it be our freindschip salbe sein
Thair is mair constancie in our sex
Then euer amang men has bein
no troubill / torment / greif / or tein
nor erthlie thing sall ws disseuer
Sic constancie sall ws mantein
In perfyte amitie for euer.
(English adaptation by Heather Rose Jones)
As Phoebus in his spheres height
Excells the cape Crepusculine
And Phoebe all the star’s light
Your splendour, so madame I ween,
Does only pass all feminine
In sapience superlative
Endowed with virtues so divine
As learned Pallas does revive.
And as by hidd’n virtue unknown
The adamant draws iron there-till
Your courteous nature so has drawn
My heart, yours to continue still
So great joy does my spirit fulfill
Contemplate your perfection
You wield me wholly at your will
And ravish my affection.
Your peerless virtue does provoke
And loving kindnes so does move
My mind to freindship reciproc’
That truth shall try so far above
The ancient heroic’s love
As shall be thought prodigious
And plain experience shall prove
More holy and religious.
In amity, Pirithous
To Theseus had not such trust
Nor to Achilles, Patroclus
Nor Pylades to true Oreste
Nor yet Achates love so leased
To good AEneas nor such friendship
Dauid to Jonathan professed
Nor Titus true to kind Josip.
Nor yet Penelope I wis
So loved Ulysses in her days
Nor Ruth the kind Moabitess
Nohemie, as the scripture says
Nor Portia whose worthy praise
In Roman histories we read
Who did devour the fiery blaze
To follow Brutus to the dead.
Would mighty Jove grant me the hap
With you to have your Brutus’ part
And metamorphosing our shape
My sex into his will convert
No Brutus then should cause us smart
As we do now–unhappy women
Then should we both with joyful heart
Honour and bless the band of Hymen.
Yea, certainly we should efface
Pollux and Castor’s memory
And if that they deservéd place
Among the stars for loyalty
Then our more perfect amity
More worthy recompence should merit
In heaven eternal deity
Among the gods to inherit.
And as we are, though to our woe,
Nature and fortune do conjure
And hymen also be our foe
Yet love of virtue does procure
Friendship and amity so sure
With so great fervency and force
So constantly which shall endure
That nought but death shall us divorce.
And though adversity us vex
Yet be our friendship shall be seen
There is more constancy in our sex
Than ever among men has been
No trouble, torment, grief, or pain
Nor earthly thing shall us dissever
Since constancy shall us mantain
In perfect amity for ever.
Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz was no ordinary nun of the Order of Saint Jerome. She had one of the largest private libraries in 17th century Mexico, with 4000 volumes, and pursued scientific experiments as well as writing poetry. De la Cruz wrote romantic poetry primarily to two women who were both friends and powerfull patronesses, and to whom she gave poetic nicknames in her work. Leonor Carreto, the Marquise de Mancera, wife of the Viceroy of Mexico, was addressed as Laura in de la Cruz’s love poems. Some time after Laura’s death, de la Cruz began writing poems to “Lysi” her nickname for Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga, the Marquise de la Laguna and Countess of Paredes, who arranged for a volume of de la Cruz’s poetry to be published in Spain. The poems invoke themes of both the courtly love tradition of the past and the romantic friendship tradition of the future, fitting comfortably into a celebration of platonic same-sex friendship used by both women and men in expressing loves that would be less acceptable if interpreted as carnal. The poem I’ve chosen is addressed to Lysi, her second love.
Divina Lysi mía
by Juana Inés de la Cruz
Divina Lysi mía:
perdona si me atrevo
a llamarte así, cuando
aun de ser tuya el nombre no merezco.
A esto, no osadía
es llamarte así, puesto
que a ti te sobran rayos,
si en mí pudiera haber atrevimientos.
Error es de la lengua,
que lo que dice imperio
del dueño, en el dominio,
parezcan posesiones en el siervo.
Mi rey, dice el vasallo;
mi cárcel, dice el preso;
y el más humilde esclavo,
sin agraviarlo, llama suyo al dueño.
Así, cuando yo mía
te llamo, no pretendo
que juzguen que eres mía,
sino sólo que yo ser tuya quiero.
Yo te vi; pero basta:
que a publicar incendios
basta apuntar la causa,
sin añadir la culpa del efecto.
Que mirarte tan alta,
no impide a mi denuedo;
que no hay deidad segura
al altivo volar del pensamiento.
Y aunque otras más merezcan,
en distancia del cielo
lo mismo dista el valle
más humilde que el monte más soberbio,
En fin, yo de adorarte
el delito confieso;
si quieres castigarme,
este mismo castigo será premio.
My Divine Lysi: To the Marquise de la Laguna
by Juana Inés de la Cruz
(English from Faderman Chloe Plus Olivia)
Divine one, my Lysi;
Forgive me if I dare
To call you mine
Though I do not merit to be called “yours.”
I believe it is not presumption
To address you thus–
For you are so radiant
That my daring could not dim you.
It is merely the tongue that misspeaks
When one states that the master’s empire,
His very domain,
Belongs to the slave.
“My King,” says the vassal;
“My jail,” says the prisoner;
And the humblest of slaves
Calls his master “his” without offense.
So, when I call you mine
I have no pretense
That all will think you are mine.
It means only that I want to be yours.
I saw you, but that is enough;
In discoursing of fires
It is enough to point to the cause
Without dwelling on the blame of the effect.
To see you so distant
Does not deter my daring;
No deity is secure
From the arrogant flight of the mind.
And though there may be others more deserving,
The most humble valley
And the loftiest mountain
Are equidistant from Heaven.
Finally, I plead guilty
Of adoring you;
If you wish to punish me
That punishment will be my reward.
Anne de Rohan-Chabot was a French noblewoman of the 17th century. Although the poem “On a Lady Named Beloved,” written in 1617, clearly expresses her romantic love for a woman, distinguishing what she feels from friendship and invoking Cupid as a clear signifier of erotic feelings, like many other 17th century women who wrote similar poetry, her interests leaned toward both men and women. She was, for a time, the mistress of King Louis XIV, and she was famous for her devotion to her much older husband.
I don’t think we know who the woman is who inspired this tender poem. Anne was highly educated, and we can see echos of Sappho’s poetry in the repeated phrase about someone being “like a god”. The known works of Sappho had been published in French by her time.
Sur une Dame Nommée Aimée
by Anne de Rohan-Chabot
(Both French and English from Stanton The Defiant Muse)
Belle, j’aurais un très grand tort
Si pour votre grâce estimée
J’avais reçu l’amoureux sort;
Pour autre que pour vous ma chère Aimée,
Tous les olympiques flambeaux
De leur carrière enluminée
Ne sont point ornements plus beaux
Que les yeux de ma bell Aimée
Amour, ravi de ses beaux yeux,
La main droite et de flèche armée
Darda dans mon coeur soucieux
L’ardent désir d’aimer Aimée,
Je ne sais s’ils sont cieux ou dieux
Dont la puissance m’est cachée
Et qui me contraint en tous lieux
De mourir pour aimer Aimée.
A les voir ils me semblent cieux;
Ils sont de couleur azurée,
Par leur effet je les crois dieux,
Me forçant d’aimer cette Aimée.
Bref, je les tiens pour cieux et dieux,
Par cette force recelée
Et par leur aspect lumineux,
N’ayant rien plus cher que mon Aimée.
On a Lady Named Beloved
by Anne de Rohan-Chabot
Beauty, it would be a great wrong,
If, for your worthy graces,
I had been dealt the lover’s fate;
For anyone but you, my dear Beloved,
All the Olympic torches,
Illuminated in their course,
Are not lovelier ornaments
Than the eyes of my beautiful Beloved.
Cupid, delighted with those eyes,
His right hand armed with an arrow
Shot into my troubled heart
The ardent desire to love my Beloved.
I know not whether they be heavens or gods
Whose power from me is hidden
And compels me, both near and far,
To die so as to love my Beloved.
To see them, they seem like the heavens,
Of azure color are they,
But by their effects they’re like gods,
Forcing me yet to love that Beloved.
For me, then, they’re both heavens and gods,
Because of their hidden power
And luminous appearance,
For I hold nothing dearer than my Beloved.
And that seems a good note to end on. We have seen the wide variety of interpretations and presentations of love between women in European poetry of the 16th and 17th centuries. That diversity reminds us that people in history never had a single understanding or opinion about same-sex love. The condemnation existed side by side with the celebration, the scorn with the praise. And more than anything, the poems by women remind us of all the voices that were silenced and suppressed, whose thoughts we can only imagine.
Online sources for individual poems or translations have been linked in the text above. The following published collections were also used.
- Faderman, Lillian ed. 1994. Chloe Plus Olivia. Viking, New York. ISBN 0-670-84638-4
- Castle, Terry (ed). 2003. The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-12510-0
- Stanton, Domna C. (ed). 1986. The Defiant Muse: French Feminist Poems from the Middle Ages to the Present – A Bilingual Anthology. The Feminist Press, New York. ISBN 978-0935312522