When Marot and Baudelaire, and in comparison, how female

When common notions of love and romance are
steeped in patriarchy and informed heavily by the male gaze, male poets often
lack the ability to love, and therefore write about, women as three-dimensional
human beings rather than objects onto which they project their own fantasies
and desires. Women, in the work of male artists, are assigned little to no
voice: they are instead unwittingly and forcibly assigned the role of the ‘obliging prop,’ the celebration of their bodies making them
the ‘beautiful
object of contemplation’ (Irigaray,
1985: p. 25) in male works from Marot to Baudelaire.1
However, in the instances where women have managed to penetrate the
male-dominated field of the arts between the 16th and 20th
centuries, female characters do not take on this role either actively or
passively; female-authored work provides female characters with a literary
space to flourish and to be presented as multi-faceted, well-rounded figures
who do not solely serve the purpose of the object of male desire. The female
experience both of the writer and of the characters is demonstrated to be
steeped in complex emotion and human sensual and physical desire, which is
rarely seen in male-written female characters. This essay will explore the chasm
between the humanity and emotional complexity assigned to female characters in
male-written and female-written poetry: firstly, in the explicit disconnect
between 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 approached
in female-written work, specifically that of Louise Labé.


By detaching the inner
character of the female muse from her body or outward appearance, the male poet
allows himself an unresisting, silent but physically appealing ‘shell’ from
which he can construct his own ideal, chaste and obliging woman. In Marot’s ‘A la bouche de Diane,’2 the muse
in question is characterised solely by her mouth ‘de Coral precieux’ (a ‘visually
iconic image,’ according
to Lawrence Kritzman (1991: p. 106)). 3 Despite
the mouth’s supposed quickness
to anger (‘Voulez bien
celluy occire | Qui crainct vous estre desplaisant?’ (L7-8)),
which could be interpreted as an indication of the muse’s
resistance to the poet’s advances and thus the poet’s
acknowledgement of her autonomy, the speaker’s almost immediate projection of his own inner
desires onto the muse, ‘qui à baiser semble semondre’ (L2)
arguably overrides this. She is portrayed merely as one body part, separate
from a self which possesses agency, free will, and desires of its own, which
allows the poet an unresisting object, almost a ‘blank canvas,’ onto which he can offload his fantasies: so
empowered is he by the fact that he is the one who ascribes value to his
construction of his muse, that, in the imperative command ‘Dictes nenny, en me baisant,’ (L10), he orders her to kiss him against her will. He is
incapable of loving the woman in her entirety and in a capacity that operates
independently from him, and therefore must reduce her to the bare minimum,
erasing any sense of her individual identity and personhood, in order to
construct a silent, obliging, ‘gracious-hearted’ image of
her which is most appealing to his own imagination. Kritzman asserts
that the blason anatomique genre that
the poem conforms to ‘depicts that of the poet’s imaginary
projection of the reality of his desire onto an object that is narcissistically
(1991: p. 97). This is a highly pertinent deduction, but could be taken further
in that Marot’s
muse is not only ‘subjectivised’ – any essence of her character is eradicated,
and the worth and substance of any of her non-physical features revolves around
the male poet’s
definition of them – she is denigrated to ‘a nothing out of which meaning is made,’ as Nancy
Roberts asserts (1997: p. 13).4
                           With this in
mind, the insidious misogyny which fuels the male tendency to erase the female
persona from the female body is not restricted to the 16th century. Baudelaire’s ‘Le Serpent
qui Danse,’5 despite
being written centuries later than the popular blasons of Marot’s era, employs many of the same devices. Baudelaire
firstly presents the muse’s body as a whole, then verse by verse describes
different fragmented parts; while, unlike Marot’s work, it is not overtly an expression of
adulation for how closely each body part prescribes to ideals of female beauty of
the era, it evokes an image of the poet’s own ideal, sensually and physically appealing

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Que j’aime voir,
che?re indolente,

De ton
corps si beau,

Comme une e?toffe vacillante,

Miroiter la peau! (L1-4)


As the title anticipates, the imagery of the
muse’s body as ‘une étoffe vacillante’ with skin
that ‘shimmers’ is
evocative not just of a serpent, but of a captivating, seductive temptress. The
snake imagery is also reminiscent of Biblical symbolism: the muse represents
the 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 with
him, as she merely serves to entice him and satiate his sexual desires. According
to Robert James Belton,

In such a mysterious light, the Surrealist seems to make
whores of all women. Despite their exaltation, they are ‘fleshy
conveniences’ … A woman, Baudelaire had written … is more
than a female human; she is a divinity, a star, an idol. But although he
implied she is more than mere nature, he refused her the right to an
intellectual or cultural identity. (Belton 1995: 96)6


In terms of the reality of the muse, male
poets are solely concerned with their corporeal form: what they cannot see,
they will construct from their own imagination, usually in the form of a
voiceless, one-dimensional woman whose


In contrast to the complete lack of agency ascribed to female
characters featuring in male-authored poetry, those of female-written works are
markedly more well-rounded and exist independently, even if engaged in a
heterosexual relationship, from men – after all, those who know how
to write female characters best are women themselves. Although, for the most
part, Louise Labé’s poetry centres herself as the
speaker and thus the primary character of her work, this not only allows her
work to showcase a rich and complex scope of inner thoughts, desires and emotions
and a unique female identity which is not influenced by phallocentrism; it is
also revolutionary for its time. Labé’s takes
a traditional poetic convention, the Petrarchan form, which primarily
allows for free expression of male heterosexual desire (i.e., the male poet as
the 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 female
speaker agency, as Karen F. Wiley elaborates in ‘Louise
Labé’s Deceptive Petrarchism:

‘Two areas
of her skill merit particular attention. The first is her manipulation of the
male and female roles we come to expect in Petrarchistic love poetry. Since the
poet-lover is the she and the beloved is the he in Labe’s amorous schema, the
reader is already in unfamiliar territory. In some of the sonnets, Labe merely
adapts the format to her particular relationship …’ (1981: p51)7

A prime example of the ‘manipulation of female and male roles’ that Wiley discusses is apparent
in ‘II’ (p4).8
As well as the Petrarchan form, Labé’s references to many different
parts of the body of her beloved (‘O ris, ô front, cheveus, bras, mains et doits’ (L9)) is
reminiscent of the blason anatomique,
?a genre created by men, for men,
as a vehicle for expression of male heterosexuality. However, it is explicit
that it is female desire which drives this poem:

Tant de flambeaus pour ardre une femmelle!

De toy me plein, que tant de
feus portant,?
En tant d’endrois d’iceus mon cœur
tatant (L11-13).

Following Irigaray’s school of thought, having asserted that ‘Female
sexuality has always been conceptualized on the basis of masculine parameters,’ (1985: p23) it may be argued that Labé’s expression of desire through
the Petrarchan form is in a masculine rather than feminine manner is merely indicative
of male sexuality maintaining its hegemony. However, this would be an
oversight: the reason why it is so revolutionary is that she navigates a form usually
catered to the expression of male sexuality, yet manipulates it to communicate
an 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 a
woman who resents being the object of her admirer’s affections, aware that
Here we see more evidence that men are largely incapable of loving women in
their 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 women
take on the role of the ‘obliging prop’ and the ‘beautiful object of contemplation’ (1985: p. 25) is valid
with regard to male-authored poetry, as male poets are primarily concerned with
a woman’s corporeal form over her character as a whole, and must be as reductive
as possible in the way they think about, and therefore write, women in order to
be able to desire them. However, given the authority to write poetry themselves
about their own desires and emotional experience, female poets allow both
themselves as writers and their female characters or speakers to demonstrate
that they possess more emotional depth than would ever be assigned to them by a
male poet, and

1 Luce
Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, trans. by Catherine Porter (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University
Press, 1985), p. 2.

2 Marot, A la bouche de Diane, in Cultural Landmarks
Poetry Anthology, ed. by Cathy Hampton and Clément Dessy (Warwick, 2017), p. 2.

3 Lawrence
D. Kritzman, ‘Architecture
of the Utopian Body: the Blasons of Marot and Ronsard,’ in The
Rhetoric 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 Through
the Novel (Ontario: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997), p. 13 in JSTOR,
accessed 13 December 2017.

5 Baudelaire, ‘Le serpent qui danse’, in Cultural Landmarks Poetry
Anthology, ed. by Cathy Hampton and Clément Dessy (Warwick, 2017), p. 22. 


6 Robert James Belton, The Beribboned Bomb: The Image of Woman in
Male Surrealist Art (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1995), p.


7 Karen F. Wiley, ‘Louise Labé’s Deceptive
Petrarchism’, Modern Language Studies, 11.3, (1981), 51-60 (p. 51),
in accessed 11 December 2017.

8 Labé, II,
in Cultural Landmarks Poetry Anthology, ed. by Cathy Hampton and Clément Dessy (Warwick, 2017), p. 4.