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Echo in the Renaissance: Myth, Speech, and Poetry

In Greek mythology, Echo was a mountain nymph who lived on Mount Cithairon. Hera, the goddess of marriage, women and family, condemned her to forever repeat the last words pronounced by her interlocutor after she discovered Echo had been using her lengthy conversations to distract Hera’s attention from Zeus’ betrayal. Over time, Echo fell in love with Narcissus, but she could not confess her feelings to him. She watched him fall in love with his own reflection, and she eventually died of heartache.

This mythological character appears in multiple Greek and Latin sources, the most famous being the Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid. When writers of the Renaissance rediscover classic literature after the censorship of religion in the Middle Ages, this myth spreads all over Europe, reaching its peak in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The Echoes of the Renaissance: a Mythological Character, the Figure of Speech and Poetic Genre

The mythological character of Echo has been interpreted in different ways from Ancient Greece to the twentieth century. As a result, different versions of the myth can be found. Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1497) is a pivotal source for authors of all epochs. In his work, Echo is punished for having tried to distract Hera from her husband Zeus’ infidelity with the other nymphs. She did so by engaging her in long conversations, hence the nature of her punishment. Her voice can, nevertheless, be heard after her death. Another influential model is the Greek writer Longus’ Daphnis and Chloé (Pattoni, 2005) in which the nymph is deprived of her voice for refusing Pan’s proposal. Some farmers tear her body to pieces, but Gaia, the Earth, allows her to keep the faculty of singing. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the rediscovery of Petrarch’s (1985) Canzoniere contributed to the enduring popularity of this myth. In this masterpiece, Petrarch identifies Laura, his beloved, with Narcissus, as she remains indifferent to the poet’s feelings while he recognizes himself in Echo.

Figure 1: "Daphnis and Chloé" (Boucher, 1743).

During the Renaissance, Echo could designate a figure of speech, a character in a poem or a poetic genre. As a figure of speech, it appears in the repetition of the last syllable of the preceding verse; a poem including such verses can be defined with this term and found in pastorals, lyric poetry and opera. Professor Géry-Ghedira (1998) explains that the dialogue with the personification of Echo is also recurring. In this case, one of the interlocutors poses a question and the other answers by repeating the last words. Writers have long exploited this mechanism to show that the meaning of a sentence changes when pronounced by a different person. It expresses heterogeneity while showing the characters’ interiority. Renaissance women writers’ relation to this mythological figure is notable, as it represents their literary status. In fact, many of her features characterize their writing and publication circumstances and the clichés associated with their condition.

Writing in Echo Between Silence and Escape

Two aspects relate to women writers and Echo: Repetition and proximity to nature. Repetition is a leitmotif in Renaissance literary production, so much so that it is difficult to tell whether it distinguishes women's works exclusively. The rediscovery of classic literature promoted the diffusion of a new conception of culture based on imitation. For women authors, it acquires a specific connotation because most of the literary models were male. Love being the central theme of Renaissance poetry, women found themselves reproducing motifs in which they were the object of men’s desire while acting as subjects, being the authors of their texts. The second characteristic, nature, may be harder to grasp. As a nymph, Echo is close to it; this evokes a cliché of the “feminine essence”, usually associated with nature, fertility and creation. Professor Mathieu-Castellani (1998) links Echo and women writers through their “tragic mutism” and their attempt to overcome it. If many critics like Géry-Ghedira or Mathieu-Castellani underline the multiplicity of Echo’s personality and of women’s literary production in the Renaissance, it is true that these writers identify themselves with the nymph more often than in other periods.

Figure 2: "Echo and Narcissus" (Waterhouse, 1903).

This common circumstance gives rise to two distinct approaches: French poets employ parody and irony to subvert Echo’s trap, thereby asserting their own voices. Specifically, they use their male colleagues’ words to express their desires. A noteworthy example is Louise Labé’s sonnet 21 (Kline, 2018), which reproduces the language and style of the blason. A blason is a short poem in which the male poet praises the woman’s body parts without giving a complete image of it. In French literature, it is often used in a sarcastic manner, rather than an adulatory one.

What stature renders a man admirable?

What weight? What height? What colouring?

Who possesses eyes the most melting?

Who first deals with the incurable wound?


all that beauty to which I might aspire,

all the art that might improve Nature,

could find no way to add to my desire.

Conversely, for Italian women poets, Echo represents a condemnation to silence, the difficulty in conquering exclusive literary models. For them, there is no possibility of escaping from that situation. For this reason, the character of Echo is referred to implicitly in their works with the exception of Gaspara Stampa (1976. Translation mine):

My weariness and my dejection are such,

I am frightened and vile again,

In the image of Echo,

I only have the voice and the name of a woman;

I always follow as she did

the vestige of my Sun;

and extend his last words

Lyonnais poet Pernette Du Guillet (1545) conforms to the French tendency. Interestingly, the only time she diverges from it is in a poem translated from Italian: “And reason wants me to be quiet/Not to offend him who I wish to serve […]” (Translation mine). These two approaches show that Echo/echo does not represent a condemnation to silence and repetition. At times, it becomes a pretext for poetic exchange.

From Repetition to Dialogue

The expression parole d’Echo (“word of Echo”) refers to a specific form of repetition. Poets would regularly quote their colleagues’ works in their anthologies, sometimes reproducing entire stanzas. By doing so, they would create a dialogue with the other poet, while giving homage to their talent. Unfortunately, this procedure has been used to question the authenticity of women's poems. Such was the hostility of the press to their publications, that not all critics believe that they actually wrote them. Author Mireille Huchon (2006), in her book Louise Labé, une créature de papier, explains that the similarities between Labé and other poets prove that she is not the author of her book. According to her theory, other poets from the School of Lyon (Maurice Scève, Claude de Taillemont and Olivier de Magny) decided to publish them under the name of Louise Labé, a courtesan well-known in the literary circles of the city. Among the examples cited, sonnet 2 of the Œuvres by Labé (2022) closely resembles sonnet 55 of the Soupirs by de Magny (1557). However, de Magny wrote his poem after Labé published hers.

Figure 3: "Portrait of Louise Labé" (Woeiriot, 1555).

Pernette Du Guillet and Maurice Scève also wrote similar poems. It remains uncertain which one was published first. These poets, who were also in love with each other, utilized this strategy as a means to express their feelings. The first two stanzas of epigram 13 in Du Gillet’s Rymes (1545) and dizain 145 in Scève’s Délie (1544) are identical. Eventually, as the poem progresses, they introduce variations in the following stanzas. This progression is crucial as it highlights the poets’ diverging views on love. Du Guillet adheres to the philosophy of Neoplatonism, where love is an endeavour towards higher virtue. In contrast, Maurice Scève embodies a traditional Petrarchan approach, exhibiting submission to the woman he loves and never ceasing to express resentment. This repetition further underscores the concept of parole d’Echo as defined by researcher Anne-Emmanuelle Berger (1996): Du Guillet and Scève establish a dialogue while also diverging from the other’s point of view. The echo makes this discrepancy more evident.

Overcoming the Echo

From a wider perspective, analysing the manifestations of Echo/echo in the Renaissance shows the poets’ relation with ancient and contemporary literary traditions. This field of research reveals the primary tendencies of the literary period, but it can also dismiss women’s publications as is the case of Louise Labé. However, an alternative possibility has not been considered: did women echo each other? It would be possible to suppose so after an examination of Du Guillet’s epigram 13 (1545) and Labé’s Débat de Folie et d’Amour (2022). In her poem, Du Guillet cites the “blind god” who is also the protagonist of Labé’s prose text. Both employ a Petrarchan vocabulary and intertextuality. Similarly, Labé inherited Du Guillet’s distinctive attribute: her poems are charged with implicit contents that offer multiple readings and interpretations. This effect is achieved through similar themes and forms as seen in Du Gillet’s untitled song (1545) “Qui dira ma robe fourrée” and Labé’s sonnet 24 (2022). Their decision to publish and their desire to escape criticism are expressed through enumerations, hyperboles, repetitions, emphatic verbs and adjectives, as well as exclamations.

Figure 4: "Pernette Du Guillet’s bust" (Pivot, 1898).

One final exception is Conde Claros de Adonis by Du Guillet (1545) which echoes Déploration de Vénus sur la mort du bel Adonis by Mellin de Saint-Gelais. In her version of the Greek myth of Adonis, Du Guillet introduces some interesting modifications: the initial scene is set outdoors instead of indoors and a new female character, Psyche, makes an appearance. Psyche is absent in the original myth and engages in a game of chess with Cupid. She represents the writer herself, revealing the secret of poetry to interact with her literary models. Thus, the game symbolizes her poetic exchange with Saint-Gelais and Scève (Roussel, 2014). Aphrodite’s role is reduced in Saint-Gelais’ text, as the poet prevents her from screaming. However, Du Guillet restores her power: when a boar kill Adonis, she is the judge of its actions. The goddess epitomizes Du Guillet’s manipulation of her poetic sources. Through her rewriting of Déploration, Du Guillet invents a myth of the origin of the poetic word, through her counterparts, Psyche and Aphrodite (Roussel, 2014).

The examples provided demonstrate how difficult it can be to classify the different forms of echo. While some instances are clear, such as de Magny’s repetition of Labé’s sonnet 2, others do not indicate whether there is a repetition of another work. Echo can also be found in the anthologies of women writers, although it may be less evident. In the case of Conde Claros de Adonis, the myth of Adonis is reimagined with remarkable transformations. Du Guillet’s version serves as a source of inspiration for future authors. Ultimately, the concept of echo simplifies the complexities of sixteenth-century literature, characterized by imitation, emulation, contamination, and the pursuit of originality.

Bibliographical References

Berger, A.-E. (1996). Dernière nouvelle d’Echo, Littérature. Échos et traces, 102, pp.71-90

De Magny, O. (1557). Soupirs. Paris

Du Guillet, P. (1545). Rymes de gentile et vertueuse Dame D. Pernette Du Guillet Lyonnaise. Lyon: Jean de Tournes

Géry-Ghedira, V. (1998). Echolalies : Dialogue Ou Monologue ?, L’Esprit Créateur, 38(4), pp.52-63

Huchon, M. (2006). Louise Labé : une créature de papier. Geneva: Droz

Kline, A.S. (2018). Louise Labé. The Sonnets. Ebook.

Labé, L. (2022). Œuvres. Paris: Flammarion

Mathieu-Castellani, G. (1998). La quenouille et la lyre. Paris: José Corti

Ovid. (1497). Ovidio Metamorphoseos Vulgare. Venice: Lucantonio Giunta, Giovanni Rosso

Pattoni, M.P. (2005). Longo Sofista: Dafni e Cloé. Milan: BUR

Petrarch, F. (1985). Canzoniere. Milan: Mondadori

Roussel, B. (2014). Vénus endeuillée à la Renaissance, Études littéraires, 45(1), pp. 145-158

Saint-Gelais, M. (1548). Déploration de Vénus sur la mort du bel Adonis. Lyon: Jean de Tournes

Scève, M. (1544). Délie objet de plus haute vertu. Lyon

Stampa, G. (1976). Rime. Milan: Rizzoli

Visual Sources


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Debora Ricci

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