#64: LA BELLE CORDIERE. Louise Labe wrote her moving and intimate verses in Lyon in the sixteenth century, at a time when French poetry had glamors and glories very neatly parallel to those of English: the model and influence of Petrarch, a pure lyric impulse matched by adventurous intellect, a beautifully mastered formality livened by vernacular wit and speed. I love Labe—she’s one of my favorite Renaissance poets—but I’m uncertain as to how far she’s likely to make it into English. The sheer accomplishment of the verse, its mix of artistry and directness, its ease and achieved style, as with her masters, Ronsard and du Bellay, even lesser and lovely poets like Philippe Desportes, are likely to leave all but the most inspired translators with little but pale simulacra. In the only current complete English-language edition of Labe’s work (Complete Poetry and Prose, edited with prose translations by Deborah Lesko Baker and poetry translations by Annie Finch, Chicago, 2006) Baker’s versions of the prose—the famous Dedicatory Epistle and “Debate of Folly and Love”—are readable enough; Finch’s rhymed-couplet versions of the Elegies work better, because simpler, than with the more tangled challenges of the sonnets, which are, finally, the real core of Labe’s work. Better to take these renderings as usable cribs or, if your French is up to it, stick to Francois Rigolot’s wonderful (and inexpensive) edition, published by Garnier Flammarion in 1986. The critical introduction by Baker in the Chicago edition is intelligent but, sweet Jesus hung on the cross with nails, the prose is awful: a style so abstract and Latinate as to make Samuel Johnson look like blunt Saxon muttering. And nowhere in this mess of jargon is there any urgent sense that Labe meant any of it, that she is remarkable, even among the riches of Renaissance verse, for a style marked by utter conviction.
Of course, I could be mistaken. In the most recent academic attention to Labe she has received the Homeric, indeed Shakespearean level of flattery: dismemberment. In Louise Labe, Une Creature de Papier (Droz), Mireille Huchon has denied Labe the authorship of the book published under her name and parceled her work out to Maurice Sceve and other poets of his Lyonnais circle. Oh, the horror…. Actually, Huchon’s book is scholarly and well-written, and offers a knowledgeable and interesting image of Lyon in the sixteenth century, at the height of its literary activity; you can question her conclusions and still learn much from the reading. Online there is not only much discussion of “The Huchon Hypothesis” but a variety of texts and translations. There’s a charming brief chapter on Rilke’s translation of Labe’s sonnets in Alberto Manguel’s History of Reading (Viking, 1996). The best recent addition to our knowledge of Labe in English is Louise Labe: Love Sonnets and Elegies (New York Review of Books, 2014) a good, inexpensive edition, with texts and a graceful and thoughtful translation by Richard Siebuth. And the full text of Baker and Finch’s edition from Chicago can now be found online: https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/modernlanguages/applying/undergraduate/frenchmodules/fr120/lectureprog/ren/labe/labe769_readings.pdf.
From there it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to Clement Marot, Joachim du Bellay and Pierre de Ronsard, the acknowledged masters of French Renaissance poetry—and hence to some of the most beautiful and human poetry in the French language. Norman R. Shapiro, the prolific and ingenious translator, has done an anthology of these three poets, Lyrics of the French Renaissance (Yale, 2002); Shapiro’s versions, which maintain the meters and rhyme schemes of the originals, succeed both as helpful cribs for those of us whose sixteenth- century French is imperfect and as reimaginings of the originals as poetry in English. It’s a joy to read.