Olivia McCannon on Louise Labé

 

Sonnet 7

 

We see how what is living, dies

When its body’s subtle soul departs – is gone.

I’m the body, you, that better part, so why

Are you elsewhere, beloved soul of mine?                              

 

Don’t leave me here out cold – if you delay

Then your resuscitation comes too late.

Why, you put your own body into jeopardy:

Give it back its precious half, its due estate.

 

Friend, lover: let there be no danger

When we meet and love, that our encounter              

Might be stern, or mannered, or over-proper.             

 

Bring to it only your good grace, then, slowly

Sweetly, let me repossess your beauty            

That once was cruel, and now, at last, is kindly.        

 

 

Louise Labé (1516/23–1566)

(From Evvres de Lovïze Labé Lionnoize. A Lyon par Jean de Tournes, avec Privilege du Roy. 1555).

 

 

I was born in 1973, the year the UK entered the EU, and grew up shaping myself European. ‘Why are you studying German?’ my grandmother needed to ask. For her, the Germans were still the enemy (in 1992). ‘Because of Europe’, I probably answered. At school, I was encouraged to study modern foreign languages ‘because of Europe’. What did that mean? I decided it meant meeting people who spoke other languages, and as far and as frequently as possible, falling in love with them, and their words.

 

My business with France began courtesy of Wirral Borough Council and the EU’s in-mysterious-ways-effective town-twinning programme. I and my French exchange-partner wrote to each other every week throughout adolescence: we grew up together, foreign sisters, on paper. The first time I went to stay, at the age of 13, I was given a full-Breton 5am welcome at Roscoff ferry terminal, by a welcoming committee of extended family and friends who had been celebrating Bastille Day all night. They were waving huge banners bearing felt-tipped letters crammed with pictures of male underwear cut from mail-order catalogues: ‘Bienvenue en Bretagne!’ ‘Vive Livvy!’ ‘Qu’est-ce que c’est que ‘Livvy’?’ one bleary co-passenger asked my hosts, as if I had become, or was becoming, a newly imported local speciality. That would have been a fine destiny.

 

In some respects, Louise Labé was a local speciality: her name appears as ‘Lovïze Labé Lionnoize’ on the cover of her Evvres of 1555. But plenty of what fed into her intellectual development was imported. Although of non-noble birth, she had the same Italianate education as her brothers. The Petrarchan tradition, the Neoplatonic influences that she rewrote, came to her via Italy. Lyon in the early 1500s was a thriving urban crossroads, well connected, geographically and economically, to the commercial and cultural centres of the Renaissance. The city’s prosperity and openness gave it confidence: class distinctions relaxed, and progressive cultural energies flourished, creating conditions in which ‘class competition between the nobility and the bourgeoisie promoted literacy and female education.’ [1]

 

Sonnet 7 (of 24) sets out conditions for a desired union with the other. ‘Good grace’ is required. Coldness, falseness, are not. Unlike many of her male Petrarchist counterparts, Labé never names the lover to whom the sonnets are addressed. What is at stake is perhaps as much metaphysical as physical. The speaker is the body, the matter, summoning forth what spirit or force will animate it. Love itself, life itself, creativity itself.

 

In one dimension, this sonnet writes back – across the border into Italy, into Italian, through the past, to Petrarch – making the speaker a (not) Laura who talks, and feels, who initiates. On another, the poem resists a conventionally gendered division of roles, permitting instead an androgynous equality, a neutral, and useful, position from which to explore interdependency and unification. Those two figures, speaker and addressee, two parts of some whole or other, easily suggest resonances beyond habitual ideas of couple, or union.

 

As I translated, I wrote back to Louise Labé. When I first encountered her poetry, I felt I had found a soulmate across the centuries, beyond borders, another foreign sister to correspond with, a broken thread of news to be picked up and continued. And a voice I could add mine to, to be braver, and louder.

 

Had Labé’s father, an illiterate rope-maker, not become upwardly mobile and wealthy through foreign trade, had his aspirations not become aligned with progressive values, she wouldn’t have been educated. If she had not been in the thick of cultural life in Lyon (one of the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’), nourished and challenged by Italian literature, and surrounded by German printers, it’s unlikely she would have been in a position to publish France’s first literary feminist manifesto.[2] In it, she called for solidarity among women, urged them to educate themselves, to become thinkers, writers, to exchange, to unite.

 

I was taught once, in Paris, by a Turkish documentary-maker who had been educated by French Jesuits. He would point out that the most fundamental definition of a market, is ‘a place of exchange’. Of stories, as well as goods; skills, as well as currencies; languages, as well as services. How would you define such a place in practical and administrative terms, in law? The closest I ever came to the institutional complexities of the EU was during a short stint in a financial translation agency in Paris. We were sent documents from Brussels at ‘post-edit’ stage, that is, they had been fed through a computer and had come out in a jumbled English much harder to translate than the original German or French. But the intention – to make all information available in all community languages – had worth.

 

In the nineties and noughties, I was on the move in Europe. I benefited. I studied at five different European universities, I worked in an Austrian hotel, a Spanish paper factory, a French school (Lycée Jean Monnet, in Montpellier, where the students were keen to learn English ‘because of Europe’). I met East Germans and West Germans during reunification, young people my own age, shouldering the deadweight of inherited war guilt. I met Balkan law graduates whose degrees had been rendered useless by conflict, gaunt and hungry and crushed, camped out in Italian youth hostels. I sang with Corsicans and drank with Spaniards who invited me to their weddings.

 

I also made a group of French friends. They were French from Brittany, from the Var, from the Lozère, they were second-generation French-Algerian/Moroccan/Tunisian/Vietnamese, they were French-outre-mer from Guadeloupe, La Réunion, French Jewish, French Irish... Late one night after work, they lugged everything I owned from one fifth-floor flat to another sixth-floor flat, up the rue de Belleville, with unstinting good grace and generosity.

 

Surely Europeans will, despite everything, keep writing back to each other, falling in love with each other, helping each other? I can’t imagine a Europe where that doesn’t happen. The first foreign poem I ever fell in love with, in German, was Brecht’s ‘Schlechte Zeit für Lyrik’ (‘Bad Time for Lyric Poetry’). At the age of 18, I was made-in-the-EU optimistic, I thought times of that nature lay behind us, not ahead. 25 years later, I’m at my desk.



[1] Carla Freccero, ‘Louise Labé’s Feminist Poetics’, Distant Voices Still Heard (Liverpool University Press, 2000).

[2] The ninety-nine-line letter dedicated to Clémence de Bourges which prefaces her 1555 volume. She specifically encourages women, collectively, to write, to bring about social change. A century or so earlier, Christine de Pisan (1364–c.1431) published Le livre de la Cité des Dames in an attempt to rescue the reputations of women vilified by history (and Boccaccio).