Renée Vivien, a turn of the century novelist and poet who wrote
exclusively in French, was born Pauline Mary Tarn in Paddington, England.
She attended school in Paris until age 9, when her father died. Her mother
returned her to England, much to Pauline's dismay. In an effort to obtain
the money left to Pauline, her mother tried to have her declared insane.
The court declared Pauline their ward and protected her, and once Pauline
reached the age of 21, she moved back to Paris.
Once in Paris, Pauline changed her name to Renée Vivien to symbolize
her rebirth. She also met and became lovers with Natalie Barney, an American
heiress known for her flamboyant lesbian lifestyle. Renée began
publishing her poetry under the masculine "Renée Vivien", but after
publishing a couple books, she began using "Renée" to indicate
Renée's poetry and novels show several sources of inspiration:
Natalie Barney, Violet Shilleto, Pierre Louys,
and Sappho. Natalie inspired retellings of their
relationship through prose and poem. Violet Shilleto, Renée's childhood
friend and love who died in 1901, appears in Renée's work through
repeated images of violets and the color purple. Pierre Louys's sensual
"Songs of Bilitis" and Sappho's evocative poems about women-love influenced
Renée's poetic style. Sappho, in particular, became an icon for
Renée--she translated the work of Sappho into modern French, and
even traveled with Natalie to Lesbos in an attempt to revive a women's
artist colony on the island.
Renée ended her relationship with Natalie in 1901, when she took
up with the Baroness Heléne de Zuylen de Nyevelt. The Baronness
nurtured Renée for the next several years, then broke off their
relationship in 1906. After several more relationship with women, Renée
died in 1909 of alcoholism and anorexia.
From 1901 to 1909, Renée wrote fourteen volumes of poetry, three
volumes of stories, and two novels. Her work is notable for her lack of
apology for her lesbian expression. At this time, little of her poetry
is available in English translation.
Biography by Alix North
My brunette with the golden eyes, your ivory body, your amber
Has left bright reflections in the room
Above the garden.
The clear midnight sky, under my closed lids,
Still shines....I am drunk from so many roses
Redder than wine.
Leaving their garden, the roses have followed me....
I drink their brief breath, I breathe their life.
All of them are
It's a miracle....The stars have risen,
Hastily, across the wide windows
Where the melted
Now, among the roses and the stars,
You, here in my room, loosening your robe,
And your nakedness
Your unspeakable gaze rests on my eyes....
Without stars and without flowers, I dream the impossible
In the cold night.
Your laughter is light, your caress deep,
Your cold kisses love the harm they do;
Your eyes-blue lotus waves
And the water lilies are less pure than your face..
You flee, a fluid parting,
Your hair falls in gentle tangles;
Your voice-a treacherous tide;
Your arms-supple reeds.
Long river reeds, their embrace
Enlaces, chokes, strangles savagely,
Deep in the waves, an agony
Extinguished in a night drift.
Your strange hair, cold light,
Has pale glows and blond dullness;
Your gaze has the blue of ether and waves;
Your gown has the chill of the breeze and the woods.
I burn the whiteness of your fingers with kisses.
The night air spreads the dust from many worlds.
Still I don't know anymore, in the heart of those deep nights,
How to see you with the passion of yesterday.
The moon grazed you with a slanted glow ...
It was terrible, like prophetic lightning
Revealing the hideous below your beauty.
I saw-as one sees a flower fade-
On your mouth, like summer auroras,
The withered smile of an old whore.
Prolong the night, Goddess who sets us aflame!
Hold back from us the golden-sandalled dawn!
Already on the sea the first faint gleam
Of day is coming on.
Sleeping under your veils, protect us yet,
Having forgotten the cruelty day may give!
The wine of darkness, wine of the stars let
Since no one knows what dawn will come,
Bearing the dismal future with its sorrows
In its hands, we tremble at full day, our dream
Fears all tomorrows.
Oh! keeping our hands on our still-closed eyes,
Let us vainly recall the joys that take flight!
Goddess who delights in the ruin of the rose,
Prolong the night!
The trees have kept some lingering sun in their branches,
Veiled like a woman, evoking another time,
The twilight passes, weeping. My fingers climb,
Trembling, provocative, the line of your haunches.
My ingenious fingers wait when they have found
The petal flesh beneath the robe they part.
How curious, complex, the touch, this subtle art--
As the dream of fragrance, the miracle of sound.
I follow slowly the graceful contours of your hips,
The curves of your shoulders, your neck, your upappeased breasts.
In your white voluptuousness my desire rests,
Swooning, refusing itself the kisses of your lips.
Where to Read More...
- Renée Vivien - a
lovely French web site devoted to the poet
- Renée Vivien, The Muse of the Violets: Poems by Renée
Vivien, translated by Margaret Porter and Catherine Kroger (Bates
City, MO: Naiad Press, 1977)
- Renée Vivien, A Woman Appeared to me, translated
by Jeannette Foster (1904, Reno, Nevada: Naiad Press, 1974)
- Natalie Clifford Barney, Adventures of the Mind (New York:
New York University Press, 1992)
- Colette, The Pure and the Impure (New York: Farrar Straus,
- Jean-Paul Goujon, Tes Blessures sont plus douces queleurs Caresses:
Vie de Renée Vivien (Paris: Crés, 1917)
- André Germain, Renée Vivien (Paris: Régine
- Karla Jay, The Amazon and the Page: Natalie Clifford Barney
and Renée Vivien (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
- Paul Lorenz, Sapho, 1900: Renée Vivien (Paris: Julliard,