Isle of Lesbos: Poetry : Historical : Renée Vivien


Renée Vivien

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 her gender.

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

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Selected Works

Roses Rising

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 here.

It's a miracle....The stars have risen,
Hastily, across the wide windows
   Where the melted gold pours.

Now, among the roses and the stars,
You, here in my room, loosening your robe,
   And your nakedness glistens

Your unspeakable gaze rests on my eyes....
Without stars and without flowers, I dream the impossible
   In the cold night.

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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.

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Your Strange Hair

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.

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Prolong the Night

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
   Overwhelm us with love!

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!

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The Touch

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.

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Where to

  • 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, 1967)
  • Jean-Paul Goujon, Tes Blessures sont plus douces queleurs Caresses: Vie de Renée Vivien (Paris: Crés, 1917)
  • André Germain, Renée Vivien (Paris: Régine Desforges, 1986)
  • Karla Jay, The Amazon and the Page: Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988)
  • Paul Lorenz, Sapho, 1900: Renée Vivien (Paris: Julliard, 1977)

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