Renée Vivien and the Trials of Lesbian Poetry
On the 11th of June 1877, English poet Renée Vivien (née Pauline Mary Tarn) was born in London to a wealthy British father and an American mother. She adopted her French name at the age of twenty-one after moving to Paris, where she lived a notorious bohemian lifestyle defined by her quirky style of dressing, turbulent relationships and original poetry. Her first relationship in Paris was with American heiress and writer Natalie Clifford Barney. However, Barney’s frequent infidelities led to an inevitable and abrupt breakup. In 1902, Vivien became romantically involved with the wealthy Baroness Hélène van Zuylen, one of the Paris Rothschilds. Zuylen was already married and with two kids when it happened; therefore, the relationship was never out in the open. But from Vivien’s letters to her French friend, journalist and classical scholar Jean Charles-Brun, we learn that the couple often travelled together and continued a discreet affair for many years. At some point, Vivien even considered herself married to Zuylen. In the meantime, the poet had a secret affair with the wife of a Turkish diplomat in Istanbul. The ladies corresponded secretly over the years and met incognito several times. In 1907, Zuylen cheated on Vivien with another woman, leaving her in a state of despair. Unable to deal with the situation, she left Paris first for Japan and then for Hawaii. The loss of her long-term partner led to a mental breakdown. The course of events pushed her towards drugs, alcohol, and sadomasochistic fantasies. Her dangerous sexual escapades became an obsession. Her never ending drive to find physical pleasure, whether at parties or other public gatherings, eventually left her in a state of suicidal depression. She refused to eat and drink, became ill and died at the premature age of thirty two.
Vivien left behind twelve books of poetry as well as her own translations of Sappho’s verses from Greek (the language she learnt specifically for the purpose). Contemporary feminists consider her as one of the first women to write openly lesbian poetry. “[Y]et her reputation as the Sappho of 1900 makes it more difficult to understand why she wrote in a language much more gender-marked than her native English, and why she sometimes framed her woman-centered verses within the restrictive framework of the sonnet, a form exemplifying what Gertrude Stein referred to as “Patriarchal Poetry””. (Tama Lea Engelking, Genre and the Mark of Gender: Renée Vivien’s “Sonnet féminin”, Modern Language Studies, Vol. 23, No. 4, Autumn, 1993). It seems that, “her discursive universe is founded on an all-pervasive division between two antagonistic positions: the masculine and the feminine. These two extremely hostile territories are defined in such a mutually exclusive way that infiltration of one by the other seems absolutely impossible (let alone desirable).” (Mireille Rosello, Infiltrating Culture: Power and Identity in Contemporary Women’s Writing).
Her choice of the sonnet as poetic format was not dictated purely by her personal preferences. Yes, she read Dante and the great sonneteer Petrarch, and was particularly fond of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which she emulated in the last six of her published sonnets, but most of all, she was aware of the disadvantages of her sex and prejudices towards female writers. “Perfecting the sonnet form may have been one step more toward earning the “gloire” she sought as a serious poet, who relied on her skills as a writer to compensate for the perceived weakness of her sex. She even went so far as to hide her gender by having her first two books published under the genderless pseudonym “R. Vivien”. Also, she signed the cards included in the copies destined for critics with the masculine form of her name, “Rene Vivien”. … Vivien’s readers were confused by her unconventional combination of gender and genre, and some of them wrongly assumed that the love poems inspired by Natalie Barney were written by a man to his mistress. The two women actually attended a public “misreading” of Vivien’s poetry incognito, and according to Barney’s account, were forced to stifle their giggles at the lecturer’s mistake. Conditioned by conventional gender roles, her readers’ reactions may have seemed funny and even complimentary to Vivien at first, but it eventually became a real concern for the increasingly paranoid and depressed poet”. (Engelking)
It seems that what initially appeared to be her personal weapon against biased male criticism, eventually became the cause of even deeper suppression. By choosing a typically ‘masculine’ form of poetry, Vivien made it impossible for herself to be heard as a woman.
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.