June 11, 1877– Renée Vivien:
”I’ll adore you, as a drowned person does the sea.”
You kids know I love the obscure lesbian poets. This one is pretty good. And pretty.
Renée Vivien was a British poet who wrote in French. She was high-profile lesbian in the Belle Époque, as famous for her lifestyle as for her work. You probably know this sort of girl.
Most of her poems are autobiographical, reflecting a life of extreme hedonism, leading to early death.
Vivien was born in London as Pauline Mary Tarn, to a wealthy British father and an American mother. When she inherited her father’s fortune at 21-years-old, she emigrated permanently to Paris.
In Paris, Vivien’s dress and lifestyle were notorious among her bohemian circle. She lived lavishly and openly, especially about her love affair with American writer Natalie Clifford Barney. She also had a lifelong obsession with her childhood friend Violet Shillito, a relationship that remained unrequited. In 1900, Vivien abandoned this chaste love, when her great romance with Barney took place. In 1901, Shillito died of typhoid, a tragedy from which the guilt-ridden Vivien never recovered.
Vivien’s tempestuous, jealous relationship with Barney made their lives together difficult. Vivien found Barney’s infidelities to be just too, too much. Barney returned to the USA in 1902, but Vivien chose not to go with her. When Barney returned, Vivien refused to see her. They broke up, got back together again, and broke up again. After a final breakup, Barney never got over their separation. She sent mutual friends to Vivien to plead on her behalf, as well as gifts, flowers and letters begging Vivien to reconsider.
By 1904, Vivien became involved with the immensely wealthy Baroness Hélène van Zuylen, one of the Paris Rothschilds. A lesbian, Zuylen was married with two sons, yet she still provided much-needed support and stability for Vivien. Zuylen’s social position did not allow for her to be open about her queerness, but she and Vivien still traveled together and continued their discreet affair for years. Vivien considered herself to be married to the Baroness.
While still with Zuylen, Vivien received a fan letter from an admirer in Istanbul, Kérimé Turkhan Pasha, the wife of a Turkish diplomat. The two women began a passionate correspondence, followed by brief clandestine assignations. Kérimé was French-educated and worldly, but she still had to live according to Islamic tradition. Isolated and veiled, she was not free to travel.
Despite tasting the Turkish delights, Vivien just could not give up on Zuylen. But in 1907, Zuylen did give up on Vivien, taking up with another woman, which quickly fueled the gossip within the Parisian lesbian circle.
Vivien was terribly affected by the loss of both her lovers and spiraled into a life booze and cocaine. She got into S/M scenes and her sexual escapades left her spent for days. She plunged into despair, refusing to eat.
The great French writer Colette, also a lesbian, was Vivien’s friend and neighbor from 1907 to 1909. Colette immortalized Vivien in her novel The Pure And The Impure, written in the 1920s, but not published until 1932. Barney did not concur with Colette’s characterization of Vivien as a depraved drug addict.
Who knows? Vivien was certainly cultivated, especially for a woman of her era. She traveled to Egypt, China and the Middle East, as well as the USA. The things I have read about her, tell me she was beautiful and elegant, with blonde hair, brown eyes, and an androgynous persona.
Her luxurious ground-floor apartment at 23 Avenue Foch opened onto a celebrated Japanese garden. It was furnished with antiques and art from Asia, including statues, icons, and Buddhas.
Vivien romanticized death in her poems. At the start of 1909, deeply despondent and in debt, she tried to kill herself by overdosing on opium. She stretched out on her divan with a bouquet of violets held over her heart. The suicide failed, but she contracted pleurisy. She weighed about 70 lbs. By the summer 1909, she walked with a cane.
Vivien died in winter 1909; likely from pneumonia complicated by alcoholism, drug abuse, and anorexia. She is buried at Passy Cemetery in the same exclusive Parisian neighborhood where she had lived. Vivien was just 32-years-old when she left this world.
During her brief time in this incarnation, Vivien was an extremely prolific poet who was known as the “Muse of the Violets”, because of her love of the flower. Her obsession with violets, the flower and the color, was a reminder the greatest love of her life, her beloved childhood friend, Violet Shillito.
Vivien published her first two books under a masculine pseudonym in 1901 and 1902 then published her third book, Evocations, under her own name in 1903. In all her writing, she wrote unabashedly about being a lesbian. Most of her poems were about the women she loved and the oppression of men. Because of the homoerotic nature of her work, it was not translated to English and published in the USA until the 1970s.
Vivien uses nature to help her describe the beauty of the female form much like Walt Whitman did to describe the beauty of men. And, like Whitman, she was not coy about the pronouns used to describe her lovers.
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,
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 is 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
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
For more, check out the #QueerQuote by Natalie Barney here.