On this day: Renée Vivien – haunted by the desire for death


Renée Vivien June 11

Despite her French name and exclusively French poetry, Renée Vivien was English. Wealthy heiress Pauline Tarn moved to Paris at the age of 21 and adopted her pen name soon after. She was born June 11, 1877.

The strikingly melancholic poet wrote sonnets of Sapphic love. She also translated the poems of Sappho, the ancient Greek poet who gifted her name and that of her island home to same-sex female attraction. But there was always a sadness to Renée Vivien’s work. The American writer Natalie Clifford Barney (later the lover of painter Romaine Brooks) described the first poem she heard Renée recite as ‘haunted by the desire for death’.

There’s a wonderful 1966 video interview with Natalie Barney down below.

Renée Vivien was unlucky in love. Her long romantic — though non-sexual — relationship with childhood friend Violet Shillito ended when Renée left Violet for the aforementioned Natalie Clifford Barney. Violet’s death from typhoid the following year left Renée wracked with guilt.

The poet frequently used the words violet and purple in her poems thereafter. She surrounded herself with the colour, often dressing in it. Her attachment became the stuff of legend. After her death, one American newspaper reported that for months before she ingested naught but candied violets.

Baroness Hélène van Zuylen and Kérimé Turkhan Pasha

The relationship with Natalie Barney did not last. The English poet dreamed of a great monogamous romance while the American preferred a varied diet. Renée left Natalie for a discreet affair with the stupendously wealthy (and married) Baroness Hélène van Zuylen. She also enjoyed clandestine encounters with Kérimé Turkhan Pasha, wife of a Turkish diplomat who later served three terms as Prime Minister of Albania.

Despite conducting a passionate lesbian affair, the French-educated Kérimé remained a traditional Muslim wife. She wore the veil and refused to leave her husband. When he accepted an appointment in Russia, she could no longer continue her illicit affair with Renée.

The wealthy Baroness eventually abandoned Renée for another woman. The life of the already-troubled poet spiralled out of control. She barely ate and subsisted primarily on alcohol and drugs.

Natalie Barney wrote, “She could not be saved. Her life was a long suicide. Everything turned to dust and ashes in her hands.”

The failure to find the one true love she desired probably explains the brutality inherent in some of Renée’s poetry. Look for the bitter sting in the tail of Your Strange Hair.

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.

Read more English translations of Renée Vivien poems at Poem Hunter.

Renee died at the age of just 32, probably of anorexia, an eating disorder not yet recognised in her lifetime.

While I can share the facts of Renée Vivien’s life, I can’t really tell you about her. But Collette can. The legendary author was Renée’s neighbour, friend and sometime lover. She devoted a chapter of her 1932 book, The Pure and the Impure, to Renée. She paints an unforgettable word portrait of the woman she said said ‘never stopped claiming kinship with Lesbos’.

Best of all, The Pure and the Impure is available to read free online at the Internet Archive.

1966 interview with Natalie Clifford Barney

Read also: On this day June 10, Geneva’s state-sanctioned drowning of gay children.

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