Making Renée Viven accessable to the English-speaking world
Pauline Tarn at 16
As Renée Vivien
As Paule Riversdale?
As Anne Boleyn
For some years now, I've been translating the work of the symbolist poet and writer, Pauline Tarn, known as Renée Vivien, from French into English.
Some of this has already been done in the '70s and '80's: A Woman Appeared to Me, At the Sweet Hour of Hand in Hand, The Woman of the Wolf, and a collection of poems selected from Vivien's extensive oeuvre, called The Muse of the Violets. I am most grateful to, and respectful of, the translators who have come before me: Jeanette Foster, Margaret Porter, Catherine Kroger, Sandia Belgrade, Karla Jay, and Yvonne M. Klein.
I became interested in her when I found an anthology of The Ladder at a yard sale which had compiled a list of historically important Lesbians, many of them writers. Her picture (the one above these paragraphs) captivated me immediately, and the caption read: Forgotten Lesbian Poet. The scant information given ended with an entreaty that her work be translated before it was too late.
I found and read all the translated volumes, and waited for the further translations which I was sure would follow. Living as I do in Toronto, Canada, her original books in French were unavailable to me then, since she had lived and worked in Paris, France. I waited in vain.
With the arrival of the internet, all that changed. Able at last to research Vivien properly, I found bookstores in Paris, France from whom I could order her original books, notably Les Amazones, run by Chantal Bigot (merci, Chantal!). At first I translated the work in order to better understand it, but then found I had a knack for it. I tried getting the poems to rhyme, and found I had a knack for that, too (at least I think I do). So, I became the one I had waited for.
Now I have translated, in a literal version, all the prose and poetic works she wrote under the name Renée Vivien, excluding the works already transposed into English by the group of aforementioned translators. With all due respect to them, I'm in the process of going over these works and re-translating them in my own way. A Woman Appeared to Me will be slightly different since I'm working from the second version, which was a little less harsh in its depiction of her first lover, Natalie Barney.
After this, all the originally rhyming poetry will be re-set in rhyme, keeping to the original rhythm as closely as is possible. Her first book, Etudes and Preludes, and the collection of poems taken from her pre-1907 work, Songs for My Shadow, have both been set into rhyme already. The prose work will published separately in volumes of its own.
I will keep posting the progression of the project, presenting examples as seems fitting. Keep scrolling down to read samples of current translations.
The writing published under the names Paule Riversdale and Hélène de Zuylen de Nyevelt, which were collaborations between Renée and her second lover Hélène (although some believe most or all of it was by Renée alone) will be translated next, and examples of this posted as well, for comparison.
- Melanie Davis
Renée Vivien in 1902
Who was Renée Vivien?
Pauline Mary Tarn was born on June 11, 1877 in Paddington, England to John and Mary Tarn; her father had inherited a fortune from the family merchant trade. They lived mainly in Paris, France until the death of her father in 1886, when Mary brought Pauline and her little sister Antoinette back to England.
Pauline, a highly strung, sensitive girl, was devastated by both the loss of her father and the loss of her country, for she considered herself French and hated what she felt to be the emotional coldness of England. It didn't help that her mother never gave her much affection, preferring her younger daughter. Isolated from childhood friends, Pauline withdrew into the world of literature, and began to envision for herself a future as a writer - in Paris! Her early poems and journals have been preserved, attesting to her remarkably precocious ambition and talent.
Life at home was difficult. She met a poet, Amédée Moullé, the father of a friend, and they began a correspondence. Inspired, she decided to become a poet also, but the friendship took an unexpected turn when the married, middle-aged Moullé proposed "marriage" to her! She was tempted by this dream of freedom, and actually ran away from home, but was caught and returned. Her mother, perhaps wanting to get her hands on Pauline's inheritance, tried to have her declared insane. Fortunately the court ruled in Pauline's favour: she was made a ward of the state and placed in lodgings until she came of age at 21... a situation which was safe but lonely.
With her inheritance came the ability to return to Paris and start over. She decided on the pen name Renée Vivien, symbolizing her rebirth, and moved into the family's previous apartment to focus on her writing, which would remain exclusively in French. She was reunited with her close girlhood friend, Violet Shillito, who introduced her to the American heiress Natalie Barney.
This was a turning point in Renée's life, for Natalie was a unique, strong-willed individual who struck Renée as being the harbinger of her destiny. The two fell deeply in love, but love meant very different things to each of them. Natalie, also in her 20s, had led a very different life, one of self-assurance and independance. She knew she was a confirmed Lesbian from an early age, and initiated Renée into her world, introducing her to the work of Sappho. But Renée was a romantic, and Natalie was polyamorous; Renée left for her own emotional preservation, but remained full of regret. Her writing practically bursts with works inspired by all aspects of their love and difficulties. For her part, Natalie never ceased pursuing Renée, hoping to win her back, and at times almost succeeding.
Compounding the rupture was the sudden illness and death of Violette Shillito; Renée had neglected their friendship in her preoccupation with Natalie, and was overwhelmed with guilt, blaming both herself and Natalie. This happened just as her first book, Études et Préludes, was being published, making complete enjoyment of her first success impossible.
In 1902, Renée met her next lover, Hélène de Zuylen de Nyevelt, a wealthy baroness. With Hélène, she found the maternal love that had eluded her all her life, but this was not a perfect situation either. Hélène was married with children, and their relationship had to be kept quiet. Still, Renée felt secure enough to continue her writing, and produced a staggering volume of work. They published books together under a pseudonym, Paul Riversdale, and also under Hélène's name.
In 1907, Hélène left Renée, who had not been faithful either, for another woman. Renée had been taking the opiate chloral hydrate since her teens for insomnia, and was addicted to the drug, which was by this time attacking her stomach, making eating difficult. She was further weakened by heavy alcohol use, deliberate fasting, and financial worries. She had always coped with her losses and disappointments throughout life by romanticizing death as a sort of deliverance, which made not caring for herself seem a valid choice. An unsuccessful suicide attempt by laudanum in 1908 left her partially paralyzed and easy prey for the pneumonia that took her on November 18, 1909, when she was just 32.
Her publishers made sure that most of the work left with them was published posthumously, and her total works list 17 volumes of poetry (not including compilations), and 16 volumes of prose, under her various pseudonyms. In addition, there are youthful poems, journals, and the usual bulky correspondence of a writer.
Renée Vivien's legacy is that she was expressing herself in a very narrow-minded time and place as a female thinker, and presenting her Lesbianism as one of many natural states that simply exist. She also reached back in time to the world of Sappho and other ancient female figures, building poems and stories based on their ideas and images, breathing her own experience into classical forms and fanciful visions.
In turn, her work provides a springboard for the future; she was unafraid to speak of her own despair, her sorrows, her perceptions of a world full of unjustice and cruelty, and her dreams for a better world. Like many other female writers and artists of the early 20th century, it has taken time for the world to catch up to her. She thought in particular of the women who would come after her and speaks directly to them.
A very good website on her was created by the poet Cristie Cyane, and can be viewed at: http://www.reneevivien.com/
Renée Vivien (our left) and Natalie Barney (one of her greatest inspirations)
To read more about Natalie Barney, visit:
One of the incredible covers by Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer
Some samples of my translations from ETUDES and PRELUDES:
Day no longer pierces, with proud arrow and lance,
Their hair tangles, dripping with the blood of the vines;
The youngest sings a song which calls to mind a wail:
The wine, where the sun of the season will persist,
To all in her, false gaiety brings weariness,
What she remembers are the kisses they forget...
In pleated robes, long and flowing
I dread that thrill, pearly and fresh;
To God, I feel my soul allies
But then, so white in my arms' bonds,
Spectral remorse still makes me dread, -
The light, in throes of agony, dies at your knee,
Come, with your unrouged lips that ignite my desires,
Yield up all your chagrin to eternal delight,
I will kiss your hands and your divine naked feet;
The flight of the fluttering bat
Have you never felt, just one time,
This is one of my translations from EVOCATIONS, reprinted in SONGS for MY SHADOW:
THE BLOCK OF MARBLE
I reposed in the massive flank of the mountain...
I slumbered. I resembled a star in the night,
Pure white in the depths of the extinguished shadow,
When you wrenched me out from the tranquil eternal,
I received the Statues's tired face, and the crowd
And now I exist as the proud victim of time,
I despise you, creator, whose too-austere thought
I who now exist as the proud victim of time.
Renée Vivien's portrait, in terracotta and marble, by August Rodin. The marble bust is now in the Louvre.
Prose Poems from VAGRANCIES:
I know not why this recollection forces the frequently closed door of my memory.
But the moon was so large, so magnificently powerful, that prodigious stalks of bamboo were seen rising beyond a pool, - which, beneath the moon, took on all the mystery of the sacred pools in the enclosure of a temple. And the immense moon gave to these prodigious stalks the appearance of a dream.
For some time, a melancholy old woman, who was beautiful and a professional musician, played tirelessly... I cannot render this feeling of eternity, of the Eternity which, formerly, seemed terrible to me, incomprehensible and deadly... This strange intuition glided in my veins, with the rhythm of three notes repeated indefinitely, with the Japanese night, with the visage of the melancholy old musician... And little by little, ... and little by little, my soul was appeased until there was a divine annihilation of death in the night...
THE WRATH OF THE SWAN
One day - the small island was green and peaceful, - I went walking at random, lost in admiration of the trees and the water. Very inoffensively, - on my faith in the face of the sky! - I went walking...
And, as I contemplated the water, - I, who love and adore it! - I saw emerge from a mass of reeds, a black swan, menacing...
He swung his overly long neck to and fro, with sinuous and nearly serpentine movements...
I recalled the power of those great wings which, the easiest thing in the world, can shatter your arms...
And his red beak hissed...
Very prudently, - and vulgarly, alas! - I beat a retreat...
But oh, black swan! in all your formidability, how much I love you in your indomitable beauty!
You defended your nest, which you had a perfectly good reason to... as I, who muse in silence... as I defend with relentlessness my dreams...
Prose Poems of FROM GREEN TO VIOLET:
THE SHOP OF IDEAS
In an old quarter of the city, I discovered a strange little boutique where no shop window and no signboard attracted attention, and in which no one haggled, nor watched those strolling by.
I entered. A man, of whom I could see nothing but a silhouette, so impenetrable was the shadow around us, appeared without a sound.
"What, in fact, do you sell here?", I demanded of him in the thoughtlessness of my surprise.
"Ideas", he replied to me, in a very simple tone.
He grasped a small box and, began to rummage around in the dust:
"Would you be an utopian, by chance? Pardon the indiscretion. Do you want ideas of peace and of universal happiness? They are not dear and I have many for sale at the moment. Take them, and you may have the whole lot for 2 fr.50."
And, before my gesture of refusal:
"Ah! you have sense: I do not guarantee their solidity. Now, here is a financial idea, but it is extremely rare and costly. I could not surrender it to you for less than three thousand francs."
"Devil! did I, three thousand francs, that's..."
He calmly interrupted me.
"An idea less new than this one has made the fortune of a founder of American trusts. I have not profited personally, because being too rich would bore me. I would lose my friends and the respect of the quarter."
Something like a reflection of gold shone between his fingers.
"Now if, like me, you despise opulence, or if, which is more probable, this idea seems too high priced for you, here is, at a very good value, the dream of a poet. Three sous, this is reasonable, don't you find?"
And he showed me a glimmer of rainbow imprisoned in a box of colours.
"Finally, as you appear to me to belong to the serious clientele, I propose to you (your countenance is creased with a grimace which should have been a smile) the magnificent idea of a libertine, all but made new, you know, and of an exceptional refinement. I would let you have it for a thousand francs. It is worth more, but this is so that you will return often to buy others from me. I truly have a collection without equal."
"Yes", I said, "but some of your merchandise seems to me to be well used."
"Ah!", he replied with pride, "these, like antique furniture, are justly the most appreciated by my clientele. But do you see nothing that can satisfy you?"
"I desire an idea that you can never sell me: an idea of my own."
A Scotsman, a friend from my childhood, showed me, one day, his collection of fishhooks.
"Look", he said to me, "this is a veritable museum. They are objets d'art, these fishhooks that you see. To entice the salmon which feed on flies in their iridescent flight, we invent light fishhooks, of gold, green, blue, and violet. Some of these are fashioned with pheasant feathers: and you know that the pheasant has all the magnificence of the peacock, augmented by the inexpressible grace of being wild. These fishhooks require patient workmanship and skillful ingenuity."
I regarded these strange jewels of torture and death. They were very beautiful in effect, brilliant like glory, glittering like love.
"And", continued my interlocutor, "the salmon who believe themselves to be seizing the rainbow and opal wings of wandering flies, feel their throat lacerated implacably by the steel hook. It is beautiful in its struggles, it is prey to the Enemy."
As I leaned over the jewels of torture and death:
"What do you think of my collection?", my friend the Scotsman asked me.
"- I think", I said to him, "that the Bible (which I have heard you squander in such copious quotations) has not lied, and that truly God has created man in his own image."
I HAVE RUINED MY HEART
I have ruined my heart, devastated my soul
I have looked endlessly for your gaze in strange eyes,
O form so fugitive, O pallor so perfumed,
As far as I'm able to tell, this is a complete list of works by Pauline Mary Tarn under all her pseudonyms.
Published under the name of Renée Vivien:
1901 - Études et Préludes - Poetry inspired by her relationship with Natalie Barney, mingled with neoclassical references, plus early works. Cover art by Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer. Revised in 1903.
1902 - Cendres et Poussières (Ashes and Dust) - Poetry based on Natalie, the death of her childhood friend Violet Shilleto, and increasing neoclassicism, invoking Sappho: whose more accurate name, she discovered, is Psappha. Cover by Lévy-Dhurmer. Revised in 1903.
1902 - Brumes de Fjords (Fog of the Fjords) - Poems in prose; short allegorical tales, almost like fairy-tales.
1903 - La Dame à la Louve (The Woman of the Wolf) - Short stories. Cover by Lévy-Dhurmer. Translated into English in 1983 by Karla Jay and Yvonne M. Klein. The title story was filmed in the 1990s by Greta Schiller of Jezebel Productions.
1903 - Évocations - Poetry and a short play further invoking the spirit of Psappha and the ancient world, combined with further explorations of her feelings regarding Natalie,Violet, her next lover Hélène, and diverse otherworldly subjects. A lengthy book, revised in 1905. Cover by Lévy-Dhurmer.
1903 - Une Femme m'apparut (A Woman Appeared to Me) - A symbolist novel based on her romance with Natalie and involving characters from their circle, tempered by an allegorical androgynous figure, San Giovanni. Cover and an illustration of Vivien's poem Our Lady of the Fevers by Lévy-Dhurmer, a reproduction of John the Baptist by Leonardo Da Vinci, and musical notations from various composers at the beginning of each chapter, to set the mood. Revised in 1905, with less harshness towards Natalie. First version translated into English in 1976 by Jeanette Foster.
1903 - La Vénus des Aveugles (The Venus of the Blind) - Poems based on further neoclassical studies and her travels. Perhaps her darkest, most "decadent" book. Cover by Lévy-Dhurmer.
1903 - Du vert au violet (From Green to Violet) - Allegorical fairy-tale poems in prose which further explore her views on the nature of humanity, love and death.
1903 - Sapho - A biography of Psappha, followed by the Sapphic fragments translated from Greek into French, and accompanied by poems inspired by Psappha's work. Cover by Lévy-Dhurmer.
1904 - Les Kitharèdes (The Kitharedes) - Fragments from the Greek Anthology by female poets, translated into French with accompanying poems expanding on the fragments. The title refers to a type of ancient harp, the Kithara. Cover and illustrations of the various Greek authors, based on friends of Vivien, by Lévy-Dhurmer.
1906 - A l'Heure des Mains jointes (At the Sweet Hour of Hand in Hand) - Poetry furthering explorations of her emotional life, studies, and travels. A note of bitterness regarding the world's reception of her work's candor seems to anticipate the negative reaction from critics of this volume, which led to the start of her breakdown. Cover by Lévy-Dhurmer.
1907 - Le Christ, Aphrodite, et M. Pepin - Two articles of satire, both written as journalistic reports, concerning how the second coming of Christ and the appearance of Aphrodite on the banks of the Seine would have been treated by newspapers of the time.
1907 - Flambeaux éteints (Extinguished Torches) - A short volume of love poetry, some of it inspired by her long-distance lover Kerime Turkan-Pacha.
1908 - L'Album de Sylvestre - A collection of aphorisms by fictional characters, seemingly a satire after the style of Natalie Barney.
1908 - Sillages (Wakes) - Poetry of an increasingly personal nature, with touches of the despair that culminate in Tatters. Also a play about Psappha and her followers.
1909 - Poèmes - A collection of 63 poems from previous works. In 1977, a selection of poems was translated under the title of The Muse of the Violets by Margaret Porter and Catherine Kroger, introduced by an article written for the Mercure de France by Louise Faure-Favier, and translated by Jeanette Foster.
1909 - Poèms en Prose - Four prose poems taken from Brumes de Fjords, which are alternate versions.
1909 - Sapho et Huit Poétesses Grecques (Sappho and Eight Greek Female Poets) - Presumably Sappho and The Kitharedes published together, anonymously. I haven't yet seen this book.
Nov. 18, 1909 - The death of Renée Vivien from pnemonia, probably exacerbated by at least one suicide attempt, voluntary fasting and years of alcohol, chloral hydrate, and laudanum abuse. The following works were all published posthumously under the name Renée Viven.
1909 - Le Vent des Vaisseaux (The Wind of the Ships) - Poetry based on her travels by ship and the demons which plague an author.
1910 - Dans un Coin de Violettes (In a Patch of Violets) - A small volume of poetry inspired by Violet and Kerime.
1910 - Haillons (Tatters) - A volume of poetry filled with pain and despair, ending with the verse which is engraved on Vivien's tomb.
1917 - Vagabondages (Vagrancies) - Poems in prose, possibly her last completed work. Short allegorical vignettes which reveal the changes taken place in her psyche as she struggles to find hope and meaning in a life filled with emotional turmoil.
1923, 1924 - Poèmes de Renée Viven, vols. 1 & 2 - Vivien's 12 volumes of poetry were bound in a 2-volume set. Reprinted in 1934 as Poèsies Complètes de Renée Vivien.
1982 - Anne Boleyn - Vivien's unfinished biography of Anne Boleyn, presented by her most understanding biographer, Jean-Paul Goujon. His 1986 French biography of her, Tes blessures sont plus douces que leurs caresses: Vie de Renée Vivien (Your Wounds are Gentler Than Their Caresses: Life of Renée Vivien) is highly recommended.
1982 - Le Jardin Turc (The Turkish Garden) - 10 letters by Vivien to Kerimé Turkan-Pacha, an admirer from Constantinople who became a long-distance lover while Renée was with Hélène. Reprinted in 1998 as Letters de Renée Vivien à Kerimé.
1983 - Correspondances Croisées (Crossed Correspondances) - Some of the letters between Renée and Natalie Barney.
There exist several poems written at various times which have yet to be published.
These are available to view at Cristie Cyane's site: http://www.reneevivien.com/retrouves.html
and have been included in my translations.
Published under the name of Pauline Tarn:
1894 onwards - Poèmes de Jeunesse - Youthful poems and a letter to her teacher, Jean Charles-Brun, reprinted in the magazine Création. Charles-Brun became her paid advisor and editor as well as a close friend, and his contribution to her work cannot be underestimated. He wrote a book on her, simply called Renée Vivien, which I am currently translating, that deals primarily with her methods of writing.
1907 - Chansons Pour Mon Ombre (Songs for My Shadow) - A selection of 27 poems chosen by Vivien. The title was taken from a poem in La Vénus des Aveugles.
1909 - Vers à Marie (Verses for Mary) - Poetry. According to Jean-Paul Goujon, no examples of this have yet been found.
1909 - Pour My Soer (For my Sister) - A poem written in the last year of her life to her sister Antoinette, explaining her distance.
1912 - The One Black Swan - Prose poems, in English. As I have not yet found a copy of this, I don't know if these are reprints of previous prose poems translated into English, or new work. I suspect the former; I know she wanted to combine Fog of the Fjords with From Green to Violet, and this may be the result.
Published under the name of Paule Riversdale:
(Renée Vivien & Hélène de Zuylen de Nyevelt in collaboration)
1903 - Échos et Reflets (Echoes and Reflections) - Poetry. Cover by Lévy-Dhurmer.
1903 - Vers L'Amour (To Love) - Poetry.
1904 - L'Etre Double (The Double Being) - A novel on androgyny. Cover by Lévy-Dhurmer.
1904 - Netsuké - A Japanese-themed novel.
Published under the name of Hélène de Zuylen de Nyevelt:
(attributed at least in part to Vivien)
1904 - Effeuillements (Falling Leaves) - Poetry.
1905 - Copeaux (Chips) - A large volume of prose poems, stories and plays.
1905 - L'Impossible Sincérité (Impossible Sincerity)- A play.
1907 - Comédie dans un Jardin (Comedy in a Garden) - A play.
1907 - Le Chemin du Souvenir (The Path of Memory) - A play.
1910 - L'Inoublée (The Unforgotten) - A series of short stories in tribute to Vivien.
Published under the name of Hélène de Zuylen de Nyevelt:
(believed to be her work alone)
1906 - La Mascarade Interrompue (The Interrupted Mascarade) - A play.
1908 - Béryl - A play, which furthers the intrigues of L'Impossible Sincérité.
1912 - La Dernière étreinte (The Last Embrace) - A novel.
1914 - L'Enjoleuse (The Coaxer) - A novel.
who was Hélène de Zuylen de Nyevelt?
She was born Hélène Betty Louise Caroline Rothschild, in Paris, 1863 and died in Lisbon on the 17th of October in 1947.
Hélène was the daughter of Salomon James de Rothschild (1835-1864) and Adèle von Rothschild (1843-1922). She married Etienne van Zuylen de Nyevelt (1860-1934) in 1887 and they had two children.
In late 1901, she and Renée met, when Renée's tempestuous relationship with Natalie Barney had reached its' crisis point. Hélène was able to provide the stability Renée needed in order to apply herself to her writing. Not much is known definitively about the details of their life together. I have run across gossip which implies that Hélène was involved in S & M, and "corrupted" Renée, but have not been able to verify this. Hélène remains a shadowy figure, often skimmed over by biographers, but she had a pivotal role in Vivien's life. Without her support, would Renée have been able to produce the massive volume of writing that she did? It's difficult to determine how much each of them contributed to their collaborations; even scholars tend to disagree on this.
It was hard for Natalie to believe that Renée would choose Hélène over her. She tried, for the rest of Renée's life, to rekindle their love. In fact, Natalie was never far from Renée's thoughts; much of her writing is filled with images of her. Hélène doesn't seem to have tried to exorcise Natalie's ghost from Renée's work - the only line she seems to have drawn was at expressions of extreme melancholy, such as I Have Ruined My Heart, which were not included in Vivien's compiled volumes.
The Paule Riversdale poetry is much like that of Vivien's, but the poetry under Hélène's name has a certain sardonic edge to it, and its broader range of subject matter includes sarcastic jabs at the people who pine over the past (eg. The Black Poppy) - a main feature of Vivien's oeuvre. The short stories depict, predominatly, situations involving heterosexual couples. One short story, published in a magazine under Vivien's name as The Vegetable Garden, was completely done over in The Unforgotten, Hélène's tribute volume, which came out the year after Renée's death. Told in the manner of Edgar Allan Poe, it even includes a quote from him below the title. It remains the same tale, but the poetic charm of Vivien ("the blood radiated in my veins") is gone. I may post the two for comparison at a later date.
For now, I'm posting the title story of The Unforgotten, which is languid with what seems to be the essense of Renée Vivien - and yet the main character seems to be a portrait of Vivien herself, on her deathbed!
by Helene de Zuylen de Nyevelt & Renee Vivien
Death lies on her like an untimely frost
She was dying. Her face, strange and pale, with large eyes already veiled, lay nestled in her black, dishevelled hair.
Have pity on the evil from my lips
Her husband kept his promise.
With a minutiae nearly unhealthy, he attended feverishly to what had been her room, respecting the place of each object.
"And I will return, among the objects impregnated
They had passed the last Christmas so happily together! Through his tears, he believed she would return, with her large violet eyes, encircled with blackish-brown, and her mouth of a child, with the youthful smile.
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Deep in the gleaming glass
They had returned and were permanently established. At the end of an evening in December, a continual, plaintive rain wove a grey veil in the windows. The melancholy of the weather gained on them.
"You remember, dear one,
Nadia seized this opportunity to say: "Do you remember your promise? The one that you made to me on the train, to grant my first wish?"
Some days later, they crossed the threshold of the house, cold and sad like an abandoned pond.
It was Lynne clinging to his lips, as on that Christmas Eve...
The portrait of Renée Vivien by Alice Pike Barney, Natalie's mother.