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Reneé Vivien: I am drunk from so many roses redder than wine

11 Nov

These days I am swooning over the sensuous, dreamy and languid poetry by a French poetess born in England, a lesbian in love with death and flowers, a turn of the century Sappho: Reneé Vivien (1877-1909).

Maurice Denis, Portrait of Mlle Yvonne Lerolle in three poses, 1897

She was born on 11th June 1877 in Paddington, England, in a prosperous family. Her childhood was laced with coldness from her mother’s side and an inexplicable longing. Sensitive and introspective, as a teen she was introduced in the world of poetry through a correspondence with an older poet who was her father’s friend. At one point she ran away from home, but she quickly ran out of money on that quest and she was just about to throw herself in the Thames when she was caught and returned home. Still, by that point, she had made up her mind to be a poetess and as soon as she could she moved to Paris and changed her name to Reneé Vivien. Always a hopeless romantic, always bitterly disappointed by poly-amorous attitudes of her lovers. After many love affairs, loneliness and sadness remained, and her withered soul, yearning for raptures and delights, found relief in alcohol, deliberate fasting and a drug she was addicted to since she was a teen.

Her entire life she dreamed of death as a romantic escape from the dreariness and misery of this earthly existence. She particularly daydreamed of drowning just like the melancholy heroine Ophelia. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt by laudanum in 1908, when she stretched herself on a divan clutching a little bouquet of violets in her hand, she was weakened and pneumonia took her on the 18th November 1909. Violets were her favourite flower, and purple her favourite colour. Rich in visual imagery, rich in sounds, laced with longing and desire at once, intense and nocturnal, her verses make one imagine a lady from a Symbolist painting, strolling slowly in a garden, at night, dressed in a long loose white gown, her hair left down, caressed by the moonlight, inhaling the fragrance of midnight roses and white jasmine as her bosom invitingly rises and descends… Here are two of her poems that I particularly loved; “Undine” and “Chanson”:

***

Undine

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.

Reneé Vivien, born under the name Pauline Mary Tarn, below with her lover and muse Natalie Clifford Barney:

***

Chanson

The flight of the fluttering bat

Is tortuous, anguished, bizarre.

Then, beating her bruised wings thereat,

She turns, and looks back from afar.

 

Have you never felt, just one time,

How, drunken with painful defeat,

My soul, in a mad flight sublime,

Soared to your lips, distant but sweet?

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