‘A Crown of Violets’ by Renée Vivien, translated by Samantha Pious
Author: Julie R. Enszer
December 24, 2017
Renée Vivien’s famous poem “Amazon,” or “Amazone” in French, plays on the powerful warrior image of Amazons, opening with the line “The Amazon smiles above the ruins, while / The sun, weary of warfare, sinks to rest.” This Amazon “loves only lovers who offer her their mad / Wild agony and their fierce, proud fall[.]” She scorns “honeyed, watery caresses” and does not like “lukewarm lips.” To contemporary readers, these lines may conjure Wonder Woman, recently embodied by Gal Gadot. For lesbian readers, “Amazon” contributes to the mythology of a time when powerful warrior women thrived. The sun may be weary of war, but the Amazon smiles, ready for more. If the Amazon is a vital part of lesbian mythology, Renée Vivien, the early twentieth century writer and poet, is a vital part of the lesbian literary tradition, discovered and reinvented generationally by bookish lesbians reading to imagine their lives.
Samantha Pious is the newest translator to remind lesbian readers of what Vivien’s poetry can offer. A Crown of Violets, published by Headmistress Press, expands the original chapbook-length collection of translations into a book-length series and presents Pious’s new translations of Vivien’s poems next to the original poems in French. This arrangement invites even readers like me who have never studied French to consider questions of translation. For example, the poem “Amazon” ends with these two lines in French, “Se penche avec ardeur sur le spasme supreme, / Plus terrible et plus beau que le spasme d’amore.” Pious translates these lines as “The raspy, ghastly gasp—the final spasm— / More fearful and more fair than that of love.” I marvel at the sibilance in the penultimate line and vocalized it while I read it. Pious captures oral and bodily engagements of the poem. Yet, I paused with the final four words and compared them to the French. Again, I am neither a French speaker nor reader, but spasme d’amore appears so much richer, dare I even say thicker, than love. I felt Pious drawing me in not only to the poems of Vivien but also to her adopted tongue.
Amazons are chimerical, existing in the imaginations of many beginning with the Greeks and extending outward. Renée Vivien is paradoxical, a real woman who lived and wrote and is remembered as both, in Pious’s words, “the tragic suicidal lesbian lover of the witty, wealthy salon hostess Natalie Clifford Barney, and as an eccentric Englishwoman who insisted on writing verses in French.” The reality of Vivien is much more complex—a complexity Pious hopes to open with these new translations.
Renée Vivien was the poet’s adopted name. She was born Pauline Tarn in 1877. In the 1979 edition of her poetry, At the Sweet Hour of Hand in Hand, a chronology of Vivien’s life lists her birthplace as Hawaii. Her mother was American; her father was British. By the time she was twenty, she adopted a new name, a new country, and a new life as a Sapphist living in Paris and for a brief period the lover of another expatriate, Natalie Clifford Barney. These facts comprise a story that adheres to Vivien over the twentieth century as lesbians discover and rediscover the literary circles and salons of American and British women living in Paris from the early part of the twentieth century through the 1920s.
Vivien’s poems offer enticing ideas for lesbians across decades to understand their own lives. In “Words to My Love,” Vivien describes the drama of coming out in these two stanzas (recognizing of course that “coming out” is a term coined many years after Vivien’s death):
The hyacinth was bleeding on the scarlet glen,
You dreamt, while Love went walking by your side . . .
Women have no right to beauty. I’d
Been banished to the ugliness of men.
And I had the terrible audacity to yearn
For sister-love, of bright, white, pure light,
The gentle voice uniting with the night,
The furtive step that doesn’t break the fern.
Later in the poem, Vivien writes about transgressing “the vile law” and begs the reader to
judge my love, which knows no evil will,
As honest, as essential, and as fatal still
As any man’s desire for his mistress.
The poem ends with these two stanzas, which look to friendship and a celestial display as offering solace from judgment and fear.
Let’s leave them to their impure moralities,
For dawn is gold as honey and as bright,
And unembittered days, and better nights
Will come, the friends who put our minds at ease . . .
Let’s watch the brightness of the stars above. . .
What matters it, to us, man’s judgment from afar?
And what have we to fear, knowing that we are
Pure in this life and knowing that we love.
Vivien’s appeals to hope and purity and the rightness of love between women offer comfort to lesbian readers, now for over a decade. How women find these words, originally published in French, in the United States is a longer story of lesbian readers, and writers, and publishers. The indomitable Barbara Grier plays an important role in the story. Thanks in part to Joann Passet’s biography of Barbara Grier, when I pick up a Naiad Press book—or a book with an even invisible embossing from Naiad Press as A Crown of Violets has for reasons I explain shortly, I often imagine a Barbara Grier in the year of the original publication of the book barking at me as a reader about how good this book is, how important it is, why I should buy it, read it, tell others about it. For this reason, the poems of Renée Vivien are in my imaginary bound with Barbara Grier. Vivien’s work also operates as a touchstone to think about lesbian literary traditions, what they are, how to build them, how they grow over time, and how new generations discover and rediscover lesbian writers. The new collection of Renée Vivien poems, A Crown of Violets, translated anew by a young poet and scholar is a palimpsest of these engagements.
The occasion of Pious’s translation of Renée Viven’s poetry, A Crown of Violets, drove me back to the earlier editions of Vivien’s work from feminist presses. Barbara Grier published her first edition of Vivien’s work in the United States through Naiad Press in 1976. A Woman Appeared to Me is a novella originally published in French in 1904. Jeannette H. Foster provided the translation of the work for Naiad in 1976, twenty years after her defining work, Sex Variant Women in Literature. Grier published three other editions of Vivien’s work: a reprint of A Woman Appeared to Me in 1979, The Muse of the Violets: Poems, translated by Margaret Porter and Catharine Kroger, in 1977, and At the Sweet Hour of Hand in Hand, translated by Sandia Belgrade, in 1979.
For A Woman Appeared to Me, one of the very early books from Naiad Press, Grier enlisted her friend and correspondent Gayle Rubin to write the introduction. Rubin was living in Ann Arbor at the time and a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Michigan. Various histories of lesbian-feminism, including the women of the interwar period in France, had her attention at the time. One lovely aspect of her introduction to A Woman Appeared to Me (in addition to the usual sorts of engagements with brilliance that all Rubin essays provide) is her engagements with sex, desire, and polyamory in the lives of Vivien and Barney.
From the beginning of the affair [with Natalie Barney], Renee was both exhilarated and terrorized by its carnality and its power. Natalie was the incarnation of her dreams, a lover who could inspire an incinerating passion. But Renee was conflicted about such passion. She had a curious kind of chastity, both emotional and physical. Her chaste love for Violet seemed to embody for Renee a passion untouched by impurity.
When Natalie met Renee, she thought her own lust paganism would give Renee more of an interest in life. While Renee was coping with Natalie’s vitality, which both attracted and hurt her, the drama of Violet’s death heightened the polarity she already felt. Renee thought that Natalie—and sex—were responsible for the unforgivable lapse in her friendship with Violet.
In this essay, Rubin speaks to a world where lesbians wanted to read a history of their bodies and their desires for other women. Barbara Grier was more than willing to provide for such desires through the books that she published, and Rubin proved to be an important guide for lesbian readers. She continues with this description of the relationship between Barney and Vivien:
The most acute issue in the relationship, and the one around which all other conflicts crystallized was monogamy. I cannot do justice here to Natalie’s complex theories about sex roles and erotic relationships. Suffice it to say that Natalie evolved a critique of the sex roles which included a critique of the structure of erotic emotion. She felt that the sex roles hurt each person by dictating the suppression of the personality traits assigned to the other sex. She also thought that erotic relationships drew their structure from this artificial division of the sexes, such that each individual sought its missing wholeness in the other. Natalie felt that the emotions of jealousy, possessiveness, and exclusivity derived from this sexual system, which she also held to be responsible for women’s secondary status. Natalie maintained that a relationship should be based on mutual independence, rather than on dependence, and that love should never be constrained by fidelity. Fidelity, she thought, meant that love and desire were dead.
Vivien on the other hand, according to Rubin, believed that “love was forever and love meant fidelity.” Lesbian readers with a variety of views on love and sex and fidelity could find different forms of validation in the poems of Vivien and the stories of lesbians living in France during the interwar period.
In this introduction by Rubin, readers can see Rubin working out her own thinking about sex roles and sexuality. She deftly maps the twists and turns in her intellectual engagements in the introduction to Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader. Notably, Rubin writes that she agrees with her critic Elaine Marks who much later challenges Rubin for “failing to recognize the pervasive racism and anti-Semitism of the world Vivien and Natalie Barney inhabited” (17). These realities of the Parisian circle are important to acknowledge, particularly with grappling with the idea of a lesbian literary canon. Such a project, like all canonical projects, is marked with the challenges of, in Rubin’s words, “historically specific concatenation of same-sex desires, gender variability, forms of identity, and institutional repertoires” (18). And yet. Mindful of Rubin’s work and conclusions, the desire for a canon, for a way to reach back and read back about lesbian lives, persists.
Gayle Rubin was not the only prominent lesbian, feminist critic to engage Vivien. Karla Jay and Yvonne M. Klein translated short stories by Vivien, published in 1983 as The Woman of the Wolf and Other Stories by The Gay Presses of New York. Jay and Klein, publishing seven years later than Rubin and into a changing lesbian-feminist scene, explicitly acknowledge the “limitations” of Vivien in their introduction. They appreciate Vivien’s work but note that she “displays many of the limitations of her class and situation,” including elitism, suspicions about sexuality, racism and anti-Semitism. In spite of this, Jay and Klein note that Vivien finds “radically different alternatives to the deceptively familiar myth or adventure story.”
It is the radically different alternatives that Vivien imagines that make her worthy of a return in spite of the challenges she presents to contemporary readers. While her imagination did not transcend elitism, racism, anti-Semitism, classism, and other issues, it did challenge sexism and seek to carve out a space for love between women. This work is evident in the poems of A Crown of Violets and in Vivien’s other work, including the short stories translated by Jay and Klein.
Still, Vivien is hardly a figure to situate singularly or exclusively at a center of a lesbian literary tradition; such a positioning would privilege class position and whiteness in a way that doesn’t represent the vast array of lesbian and queer women readers today—or even in the 1970s when Grier was publishing Vivien or even at the beginning of the century when Vivien was writing! In some ways the return of Vivien to our literary attentions today reflects the powerful hegemonic forces that shape our cultural attentions. Rather than despairing about these forces, however, perhaps the return of attention to Vivien through Pious’s translation will serve as a reminder that other writers in the lesbian literary lineage deserve reengagement. The remedy to critiques of elitism and racism and anti-Semitism is to recover more and engage more with the past. It is time for new generations to read and grapple with Amy Levy, Angelina Weld Grimké, Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, Jo Sinclair (Ruth Seid), Lorraine Hansberry, and many others. Hopefully, A Crown of Violets will prompt those reengagements.
These historical engagements with A Crown of Violets plot how readers might engage with lesbian literary traditions. They seek to make visible the history that Pious documents in two pages of “Further Reading” at the end of the collection. While always envisioning a future, writers also return again and again to real and imagined pasts.
Knowing more of the contours of the lesbian literary past enables us to ask new questions. What kinds of work does the interest of lesbians in Sappho—and Renée Vivien—do at different historical moments? How does interest in Vivien and Sappho today illuminate our own historical moment? For that reason, I wanted more analysis and context with this new translation of Vivien. What does it mean for lesbians today, in the high teens of the twenty-first century, to return to the work of a woman living in France at the turn of the twentieth century? Why Vivien and not other women French-language writers? What does Vivien offer us today? These musings, this wish for knowledge is, like many of my questions about books and writers, extratextual. Important, but outside of the book.
Inside A Crown of Violets, readers will find pleasure. Pleasure comes from the poems themselves, from spending time with them, from reading and voicing them. To tantalize, let me conclude with two close readings of the final two poems of A Crown of Violets.
The penultimate poem in Pious’s translation is “For One.” It opens with an epigraph of Sappho’s iconic lines:
Someone, I think, will remember us
in the days to come.
There is the line that makes lesbians’ pine for a past. Even when educated through reading expansively across decades and cultures, even after experiencing some futility of finding a lesbian past (the losses, the erasure, the women so like us and so different), even after reconciling to the contingent nature of sexuality as articulated by Rubin and Weeks and D’Emilio and Rupp, that line, Someone will remember us / in the days to come echoes, inspires us with desire. Vivien knew it when she invoked it in her poem. Pious knew it when she translated Vivien’s words.
The four quatrains of “For One” wrap the desire for a lesbian past in the myths of Sappho, in the passing of the days, and in the changing of the seasons. Pious’s translation opens with this stanza:
In the future gray as an uncertain dawn,
Someone, I think, will remember us,
While autumn burns above the amber fields
With eyes of rust.
Vivien wraps the Sapphic line in the images of an uncertain future and autumn, the time when the glory of summer has past an in front is “the winter and the dark,” which she states two stanzas later. Yet mitigating this progression of time in days and seasons is desire. Desire “will remember us” as women and “bear the mystery / Of love and lust.”
Vivien then links lesbian (woman) desire to “the rippling in the olive trees,” and “seaspray” and finally, “the flower of the snow and of the sea.” Finally, Vivien concludes:
And, bidding shores and riversides farewell,
Beneath the sunlight’s somber, solemn glare,
She will know the sacred love of virgins,
Atthis, my Care.
Perhaps it is just me, but every time I hear Atthis, the lovely woman that Sappho loved, I also hear the lyrics of Maxine Feldman singing, not of the sacred love a virginal young woman, Atthis, but Angry Atthis. It is another reimagining of Sappho and Atthis in conversation with Pious and Vivien.
The final poem of A Crown of Violets is “Epitaph.” The poem consists of two quatrains with rhyme; Pious reproduces the structure in her English translation. Vivien imagines death as a release of the beauty and the thorniness of life as well as a time of sleep and a time to “dream of holy things.” Joy remains even after death for Vivien. Here is the final stanza:
Here, then, ravished in delight,
My soul lies, safe and sound, at rest,
Having, for the love of Death,
Absolved the crime—of Life.
Delight in the poems of Vivien, but grapple with the unruly, unjust world in which she lived—and we live.
A Crown of Violets
by Renee Vivien, translated by Samantha Pious
Paperback, 978-0692536919, 140 pp.