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Renée Vivien
Sappho’s first lesbian translator

In 1877 Pauline Tarn was born in London to British and American parents. She was schooled and spent much of her childhood in France, and began writing verses in French aged 10; at 16 years old she pronounced poetry her vocation. ‘Elle [la poesie] peut elever, elle peut encourager, elle peut montrer le vrai et denoncer le faux… Elle a un grand role a jouer dans l’Univers…’ (Qtd. by Goujon; Engelking). Here, in her personal diary years later, we glimpse the deep feeling and sense of purpose poetry inspired in Tarn throughout her life and, more poignantly, the way she reclaimed poetry for women: She [poetry] can uplift, she can inspire, she can reveal the truth and denounce the false… she has a great role to play in the Universe…

In 1900, the British-American Francophile received an inheritance which enabled her to immigrate to France as a financially independent woman. She experienced a renaissance, adopting the pointed pseudonym Renée Vivien (Re-née; ‘rebirth’), dressing in men’s clothes, and embarking on a passionate affair with her first lover, the salonièrre, playwright, novelist and poet Natalie Clifford Barney, who would later form the Académie des Femmes in response to Paris’ prestigious all-male French Academy. Barney, a formidable intellect and openly lesbian writer, rejected monogamy and was known as the Amazon of Paris; in Greek mythology, the Amazon warriors lived in exclusively female society and matched their male rivals in strength and skill.

Portrait studio photograph of Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien in Directoire-era costume

Vivien and Barney’s partnership was creatively bountiful and romantically tumultuous. They soon uncovered a deeply felt and shared appreciation of Sappho, the 6th-century lyric poet from Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, Greece, whose poems exist in mostly fragmentary form – much of it recovered on strips of papyrus during excavations in Egypt or else quoted by other authors. Approximately just 650 lines of Sappho’s work are extant today. Vivien and Barney both learnt ancient Greek to read her writing, which describes love, sensuality, longing and heartbreak between women without the prejudice that came to exist some millennia after she wrote. Vivien was the more committed student and, during what Tama Lea Engelking has coined her ‘prolific Sapphic phase’, produced the first ‘explicitly lesbian translation of Sappho’s poetry’ (Mendès-Leite). In 1903 its first edition was published. It features Sappho’s original Greek verses alongside Vivien’s direct translations and unique versification in French; its cover features a custom illustration by Symbolist and Art Nouveau artist Lucien Levy-Dhurmer.

Wide-ranging admiration of Sappho’s poetry has endured for thousands of years, but her influence on female and lesbian poets is particularly significant: ‘For the woman poet who experiences herself as inadequate or inadequately nurtured by a nonexistent or degraded literary matrilineage, for the lesbian poet who looks in vain for a native lesbian poetic tradition, Sappho is a very special precursor’ (Garber). Sappho’s status as foremother to women, lesbian and feminist writers is likewise attached to her continually high status, alongside men, in the poetic and literary canon. She was venerated in antiquity, and included by Hellenistic Alexandrian scholars among the most highly-esteemed Nine Lyric Poets. Virginia Woolf once observed, ‘perhaps in Lesbos, but never since have these conditions been the lot of women’ (Qtd. by Garber.); Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lesbos’ ‘presents the island as an unreachable ideal place, the counterpart to everything that is wrong with real women’s lives’ (Wilson, The Guardian). These writers were in awe of Sappho’s freer, more equal world.

Before Vivien reinstated Sappho as a lesbian poet, translations – written and published by men – had frequently muffled or censored her work; Vivien was ‘one of the first women writers to rewrite Western myths from an enlightened lesbian-feminist perspective’ (Marks). And, like Sappho, Vivien’s work impressed male writers and critics, then very much the gatekeepers of culture. She received high praise from an unlikely source: the well-known littérateur Charles Maurras, famously disdainful of non-native speakers and their ‘false Parisian polish’ (L’Avenir de l’Intelligence), who considered

Her use of the French language, whether in prose or in verse… remarkably fluid. There is neither impropriety in the choice of words nor a false note in the harmony of sounds. She knows that the mute e is responsible for the charm of our language. She plays with the eleven-syllable line of verse that Verlaine considered the most accomplished of all… (Qtd. by Marks).

His snobbery aside, it is unsurprising that Maurras’ expectations were defied by Vivien’s poetry and command of the French language: ‘The frequent letters Vivien exchanged with her assistant and editors concerning the minute details of her poems – some of which were literally written from her death bed – suggest how meticulous she was’ (Engelking).

In 1904, Vivien and Barney moved to Mytilene where Vivien purchased a house. They intended to establish a community for women poets in imitation of the academy Sappho once had on Lesbos. However, the couple’s volatile partnership led to their separation before their plans were fulfilled. In a tragic reflection of the legends surrounding Sappho’s own premature death, Vivien fell into a depression which manifested in anorexia and addiction, and she died aged just 32. In Vivien’s personal tragedy, ‘the intensity of [her] Sapphic passion presages a fall…’  (Gubar).

In 1951, French writer André Billy gave Vivien her final moniker: ‘Sapho 1900’. His words suggest her status as the lesbian poet of her time – a title hard-earned and well deserved.

Vivien’s Sapho features in our recent catalogue, a celebration of romantic love, in its ecstasy and anguish, expressed in the great stories and poetry from across the ages.