Seeking transcendence: death, rebirth and transformation in the poetry of Renée Vivien (1877-1909)
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Renée Vivien, born Pauline Mary Tarn in England in 1877, moved to Paris at the age of twenty-one, where she pursued a literary career. Between 1901 and 1909, when she died at the age of thirty-two, Vivien published over thirty volumes of poetry, several short stories, translations of Sappho’s fragments, and a novel. Vivien chose to write exclusively in French, and her proficiency in that language is evidenced in her adherence to the strict conventions of French prosody. She was also a Classics scholar, and her knowledge of Greek facilitated her translation of Sappho into French. Vivien was a familiar member of the lesbian community of Paris, known as ‘Paris Tout Lesbos’. Paris at the turn of the century was known for its relaxed moral attitudes, and lesbianism was fashionable amongst the bohemian and literary circles of the Belle Époque. However, while these circles enjoyed sexual and cultural freedoms, an undercurrent of misogynistic and anti-feminist sentiment prevailed in French society. Such misogyny found expression in the medical discourse of the period and was articulated in literature and the popular press. Vivien’s poetry and prose, influenced by decadent and symbolist writing, challenged and subverted the androcentrism of these genres, confronting their anti-feminist/lesbian bias. Contemporaneous criticism of her work, focused on her image as a doomed and tragic lesbian, infamous for her hedonistic lifestyle, while modern critics pointed to her Decadent influences as an example of the anti-feminist aesthetic at play in her poetics. This thesis however aims through a close analysis of Vivien’s poetry to demonstrate the proto-feminist rhetoric of Vivien’s writing, and through the prism of the themes of death, rebirth and transformation, to reveal Vivien’s quest for transcendence.
Fin-de-siècle French poetry