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Renée Vivien in modern English translations by Michael R. Burch

Renée Vivien, born Pauline Mary Tarn (1877-1909), was a British poet and high-profile lesbian of the Belle Époque who wrote French poems in the style of the Symbolistes and Parnassiens. A more detailed bio follows her poems.

by Renée Vivien
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

When the moon weeps,
illuminating flowers on the graves of the faithful,
my memories creep
back to you, wrapped in flightless wings.

It's getting late; soon we will sleep
(your eyes already half closed)
in the shimmering air.

O, the agony of burning roses:
your forehead discloses
a heavy despondency,
though your hair floats lightly ...

In the night sky the stars burn whitely
as the Goddess nightly
resurrects flowers that fear the sun
and die before dawn ...

For explanations of how he translates and why he calls his results "loose translations" and "interpretations" please click here: Michael R. Burch Translation Methods and Credits to Other Translators

by Renée Vivien
loose translation/interpretation by Kim Cherub (an alias of Michael R. Burch)

Your laughter startles, your caresses rake.
Your cold kisses love the evil they do.
Your eyes—blue lotuses drifting on a lake.
Lilies are less pallid than your face.

You move like water parting.
Your hair falls in rootlike tangles.
Your words like treacherous rapids rise.
Your arms, flexible as reeds, strangle,

Choking me like tubular river reeds.
I shiver in their enlacing embrace.
Drowning without an illuminating moon,
I vanish without a trace,
lost in a nightly swoon.


Ton rire est clair, ta caresse est profonde,
Tes froids baisers aiment le mal qu'ils font;
Tes yeux sont bleus comme un lotus sur l'onde,
Et les lys d'eau sont moins purs que ton front.

Ta forme fuit, ta démarche est fluide,
Et tes cheveux sont de légers roseaux;
Ta voix ruisselle ainsi qu'un flot perfide;
Tes souples bras sont pareils aux roseaux,

Aux longs roseaux des fleuves, dont l'étreinte
Enlace, étouffe, étrangle savamment,
Au fond des flots, une agonie éteint
Dans un nocturne évanouissement.

by Renée Vivien
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

the Amazon smiles above the ruins
while the sun, wearied by its struggles, droops to sleep.
murder’s aroma swells Her nostrils;
She exults in blood, death’s inscrutable lover.

She loves lovers who intoxicate Her
with their wild agonies and proud demises.
She despises the cloying honey of feminine caresses;
cups empty of horror fail to satisfy Her.

Her desire, falling cruelly on some wan mouth
from which she rips out the unrequited kiss,
awaits ardently lust’s supreme spasm,
more beautiful and more terrible than the spasm of love.

NOTE: The French poem has “coups” and I considered various words – “cuts,” “coups,” “coups counted,” etc. – but I thought because of “intoxicate” and “honey” that “cups” worked best in English.

L’Amazone sourit au dessus des ruines,
Tandis que le soleil, las des luttes, s’endort.
La volupté du meurtre a gonflé ses narines:
Elle exulte, amoureuse étrange de la mort.

Elle aime les amants qui lui donnent l’ivresse
De leur fauve agonie et de leur fier trépas,
Et, méprisant le miel de la mièvre caresse,
Les coupes sans horreur ne la contentent pas.

Son désir, défaillant sur quelque bouche blème,
Dont il sait arracher le baiser sans retour,
Se penche avec ardeur sur le spasme suprême,
Plus terrible et plus beau que le spasme d’amour.

“Nous nous sommes assises” (“We Sat Down”)
by Renée Vivien
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Darling, we were like two exiles
bearing our desolate souls within us.

Dawn broke more revolting than any illness...

Neither of us knew the native language
As we wandered the streets like strangers.
The morning’s stench, so oppressive!

Yet you shone like the sunrise of hope...


As night fell, we sat down,
Your drab dress grey as any evening,
To feel the friendly freshness of kisses.

No longer alone in the universe,
We exchanged lovely verses with languor.

Darling, we dallied, without quite daring to believe,
And I told you: “The evening is far more beautiful than the dawn.”

You nudged me with your forehead, then gave me your hands,
And I no longer feared uncertain tomorrows.

The sunset sashayed off with its splendid insolence,
But no voice dared disturb our silence...

I forgot the houses and their inhospitality...

The sunset dyed my mourning attire purple.

Then I told you, kissing your half-closed eyelids:
“Violets are more beautiful than roses.”

Darkness overwhelmed the horizon...

Harmonious sobs surrounded us...

A strange languor subdued the strident city.

Thus we savored the enigmatic hour.

Slowly death erased all light and noise,
Then I knew the august face of the night.

You let the last veils slip to your naked feet...
Then your body appeared even nobler to me, dimly lit by the stars.

Finally came the appeasement of rest, of returning to ourselves...
And I told you: “Here is the height of love…”

We who had come carrying our desolate souls within us,
like two exiles, like complete strangers.

"Nous nous sommes assises" by Renée Vivien from the collection Recueil: "À l'heure des mains jointes"

Ma douce, nous étions comme deux exilées,
Et nous portions en nous nos âmes désolées.
L’air de l’aurore était plus lancinant qu’un mal…
Nul ne savait parler le langage natal…
Alors que nous errions parmi les étrangères,
Les odeurs du matin ne semblaient plus légères.
Lorsque tu te levas sur moi, tel un espoir,
Ta robe triste était de la couleur du soir.
Voyant tomber la nuit, nous nous sommes assises,
Pour sentir la fraîcheur amical des bises.
Puisque nous n’étions plus seules dans l’univers,
Nous goûtions avec plus de langueur les beaux vers.
Chère, nous hésitions, sans oser croire encore,
Et je te dis : « Le soir est plus beau que l’aurore. »
Tu me donnas ton front, tu me donnas tes mains,
Et je ne craignis plus les mauvais lendemains.
Les couleurs éteignaient leurs splendide insolence ;
Nulle voix ne venait troubler notre silence…
J’oubliai les maisons et leur mauvais accueil…
Le couchant empourprait mes vêtements de deuil.
Et je te dis, fermant tes paupières mi-closes :
« Les violettes sont plus belles que les roses. »
Les ténèbres gagnaient l’horizon, flot à flot…
Ce fut autour de nous l’harmonieux sanglot…
Une langueur noyait la cité forte et rude,
Nous savourions ainsi l’heure en sa plénitude.
La mort lente effaçait la lumière et le bruit…
Je connus le visage auguste de la nuit.
Et tu laissas glisser à tes pieds nus tes voiles…
Ton corps m’apparut, plus noble sous les étoiles.
C’était l’apaisement, le repos, le retour…
Et je te dis : « Voici le comble de l’amour… »
Jadis, portant en nous nos âmes désolées,
Ma Douce, nous étions comme deux exilées

Renée Vivien (1877-1909) was a British poet who wrote primarily in French. She was one of the last major poets of Symbolism. Her work included sonnets, hendecasyllabic verse and prose poetry. Born Pauline Mary Tarn in London to a British father and American mother, she grew up in Paris and London. Upon inheriting her father's fortune at age 21, she emigrated permanently to France. In Paris, her dress and lifestyle were as notorious as her verse. She lived lavishly as an open lesbian, sometimes dressing in men's clothes, while harboring a lifelong obsession for her closest childhood friend, Violet Shillito (a relationship that apparently remained unconsummated). Her obsession with violets led to Vivien being called the "Muse of the Violets." But in 1900 Vivien abandoned this chaste love to engage in a public affair with the American writer and heiress Natalie Clifford Barney. The following year Shillito died of typhoid fever, a tragedy from which Vivien never fully recovered. Vivien later had a relationship with a baroness to whom she considered herself to be married, even though the baroness had a husband and children. During her adventurous life, Vivien indulged in alcohol, drugs, fetishes and sadomasochism. But she grew increasingly frail and by the time of her death she weighed only 70 pounds, quite possibly dying from the cumulative effects of anorexia, alcoholism and drug abuse.

Related pages: The Best Poetry Translations of Michael R. Burch

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