Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 1993

Publication Title

Modern Language Studies


At the turn of the century, a young aspiring poet named Pauline Tarn (1877-1909) left her native England to live in Paris where she fell in love with a woman, changed her name to Rene Vivien, learned Greek so she could translate Sappho into French, took lessons in French prosody, and began writing lesbian poetry in French using conventional forms, including the most conventional of fixed poetic forms-the sonnet. For those critics investigating the complexities of Vivien's life and work, this curious set of events has led them first to Paris-Lesbos and Vivien's role in reviving Sappho as a powerful female precursor, while questions relating to the more formal aspects of her poetry are still waiting to be explored.' Contemporary feminists admire Vivien as one of the first women to write openly lesbian poetry, and yet her reputation as the Sappho of 1900 makes it more difficult to understand why she wrote in a language much more gender-marked than her native English, and why she sometimes framed her woman-centered verses within the restrictive framework of the sonnet, a form exemplifying what Gertrude Stein referred to as "Patriarchal Poetry." Using Renee Vivien's "Sonnet feminin" (Cendres et poussieres 1902, OPC 87) as my principal example, I will examine the insights offered by her unusual alliance of gender and genre in light of some recent theories, as well as Vivien's own experiences with gender. Significantly, Vivien's "Sonnet feminin" coincides with a period of intense "sapphic" activity as she translated Sappho's fragments into French in an attempt to reclaim the poet from Lesbos as a lesbian poet. In "Sonnet feminin," her translations and related works, Vivien highlights and valorizes feminine difference from within established male-dominated poetic conventions in order to critique the "engendered" canon and the sexual hierarchy that underlies the French literary tradition and language.


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