Love Is a Bohemian


Arts & Culture


Vivien and Barney in 1900.

From “Renée Vivien,” an essay by Natalie Clifford Barney anthologized in A Perilous Advantage: The Best of Natalie Clifford Barney. Vivien, a poet who was born on this day in 1877, began an intense affair with Barney in 1899; in 1901, they broke up, and Barney began to devote herself to winning Vivien’s affections again. Eventually they reunited and traveled together to Lesbos, but not without great effort on Barney’s part. “How could I win her back?” she writes: “Should I bang on her closed door? Dare to send her a more direct poem, reveal to her my suffering, how much I was suffering? Swallow my pride and admit that I loved her still, since I could not help but be faithful to her?” She decided to write a sonnet—“My tears are a slow poison I will drink/Instead of gleaning from some trivial affair/A barren cure, the final numbness,” are among its lines.

But how to get this sonnet to her without anyone else reading it? I asked my friend, Emma Calvé—who was also suffering from a romantic desertion … to lend me her irresistible voice. That night, disguised as street singers, she sang under Renée Vivien’s French windows: “I have lost Eurydice, there is no pain like mine,” while I pretended to pick up coins thrown to us from the other floors. At last René opened her French window, the better to hear that astounding voice singing the famous aria. “Love is a Bohemian whom no law binds.” The moment had arrived. I threw my poem, attached to a bouquet of blowers, over the garden fence so that she would see it and pick it up. But passers-by were beginning to crowd around us and we had to slip away before the singer, recognized even in the shows by her voice, was swamped with applause.

I soon got a reply to my sonnet. Not from Renée as I had hoped, but from the governess who, having gathered up both poem and bouquet, “destined for a person whose welfare was her concern, begged me to cease these dispatches which were as useless as they were distressing.”

If it is true that feelings cannot be summoned to order, it is truer still that they cannot be dismissed to order! My rage was only equaled by my anguish. I sent an SOS to Eva, who came immediately. Horrified to find me in such despair, she went to plead my cause with Renée, who saw her several times and even made advances to her but obstinately refused to speak to me …

Knowing that Renée had invited Eva to join her in a box at the opera to watch Manfred, with Eva’s complicity I took her place. Renée greeted me with open arms and we listened to the music of Schumann rapturously entwined, watched by the vigilant eye of the governess who was sitting in state in the corner of the box next to Levy-Dhurmer for whom Renée had just posed. As she drove me back to my hotel, Renée promised to meet me again the next day. Since the hour she had suggested had already passed, and as I had to take the train to Monte Carlo that very day, I summoned the courage to telephone her. “One cannot play one’s life over again,” she told me. Then, when she heard that I had just received a telegram saying that my father’s health had deteriorated, she added, hesitantly, “If his health gives cause for alarm and you need me … ” “I don’t need anyone,” I replied bravely and hung up, with death in my soul.