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. Read More