Lesbian Genealogies

Psappha, pourquoi la bienheureuse Aphrodita …?

— Psappha


L’automne est pareil aux étés où ta lyre

S’éveilla, tremblante, et frémit, et chanta …

Ô Psappha, dis-nous pourquoi jaillit le rire

De l’Aphrodita.


Quel sombre dessein réjouit la Déesse

À qui plaît l’effroit des cris inapaisés,

Qui répand sur nous la farouche détresse,

L’horreur des baisers?


Les rayons maudits d’une fatale aurore

Virent autrefois l’implacable Beauté

Fleurir dans sa force inexorable, éclore

Dans sa cruauté.


Ô Psappha, voici que s’éteint la Pléiade.

Le vent clame, ainsi qu’une lyre de fer,

Un chant prophétique et sinistre, et Leucade

Assombrit la mer.


— Renée Vivien


Sapho, 1903

Sappho, why does the blessed Aphrodite …?

— Sappho


This fall is like the summers when your lyre

Awakened, trembling, and began to sing …

Sappho, tell us, why does Aphrodite’s

Laughter ring?


In what dark design does the Goddess rejoice,

Her to whom our unslaked cries bring bliss,

She who casts this wild distress on us,

The horror of the kiss?


The cursèd sunbeams of a fatal dawn

Long ago bore witness to her beauty

Blooming in its ruthless strength, exploding

In its cruelty.


O Sappho, see, the Pleiades grow dull.

The wind cries out, as might an iron harp,

A prohetic, sinister song, and Leucadia

Makes the sea grow dark.


— Translated by Samantha Pious







Morte, un jour tu demeureras couchée [dans la tombe], et nul souvenir de toi ne persistera ni alors ni plus tard: car tu ne cueilles point les roses de Piéria, mais, obscure, tu erreras dans la maison de l’Hadès, inconnue parmi les Morts aveugles.

— Psappha


Demain tu mourras d’une mort sans étoiles.

La nuit cachera ton rire d’autrefois

Sous l’azur et sous la poupre des ses voiles,

Sous les linceuls froids.


Tu n’as point cueilli les roses immortelles

De Piéria, Gorgô, charme d’un jour!

Jamais ne brûlera dans tes pâles prunelles

L’éclair de l’amour.


L’Hadés te prendra dans sa vague demeure,

Le chant de ta voix ne persistera pas,

Ni le souvenir de ton parfum d’une heure.

— Demain tu mourras.


Et tu passeras, ombre parmi les ombres,

— Tu ne sauras point l’orgueil des lendemains,

Sans rayons de gloire à tes paupières sombres

Sans fleurs dans tes mains.


Tes pas erreront faiblement sur la rive

Des femmes sans fards et des passants obscurs,

La Maison des Morts sur ta forme plaintive

Fermera ses murs.


Sous l’azur et sous la pourpre de ses voiles,

La nuit cachera ton rire d’autrefois …

Demain tu mourras d’une mort sans étoiles

Sous les linceuls froids.


— Renée Vivien


Sapho, 1903

Dead, one day you shall lie at rest [in the tomb], and no one will remember you then or later: for you haven’t plucked the roses of Pieria, but, obscure, you shall wander the house of Hades, unknown among the Dead and blind.

— Sappho


Tomorrow you shall die without one star.

Tonight will hide your laugh behind the clouds,

Beneath the blue and purple of its veils,

Beneath cold winding-shrouds.


And, Gorgo, you still haven’t plucked the roses

Of Pieria, your one-day’s lovesick sighs!

And now the light of love will never burn

In your pale eyes.


But Hell shall have you for its vague dominion,

Your lyric voice shall be a song gone by.

The memory of your perfumes will not last one hour.

Tomorrow you shall die.


And you’ll pass by, a ghost among the ghosts,

You’ll never know the pride of mornings after,

No garlands in your hands, no glory in your eyes

Devoid of laughter.


Your steps will wander weakly by the shore

Of unwed women, unknown passers-by.

The City of the Dead will close its doors

Upon your wailing cry.


Beneath the blue and purple of its veils,

Tonight will hide your laugh behind the clouds …

Tomorrrow you shall die without one star

Beneath cold winding-shrouds.

— Translated by Samantha Pious






Cette Artémis, ô vierges, fuyant Alphéos …

— Télésilla


Cette Artémis, fuyant le désir mâle, ô vierges,

Tourna vers le lointain du sud ses yeux lassés.

Et ses pieds fugitifs illuminaient les berges,

Foulant avec dégoût les couples enlacés.


Ses longs rayons aigus perçaient l’ombre des rives

Et dardaient les venins, les terreurs et les maux,

Sur les hommes en rut et les femmes passives,

Luttant et se mêlant comme les animaux.


Car son orgueil se plaît aux jeux chastes et rudes

De la course à travers le ravin et le pré;

Elle cherche l’effroi des larges solitudes

Où nul souffle mortel ne trouble l’air sacré.


— Renée Vivien


Les Kitharèdes, 1904

This Artemis, O virgins, fleeing Alpheus …

— Telesilla


This Artemis, O virgins, fleeing male desire,

Turned her weary gaze toward southern shores.

And her escaping feet lit up the water’s edge,

Trampling the couples she abhorred.


Her keen eyes pierced the darkness of the riverside

And darted venom, pain, and fear at each

Passive woman and each man in rut,

Wrestling together like dumb beasts.


Her pride delights in simple games and chaste,

The race along the rivers and the plains;

She seeks the dreadful and secluded wastes

Whose holiness no mortal breath profanes.


— Translated by Samantha Pious






… Et je blâme aussi la mélodieuse Myrtis

de ce que, étant femme, elle entra en rivalités avec Pindare.

— Korinna


Oh! les flots empourprés que frappent les rameurs,

Et la Mort qui grimace à travers les murailles!

Pourquoi, Myrtis, jeter les sanglantes clameurs

Des buccins dominant le fracas des batailles?


La gloire est un flambeau que le silence éteint.

Ô Myrtis, la victoire est une courtisane,

Et celui qui la frappe est celui qui l’étreint.

Le sage a le dégoût de son baiser profane.


Chante le soir, l’ampleur des collines et l’air

Pacifique, le temple où pâlit la pensée,

Et le flot qui frêmit, plus troublant que la chair …

Ta voix consolera l’Aphrodite blessée.


Car la voix d’une femme, ô Myrtis, doit savoir

Moduler lentement ses langeurs incertaines,

Elle doit s’allier au silence du soir

Et se mêler au frais murmure des fontaines.


— Renée Vivien


Les Kitharèdes, 1904

… And I also blame the melodious Myrtis

because, though a woman, she entered into rivalry with Pindar.

— Korinna


Oh, the purpled waves the oarsmen strike,

And Death who grimaces behind the walls!

Why, Myrtis, cry across the battle’s roar

The bloody clamor of the trumpet-calls?


Glory is a torchflame silence quenches.

Myrtis, Victory is nothing but a whore,

For he who beats her clasps her in his arms.
Her sullied kiss is one the wise abhor.


But sing the dusk, the hills, the peaceful air,

The tranquil temple where no thoughts remain,

The trembling wave, more troubling than flesh …

Your voice will lessen Aphrodite’s pain.


A woman’s voice, O Myrtis, should know how

To modulate the languid chords it sings,

And it should join the silence of the dusk

And mingle with the murmurs of the springs.


— Translated by Samantha Pious







Vous qui parlez peu, femmes aux cheveux

blancs, vous, fleurs de la vieillesse pour

les mortels …

— Eranna


Femmes aux cheveux blancs que l’hiver caresse,

Vous que réjouit l’intimité du feu

Et du crépuscule, ô fleurs de la vieillesse,

Vous qui parlez peu,


Vous avez la paix candide des années,

Vous êtes le chœur des vivants souvenirs:

Douces, vous tressez les couronnes fanées

Des anciens désirs.


Vous vous attardez, comme autrefois, aux porches

Où Phoibos blondit la mousse et les lichens,

Et vous allumez en souriant les torches

Rouges des hymens.


Vous aimez l’automne aux yeux bruns et la rouille

Des portes où le vent laisse un parfum salin:

Vous filez, au chant de votre humble quenouille,

La neige du lin.


La vierge respecte et craint votre sagesse,

Et votre saut est lent comme un adieu,

Femmes aux cheveux blancs, fleurs de la vieillesse,

Vous qui parlez peu …


— Renée Vivien


Les Kitharèdes, 1904

You who seldom speak, white-haired

women, you, for all mortals the flowers

of old age …

— Erinna


White-haired women touched by wintertime,

You who rejoice by firesides and seek

The twilight’s closeness, flowers of old age,

Who seldom speak,


You have the honest peace of many years,

Of living memories you are the choir:

You gently weave the withered, faded crowns

Of old desires.


You linger, as before, by entranceways

Whose moss and lichen Phoebus sets alight,

And, smiling, you light the scarlet torches

For Hymen’s rite.


You love the brown-eyed autumn and the rust

On doors whose salt perfume the winds bestow,

And to your humble distaff’s song, you spin

The linen’s snow.


The virgins fear and marvel at your wisdom,

Your gait, a last farewell, is slow and weak,

White-haired women, flowers of old age,

Who seldom speak …


— Translated by Samantha Pious






De ce côté, le vain écho traverse à la nage (le fleuve) vers l’Hadès; le silence (demeure) chez les morts, et l’ombre s’empare des yeux.

— Eranna


Le vain écho nage aveuglément vers l’ombre

Où les plus beaux chœurs ne sont qu’un remous bref,

Où le souvenir le plus cher plonge et sombre

Ainsi qu’une nef.


Lasse, la pleureuse, ivre de somnolence,

Auprès d’une stèle épuise ses transports;

La cruche de deuil est vide, et le silence

Règne chez les morts.


La myrrhe, fumant dans l’or des cassolettes,

Ne réjouit plus les jardins d’aloès;

Les vierges sans voix tressent les violettes

Blanches de l’Hadès.


Les baromos se sont tus sous les acanthes …

Rouillés et pareils à des miroirs ternis,

Les flots du Léthé reflètent les Amantes

Aux bras désunis.


Perséphoné tisse en des trames funèbres

Les fils brisés des espoirs et des adieux.

Elle seule veille et songe, et les ténèbres

S’emparent des yeux.


— Renée Vivien


Les Kitharèdes, 1904

From this side, the vain echo swims across (the river) toward Hades; silence remains among the dead, and darkness holds the eyes.

— Erinna


The echo swims down blindly toward the dark

Where the most lovely choirs eddy futilely,

And where the dearest memory sinks and founders

Like a ship at sea.


The weeping-woman, drunk on drowsiness,

Exhausts her transports by the columns overhead;

The mourning cup is empty; silence reigns

Among the dead.


The myrrh, whose smoke ascends from golden censers,

No more delights the gardens where the aloes dwell;

The voiceless virgins weave the pale and white

Violets of Hell.


The many-stringèd harps are still beneath the flowers …

Rusty, like a tarnished looking-glass,

The waves of Lethe reflect the women-lovers

Of embraces past.


Persephone weaves, in mournful warp and weft,

The broken strands of hopes and of good-byes.

She only wakes and dreams, amid the shadows

That hold the eyes.


— Translated by Samantha Pious






Translator’s Note:


These poems have a queer history — “queer” in the sense of non-linear journeys through time and space; “queer” in terms of attractions perceived as strange and even antisocial; and “queer” in the way they continue to resist scholarly recovery and canonical assimilation.

It would be inaccurate, or at least imprecise, to refer to them as “originals” and “translations.” The “original” poems attributed to Sappho and other pre-Hellenistic women songwriters no longer exist as such. By the fin de siècle, when Renée Vivien was coming of age, only fragments of the Ancient Greek songs remained. The first English translation of the fragments of Sappho appeared in 1885, when the eight-year-old Pauline Mary Tarn (who would later introduce herself to friends as Renée Vivien) was living with her mother, father, and younger sister in Paris. (A year later, in 1886, Pauline’s father would die suddenly and unexpectedly, and his widow and daughters would embark on a tour of Continental Europe before re-settling in London.)

In 1900, one year after attaining her legal majority, Renée-née-Pauline traveled to Bryn Mawr College (a women’s college near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; one of the “Seven Sisters”) to learn to read Ancient Greek. Although the names “Pauline (Mary) Tarn” and “Renée Vivien” are absent from the Registrar’s list of enrolled students, it is possible that Vivien attended classes or took private lessons from the celebrated classicist Mamie Gwinn. (Incidentally, Gwinn herself was the intimate companion of Bryn Mawr’s first woman president, M. Carey Thomas, although the extent of their physical relationship is unknown.)

Three years later, Vivien took the extraordinary step of publishing a volume of her own French imitations of Sappho’s fragments — signing the work with the feminine form of her chosen name (“Renée” instead of the masculine “René or the initial “R.”) for the very first time in her career. This courageous “coming out” was not well-received by the Parisian literary establishment. Where the mysterious “R. Vivien” had been hailed as a rising star and a youthful poetic genius, the revelation of Renée Vivien’s identity as a woman writing love poetry to other women — not to mention simply loving other women — was greeted as the scandal of the day.

I first encountered Renée Vivien in the stacks of Canaday Library as an undergraduate studying poetry at Bryn Mawr College, approximately one hundred years after Vivien’s early death. Many things had changed since 1909 — mais plus ça change … After a brief resurgence with the advent of lesbian and feminist literary scholarship in the 1970s and 80s, Vivien’s reputation had gone into a nose-dive at the turn of the millennium, even as queer theory began to take the academy by storm. Many Anglophone critics were surprisingly unreceptive, even hostile, to the figure of Renée Vivien and her poetry. I am not sure why I kept returning to Vivien over the next few years, nor what it was that impelled me to begin translating her into English. Perhaps, beyond my own sexual questioning, it was a shared sense of creative anachronism — of “feeling backward,” in the words of queer theorist Heather Love.

All of this is to say that my “translations” are reasonably faithful renderings (into English) of Renée Vivien’s imaginative amplifications (into French) of certain fragments (which survive in Ancient Greek) that are attributed to Sappho and other women songwriters.


— Samantha Pious


Samantha Pious is studying for a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Her first book, A Crown of Violets (Headmistress Press, 2015), offers a selection of the poetry of Renée Vivien in translation. Some of her individual translations appeared in Adrienne, Lavender Review, Lunch Ticket, PMS, and other publications.
Renée Vivien (née Pauline Mary Tarn, 1877-1909) was an English expatriate who made her home in Paris during the Belle Époque. In 1903, Vivien's collection of French translations from the Ancient Greek poetry of Sappho became one of the first works of modern European lesbian literature to be published by a lesbian writer under her real name. The following year, she published Les Kitharèdes, a volume of adaptations from several other women lyricists (or “kitharists”) and near-contemporaries of Sappho. Despite public scandal and literary disrespect, Vivien continued to write and publish poetry, short stories, translations, plays, epigrams, and a novel based on her real-life romances with Natalie Clifford Barney and the Baroness Hélène van Zuylen van Nyevelt van Haar (née Rothschild).
Little is known for certain about the life of Sappho of Lesbos (b. 630-612, d. 570 B.C.), apart from what she wrote in her own poetry, which includes love lyrics to women as well as men.
Telesilla of Argos (510 B.C.) was celebrated for her poetry and for her civic leadership throughout a political and military crisis. Only a few directly-quoted lines remain of her poems.
Tradition describes Korinna (attributed to the 6th century B.C.) as literary mentor and rival to the better-known male poet Pindar, but more recent scholarship claims that she was actually born at a much later date (ca. 200 B.C.) and that the accounts of her rivalry with Pindar are posthumous legends.
Information about the life of Erinna of Rhodes (612 B.C.) is scant and derived mostly from her best-known poem “The Distaff.” Until 1928, only four lines of “The Distaff” were extant, which left Renée Vivien free to invent both life and work for “Eranna.”


 Original Artwork: Michael Welsh is an artist, writer, and curator living and working in Brooklyn, NY. He is a founding member of GWC Investigators, a paranormal research group and publisher of New World UNLTD. Welsh's work has been exhibited throughout the United States at High Desert Test Sites, Joshua Tree, CA; American Medium, Brooklyn, NY; Printed Matter, New York, NY; Appendix Project Space, Portland, OR; Bric Arts Media, Brooklyn, NY; GCA, Brooklyn, NY; Katherine E. Nash Gallery, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN;  Helper Gallery, Brooklyn, NY; among others. His artists books can be found on the Publication Studio and Social Malpractice Publishing labels.


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