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August: The Water Lily de Gramont

Natalie Barney tells how she learned of Pauline Tarn's death on November 18, 1909. Knowing that Vivien was ailing, Barney called at her apartment on the avenue Foch with a bunch of violets. She was greeted with the works "Mademoiselle vient de mourir" (Miss has just died). This unexpected twist on the more common dismissal "Mademoiselle vient de sortir" (Miss has just gone out) transforms banality into finality. Denied entry and in shock, Barney went to see Lily de Gramont, who lived nearby.


Lily was, in a way, Pauline's successor in Natalie's affections. Lily was the one who made her commit, if not to exclusive fidelity, at least to something the couple understood as being akin to marriage (see Francesco Rapazzini's biography of the "red" duchess for details).


The Water Lily de Gramont cocktail is a variation on the traditional water lily cocktail, using vodka instead of gin. May this cocktail bring you consolation, just as Lily consoled Natalie.

How to make a Water Lily de Gramont

Step 1: Pour 1 oz vodka over ice in a cocktail shaker


Step 2: Add 1 oz "Tempus Fugit" violet liqueur, or similar,* 1 oz Triple Sec, and 1 oz fresh lemon juice


Step 3: Shake, and strain into a martini glass 


Step 4: Garnish with a slice of lemon



*There are several brands of violet liqueur, and any one will do, but the pale (rather than violently violet) color of Tempus Fugit makes for a more delicately colored drink that does not resemble methylated spirits


Water Lily de Gramont.JPG

"Water Lilies" by Renée Vivien (Evocations, 1903)



Parmi les ondoiements et les éclairs douteux,  

Les langoureux lys d’eau lèvent leur front laiteux.


La rivière aux flots lourds berce leur somnolence...

Ce sont d’étranges fleurs de mort et de silence.


Leur fraicheur refroidit les flammes du soleil,

Et leur souffle répand une odeur de sommeil.


Ce sont des fleurs de mort et de mélancolie;

Elles ont caressé les bras nus d’Ophélie.


Elles aiment le saule et les roseaux, le bruit

Des feuillages, les soirs d’émeraude et la nuit.


L’accablante splendeur du jour les importune:

Elles dorment sur l’eau, pâles comme la lune.


Aucun souffle d’amour n’atteint leur pureté.

Elles furent jadis les lotus du Léthé.


Perséphoné, tressant des couronnes de rêve,

Les cueillit, quand ses pas errèrent sur la grève


Des morts, où les reflets plus beaux que les couleurs,

Et les echos plus doux que les sons, où les fleurs


Sans parfum, sont tissés dans la trame du songe,

Où l’ivresse qui sourd des pavots se prolonge...


Et les lys ont gardé le pieux souvenir

Du pays tiède où tous les chocs vont s’amortir,


De la Déesse aux yeux de crépuscule tendre,

Dénouant ses cheveux de poussière et de cendre.


English translation

Amid swaying and indistinct flashes of light,

The languorous water lilies raise their milky foreheads.


The river with its heavy waves rocks their somnolence...

They are strange flowers of death and silence.


Their coolness chills the flames of the sun,

And their breath spreads an odor of sleep.


They are flowers of death and melancholy;

They have caressed Ophelia's naked arms.


They like the weeping willow and the reeds, the sound

Of foliage, emerald evenings and the night.


The dazzling splendor of day importunes them:

They sleep on the water, as pale as the moon.


No breath of love can reach their purity.

In the past they were the lotuses of Lethe.


Persephone, weaving crowns of dreams,

Picked them, when her steps wandered along the riverbank


Of the dead, where reflections more beautiful than colors,

And echoes gentler than sounds, where flowers


Without scent, are woven into the fabric of dreams,

Where inebriation, that springs from poppies is prolonged....


And the lilies have kept the pious memory

Of the warm country where all shocks will be deadened,


Of the Goddess with the tender twilight eyes,

Undoing her hair of dust and ashes.

A few things to think about in this poem (by Melanie Hawthorne)

Around the time that Claude Monet began taking impressionism in new, post-impressionist directions towards abstraction in his water lily paintings, Renée Vivien was exploring what could be done with lilies in words. Monet's early lily paintings date from the end of the 1890s and first few years of the twentieth century (he died in 1926). Vivien's poem "Water Lilies" (the title is in English even in the French text) first appeared in her fourth book Evocations of 1903.


The poem consists of twelve rhyming couplets, the dual "back and forth" motion of a couplet echoing the rocking theme evoked in the poem and the gentle motion of flowers that undulate in ripples of water. The poem begins by personifying the lilies: they are endowed with "milky foreheads" (front) and "breath" (souffle). At the same time, the poem explores the "strangeness" of these flowers, characterized by death and silence ("mort et silence").


As already noted, the title of the poem is given in English but it's not immediately clear why. Perhaps Vivien avoided naming them as water lilies in French because this would have entailed using a masculine pronoun ("ils") that conflicted with her vision of the flowers as female. Within the body of the poem itself, the flowers are indeed referred to as "lys" (generic "lilies"), but when pronouns are used in the poem, the flowers are referred to as "elles." The word "lys" is grammatically masculine, but the word "fleur" in French is a grammatically feminine noun. (Other French names for the lily such "nymphéa" and "nénuphar," both masculine nouns, are not used.) 


Vivien's "evocation" (to use the title of the collection in which the poem appeared) fuses women and flowers: flowers that are personified as women and women who are so often culturally represented as flowers come together as one. These flowers are strange women, and the women are strange flowers, a staple of symbolism and decadent imagery.


These flowers are associated with sleep and forgetting, and by extension with death. The lilies have touched (indeed, caressed) the arms of Ophelia, and by implication have acquired something in the process. They themselves sleep ("elles dorment sur l'eau"), rocked by the river, but they also give off sleepiness and make others sleepy: their breath gives off "an odor of sleep." They are identified as having once been ("jadis") the lotus flower of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. Later, an extended metaphor connects them to poppies, which, since poppies are the source of opium, suggests that there is a drug-induced element to the kind of sleep and oblivion (to use a word that derives from forgetfulness) associated with water lilies, too. (Both Vivien/Tarn and Lily de Gramont were addicted to the opium-based "home remedy" laudanum at one time or another.) Persephone picks lilies in the underworld, a realm "of the dead" where reflections are more beautiful than the original colors and echoes are sweeter than the original sounds and flowers have no scent. These indirect perceptions (reflections, echoes) seem somehow better than the originals they represent, perhaps because they are part of a dream world ("la trame du songe"), a form of drunkenness (ivresse) that comes from poppies, i.e., an opium-induced dream state.


This pleasantly "warm" other world of indirect perception is preferable to the real world, since it promises that all shocks, everything that jolts or comes as an unpleasant surprise, can be absorbed there. The French verb "s'amortir" (to absorb, or deaden, a blow) underscores the association of this realm with death since it contains the word (and derives from) "mort."


The final couplet suggests who Vivien had in mind when she was imagining Persephone. This goddess ("Déesse") has eyes the color of tender twilight and hair the color of dust and ashes, attributes that recall Vivien's descriptions of Natalie Barney.


The phrase "de poussière et de cendre" with which the poem ends also recalls the title of Vivien's second collection, Cendres et poussières of 1902. Beginning with that publication, Vivien began dedicating her work "A mon Amie H.C.L.B." These initials are usually taken to refer to Pauline's new lover Hélène de Zuylen, but they also seem to encode the name of Natalie CLifford Barney.


Vivien was in a new relationship, then, and Barney was part of a forgotten world, a dead world of the past, like Persephone in the underworld. But it is as though water lilies remind Vivien of Barney, and as though Vivien secretly nurses a hope of being reunited with Barney in what seems like a better place through sleep, drugs, and death.


Such reunion did in fact happen in real life, sort of, in that Vivien and Barney made attempts to revive their love affair, but without lasting success. They eventually came to accept that being in a relationship with each other was too painful, and was never going to work. Arguably, Vivien never really got over it and her unhappiness led to her depression and early death just a few years later. Barney, on the other hand, went on to live a long and happy life, with many loves along the way, one of the most enduring being with Lily de Gramont.


Vivien, meanwhile, published a second edition of Evocations in 1905/6 (though the title page says 1905, the back cover says 1906). This one featured an illustrated cover showing the faces of two people with feminine features surrounded by what looks like shimmering water and vegetation. One face is shown frontally, and the eyes seem to look out of the picture at the viewer. The other face is in profile, with half closed eyes and parted lips. A hand suggests that they are embracing, while a somewhat phallic fish noses up against them. Perhaps these are the water lilies evoked in Vivien's poem, perhaps it is the memory of Vivien and Barney in happier times, or a water lily caressing the arm of the drowning Ophelia, or perhaps all of these things and none of them.


In this second edition, Vivien cut the number of poems from 59 to 33 poems. It's not easy to discern what determined the decision to suppress 26 poems from the second edition. Vivien cannot have been too dissatisfied with them, since most were subsequently republished elsewhere. Nor is it the case that Vivien simply eliminated anything that seemed to do with Barney. The poem "Water Lilies" remains in the second edition of Evocations, and as the above reading makes clear, it is not too hard to see a nostalgic reference to Barney in this text.

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