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Catherine Pozzi 
Age 18
photograph private collection Paris

Dr. Samuel Jean Pozzi


Catherine Pozzi was born in Paris, on July 13, 1883, to Samuel Pozzi and his wife, Therese Loth-Cazalis. Her father was a well-known surgeon, and her mother was from Lyon. Their marriage was not a happy one. Nevertheless, the Pozzi family, like any other wealthy family, kept up appearances. They threw soirees and hosted parties in their apartment at Palace Vendome. They visited with the rich, the artists and the writers (such as poet Jose-Maria de Heredia and novelist Paul Bourget). Samuel Pozzi himself tried his hand at verse, and some of his sonnets were published in the Revue de Paris. 

Catherine Pozzi had two younger brothers, Jacques and Jean. Her education commenced at a girl's school then continued at home under various tutors, among them an English governess and a German maid. She kept a journal beginning at age eleven, from which we know that she read poetry and even wrote some of her own, and played music as well. Catherine's social life was active; like many young girls of her class, she played tennis and rode horseback excellently. 

After a fight with her father, Catherine went to Oxford. She was interested in philosophy, and also in science. She only stayed a year, returning home to her mother.

She also traveled widely: to Italy with her grandmother and her brother, and to England, where she met Edouard Bourdet, her future husband. In 1900, they married, and that year a son was born. Not long after, Catherine and Edouard Bourdet realized they were not meant for each other, and they parted. 

Catherine began to make literary friends, including Albert Le Chaldier, a professor at the College of France, and Marcel Schwob and Andre Fernet, who were writers. She resumed her studies, among them, poetry. 

She wanted to be remembered for six poems, arguing that Sappho had left only particles of poems. Besides these, her journals, articles, a philosophical essay, Peau d'ame, and an autobiographical story, Agnes.

She argued in her books "Agnes" and "Peau d'ame," the philosophy that lessen the hold of substance which pulled the individual towards degeneration, both moral and physical, and fortify the urge to spirituality, by a lower form in matter, in a greater form in spirit. As matter and spirit were complementary, by applying virtue through strength of will, one could overthrow the tendency to degeneration, or according to Lawrence Joseph, a sort of "materialistic spiritualism." 

Catherine Pozzi met Paul Valery in 1924, and he became her lover. One of the six poems Pozzi wished to be represented by, "Vale," predicted the end of the affair years before it came. 

Catherine was the victim of Tuberculosis, and consequently took morphine and opium to reduce her pain. Continuing her academic efforts, she completed the bacalaureat at Strasbourg and took up biology at the Faculte des Sciences in Paris. She wrote articles on science for 'Le Fiagor', and began to translate poems by Stefan George. Among her aquaintances was Ranier Maria Rilke, with whom she corresponded frequently.

She began to have "mystical experiences" which were strengthened by her narcotics, and she was of the belief that she communed with her dead friends. She thought her poems were dictated to her by one who spoke through her pen. Her poems were often very vague, and required heavy revision. 

In her later life, she claimed that suffering was her task--that she was the center of pain on Earth. Her last poem--Nyx--was written in November 1934. She passed away in Paris, in the December of that year, at age fifty two. Her six poems were published in 1935.

From: France Magazine
(printed by permission)

Sensual Intellect
Rediscovering the poetry
of Catherine Pozzi 

by John Taylor

France Magazine

Catherine Pozzi (1882-1934) is unjustly remembered more for her tumultuous liaison with Paul Valéry than for her exalted story Agnès (1927), her philosophical essay Peau d’âme (1935) or her love and metaphysical poems, first published after her death simply as Poèmes (1935). Fortunately, however, this mysterious writer has benefited from two energetic advocates in our day: critic and publisher Claire Paulhan and biographer Lawrence Joseph, who recently retired from Smith College. Ever since the late 1980s, Paulhan, Joseph and a few other enthusiasts have labored to keep Pozzi’s prose and poetry in print and to bring to light unknown writings. Together they have deepened critical perspectives on the life and work of a woman who was befriended and admired by the likes of Rainer Maria Rilke and André Gide. Recently Gallimard published Paulhan and Joseph’s richly annotated edition of Pozzi’s collected poems: Très haut amour, poèmes et autres textes. This slim volume deserves a wide readership.
The poem “Ave” alone should assure a lofty place for Pozzi in the history of French poetry. In this poem, the salient theme of pure love—l’amour absolu—magnificently coalesces with metaphysical, cosmological, even mathematical concerns. Addressing her lover, a woman imagines herself dead, in the future, which is to say “lost / And divided to abysmal infinity, / Infinitely.” Yet her surviving lover will still be able to envisage her as a radiant soul, a “living unity that is faceless, nameless,” the “center of the mirage.”
Like the 16th-century poets whom she studied closely, Pozzi sets elevated amorous sentiments against a philosophical backdrop. She attempts to heal what her contemporary T. S. Eliot famously called the “dissociation of sensibility,” the separation of thinking and feeling which, in his view, set in during the 17th century and “from which we have never recovered.” Poems such as “Ave,” “Vale,” “Nova” and “Nyx” likewise aspire to the sensual intellectuality of the great Italian love poets, especially Cavalcanti, Dante and Petrarch.
No ave, or “salutation,” is without its vale, or “adieu.” The title “Ave” alludes, among other things, to Catullus’s elegy “Ave atque vale,” on his brother’s death. With her own “Vale,” Pozzi constitutes a similar diptych of affirmation and negation, of amorous praise and the acknowledgment of love’s demise. “The great love that you had given me,” she laments, “the wind of days has broken its rays.”
Like much of Pozzi’s verse, “Vale” involves strange punctuation (or rather, lack of punctuation) and some tantalizingly obscure passages that nonetheless possess philosophical resonance. Exegetes and translators can try their hand on the second strophe, with its Renaissance cosmography, divided souls, double exiles and mystical unions: “Notre soleil, dont l’ardeur fut pensée / L’orbe pour nous de l’être sans second / Le second ciel d’une âme divisée / Le double exil où le double se fond.” Similar in its use of cosmic similes is “Nova,” which in an earlier version was graced with an epigraph from Dante’s Purgatory: “The lovely planet, love’s own quickener, / Now lit to laughter all the eastern sky.” Pozzi often links the soaring effusions of love with a heavenly firmament contemplated in all its metaphorical richness.
In contrast to this vertical élan, Pozzi also characteristically moves backward in time. In “Maya,” she goes “down steps made of centuries and sand / Leading to you, desperate moment.” “I enter your fable,” she adds, “land of golden temples, / Adored Atlantic.” Attracted to spiritualism (as were other intellectuals of her time), she believed that she had experienced former lives—here as a Mayan, elsewhere as an Egyptian, a Greek or an Italian woman.
Inevitably, however, Pozzi would come brutally back to earthly realities. She had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1912, and by her most creative period—the late 1920s—she was suffering abjectly from the disease. “Vale,” for example, was composed in a night train taking her back to Paris from Vence, where she convalesced at her country home. In her Journal, she recorded the harrowing circumstances in which the poem was written. “Toward midnight,” she notes, recalling her chest pains, “I went to the restroom. Sitting on the floor, I gave myself a shot of Sédol. [...] I hadn’t used such shots for five months. [...] Peace then came over me. I could think of Lionardo [Valéry] without despair. To the rhythm of the train, I sang to myself and slowly invented, verse by verse, the [poetic] form [corresponding to] the suffering.” At the end of “Vale,” Pozzi once again imagines her dead body; yet she nonetheless survives in the “form of a heart” through which she will be able to “relive our great day / And that love that I gave you / For pain.” Oddly, only at this ethereal instant does the formal vous of her initial words to Valéry become tu.
Pozzi also devoted a poem to Scopolamine, another painkiller. She relates how the drug induced sensations of selflessness and timelessness: “My heart has left my history,” she senses, “I am saved I am lost / I seek myself in the unknown / A name free of memory.” Pozzi often imagined death as a stage beyond which her soul not only persisted but enabled her to escape, like a Hindu or a Buddhist with respect to karma, an endless cycle of reincarnation, memory and suffering.
Pozzi’s Journal de jeunesse 1893-1906 and her Journal 1913-1934 reveal the personal torment behind this haunting vision. She was a gifted woman permanently caught up in a nexus of conflicts, frustrations, contradictions and yearnings, not to mention her long fight against an incurable illness.
As the daughter of Samuel Pozzi, a celebrated surgeon and gynecologist, Pozzi grew up amidst wealth and culture. Family friends included Sarah Bernhardt, Proust, Colette and many other artists. (Her parents formed one of Proust’s models for M. et Mme Cottard in A la recherche du temps perdu.) Yet her father was indifferent to her, her estranged parents lived separate lives and no genuine efforts were undertaken, despite the family’s fortune, to give Catherine the formal education that her keen intelligence deserved. Defiantly, she became an impassioned autodidact who could hold her own with the exceedingly cerebral Valéry when they discussed higher algebra, contemporary physics or ancient languages.
She frequented literary salons, whose gossip she chronicled acerbically in her Journal. Stimulated by her relationship with Valéry, she nonetheless worked slowly and sporadically on her writing. Moreover, once Agnès had been brought out to acclaim in 1927, Pozzi developed a sort of writerly over-scrupulousness—a paralyzing disdainful rigor perhaps mixed with a secret lack of self-confidence—that made her look aghast at the prospect of publishing. She even kept putting off her friend Jean Paulhan, the resourceful and perceptive editor-in-chief of La Nouvelle Revue Française, who often requested prose or poetry for upcoming issues. Their lively letters disclose how Paulhan once coaxed Pozzi into giving him “Nova” and “Scopolamine,” only to later see the enfeebled woman arrive at the print shop, as the December 1932 issue was in the last stages of production, and withdraw the poems. Although Pozzi wrote a few reviews and scientific articles for Le Figaro, “Ave” (1929) was the only poem that she allowed to appear. The critic Ernst Robert Curtius admonished her for “wasting such a brilliant, so victoriously obvious, talent.”
Before dying, Pozzi listed in her diary the six poems that she most valued: “Vale,” “Ave,” “Maya,” “Nova,” “Scopolamine” and “Nyx.” She expressed the wish that they be published together—a wish that came true when the review Mesures included them in 1935, then issued a special offprint edition. The new Gallimard edition includes 29 additional poems, her translation of poems by the esoteric German symbolist poet Stefan George, her French versions of ancient Greek Orphic verse, and a few passages from her Journal and Peau d’âme. “Sappho did not travel through time on more words than that”—as Catherine Pozzi herself put it a few days before passing away.

John Singer Sargent

Dr. Samuel Jean Pozzi at Home
(Catherine's father)

Special thanks to Francesca Miller, a friend of the JSS Gallery,- for sending me a links to these articles.  

Special thanks to:

France Magazine


By:  Natasha Wallace
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Created 7/2/2004