12-10-1870

Pierre Louÿs

PIERRE LOUŸS, French author born (d. 1925); a poet and Romantic writer, most renowned for Lesbian and classical themes in some of his writings. He is known as a writer who “expressed pagan sensuality with stylistic perfection.”

In 1891, Louÿs helped found a literary review, La Conque, where he proceeded to publish Astarte, an early collection of erotic verse already marked by his distinctive elegance and refinement of style. He followed up in 1894 with another erotic collection in 143 prose poems, Songs of Bilitis (Les Chansons de Bilitis), this time with strong Lesbian themes. It was divided into three sections, each representative of a phase of Bilitis’ life: Bucolics in Pamphylia, Elegies at Mytilene, and Epigrams in the Isle of Cyprus; dedicated to her were also a short Life of Bilitis and three epitaphs in The Tomb of Bilitis.

What made The Songs sensational is Louÿs’ claim that the poems were the work of an ancient Greek courtesan and contemporary of Sappho, Bilitis; to himself, Louÿs ascribed the modest role of translator. The pretense did not last very long, and “translator” Louÿs was soon unmasked as Bilitis herself. This did little to tarnish The Songs of Bilitis, however, as it was praised as a fount of elegant sensuality and refined style, even more extraordinary for the author’s compassionate portrayal of lesbian (and female in general) sexuality.

Some of the poems were tailored as songs for voice and piano, and, in  1897, Louÿs’ close friend Claude Debussy composed a musical adaptation. In 1955, one of the first Lesbian organizations in America called itself Daughters of Bilitis, and to this day Louÿs’ Songs continues to be an important work for Lesbians.

Many erotic artists have illustrated Louÿs’ writings. Some of the most renowned have been Louis Icart, Pascal Pia, Marcel Vertes, Suzanne Ballivet, Edouard Zier, Joseph Kuhn-Regnier, Pierre Lissac, Beresford Egan and Georges Pichard et al.

The most famous illustrations for The Songs of Bilitis have been done by Willy Pogany in art deco style for a publication privately circulated by Macy-Massius, New York, in 1926.