The erotic works of Pierre Louÿs

(at the moment this is an abridged version of the Wikipedia entry for Pierre Louÿs; a revised text and illustrations will follow shortly)

Pierre Louÿs (1870–1925) was a French poet and writer, most renowned for lesbian and classical themes in some of his writings. He is known as a writer who sought to express pagan sensuality with stylistic perfection.

Pierre Louÿs was born Pierre Félix Louis on 10 December 1870 in Ghent, Belgium, but moved to France where he would spend the rest of his life. He studied at the École Alsacienne in Paris, and there he developed a close friendship with a future Nobel Prize winner and champion of homosexual rights, André Gide. From 1890 onwards, he began spelling his name as Louÿs, and pronouncing the final S, as a way of expressing his fondness for classical Greek culture (the letter Y is known in French as i-grec). In the 1890s he became a friend of the noted Irish dramatist Oscar Wilde, and was the dedicatee of Wilde’s Salomé in its original (French) edition. Louÿs enjoyed entrée into homosexual circles. Louÿs started writing his first erotic texts at the age of eighteen, at which point he developed an interest in the Parnassian and Symbolist schools of writing.

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’s 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 was 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 pretence 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. In 1955 one of the first lesbian organisations in America called itself Daughters of Bilitis, and to this day Louÿs’ Songs continues to be an important work for lesbians.

In 1896, Louÿs published his first novel, Aphrodite: Ancient Manners (Aphrodite: mœurs antiques), a depiction of courtesan life in Alexandria. It is considered a mixture of both literary excess and refinement, and, numbering at 350,000 copies, was the best selling work by any living French author in his day. Louÿs went on to publish Les Aventures du roi Pausole (The Adventures of King Pausole) in 1901, and Pervigilium Mortis in 1916, both of them libertine compositions, and Manuel de civilité pour les petites filles à l’usage des maisons d’éducation, written in 1917 and published posthumously and anonymously in 1927. Even while on his deathbed, Pierre Louÿs continued to write delicately obscene verses.

Many erotic artists have illustrated Louÿs's writings. Some of the most renowned have been Georges Barbier, Paul-Émile Bécat, Antoine Calbet, Beresford Egan, Foujita, Louis Icart, Joseph Kuhn-Régnier, Georges Lepape, Mariette Lydis, Milo Manara, André Edouard Marty, Pascal Pia, Georges Pichard, Rojan, Marcel Vertès and Édouard Zier.