Pierre Louÿs


Pierre Louÿs (December 10, 1870 - June 6, 1925) was a French 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."


Pierre Louÿs was born Pierre Louis on December 10, 1870 in Ghent, Belgium, but moved to France where he would spend the rest of his life. He studied at the Ecole Alsacienne in Paris, and there he developed a close friendship with a future Nobel Prize winner and champion of homosexual rights, André Gide. In the 1890s, he became a friend of the noted English dramatist and homosexual, Oscar Wilde. Although heterosexual, Louÿs enjoyed entree into homosexual circles.

Louÿs started writing his first erotic texts at the age of 18, 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' 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. Louÿs' close friend Claude Debussy composed a musical adaptation Chansons de Bilitis (Lesure Number 90) for voice and piano (1897-1898) in three parts:

  • La flûte de pan: Pour le jour des Hyacinthies
  • La chevelure: Il m'a dit «Cette nuit d'ai rêvé»
  • Le tombeau des Naiades: Le long du bois couvert de givre.

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.

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, Pervigilium Mortis in 1916, both of them libertine compositions, and Manuel de civilité (Manual of Etiquette) in 1917 (published posthumously and anonymously in 1927), a parody whose obscenity is almost unparalleled even in the long history of French clandestine publishing.

Even while on his deathbed, Pierre Louÿs continued to write delicately obscene verses.


Many erotic artists have illustrated Louÿs' writings. Some of the most renowned have been Louis Icart, Foujita, Pascal Pia, Marcel Vertès, Rojan, Pierre Leroy, Alméry Lobel Riche, Louis-André Berthommé, Suzanne Ballivet, Édouard Zier, Joseph Kuhn-Régnier, Pierre Lissac, Paul-Emile Bécat, Renée Ringel, Monique Rouver, Génia Minache, Mariette Lydis, Lucio Milandre, J.A. Bresval, Antoine Calbet, Milo Manara, Beresford Egan and Georges Pichard etc. 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-Masius, New York, in 1926.


  • Admirable race, to whom Beauty might appear nude without exciting laughter or false shame!
  • Why do love affairs always end miserably?
  • The only thing that comes to disappear nobly and beautifully is the sun.

List of works

  • 1891: Astarte
  • 1894: Les chansons de Bilitis ("The songs of Bilitis")
    • 1929: edition including suppressed poems
    • 1930: Véritables chansons de Bilitis ("Real songs of Bilitis", probably not by Pierre Louÿs)
  • 1896: Aphrodite: mœurs antiques ("Aphrodite: ancient manners")
    • 1928: edition including suppressed passages
  • 1898: La femme et le pantin ("Woman and puppet")
  • 1901: ''Les aventures du roi Pausole ("The adventures of King Pausole")
  • 1903: Sanguines
  • 1906: Archipel ("Archipelago")
  • 1916: Pervigilium mortis ("Death watch")
  • 1925: Le crépuscule des nymphes ("The twilight of the nymphs")
  • 1925: Quatorze images ("Fourteen images")
  • 1926: Manuel de civilité pour les petites filles, à l'usage des maisons d'éducation ("Handbook of behaviour for little girls, to be used in educational establishments")
  • 1926: Trois Filles de Leur Mére ("Their mother's three daughters")
  • 1927: Psyché
  • 1927: Pages (selected texts)
  • 1927: Douze douzains de dialogues ("Twelve dozen dialogues")
  • 1927: Histoire du roi Gonzalve et des douze princesses ("Story of king Gonzalve and the twelve princesses")
  • 1927: Poésies érotiques ("Erotic poems")
  • 1927: Pybrac
  • 1927: Trente-deux quatrains ("Thirty-two quatrains")
  • 1933: Au temps des Juges: chants bibliques ("In the time of the Judges: Biblical songs")
  • 1933: Contes choisis (selected stories)
  • 1938: La femme ("Woman")
  • 1945: Stances et derniers vers ("Stanzas and last verses")
  • 1948: Le trophée de vulves légendaires ("The trophy of legendary vulvas")
  • 1949: Cydalise
  • 1988: L'île aux dames ("The island of women")

For recent limited editions of further writings by Pierre Louÿs, see the bibliography by Patrick J. Kearney


External links

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