Pierre Louÿs

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Pierre Louÿs
Pierre Louÿs, portrait.jpg
Born Pierre-Félix Louis
(1870-12-10)10 December 1870
Ghent, Belgium
Died 6 June 1925(1925-06-06) (aged 54)
Paris, France
Resting place Montparnasse Cemetery
Pen name Pierre Chrysis, Peter Lewys, Chibrac
Occupation novelist, poet
Language French
Period 1891–1925
Genre Erotic literature
Literary movement Symbolism
Notable works Les Chansons de Bilitis


Pierre Louÿs (French: [pjɛʁ lu.i(s)], 10 December 1870 – 6 June 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."[1] He was made first a Chevalier and then an Officer of the Légion d'honneur for his contributions to French literature.


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 or "Greek I").[2] 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 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.

Early writings[edit]

In 1891, Louÿs helped found a literary review, La Conque,[3] 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.[4][5] 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 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:[6]

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

Debussy also wrote Six épigraphes antiques in 1914 as piano pieces for four hands, commissioned as preludes to a recital of Louÿs' poems:

  • Pour invoquer Pan, dieu du vent d'ete
  • Pour un tombeau sans nom
  • Pour que la nuit soit propice
  • Pour la danseuse aux crotales
  • Pour l'egyptienne
  • Pour remercier la pluie au matin

In 1955, one of the first lesbian organizations in America called itself Daughters of Bilitis,[7] and to this day Louÿs' Songs continues to be an important work for lesbians.

Later writings[edit]

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 Pausolus) in 1901, 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.[8][9]

Inspired by Abel Lefranc's arguments for the Derbyite theory of Shakespeare authorship, Louÿs proposed in 1919 that the works of Moliére were actually written by Corneille.

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


Louÿs was named Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur on 31 December 1909 for his contribution to French literature as a man of letters. He was promoted to Officier de la Légion d'honneur on 14 January 1922.[10]


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.

The best known illustrations for The Songs of Bilitis were 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[edit]

  • 1891: Astarte
  • 1894: Les chansons de Bilitis ("The songs of Bilitis")
    • 1926 The Songs of Bilitis, English translation by Alvah Bessie
    • 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")
  • 1898: La Femme et le pantin ("The Woman and the Puppet")
    • 1908 Woman and Puppet English translation by G. F. Monkshood (pseudonym of William James Clarke ).
  • 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")

Published posthumously:

  • 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 Mère ("Three Daughters of their Mother")
    • 1958 The She-Devils (as by "Peter Lewys"), anonymous English translation [by William S. Robinson] published at Paris by the Ophelia Press.
    • 1969 Mother's Three Daughters, English translation by Sabine D'Estree (pseudonym of Richard Seaver )
  • 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[12] by Patrick J. Kearney



  1. ^ Donald Watt (ed), Aldous Huxley: The Critical Heritage (London/Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul). Footnote to page 51: "Louÿs, French novelist and poet (1870-1925) who sought to express pagan sensuality with stylistic perfection"
  2. ^ "Pierre Louÿs: An Inventory of His Papers in the Carlton Lake Collection at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center". Research.hrc.utexas.edu:8080. Retrieved 2013-09-02. 
  3. ^ Rosemary Lloyd, Mallarmé: the poet and his circle. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-8014-8993-8, pp. 195-197
  4. ^ David Grayson, "Bilitis and Tanagra: afternoons with nude women" in Jane F. Fulcher (ed.), Debussy and his world. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-691-09042-4, pp. 117-140
  5. ^ Peter Cogman, "Louÿs, Pierre" in The Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature, Edited by Gaétan Brulotte and John Philips (pp. 828-835). London : Routledge, 2006, ISBN 978-1-57958-441-2
  6. ^ Linda Cummins, Debussy and the Fragment. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006, ISBN 90-420-2065-2, p. 109
  7. ^ Elisabeth Ladenson, Proust's Lesbianism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-8014-3595-1, p. 3
  8. ^ Patrick J. Kearney, A History of Erotic Literature. London: Parragon, 1982, ISBN 1-85813-198-7, p. 171
  9. ^ Pia, Pascal. Les Livres de l'Enfer: bibliographie critique des ouvrages érotiques dans leurs différentes éditions du XVIe siècle à nos jours, C. Coulet et A. Faure, 1978, ISBN 2-902687-01-X, pp. 425, 426, 778
  10. ^ French government record archives
  11. ^ "Translations by Whittaker Chambers". WhittakerChambers.org. Retrieved 1 December 2010. 
  12. ^ Scissors-and-paste.net

External links[edit]

See also...
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