The Songs of Bilitis  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Songs of Bilitis (Les Chansons de Bilitis; Paris, 1894) is a collection of erotic poetry by Pierre Louÿs with strong lesbian themes.

The book's sensual poems are in the manner of Sappho; the introduction claims they were found on the walls of a tomb in Cyprus, written by a woman of Ancient Greece called Bilitis, a courtesan and contemporary of Sappho, to whose 'life' Louÿs dedicated a small section of his book. On publication, the volume deceived even the most expert of scholars. However, the poems were actually clever fabulations, authored by Louÿs himself, but are still considered important literature.

Louÿs claimed the 143 prose poems, excluding 3 epitaphs, were entirely the work of this ancient poet - a place where she poured both her most intimate thoughts and most public actions, from childhood innocence in Pamphylia to the loneliness and chagrin of her later years. Although for the most part The Songs of Bilitis is original work, many of the poems in the collection were reworked epigrams from the Palatine Anthology, and Louÿs even borrowed some verses from Sappho herself. The poems themselves are a blend of mellow sensuality and polished style in the manner of the Parnassian school, but underneath run subtle Gallic undertones which Louÿs could never escape. To give authenticity to the forgery, Louÿs listed some poems as "untranslated" in the index; he even craftily fabricated an entire section of his book called "The Life of Bilitis", crediting a certain fictional archaeologist Herr G. Heim as the discoverer of Bilitis' tomb. And though Louÿs displayed great knowledge of ancient Greek culture, ranging from children's games in "Tortie Tortue" to application of scents in "Perfumes", the poems were eventually exposed as a literary fraud. This did little to taint their literary value in the eyes of the readers, however, and Louÿs' open and sympathetic celebration of lesbian sexuality earned him sensation and historic significance.

Influence

Like the poems of Sappho, those of 'Bilitis' address themselves to the sapphic love of women and girls. The book became a sought-after cult item among the 20th-century lesbian underground and was only reprinted officially in the 1970s. The expanded French second edition is reprinted in facsimile by Dover Books in America. This second edition had a title page that read: "This little book of antique love is respectfully dedicated to the young women of a future society."

Seventy years later, one of the first Lesbian organizations would call itself "Daughters of Bilitis". Founded in 1955 in San Francisco, it was a place for lesbians to meet other lesbians while promoting the acceptance of lesbians as legitimate members of society.

In 1897, Claude Debussy, Louÿs' close friend, composed a musical adaptation of three of the poems: "La flûte de Pan", "La Chevelure" and "Le Tombeau des Naïades".

In 1977, a French film titled Bilitis was released, directed by David Hamilton. It had little connection with Pierre Louÿs' original, being concerned with a twentieth century girl and her sexual awakening.

Illustrations

The Songs of Bilitis have been illustrated extensively by numerous erotic artists.

The most famous illustrator to grace the collection with his drawings, was Louis Icart but the most famous illustrations were done by Willy Pogany for a 1926 privately-circulated New York edition. These were drawn in a very art deco style, with numerous visual puns on sexual objects.

Other artists have been Edouard Chimot, Pascal Pia, Pierre Leroy, Alméry Lobel Riche, Suzanne Ballivet, Joseph Kuhn-Régnier, Pierre Lissac, Paul-Emile Bécat, Monique Rouver, Génia Minache, Lucio Milandre, and J. A. Bresval.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Songs of Bilitis" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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