At an antique store, my eye was caught by a Dover edition with charming illustrations (somewhat ironically bursting with phallic imagery) by Willy Pogany of an English translation by Alvah C. Bessie of Pierre Louÿs' 1894 The Songs of Bilitis. I was too cheap to spring for the book, but back home I did read (via the sorcery of the internet archive) translations of Louÿs' little work by Mitchell S. Buck and Mary Hanson Harrison. The Songs of Bilitis are almost 150 prose poems, each shorter than half a page, that detail the sex life of a woman in Ancient Greece, or at least some 19th-century Frenchman's fantasy of what such a woman's sex life might be like. The first of the prose poems is about how our heroine masturbates by rubbing her crotch against a tree limb--well, at least I think that is what is going on.
|Trans: Mitchell S. Buck|
The poems describe Bilitis' various sexual relationships over the course of her life, including those with the man who fathers her child, but the famous thing about the book (if the cover of the Buck translation is any guide) is its depiction of Bilitis' lesbian affairs; a highlight (in the fifty-third poem) is Bilitis as groom at her wedding to the love of her life.
But alas, Bilitis' little wife abandons her and we witness Bilitis' struggles to drown her sadness in the caresses of one girl after another. Then she becomes a courtesan and a procurer, growing rich selling sex to men and throwing extravagant parties complete with jugglers and dancers at her big house.
|from 133, trans. Mary Hanson Harrison|
Finally, Bilitis grows old and dies; the last three poems in the book are the inscriptions on her tomb.
Louÿs' book is a pleasant diversion, perhaps valuable to students of literature about homosexuals (this book, though written by a man, was apparently embraced by activist lesbians) and to those interested in literary hoxes--like the guy behind Ossian, Louÿs wrote these little ditties about girls groping each others' breasts and bathing in the nude and shopping for a dildo and so forth and then tried to convince people he was merely translating ancient texts he had discovered. Hilarious.