[Photoset: Willy Pogany’s illustrations for The Songs of Bilitis, done for a privately circulated collection of the text in New York.]
“This little book of ancient love is respectfully dedicated to the young ladies of the society of the future.” -Author’s Dedication
Written in 1894 by Pierre Louÿs, The Songs of Bilitis are a notable text not only because of its content, but what it pretended to be. When the book of verse was initially released, Louÿs claimed the poems were found on a wall in Cyprus, written by a contemporary of Sappho named Bilitis. Thus, the Songs were his own personal ‘translation’, with all one hundred and forty-three poems styled after Sappho’s method. One of them, The Living Past, is copied below:
I left the bed as she had left it, unmade and rumpled, coverlets awry, so that her body’s print might rest still warm beside my own.
Until the next day I did not go to bathe, I wore no clothes and did not dress my hair, for fear I might erase some sweet caress.
That morning I did not eat, nor yet at dusk, and put no rouge nor powder on my lips, so that her kiss might cling a little longer.
I left the shutters closed, and did not open the door, for fear the memory of the night before might vanish with the wind.
Louÿs went to great lengths to ensure the public of its authenticity, listing some poems as untranslated and creating a section of the book with ‘historical’ background on Bilitis herself. His in-depth knowledge of ancient Greek culture allowed the ruse to continue for quite some time, letting the work gain a great deal of notoriety.
Even exposure of the truth did little to change public opinion of the poetry, as it is nonetheless a very sympathetic portrayal of women in love with one another for the time period, including an embrace of sexuality that was still regularly being censored, as Louÿs was a contemporary and friend of Oscar Wilde.
Claude Debussy composed a musical adaptation for some of the epigrams - Chansons de Bilitis (Lesure Number 90) - in 1898, to be accompanied with voice and piano. Six more epigraphs were eventually commissioned from him to match Louÿs’ work. Several more editions of the Songs were printed, with many different illustrators trying their hands at rendering the scenes within.
The entirety of The Songs of Bilitis, including illustrations, can be found here. Three arcs compose the entire text; the first showing Bilitis as she goes through her youth, the second in discovering an attraction to women, and the latter in indulgence of divine mysteries and mysticism.