Sappho, the tenth Muse
, fresco from Pompeii
In ancient Sumer, a whole cycle of poems revolved around the erotic lovemaking between the goddess Inanna and her consort Dumuzid the Shepherd.
Many erotic poems have survived from ancient Greece and Rome. The Greek poets Straton of Sardis and Sappho of Lesbos both wrote erotic lyric poems. The poet Archilochus wrote numerous satirical poems filled with obscene and erotic imagery. Erotic poems continued to be written in Hellenistic and Roman times by writers like Automedon (The Professional and Demetrius the Fortunate), Philodemus (Charito) and Marcus Argentarius. Notable Roman erotic poets included Catullus, Propertius, Tibullus, Ovid, Martial and Juvenal, and the anonymous Priapeia. Some later Latin authors such as Joannes Secundus also wrote erotic verse.
Haft Peykar (Persian: هفت پیکر) also known as Bahramnameh (بهرامنامه, The Book of Bahram) is a romantic epic by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi written in 1197. This poem is a part of the Nizami's Khamsa. The original title Haft Peykar can be translated literally as “seven portraits” with the figurative meaning of “seven beauties.” The poem is a masterpiece of erotic literature, but it is also a profoundly moralistic work.
During the Renaissance period, many poems were not written for publication; instead, they were merely circulated in manuscript form among a relatively limited readership. This was the original method of circulation for the Sonnets of William Shakespeare, who also wrote the erotic poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.
17th and 18th centuries
In the 17th century, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647–80) was notorious for obscene verses, many of which were published posthumously in compendiums of poetry by him and other Restoration rakes such as Sir Charles Sedley, Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset, and George Etherege. Though many of the poems attributed to Rochester were actually by other authors, his reputation as a libertine was such that his name was used as a selling point by publishers of collections of erotic verse for centuries after. One poem which definitely was by him was "A Ramble in St. James's Park" in which the protagonist's quest for healthy exercise in the park uncovers instead "Bugg'ries, Rapes and Incest" on ground polluted by debauchery from the time when "Ancient Pict began to Whore". This poem was being censored from collections of Rochester's poetry as late as 1953, though, in line with a general change in attitudes to sexuality, it was dramatised as a scene in the film The Libertine about his life based on an existing play.
English collections of erotic verse by various hands, include the Drollery collections of the 17th century; Pills to Purge Melancholy (1698–1720); the Roxburghe Ballads; Bishop Percy's Folio; The Musical Miscellany; National Ballad and Song: Merry Songs and Ballads Prior to the Year AD 1800 (1895–97) edited by J. S. Farmer; the three volume
Poetica Erotica (1921) and its more obscene supplement the Immortalia (1927) both edited by T. R. Smith. French collections include Les Muses gaillardes (1606) Le Cabinet satyrique (1618) and La Parnasse des poetes satyriques (1622).
A famous collection of four erotic poems, was published in England in 1763, called An Essay on Woman. This included the title piece, an obscene parody of Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man"; "Veni Creator: or, The Maid's Prayer", which is original; the "Universal Prayer", an obscene parody of Pope's poem of the same name, and "The Dying Lover to his Prick", which parodies "A Dying Christian to his Soul" by Pope. These poems have been attributed to John Wilkes and/or Thomas Potter and receive the distinction of being the only works of erotic literature ever read out loud, in their entirety in the House of Lords—before being declared obscene and blasphemous by that august body and the supposed author, Wilkes, declared an outlaw.
Robert Burns worked to collect and preserve Scottish folk songs, sometimes revising, expanding, and adapting them. One of the better known of these collections is The Merry Muses of Caledonia (the title is not by Burns), a collection of bawdy lyrics that were popular in the music halls of Scotland as late as the 20th century.
One of the 19th century's foremost poets—Algernon Charles Swinburne—devoted much of his considerable talent to erotic verse, producing, inter alia, twelve eclogues on flagellation titled The Flogging Block "by Rufus Rodworthy, annotated by Barebum Birchingly"; more was published anonymously in The Whippingham Papers (c. 1888). Another notorious anonymous 19th-century poem on the same subject is The Rodiad, ascribed (seemingly falsely and in jest) to George Colman the Younger. John Camden Hotten even wrote a pornographic comic opera, Lady Bumtickler’s Revels, on the theme of flagellation in 1872.
Pierre Louÿs helped found a literary review, La Conque in 1891, 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.
Although D. H. Lawrence could be regarded as a writer of love poems, he usually dealt in the less romantic aspects of love such as sexual frustration or the sex act itself. Ezra Pound in his Literary Essays complained of Lawrence's interest in his own "disagreeable sensations" but praised him for his "low-life narrative." This is a reference to Lawrence's dialect poems akin to the Scots poems of Robert Burns, in which he reproduced the language and concerns of the people of Nottinghamshire from his youth. He called one collection of poems Pansies partly for the simple ephemeral nature of the verse but also a pun on the French word panser, to dress or bandage a wound. "The Noble Englishman" and "Don't Look at Me" were removed from the official edition of Pansies on the grounds of obscenity; Lawrence felt wounded by this.
From the age of 17, Gavin Ewart acquired a reputation for wit and accomplishment through such works as "Phallus in Wonderland" and "Poems and Songs", which appeared in 1939 and was his first collection. The intelligence and casually flamboyant virtuosity with which he framed his often humorous commentaries on human behaviour made his work invariably entertaining and interesting. The irreverent eroticism for which his poetry is noted resulted in W H Smith's banning of his "The Pleasures of the Flesh" (1966) from their shops.
Canadian poet John Glassco wrote
Squire Hardman (1967), a long poem in heroic couplets, purporting to be a reprint of an 18th-century poem by George Colman the Younger, on the theme of flagellation.
Also the Italian Una Chi distinguished herself among other publications for coldly analytical prose and for the crudeness of the stories.