Conscious and unconscious erotica

Mark twain pic

Some writers knowingly produced erotica; others unknowingly published smutty material. Here are a few examples


Pietro Aretino (1492 – 1556), Sonnetti Lussuriosi(1524)

The Sonnetti Lussuriosiof this poet, gossip and writer of witty plays was a collection of verses and erotic drawings that, like the Kama Sutra, demonstrated positions for sexual intercourse. Though the book proved very popular, it earned the wrath of the Pope, an erstwhile patron of Aretino, along with Emperor Charles V. Aretino lost his papal patronage, but he also was taken to task by the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, Dr John Donne, who objected that some of the sexual positions were missing.

Norman Douglas (1868 – 1952), Some Limericks(1928)

The author of Old Calabria and South Wind, also compiled Venus in the Kitchen, a collection of aphrodisiac recipes, and the privately printed Some Limericks. The latter, which has been described as ‘ irreverent, scatological and erotic ‘ , was accompanied by ‘ scholarly ‘ notes that sent up the sort of po-faced critical apparatus so beloved of Ph D candidates.

W S. Gilbert ( 1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan ( 1842 – 1900) . ‘ The Sod’s Opera’.

The humorous double act that gave us so many wonderful operettas also composed The Sod’s Opera , among the characters of which are Count Tostoff and the Brothers Bollox ( a pair of hangers on) and Scrotum, a wrinkled old retainer. Oddly, there are no records of a public performance, though it would be refreshing if some village Opera society put on their version of it.


Anais Nin ( 1903 -77 ) The Delta of Venus.

The friend of pornographer Henry Miller got together with Nin and an army of hard up writers to form a sort of porn factory which turned out several erotic works, some commissioned by an anonymous tycoon. Ms Nin was also a novelist and a prolific diarist.

Felix Salten aka Siegmund Salzmann ( 1869 – 1949) Josefine Mutzenbacher.

The apparently wholesome author of Bambi(1929), a children’s story which recounted the struggle of an orphaned deer, which was later immortalized by Walt Disney, also penned an extremely well received erotic novel that painted a very accurate picture of  the life of a prostitute among the petit bourgeoisie in fin de siecleVienna. Today it is regarded as equal in status in the German-speaking word to our own Fanny Hill.

Algernon C. Swinburne  ( 1837 – 1909) ‘ The Flogging Block ‘ (BM MSS)

The diminutive author of Atalantis in Calydonand Astrophel and other Poemswas also a secret aficionado of flagellation, a fact which his close friends knew about but shielded from Swinburne’s adoring public. The poet was also a fan of the Marquis de Sade and probably acted out his fantasies by frequently visiting a notorious ‘ house of correction ‘ in Circus Road, St John’s Wood, where he was flogged by heavily made up young ladies.

In his epic manuscript poem ‘The Flogging Block’ Swinburne is disguised as ‘ Rufus Rodworthy Esq’ and there are annotations by ‘ Barebum Birchingham Esq’. Some flavour of the tone of the poem can be gained by the following extract:

‘What a great fleshy bottom, both fleshy and brawny,

As plump as two peaches, not skinny and tawny…’


Mark Twain (above) 1601 or A Fireside Conversation in ye Time of Queen Elizabeth(1880)

The famous author of Huckleberry Finnand Tom Sawyerwrote this piece of erotica in 1876 for his friend the Rev Joseph Twitchell. Somehow the American Secretary of State, John Hay, got hold of it and sent it to a friend, Alex Gunn, who suggested that it be printed. Hay was appalled by this prospect but in the end it was published privately in several countries. The first part of it is rather puerile, consisting partly of a conversation among the Queen, Ben Jonson and Shaxpur (sic) as to who might have produced a monstrous fart that had polluted the atmosphere.

T.S. Eliot and Professor Bonamy Dobree, The King Bolo Letters, MS in Brotherton Library Leeds University.

Fans of the high Anglican poet and publisher T.S. Eliot might be amused by the correspondence he conducted with a learned professor of English Literature in the early years of the twentieth century on the subject of the fictional King Bolo, his Big Black Kween and their sexual adventures.



Robert Browning ( 1812- 189),.

In one of Browning’s most famous poem can be found the following lines:

‘…Then owls and bats

Cowls and twats,

Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods

Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry’

‘Pippa Passes’

The rather naïve Browning believed that the word ‘twat ‘described a sort of headgear favoured by nuns, as he explained to a curious editor at the OED. After all, he had encountered the word in his youth while reading Vanity of Vanities(1659)

They talk’d of his having a Cardinall’s Hat

They’d send him as soon an old Nun’s Twat.


Glad you explained it, Robert.

George Eliot (1819 – 80)

‘Mrs Glegg had doubtless the glossiest and crispest brown curls in her drawers, as well as curls in various degrees of fuzzy laxness’

The Mill on the Floss.

Henry James ( 1843 – 1916)

‘ Oh, I can’t explain’, cried Roderick impatiently, returning to his work. ‘I’ve only got one way of expressing my deepest feelings—it’s this.’ And he swung his tool.

Roderick Hudson.

Dr Johnson (1709 – 84)

‘That confidence which presumes to do, by surveying the surface, what labour can perform, by penetrating the bottom.

Preface to Shakespeare


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