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One of Olive’s admirers …


John Davidson. Portrait from “The Yellow Book.”

At sixteen Olive Custance was introduced into the literary society of 1890s London, meeting such men as the publisher John Lane, the writer and critic Richard Le Gallienne,  the future Father John Gray, and many others of the fin de siècle literary scene. One of these was also the now largely forgotten Scottish lyric poet , John Davidson. Davidson visited London, joined the Rhymers’ Club and frequented Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, as literary men still do (eg.

Davidson was immediately taken by what Le Gallienne called the “flower-like charm” of the young Olive, and he made an eery prophecy about her, predicting both the course of her poetry and the nature of her marriage. It  begins like this:

“At sixteen years, she knew no care:
How could she, sweet and pure as light?
And there pursued her everywhere
Butterflies all white.”

And ends like this:

“There only came to her forlorn
Butterflies all black.”

The poor man walked into the sea in 1909 and was never seen again. May he rest in peace.

Source: Manuscript in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

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Black Butterflies

O words of all my songs . . . black butterflies!
Wild words of all the wayward songs I sing . . .
Called from the tomb of some enchanted past
By that strange sphinx, my soul, they slowly rise
And settle on white pages wing to wing . . .
White pages like flower-petals fluttering
Held spellbound there till some blind hour shall bring
The perfect voice that, delicate and wise,
Shall set them free in fairyland at last!
That garden of all dreams and ecstasies
Where my soul sings through an eternal spring,
Watching alone with enigmatic eyes,
Dark wings on pale flower-petals quivering . . .
O words of all my songs . . . black butterflies!

Olive Custance

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New biographical work on Custance

Review by Edwin James King

Adams, J. “Olive Custance: A Poet Crossing Boundaries.” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, vol. 61 no. 1, 2018, pp. 35-65. Project MUSE,


The British writer, historian and television producer Jad Adams has produced a extensively researched biographical account of Olive Custance. It is now, by a few hundred words,  the longest such work in print (the other two shorter ones are Father Sewell’s [1] and my own[2].) So I although I have to declare an interest, in the parliamentary sense of that term, I am perhaps as well-informed on the subject as I am opinionated, because I am deep in study of the same documents as Mr Adams. He is very much a confrère, rather than a competitor, so I hope he will not take any criticisms too much too heart. In this review I will explain why I enjoyed this article and why I also found it somewhat disappointing, at least as a biography of a poet.

Drawing largely on the work of various biographers of Lord Alfred Douglas and synthesising the information they give about Custance, Adams also gives some new information from the diaries in the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library and from letters in the Eccles Collection in the British Library. I have been looking at the London documents for a few years and have bought a ticket to New York to read the documents there in February 2018.  But I have also read documents from a few other places that Adams hasn’t visited (Oxford, British Columbia, Paris). It is not a level playing field … Adams is a scholar of a whole generation of writers so he cannot be everywhere at once; I am an Olive Custance fanatic and my main research focus is her and her alone.

One oft-neglected fact about Olive Custance is that most of the poetry that made her a celebrated figure of the ‘decadent’ 1890s was the work of girl of between 15 and 17 and not of a mature woman [3]. She was a well-read young girl with a lively imagination, fed by readings of Byron, Swinburne and Pater and artistic and sophisticated playacting with her younger sister, Cécile. She never went to school, but at 16 met the delicately handsome poet, John Gray, Oscar Wilde’s former intimate and future Catholic priest. She immediately fell in love with him, as her first ‘fairy prince’. In fact she fell in love with most of the really interesting people she met from then on (aided and abetted by a maid who enjoyed living and loving vicariously, rather like Juliet’s maid in Romeo and Juliet.) One of the young men was the poet and writer Richard Le Galienne, who believed she had the makings of a poet. Once her parents could be persuaded that she was old enough to be published (it took a few years), she turned out to be quite a hit. Her poems in the popular papers such as The Pall Mall Gazette reached a far wider audience than many of the serious-minded decadents and aesthetes whose handcrafted limited editions usually never ran to more than 200 copies and who rather disdained the mass market. She eventually married Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s lover and her second ‘fairy prince’;  he was a better poet than she was, but neither he, nor John Gray, nor even Oscar Wilde enjoyed the worldwide attention of Olive Custance as a poet in the period known as the fin de siècle and the Edwardian era. In those days, Olive’s poems were read out during tens of thousands of peaceful family home evenings round the fire or the piano in places as far apart as London, Dublin, Kansas, Melbourne, Cape Town and Dehli; but today, of course, almost no one has heard of Olive Custance. She is known, if at all, as Oscar’s boyfriend’s wife.  That said, Adams’ work is part of a genuine revival. After the work of Nancy Hawkey[4] and Father Brocard Sewell in the 1970s there was a 40-year lull. But now, Olive Custance is coming out of the literary woodwork.

So what does Adams find in all those diaries and manuscripts? Unfortunately, the diaries do not cover her childhood or teenage years at all, and even the adult ones are often mutilated and incomplete.  This can lead to a great of deal of misconceptions, and also means one needs to do a lot of ‘joining up the dots’.  In general, Adams does this with an open mind, a strong sense of the cultural context and a deal of common sense. A breath of fresh air about her marriage, gleaned from the diaries, is that despite their complicated personalities, Bosie and Olive seem to have had a normal marital life; Adams makes a point of making a point about this because this truth has often been occluded by other writers, in their fascination for the theory that their married life was an impossible sham in sexual terms.

Adams gives more attention than has hitherto been given to Richard Le Gallienne, and this is encouraging; especially as the gossip at the time was that he and Olive had been lovers and yet scholars have for some reason tended to discount this. It all contributes to my impression that Le Gallienne was the man who was instrumental in making her reputation as a poet. Adams also seems to get all the complicated chronology around the courtship of Olive and Bosie completely right where other scholars have got muddled over it. (‘Bosie’ was the nickname of Lord Alfred Douglas, perhaps because he was “beau”.)

In regard to the poems themselves, Adams suggests that Custance was a poet who loved to bear her soul in verse, and yet most of the time he does not use her poems as a source for his biographical exposition; which is a pity as they cast a lot of light on her marriage, her beliefs, her priorities and her general outlook.  The only notable exception to this is when he makes a respectful nod to Dr Sarah Parker’s sapphic reading [5] of a number of poems. Nor does he speak much or at all about her style and development as a poet. In the end, although the account is informative and interesting, we are not left with any real impression of Custance as an artist.

There are also one or two biographical blind-spots that at the risk of seeming peevish, one feels it important to highlight. Apart from references to John Lane and the 1890s circle, we do not get a clear sense of the kind of society in which Olive grew up nor the company she kept in London later.

It is suggested that she grew up in the country, which is not quite true. The family only moved there properly when she was in her late teens, and it was in 1893 (when Olive was 19) that her father inherited the property at Weston Hall, Norfolk.  Before that time Eleanor (the mother), Cécile (born 1876) and Olive (born 1874) lived mainly in London, though no doubt many dreamy summer holidays were spent in Norfolk with their grandparents.  (The move to the country may in fact have had something to do with Colonel Custance’s disquiet about his eldest daughter’s social habits in the city.) The period covered by her published diary (1905-1910) [6] is not really covered much at all in the article, and her collections The Blue Bird (1905) and Inn of Dreams (1911) are ignored as life events and also for biographical clues they contain.

The continuing production of verses in the 20s, 30s and 40s, up to and including the Second World War, is not mentioned at all.  These gaps might not be important, but for the fact that we are only interested in her in the first place because she was a poet. Another lacuna is her conversion to Catholicism, which happened of her own accord when she was separated from her husband, and which had probably been in her mind for a long time. Such conversions were an important feature of the lives of a great many artistic people in those days, especially of ‘decadents’, so it is not an ephemeral detail. Although mention is made that at the time of her death she had lapsed, no previous mention is made of her conversion in 1917; nor is it mentioned that shortly before she died, she had expressed a desire to return to the Church.[7]  In general, although the correspondence now available does cast light on her life in the 20s and 30s, this is not adequately covered; especially as it included important and intriguing new friendships such as that with the famous Lord Leverhulme, the soap millionaire, and with the eccentric demonologist, Montague Summers. Marie Stopes is mentioned, and so is John Betjeman, but they were more friends of Bosie’s than of Olive’s.

The article is part of a larger and more ambitious project to provide extended biographical pieces about neglected ‘decadent women’ of the 1890s which will no doubt be brought together in a book in which some of what I have described as ‘gaps’ may well be filled. I have perhaps been a bit harsh in this review, but the context of the wider project perhaps puts the article’s shortcomings in perspective: Adams is mainly interested in Custance as a figure of the 1890s and it is therefore this period of her life which seems the most relevant and interesting, and the relationships of that period which seem to define her.

Father Sewell first expressed the view that Custance’s identification with decadence was nothing more than a pose; and other scholars have suggested that her labelling as a decadent is a mistake, caused simply by her intimate association with figures close to Oscar Wilde.  And yet the label sticks rather persistently. In 1920 Mary C. Sturgeon suggested that we “find in the verse of Olive Custance a complete devotion to beauty, and no other concern at all.” (Studies of Contemporary Poets, 1920, p. 402.) Based on a cursory reading of Opals and Rainbows, one can understand that opinion (even if it is an over-simplification), but even when read in a hurry the next two collections create a very different impression. Adams, however, is much rougher: “if enjoying art and sex without an apparent morality was decadent, then that is what she was.” For a real Olive Custance fan like me, that hurts. C’est trop, Monsieur Adams, c’est trop!

Walter Pater wrote in 1891 that “a true Epicureanism aims at a complete though harmonious development of man’s entire organism. To lose the moral sense therefore, for instance the sense of sin and righteousness, as Mr. Wilde’s heroes are bent on doing so speedily, as completely as they can, is … to become less complex, to pass from a higher to a lower degree of development.” [8] Olive Custance was more of Pater’s tribe than Wilde’s on the question of personal morality; few scholars pick this up.

So, although this new account fills some gaps in the picture, it leaves many still in need of attention, and unfortunately it fails to create an appetite to read the poetry for its own sake or for what it can tell us about the lady behind it. Olive wrote in 1905: “Like a shy child I bring you all my songs.”  The shy child, and her songs, still remain rather in the shadow of the men in her life. So there is plenty more work for people like Adams and me to do.

Edwin King published an edition of Custance’s Inn of Dreams in 2015 and is currently preparing Wild Olive: The Life and Collected Poems of Olive Custance (Lady Alfred Douglas) for publication in 2018.


[1] Brocard Sewell, Olive Custance: Her Life and Work (London: The 1890s Society, 1975).

[2] Olive Custance, Edwin James King (Ed.), The Inn of Dreams: Poems by Olive Custance, London: Saint Austin Press,  2015.)

[3] This is stated in a letter to AJ Symons, dated 27th November 1925, in the Norman Colbeck Collection, University of British Columbia Library, Canada.

[4] Nancy Hawkes, “Olive Custance Douglas: Introduction to a Bibliography” and “Olive Custance Douglas: An Annotated Bibliography of Writings About Her” in English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, Volume 15, Number 1, 1972, pp. 49-51 and 52-56.

[5] Sarah Parker, The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity, 1889–1930 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2013).

[6] Caspar Wintermans, I Desire the Moon: The Diary of Lady Alfred Douglas (Olive Custance), 1905–1910 (Woubrugge: The Avalon Press, 2004).

[7] Rupert Croft-Cooke, Bosie, (New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1963), p. 372.

[8] Walter Pater, ‘A Novel by Mr Oscar Wilde’, The Bookman, 1, Nov. 1891, pp.59-60; reprinted in Walter Pater: Sketches and Reviews (1919).


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Primrose Hill


Primrose Hill, photo from website of the Royal Parks.

Primrose Hill

Wild heart in me that frets and grieves,
Imprisoned here against your will . . .
Sad heart that dreams of rainbow wings
See! I have found some golden things!
The poplar trees on Primrose Hill
With all their shining play of leaves . . .

Proud London like a painted Queen,
Whose crown is heavy on her head . . .
City of sorrow and desire,
Under a sky of opal fire,
Amber and amethyst and red . . .
And how divine the day has been!
For every dawn God builds again
This world of beauty and of pain . . .

Wild heart that hungers for delight,
Imprisoned here against your will;
Sad heart, so eager to be gay!
Loving earth’s lovely things . . . the play
Of wind and leaves on Primrose Hill . . .
Or London dreaming of the night . . .
Adventurous heart, on beauty bent,
That only Heaven could quite content!

From The Inn of Dreams (1911)

Notes (by Edwin King)

In January 1908 the Douglases moved back to London, as Bosie (her husband) had taken up the editorship of The Academy. This was after a period in the country which her husband experienced as idyllic but during which Olive experienced frequent moments of isolation. Her diary shows that her social life took an upward turn. Their large home at 39, Fellows Road, Hampstead, near the idyllic Primrose Hill, combined the best of town and country. Olive still had little to do, but she could go for walks on the Hill, often with her little son Raymond.

Primrose Hill is a hill on the northern side of Regent’s Park in London, and is also the name given to the surrounding district. The hill has a clear view of central London to the south-east, as well as Belsize Park and Hampstead to the north. In the nineteenth century terraces of houses were built nearby for wealthy families. It has the aspect of a little village, very near the heart of London. A diary entry in August 1908 has Olive musing on the beauty of the scene and resolving to ‘make a poem’. The above poem is the fruit of that moment of inspiration.

Sitting on the hill, our poet is surprised to find some respite from London life. The poem is full of, by now, familiar themes : the poet’s own ‘wild heart’, the search for ‘golden things’, her love of nature, the burden of care, God’s gift of a golden new beginning every day.

Most striking of all is the line ‘Sad heart, so eager to be gay !’ which so poignantly sums up the poet’s quest. The last couplet recalls St Augustine, whom Custance must by now have read and taken to heart :

“Late have I loved thee, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved thee! Thou wert within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for thee. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which thou didst create. Thou wert with me, but I was not with thee. Created things kept me from thee; yet if they had not been in thee they would have not been at all. Thou didst call, thou didst shout, and thou didst break through my deafness. Thou didst flash and shine, and didst dispel my blindness. Thou didst breathe thy fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for thee. I have tasted thee, now I hunger and thirst for more. Thou didst touch me, and I burned for thy peace …  Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in thee.” (St Augustine, Confessions)

Taken from The Inn of Dreams, edited by Edwin James King.

More information on Primrose Hill:

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‘Daffodil Dawn’, ‘Beauty’ and ‘The Vision’

After ‘God took great roses, rare and pale’, here are three more poems evocative of the Virgin Mary. All three are taken from The Inn of Dreams, edited with notes, by Edwin King, 2015. (


The Virgin with Angels, c.1900 – William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

Daffodil Dawn

While I slept, and dreamed of you,
Morning, like a princess, came,
All in robe of palest blue:
Stooped and gathered in that hour
From the east a golden flower,
Great and shining flower of flame . . .
Then she hastened on her way
Singing over plain and hill–
While I slept and dreamed of you
Dreams that never can come true . .
Morning at the gates of Day,
Gathered Dawn, the daffodil!


I saw the face of Beauty–a pale rose
In the gold dusk of her abundant hair . . .
A silken web of dreams and joys–a snare . .
A net of pleasures in a world of woes,
A bright temptation for gay youth that goes
Laughing upon his way without a care!
A shield of light for conquering Love to bear
Stronger than all the swords of all his foes.

O face of Beauty–O white dawn enshrined
In sunrise veils of splendid hair–O star!
Shine on those weary men who sadly wise
But guess thy glory faintly from afar–
Missing the marvel of thy smile–and blind
To the imperial passion in thine eyes!

The Vision

I come from lonely downs and silent woods,
With winter in my heart, a withered world,
A heavy weight of dark and sorrowful things,
And all my dreams spread out their rainbow wings,
And turn again to those bright solitudes
Where Beauty met me in a thousand moods,
And all her shining banners were unfurled . . .
And where I snatched from the sweet hands of Spring
A crystal cup and drank a mystic wine,
And walked alone a secret perfumed way,
And saw the glittering Angels at their play.
And heard the golden birds of Heaven sing,
And woke . . . to find white lilies clustering
And all the emerald wood an empty shrine,
Fragrant with myrrh and frankincense and spice,
And echoing yet the flutes of Paradise . . .


Notes, by Edwin King

Daffodil Dawn

It is unclear to whom the poem, first published in 1905 (in The Blue Bird), is addressed ; perhaps to her husband, perhaps to another man or woman for whom she feels a sexual desire to which she does not wish to succomb, because of her marriage commitment to Douglas and because of her moral principles. The sexual fantasies or dreams which the poetess at this time perhaps already had begun to think of as ‘impure thoughts’ disappear with the coming of the day.    Most likely the princess, draped in blue, is a reference to the Virgin Mary as well as to the dawning light. And perhaps the golden, fiery daffodil from the east is a spiritual gift to replace those ‘dreams that can never come true’.


This poem, I am convinced, is placed deliberately after the one before it (Daffodil Dawn) for a clear, thematic reason:  Beauty is not just a celebration of feminine beauty; it takes the personification of the Dawn a step further, delicately suggesting the attractive power of the Virgin Mary. With the Catholic conversion of her husband, and with already nascent Catholic sympathies of her own, this must have been something Olive and Bosie had talked about together. In any case, the Virgin Mary had throughout the nineteenth century enjoyed a growing popularity among romantic poets, whether Catholic or not.

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking the first stanza is speaking of the deceptive ‘snare’ of worldly beauty, waiting to trap us with is suffering and pain. We have certainly encountered this in other poems. But no, this would run completely counter to the prayer-like second stanza. The sense of the first stanza is surely that celestial beauty can in fact be every bit as seductive as that of the world, the flesh and the devil. This is all about a ‘star’ (Custance’s code for the philosophical or spiritual realm) who is at once terrifyingly seductive, martial (‘imperial’), glorious and kind (the ‘smile’).

Cf. ‘Song of Songs’ 6 : 10. “Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in battle array? ” (Applied by the Catholic liturgy to the Virgin Mary).

Regarding the ‘star’, the Virgin Mary, of course, is called Star of the Sea and Star of the Morning, in Catholic mystical poems and hymns.

The Vision

‘The Vision’ continues the themes of the previous two : Wordsworthian encounters with nature, lead to a series of more and more explicit meditations on Christian spirituality. First, capitalised ‘Beauty’, and the ‘Spring’ (the Virgin ?), ‘ a crystal cup … of mystic wine’ (intimation of Holy Communion and the Blood of Christ ?), ‘Angels at play’, ‘Heaven’ … and then, before it becomes too direct and obvious, our poetess awakes. But her benevolent feminine muse has left ‘white lilies’ (the traditional sign of the Virgin Mary’s purity) and lastly ‘myrrh and frankincense’ (two of the three gifts left with Mary by the three Wise Men for the baby Jesus. The other gift, gold, has already been given to the poetess in the poem Daffodil Dawn.) The wood has become a shrine … even if it is empty. Yet something still calls gently towards Faith : ‘echoing yet the flutes of Paradise.’ We are made to wonder : was it really just a dream ? The poem’s title suggests something more.

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The Girlhood of Mary Virgin 1848-9 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin 1848-9 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882.

‘But thine eyes are
As May skies are,
And thy words like spoken roses.’

GOD took great roses rare and pale,
And formed your body fair and frail ;
God took white violets cool and sweet,
And fashioned your small hands and feet ;
God took bright dust of gold and spun
Your soft hair, coloured like the sun ;
God made your clear and mystic eyes,
As blue as wild blue butterflies

Lady ! when as a child you played,
I think some angel all the while
With folded wings beside you stayed ;
You still remember her strange smile …
And when you say the simplest words,
The echo of her voice we hear . . .

And as across grey seas the birds
Fly after summer every year,
So our souls, when they hear you speak,
Straightway in search of heaven depart …
Or turning to your arms they seek
The angel hidden in your heart ! …

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The Muse is the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the pageboy…

by Edwin King

Two  leading scholars

The two most prominent modern literary scholars to help give Olive Custance the attention she deserves are Patricia Pulham and Sarah Parker. Pulham’s focus is narrow, but well-argued. She is close to Custance’s poetics and is interested mainly in her themes and language. Parker is alive to the language too, but shows a keener interest in Custance’s life and personality. They both demonstrate a real appreciation of her work and offer some valuable new insights about her poems and her life. But they mainly focus on a very few of Custance’s poems: in Pulham’s case, the three poems dedicated to statues  – The White Statue, Statues and Antinoüs – and a few others dedicated to the male form more generally; in Parker’s case, the focus is on a number of poems, published and unpublished, that she feels shed light on the poet’s exploration of her sexuality.

Finding the muse

In Opals, her first collection, Custance (OC) addresses several poems to women, but also begins to develop the idea of a ‘Fairy Prince’ who becomes an important figure for her, even before she meets Lord Alfred Douglas. Once Lord Alfred Douglas (AD) is centre stage the girl muse is comprehensively displaced. These “muses” have become a focus for critical speculation for literary scholars, especially for Parker.

Beautiful girls and boys

Parker’s main point is that OC had settled on an imaginary ideal male muse even before she fell in love with AD; this was partly as a result – it is suggested – of her being strongly influenced by two important cultural writers of her day, Pater and Wilde, who both more or less clearly expressed the view that only boys could really be beautiful, and that love of the female form was a lesser love. This perspective did not gain much traction in Victorian society in general, where the icons of beauty for most people were the exquisite virgins of Waterhouse and Millais. But in the sphere of the decadents and aesthetes it achieved a certain dominance, precisely because of certain strong personalities who promoted this boy-centred idea. In some ways the circle of poets around John Lane in the 1890s acted as an echo chamber for Pater and Wilde, so Parker has a point.  There was certainly something in the air.  But Parker links a passage in Custance’s diary, in which she sees Walter Pater ascending to Heaven like a new Elijah, as evidence of Custance’s devotion to Pater’s homoerotic aesthetics.  I think that this is really jumping to gratuitous conclusions; Pater stood for more that this.

Could it be that what Custance was drawn to in Pater was his poetic vision? To his epicurean picture of life, where the artist’s role is to live to the full, gathering and celebrating the precious jewels of our existence, weaving them somehow into a tangible artistic reality, so that the poet provides a fixed point of meaning, “while all melts under our feet.” In this way, “we may well catch at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, or work of the artist’s hands. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us in the brilliancy of their gifts is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.” The objective, for Pater, is to produce a “quickened, multiplied consciousness” which gives the artistic soul a sense of stability and purpose. As a budding poet, Custance embraced this aesthetic vocation, desiring to “burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy”. (Pater, 1873.)

There is also a deep, spiritual element to Pater which helps to understand Custance and indeed many other figures of the fin de siècle. In 1885 Pater published a novel, about a very beautiful and extraordinarily sensitive youth who embarks on a search for truth, rather like St Augustine. He, and the novel, are called Marius the Epicurean; it is rarely mentioned nowadays, and that is for a number of reasons. First, Pater specifically intended Marius to be a way of correcting wrong – and worldly – interpretations of the ‘Conclusion’ to his 1873 book on the Renaissance; but perhaps mainly because Marius admires the life and teaching of the early Christians, seeing their philosophy as perpetuating the noblest of the old Roman beliefs. During the novel he moves from an appreciation for beauty to a kind of detachment, and then to the edge of belief in the Christian God. And at the point where he is ready to receive the gift of Faith, he dies. We know from her diaries that Olive Custance had previously read Marius the Epicurean, and on the death of Pater in 1894 had written in her diary that his spirit had “ascended to a fairer life” dressed in glorious golden robes, tainted with martyr’s blood. She saw him ascending to Heaven, like Marius, one surmises, that beautiful boy of his story.

Would it be out of order here to suggest a more obvious explanation for Custance’s boy muse? After all, practically all teenage girls have a picture of a kind of boy idol in their minds before they meet Mr Right? Don’t teenage boys do the same with fairytale princesses? Isn’t that why we tell them stories about beautiful princesses and handsome princes? And in the case of Olive, when we know Pater’s novel left such a profound spiritual impression on her, wasn’t she also looking for her Marius with whom she might make the journey of delight, leading, ultimately to a heavenward ascent?

New focus on Sappho

There is also the influence of Sappho to take into account, especially as since 1885, and  Henry Wharton’s new translation of her works,  the public became more aware of the same-sex attraction in some of her poetry.  But it is not completely clear that Custance was quite sure what this was all about.  She wanted to be like Sappho mainly because she wanted to be a great poet, as Sappho was. Like all girly girls, she was caught up in her own beauty and that of her girlfriends, while also looking forward to meeting her fairytale prince. It is true that Custance, after the publication of Opals in 1897, attracted attention and even fanmail, from female admirers, notably Natalie Barney and Renée Vivien who were attempting to gather a circle of women poets around them in Paris. But, in the end she rebuffed them all, and instead wooed Lord Alfred Douglas, by sending him fan-letters, praising his poetry and his looks.


Parker’s contention is that the focus on the male muse is a kind of compromise, especially when Custance is addressing her poems to statues.  Decadent male poets had liked to address male statues, in a kind of de-sexualised homoeroticism in which the coldness of marble cooled the transgressive passions …  Olive, it is suggested by Patricia Pulham, makes her male statues, opalescent, feminised … and so the androgynous boy becomes the ideal neutral territory, a safe object of worship for both boy-lovers and lesbians.

Of course the whole theme of statue-love is an old one, going back to Ovid’s character Pygamalion, and probably beyond.  And in general what such statues should be doing is to transform and enoble our aesthetic and romantic feelings, helping us see the potential for an epic, heroic and spiritual dimension to human beauty.

Inverting traditional roles?

Parker makes a lot of the notion that for a woman to write poetry in praise of the male  was an inversion of the traditional poetic relationship in which the woman is herself the muse for the male poet. Victoria Blain has already presented Elizabeth Barret Browning as somehow ground-breaking in her sonnets addressed to the male: “all of these sonnets retain their appeal not only for their subtle and tender expressions of love, but for their intriguing reversal of the standard poetic convention of a male poet addressing his female lover.”  (Blain, p. 44) Parker takes a similar line; more ground-breaking, a generation later … and Custance’s addressing of her poems to a boy instead of a girl is seen as a kind of ruse or compromise, and proof of her “queer” status. And yet, what, one wonders, would we make of Custance had all her poems been simply addressed to young girls, in order to respect “the standard poetic convention“?  In folk traditions, woman had always made this kind of poetry addressed to, or about, men (the waulking songs of the Gaelic women of the western isles are full of the praise of dashing young men); and as Douglas points out in his Autobiography we see it in Shakespeare; it is also in the Bible.

Even it is true, that in print female poets did not often risk male censure by straying into this territory, there are sufficient notable exceptions to show that there is nothing especially new in Barret’s Sonnets from the Portuguese or Custance in this regard; one could mention, for example, Emilia Lanier’s 17th century “Salve Rex Judaeorum” in which the poet praises the physical beauty of Christ on the Cross, with “his cheeks washed with milk”, his “curlèd locks/Black as a raven in her blackest hue/ His lips like scarlet threads, yet much more sweet”. A.L. Rowse calls this description “sensuous, not to say sexy” and far from seeing in it any sign of a transgressive sexuality, is touched that “for all her religiosity, it is nice to think that she was still responsive” to male beauty. (Rowse, 1978, p. 28).

The Prince and his Page

Parker also, with Pulham, makes much from the identification of OC with a Page boy and AD with a Prince.  This, we are led to believe, is more evidence of sexual confusion. The problem here is that if it is to be held that society viewed it as somehow unseemly for a woman to devote herself to a man in verse (as Parker suggests), then the ruse of adopting the guise of a pageboy, who could traditionally pledge his devotion to his master and enjoy a licence to intimacy with him (let us think, for example of Cesario – the disguised Viola – in Twelfth Night, who is only able to become intimate with Orsino, and openly declare her admiration for him, and receive his for her, because she is disguised as a page) is an obvious way out of the impasse. The ‘device’, for that is what it is, is well established in literature and culture. That OC is merely respecting a convention here, in a playful way, is easily demonstrated by a little lateral thinking: imagine if she had addressed AD as her Princess … not what would genuinely have been an inversion of roles. As is stands, it is not.

Women can love men in different ways

Women’s love poetry, as some of my pupils recently observed to me, tends to be more about depth of feeling and less about praise of the male beloved. And that has something to do with the way women love: they can often love a man who is older and less beautiful then they, whereas the first things a man looks for in a woman tend to be beauty and youth. And yet, when a woman does fall in love with a handsome man, it is perfectly natural that the sensual aspects of this love should come to the forefront of her love for him. Because of the great instinct towards reserve and modesty among women over the centuries, they are – it is true – often silent about the sensual beauty of their lovers. But mainly this is because women have been, as feminist scholars so frequently remind us, silent in general. (One of the greatest female poets of the nineteenth century Emily Dickinson, for example, published about a dozen poems in her lifetime, but another eighteen hundred were found in manuscript after her death.) So women who sing of a man in the way men often sing of women (praising their hair, their skin, their eyes, etc) are admittedly not very common. But these themes in Custance’s work do not, as Parker suggests, represent any particular ‘inversion’ of traditional roles.

As I have mentioned, in the Bible (Song of Songs), in the work of first published woman poet in English letters (Emilia Lanier), in Shakespeare and also in Douglas’s predecessors as a celebrity poet couple, the Brownings, we see time and time again, women for whom a young and handsome man is a perfectly proper muse.

To point out that taking a man as her muse in quite the way OC does was rare for her time is already stretching a point, but the assertion that heightened male eroticism in a woman poet is evidence of deep-seated lesbianism says more about the prevailing intellectual climate of this century that it does about anyone who lived in the last.

Bosie is an unreliable witness: let Olive tell her own story …

Parker refers this back to a single, much quoted passage in AD’s Autobiography, about his own sexuality and his wife’s, and uses this to suggest that AD became uncomfortable being the subject of OC’s poetic worship. She posits that his writing of his seven sonnets to her in 1907 was not so much an act of love as an act of male defiance and assertion of his masculinity. But this jars with the attitude expressed by AD in his Autobiography where he quotes, in quick succession, the adulatory letters of Olive to her ‘fairy prince’ and then one of his own Sonnets, and is obviously very proud of both. And in any case, most of the evidence that is produced is about the husband, not about the wife; and the testimony of Lord Alfred Douglas is notoriously unreliable and self-serving, as many of his biographers admit. As for those Sonnets, Olive at least accepted them delightedly at face value at the time, as tokens of deep and sincere love. Perhaps we should respect that.

With Parker’s approach to analysis of the poems, we get caught up in the old question of ‘ars specula vitae’ … is art reflecting life or life reflecting art and replaying those artistic tensions in real human relationships. My strong impression is that this analysis is just too precious. Much of Custance’s early poetry has little to do with her real life. It is just her charming  adolescent imagination at work – an imagination heavily influenced by her reading and environment, and yet a very fruitful one. As her real life takes over her mental energies, the poetic output diminishes, but the poems then certainly begin to provide a commentary on her lived experience.

Women seeking a voice

A lot of attention is given by modern scholars to the frustration of homosexuals (or at least ones of a literary bent) trying to find a voice in their society. And yet, despite the rise of feminism, not enough attention is given to the plight of middle and upper class women at the end of the nineteenth century, for whom frustration and suffocation, inside their corsets, had reached a ridiculous pitch. Forbidden from earning a living or looking after their own children, such women were beginning to seek a voice. They wanted to be ‘where it’s at’, they wanted to be up to date. Small wonder that to a certain extent they were led to despise some aspects of womanhood and femininity: they had first hand experience of how their situation as women held them back; voices like that of Pater must have been confusing, but compelling, because the prospect of a glamorous, artistic life, full of luxurious sensuality, might have seemed attractive to bored Victorian women. And yet once Pandora’s box was opened, women like Natalie Barney were able to see through the male homosexual artistic agenda that would replace heterosexual male hegemony with homosexual male hegemony, while the poor women missed their chance for liberation. (At least before women had been worshipped by poets, even if not given the vote!) Barney demolishes Pater’s suggestion that only a young man can be ultimately beautiful with the observation that boys are after all only beautiful because they look like women (speaking as Vally, in René Vivien’s roman à clef, Une Femme M’Apparut).

Byron, reflections and forced readings

In order to illustrate the way in which a preconceived idea can heavily colour our reading of a poem, I want to finish by mentioning one of the most glaring examples of Dr Parker’s imposing a forced reading on Custance’s verses. She makes a great deal of how dissolving into one’s beloved is somehow “narcissistic”, especially when one deploys the classic romantic image of being so close to the other that one sees oneself reflected in the eyes of the loved object; to my mind, the eyes are the window of the soul: so this implies the fusion of two kindred souls. The blurring of subject and object (who become one flesh, in biblical terms) is surely a primal aspect of the language of love.

And yet Parker claims that “mirror-images suggest the narcissism that was associated with both male and female homoerotic desire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: the Princess’ desire resides in the Prince’s ability to reflect her own beauty, [my italics] blurring the boundaries between self and other …  in the fifth and final poems of the sequence ‘Forget-Me-Nots’, the speaker values the beloved’s eyes for their reflective ability: ‘They see the sky like a looking glass'”.

All educated Victorian teenage girls were in love with Byron.  Germaine Greer suggests that he “was as conspicuous a figure as the multi-million-seller pop star would be today, and the most deeply affected segment of his readership was female.” (Reilly, p. xv.) So Olive, unsurprisingly, played ‘Childe Harolde’ with her little sister (Cecile, two years her junior, born in 1876)  as Ianthe, constituting the audience for Olive’s performances.  All middle and upper class teenage girls must surely have dressed up as men in childhood play (because women of their class did nothing interesting outside the home, thus severely limiting feminine dressing-up possibilities), and in any case in the Custance home, there were no boys; and Olive and Cecile never went to school. Parker, no doubt influenced by Custance’s diary accounts of her dressing up as Byron in childhood play, applies the same reasoning we have seen above applied to the poet in her twenties, to the teenage Olive: “A similar merging of self and other occurs in Custance’s unpublished poem ‘A Portrait of Lord Byron’, in which her identification with and desire for the male poet results in a narcissistic blurring of subject and object.” The poem in question begins “Oh, to have been a woman that he loved!” and Custance speaks of his strong slim hands  and divine great eyes, looking up into them to “see/A little wistful face reflected there.” (Parker, 2016, p. 90.) Much is made of Byron’s hands being slim and his eyes divine, as if that makes him effeminate. No mention is made of the fact that each adjective is paired with a more masculine one: strong and great.

What she perhaps loses sight of is that this poem of adulation is quite simply an expression of love composed by a very ‘girly’ teenage girl gazing at a portrait of her dashing, male heart-throb: nothing more, nothing less.

And the subsequent developments in her muse provide a kind of illustration of a woman, rather slowly and reluctantly, growing up.

The older Olive reminds us a great deal of the early 17th century Emilia Lanier, a mature woman, used and abused by men, falling back in mature years on the love that trumps all the others. Olive Custance, like Emilia Lanier, tried and tested by real love and the sufferings it brought her, ultimately addresses her songs not to other girls, nor to their brothers, but to Christ and his mother.

Custance speaks of her youthful self in the first poem in her last collection, The Inn of Dreams, and while still enjoying the sensual pleasures with her fairy princes, she simultaneously hopes or prays that one day, when her youth has left her, Love will come by, weeping to see her lonely, and take pity on her. In The Changeling she dreams of it too:

My spirit is a homing dove . . . [1]
I drain a crystal cup, and fall
Softly into the arms of Love . . .
And then the darkness covers all.

And in The Wings of Fortune, we see this happen even more definitively, when Christ, coming to her as a beautiful young man[2], throws away his crown of thorns; and like a second Orpheus, sings his love song to Olive’s weary soul and lifts her from death, once more young and radiant.


[1] Heading for Heaven, no doubt.

[2] This is my reading of the phrase ‘Love the boy’

Works cited or mentioned:

  • Blain, Virginia (2001), Victorian Women Poets: An Annotated Anthology.
  • Parker, Sarah (2011). ‘”A Girl’s Love”: Lord Alfred Douglas as Homoerotic Muse in the Poetry of Olive Custance’”, Women: A Cultural Review 22 (2-3): 220-240.
  • Parker, Sarah (2016). “Olive Custance,” The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity, 1889–1930, Pickering & Chatto, pp. 71–100.
  • Pater, Walter (1873),”Conclusion”, Studies in the History of the Renaissance.
  • Pater, Walter (1885), Marius the Epicurean.
  • Pulham, Patricia (2007). “Tinted and Tainted Love: The Sculptural Body In Olive Custance’s Poetry”; The Yearbook of English Studies, Jan 1, 2007.
  • Reilly, Catherine, ed. (1994) Winged Words: Victorian Women’s Poetry and Verse
  • Rowe, A.L. (1978), The Poems of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady.
  • Vivien, Renée (1904), Une Femme M’Apparut.


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A fresh look at a forgotten flower …

In his forthcoming biography of Olive Custance, Edwin King will be seeking to tell the story of her life in a new way, using her poetry as the key …

new olive smallThere is a common misapprehension regarding many writers who convert to Catholicism; namely that conversion to Catholicism only serves to console them in difficult times, but does nothing for their art. This has especially been the case in the study of the work of some Victorian and Edwardian writers, coming out of a context in which such conversions were almost fashionable.

One thinks especially of Michael Field, the romantically connected aunt and niece duo, who wrote under a male pseudonym.  A similar analysis is sometimes made of Lord Alfred Douglas, and also of his wife, Olive Custance. In her case, there is also the suggestion abroad that making the mistake of choosing life with a man (rather than a woman) was responsible for a kind of total disillusionment with life.

In the case of Michael Field, the scholar Marion Thain, makes a good case for poetic maturity being reached by the Misses ‘Field’ through the personal journey of their conversion. I have a similar idea about Olive Custance.

Dr Sarah Parker, the most accomplished scholar on Custance to date, claims that she was deeply lesbian and needed Bosie as her ‘queer’ muse, hinting perhaps that Custance’s deep desire was, à la Camille Paglia, to be a gay man; I think that the search for Custance’s muse is an interesting issue and Parker is right that this is a key area that needs elucidation.  The poet herself speaks several times of her muse. But my strong feeling is that whilst her poetic output declined after the flurry of production in the 1890s, very much tied up with the atmosphere of literary excitement at that time in London, her search for the ultimate Muse took her to Christ and His Mother, who were able, in a sense, to fulfil all the deepest spiritual longings, even those mixed up with her sexuality.

She writes many times (after her marriage) of a celestial lady visiting her, and has Christ on his Cross casting away his crown and coming down to enfold her in his love and ‘give her back her Muse’. He is a boy-muse, sure enough, but he is Christ all the same. A similar idea of Christ casting away his crown to be closer to man occurs in a poem for Christmas 1936.

My honest impression is that Custance’s lesbianism has been vastly over-played, the deep love in the marriage underplayed,  and the religious aspect simply overlooked, even – to a certain extent – by Fr Brocard Sewell who states she converted in 1924, whereas in fact she converted in 1917, and of her own initiative. This error, so important for understanding her life, is repeated in the Introduction to the 1996 reprint of Opals and Rainbows (Thoroton, Small, eds.) and elsewhere, including more recently by Dr Sarah Parker in the chapter on Olive Custance in The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity, 1889–1930 (2013).

So, in short, my project is to cast more light on Olive Custance, with a painstaking examination of the correspondence and diaries and any existing print works that speak of her (including contemporary reviewers); also to give a clearer picture of her art by bringing together for the first time all (or almost all) her poetry, and perhaps to come to different conclusions about the essential direction and story of her life, as expressed through the themes in her poetry.

Edwin James King, 2017.

Edwin King is compiling the Collected Works of Olive Custance, with an extensive biography, for publication in 2018. He has already published, in 2015, a re-issue of her last collection, ‘The Inn of Dreams’, with a short biographical monograph. 

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A Love Lay

lovelay1lovelay2from The Pall Mall Magazine June, 1896.

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December 2, 2017 · 1:56 pm