Katherine Lyon Mix on Custance

Another young poetess in Volume VII [of the Yellow Book], who was beautiful, talented, and unhappy, was Olive Custance, eldest daughter of Colonel Frederick Hambledon Custance of Weston Park, Norwich, a wealthy man with rigid views on form and etiquette but proud of his daughter’s poetic achievement. When the Yellow Book was in preparation Olive was beginning to find a market for her verse, but lacked sufficient importance to merit mention in the preliminary announcement. Her first poem was used in Volume III, and from then on she appeared frequently, becoming one of Lane’s regulars, and an attendant at his teas, where Richard Le Gallienne stared enthralled at her “flower-like, girlish loveliness.” The Harlands made her welcome at their evenings and she charmed Aubrey Beardsley into designing a bookplate for her. Bookplates were recherché in the nineties, and one bearing a famous signature was a mark of importance. After Beardsley left the Yellow Book and went to France she corresponded with him faithfully. “Eleven pages from Olive this morning, plus 2 pages of verse. Ye Gods! If I were only Symons!” wailed the ungrateful artist. And again, “A huge letter this morning from Olive Custance. She must buy me in large paper if she expects me to read her letters.”

But though Olive fluttered enchantingly before many young men, the one whom she loved seemed curiously obtuse to her charm. His name was Alfred Douglas. She and Lord Alfred had met as children and as youthful poets admired each other’s work, writing tenderly romantic poems to each other, which on her side reflected a personal passion, on his a poetic fancy. He was her “Prince,” and she his “Page.” Her first book of poems, Opals (she was fond of those stones and laughed at the superstition that they brought unhappiness ), was published in 1897, and Bosie thought she wrote better poetry than any of her women contemporaries, not excepting Mrs. Meynell. Olive’s father disapproved of her infatuation, seeing nothing but disaster in it and was frankly relieved when Lord Alfred went to America and she became engaged to his onetime friend George Montague. But in March, 1902, Lord Alfred returned unhappily from the States, where people still remembered the Wilde affair though Oscar had been dead over a year, and finding his Olive about to marry another, was startled into a declaration of love and a proposal to elope. With the blessing of his mother and a loan of two hundred pounds, he and Olive slipped away to Paris.

At first they lived on the Continent in a glow of happiness, but after a reconciliation with her father, they returned to Weston Park for the birth of their son. Wilfrid Blunt gave a party for Douglas, saying it was time people ceased to cut him, but life in England did not go smoothly for the young couple; too much stood in the way of a successful marriage. She was pitied by her friends and threatened by blackmailers; Lord Alfred’s romantic fervor failed to withstand the passing years. He had loved a slim and beautiful girl, his Page; his ardor cooled before a matronly figure and the difficulties of a poetic temperament. In 1913, at the time of the Ransome libel suit, Olive left her Prince, writing his mother, “I have often been very unhappy with him, but I love him above everything, and would never have left him if he had not taken away Raymond [her son]. The Ransome case has done him so much harm; you don’t know what people say. . . . Perhaps it would be better for Bosie to divorce me for desertion? I only wish I had courage enough to kill myself!” But she didn’t and eventually they achieved a sort of reconciliation, he living in a flat by himself but visiting her every day in a nearby town and preserving the semblance of what he called “a life-long devotion.”

Her last book of poems, The Inn of Dreams, came out in 1911, though she lived until 1944, dying a year before her husband. Her poetic gift was slight and not always used with discretion, but much of her verse was tender and tuneful and effective in its simplicity:

I am weary, let me sleep
In some great embroidered bed.
Let me dream that I am dead
Nevermore to wake and weep
In the future that I dread
For the ways of life are steep . . .
I am weary, let me sleep . . . .

This quotation is taken from the following excellent study:
A Study in Yellow:The Yellow Book and Its Contributors. Contributors: Katherine Lyon Mix – Author. Publisher: University of Kansas Press. Place of publication: Lawrence, KS. Publication year: 1960. Page number: 188

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The Blue Bird (1905)

The collection The Blue Bird was published in 1905 but its distribution was so badly managed that the poetess had to buy back many unsold copies and give them away. Most of the print-run may have ended up being discarded.

This is the main reason that she published another collection, The Inn of Dreams, in 1911, including little new material, but reproducing all but five of the poems originally published in The Blue Bird.

Before the dedication there is a quotation from an essay by Oscar Wilde. It is taken from “The Decay of Lying” in Intentions. The complete text can be found here.

It is arranged as a poem:

And over our heads will float the Blue Bird singing
of beautiful and impossible things, of things that
are lovely and that never happen, of things
that are not and that should be.

Here is the dedication of the collection:


I sing the joy and sorrow of the world,
The strange and secret histories of the heart ;
I am a dreamer, and each day my dreams
Go out to kiss the eyes of lovely grief,
The laughing mouth of Love. I have bowed down
Before the light of beauty all my life,
And now, Oh poet passionate and brave,
Oh lover with the beautiful sad face,
Like a shy child I bring you all my songs.

And here, available for this first time on the internet, as far as I know, is Olive’s own poem ‘The Blue Bird’. It is not one of her best, but charming and girlish.:

PRINCESS prisoned in a house of pearl,
Strange little princess that I call my soul …
Silent you stand and listen all day long
With smiling parted lips, for you have heard
The far faint fluting of that fairy bird
That weaves enchantments with its magic song,
That Bird with azure wings and shining crest
That will not come to any cage or hand . .
But flies away into the golden west . . .
O wild blue bird, take back to fairy-land
This princess prisoned in a house of pearl,
This little princess that I call my soul . . .

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The White Witch (1902)

Her body is a dancing joy, a delicate delight,
Her hair a silver glamour in a net of golden light.

Her face is like the faces that a dreamer sometimes meets,
A face that Leonardo would have followed in the streets.

Her eyelids are like clouds that spread white wings across blue skies,
Like shadows in still water are the sorrow in her eyes.

How flower-like are the smiling lips so many have desired,
Curled lips that love’s long kisses have left a little tired.

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Masquerade (1902)

Masked dancers in the Dance of life
We move sedately … wearily together,
Afraid to show a sign of inward strife,
We hold our souls in tether.

We dance with proud and smiling lips,
We frank appealing eyes, with shy hands clinging.
We sing, and few will question if there slips
A sob into our singing.

Each has a certain step to learn;
Our prisoned feet move staidly in set paces,
And to and fro we pass, since life is stern,
Patiently, with masked faces.

Yet some there are who will not dance,
They sit apart most sorrowful and splendid,
But all the rest trip on as in a trance,
Until the Dance is ended.

Olive Custance (1902)

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Edwin King brings Olive back into the limelight

English scholar Edwin King has just published a critical edition of Olive’s last published poetry collection, The Inn of Dreams, and is planning to planning to bring out similar editions of The Blue Bird (first published 1905), Rainbows (first published 1902) and Opals (first published 1897). The Blue Bird, in particular is notoriously difficult to obtain, so this is great news.

King is holding back on an edition of the Collected Works until he can track down a number of previously uncollected poems from newspapers and correspondence.

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‘Dedication’ to Inn of Dreams

The following poem, by Anna, Comtesse de Noailles, was included as a ‘dedication’ at the beginning of Custance’s collection ‘The Inn of Dreams’.
J’écris pour que le jour où je ne serai plus
On sache comme l’air et le plaisir m’ont plu,
Et que mon livre porte à la foule future
Comme j’aimais la vie et l’heureuse nature.
Attentive aux travaux des champs et des maisons
J’ai marqué chaque jour la forme des saisons,
Parce que l’eau, la terre et la montante flamme
En nul endroit ne sont si belles qu’en mon âme.
J’ai dit ce que j’ai vu et ce que j’ai senti,
D’un coeur pour qui le vrai ne fut point trop hardi,
Et j’ai eu cette ardeur, par l’amour intimée,
Pour être après la mort parfois encore aimée,
Et qu’un jeune homme alors lisant ce que j’écris,
Sentant par moi son coeur, ému, troublé, surpris,
Ayant tout oublié des épouses réelles,
M’accueille dans son âme et me préfère à elles.
Edwin King’s translation  (Copyright EJ King, 2015):
I write for the day when I’ll no longer be,
So they’ll know how fresh air and fun pleased me,
That my book might future folks remind
That I loved life and was the happy kind.
Watching the work of the fields and the home
And the seasons’ turn, where’er I roam
Water and earth and flame, for my part
Seem nowhere more fair than in my own heart.
What I’ve seen and felt I have honestly told
With a heart for which truth was not too bold
And I’ve had this desire, whispered by love’s breath :
To be sometimes loved still even after my death.
And that some young man who then reads what I write,
In a trice thoughts of living wives put to flight,
Moved, troubled, surprised by a heart long dead
Will then welcome me in his dear soul instead.
La comtesse de Noailles, a celebrated Parisian literary figure, published this poem in 1901 .

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Olive Custance (Lady Alfred Douglas) back in print

The Inn of Dreams: Poems by Olive Custance

Edited, with a substantial biographical introduction by Edwin James King

List Price: $6.30
6.14″ x 9.21″ (15.596 x 23.393 cm)
Black & White on White paper
116 pages
Saint Austin Press
ISBN-13: 978-1901157697
ISBN-10: 1901157695
BISAC: Poetry / European / English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh

Olive Custance was the beautiful wife of Lord Alfred Douglas, the disgraced lover of Oscar Wilde. Apart from that, the literary world knows little of her today. Her reputation lies very much in the shadow of the men who knew and loved her. And yet this woman was a gifted poet in her own right and a friend of many key figures of the ‘fin de siècle’.

In this edition of The Inn of Dreams, a selection of poems made by Custance herself in 1911, editor Edwin King casts new light on the woman and her work with a substantial biographical introduction.

It is about time for lovers of poetry for rediscover this charming girl who once wrote to her husband :”Like a shy child I bring you all my songs”.

Available soon via http://www.Amazon.com,  www.amazon.co.uk etc

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