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

The Storm


A crash of thunder overhead

Drowned the last bitter word you said …

I turned away from your angry eyes

To watch the lightning in the skies …


— And now the storm goes over the hill

And the fury in our hearts lies still

And look ! the rainbow across the land,

— A road to Heaven close at hand —

And look! the rainbow across the sea

— Mermaids singing for you and me!


A golden sun is in the dim west gleaming

Scattering all the shifting-streaming,

Silver fringes of glittering rain!

Come! let us kiss and be friends again!

Source: Discovered by Edwin King in a typed MS among the papers of Natalie Barney at the Sorbonne, and also appeared in  Country Life, Vol. 46, Iss. 1196,  (Dec 6, 1919): p 711. Certainly written some time after 1911, it is clearly addressed to her husband, Lord Alfred Douglas.

[1] The second poem of that name

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Olive Custance in Italy!


Il Cielo può sedurre più della carne: Olive Custance, la poetessa cattolica che sposò l’amante di Oscar Wilde ….


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Lord Alfred Douglas: Sonnets to Olive (1907)

To Olive

When in dim dreams I trace the tangled maze
Of the old years that held and fashioned me,
And to the sad assize of Memory
From the wan roads and misty time-trod ways,
The timid ghosts of dead forgotten days
Gather to hold their piteous colloquy,
Chiefly my soul bemoans the lack of thee
And those lost seasons empty of thy praise.

Yet surely thou wast there when life was sweet,
(We walked knee-deep in flowers) and thou wast there,
When in dismay and sorrow and unrest,
With weak bruised hands and wounded bleeding feet,
I fought with beasts and wrestled with despair
And slept (how else ?) upon thine unseen breast.


I have been profligate of happiness
And reckless of the world’s hostility,
The blessed part has not been given to me
Gladly to suffer fools, I do confess
I have enticed and merited distress,
By this, that I have never bowed the knee
Before the shrine of wise Hypocrisy,
Nor worn self-righteous anger like a dress.

Yet write you this, sweet one, when I am dead :
“ Love like a lamp swayed over all his days
And all his life was like a lamp- lit chamber,
Where is no nook, no chink unvisited
By the soft affluence of golden rays,
And all the room is bathed in liquid amber.”


Long, long ago you lived in Italy,
You were a little princess in a state
Where all things sweet and strange did congregate,
And in your eyes was hope or memory
Or wistful prophecy of things to be ;
You gave a child’s blank “ no ” to proffered fate,
Then became grave, and died immaculate,
Leaving torn hearts and broken minstrelsy.

But Love that weaves the years on Time’s slow loom
Found you again, reborn, fashioned and grown
To your old likeness in these harsher lands;
And when life’s day was shadowed in deep gloom
You found me wandering, heart-sick and alone,
And ran to me and gave me both your hands.


My thoughts like bees explore all sweetest things
To fill for you the honeycomb of praise,
Linger in roses and white jasmine sprays,
And marigolds that stand in yellow rings.
In the blue air they moan on muted strings,
And the blue sky of my soul’s summer days
Shines with your light, and through pale violet ways,
Birds bear your name in beatings of their wings.

I see you all bedecked in bows of rain,
New showers of rain against new-risen suns,
New tears against new light of shining joy.
My youth, equipped to go, turns back again,
Throws down its heavy pack of years and runs
Back to the golden house a golden boy.


When we were Pleasure’s minions, you and I,
When we mocked grief and held disaster cheap,
And shepherded all joys like willing sheep
That love their shepherd ; when a passing sigh
Was all the cloud that flecked our April sky,
I floated on an unimagined deep,
I loved you as a tired child loves sleep,
I lived and laughed and loved, and knew not why.

Now I have known the uttermost rose of love ;
The years are very long, but love is longer ;
I love you so, I have no time to hate
Even those wolves without. The great winds move
All their dark batteries to our fragile gate :
The world is very strong, but love is stronger.


When I am dead you shall not doubt or fear,
Or wander nightly in the halls of gloom.
The moon will shine into my empty room,
And in the narrow garden flowers will peer,
While you look through your window. Scarce a tear
Will drench your child’s blue eyes, while on my tomb,
Where the red roses wake and break and bloom,
The stars gaze down eternal and austere.

And I, in the dark ante-room of Death,
Will wait for you with ever-outstretched hands
And ears strained for your little timid feet ;
And in the listening darkness, when your breath
Pants in distress, my arms will be like bands
And all my weakness like your winding-sheet.


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 Mother of the dews, dark eyelashed Twilight!

Low-lidded Twilight o’er the valley’s brim.     MEREDITH.


SPIRIT of Twilight, through your folded wings

I catch a glimpse of your averted face,

And rapturous on a sudden, my soul sings ”

Is not this common earth a holy place ? ”


Spirit of Twilight, you are like a song

That sleeps, and waits a singer, like a hymn

That God finds lovely and keeps near Him long,

Till it is choired by aureoled cherubim.


Spirit of Twilight, in the golden gloom

Of dreamland dim I sought you, and I found

A woman sitting in a silent room

Full of white flowers that moved and made no sound.


These white flowers were the thoughts you bring to all,

And the room’s name is Mystery where you sit,

Woman whom we call Twilight, when night’s pall

You lift across our Earth to cover it.


First published in The Yellow Book, vol. III, October 1894.

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The Coming of the Prince

lordandladyalfreddouglasTHE Prince has come! shy princess, Oh, be wise,
Kiss his sweet mouth, look deep into his eyes,
And let your songs, like lutes tired hands left dumb,
Learn all Love’s language now the Prince has come.

The Prince is fair, proud princess, hold him fast
With slim white hands, each kiss may be the last.

Joy is a flower whose petals fall apart,
And fade too soon. Ah, hold him to your heart.

And this sweet Prince, who never will grow old,
This boy with great blue eyes and hair like gold,
Will lead you, little princess, by the hand
Through all the gardens of his fairy land.

What though a sleepless dragon day and night
The great world watches, jealous of delight,
Strong Love shall stand with shining wings unfurled
Between you and the hatred of the world.

from Rainbows

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