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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Olive and Raymond

olive and raymond_smallIt has been suggested that Olive Custance was a bad mother. Natalie Barney could only think of what the pregnancy had done to her figure; and yet there is nothing explicitly unmaternal from Olive’s pen, even if her diaries reveal that she left most of the work to the nanny,  as was the custom. There is, however, a sad letter she wrote very soon after the birth in which she spoke of everything except the fact that she had just had a baby … reading this correspondence between her and Natalie Barney, just weeks after the birth, it was obvious to me that she was deep in the throes of post-natal depression.

And so it is a pleasure to have come across in my researches a photo that all the other scholars thought lost;  Olive with Raymond as a baby. Here it is, in a smaller version than I am intending to include in the Collected Works that I expect to have finished in mid 2018.


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A Song to Beauty

SWEET! I have seen the argent moon astray
In crimson meadows of the morning sky,
Watched by the jealous Night too sad to fly
Before the bright relentless sword of day.
So, your pale lovers see you pass them by.

Proud Beauty I like that wonderful gold flower
The twilight gathers when the sun takes flight,
And lays before the silver feet of Night,
Beauty that seen in dreams has such strange power
Shine, shine upon my darkness, lovely Light !

By what enchantment were you doomed to range
The forest of this world, where joys are few?
My heart is like a hound that follows you.
My heart, a princely hunter, hears your strange
Elusive laughter and must still pursue.

Oh, once my song-bird heart was free and wise,
But now its wings are tangled in Love’s snare,
For it has seen the sunshine of your hair,
The troubled beauty of your great blue eyes,
The wild-rose whiteness of your body fair.

In vain fate strives to keep us still apart,
Death could not do it even . . . though there be
Long leagues of land, broad wastes of shining sea
Between us, yet my heart is with your heart
When in the world of dreams you walk with me.

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The Berg Collection : letters and diaries

A key source for the study of Olive Custance is the collection of letters kept in the New York Library as part of the Berg Collection. The following is a librarian’s summary of what is contained in these documents.


Autograph letters and autograph diaries.

The papers in this part of the exhibition tell the story of the courtship and married life of two poets whose gift for poetry was choked by the other gifts, both good and bad, which fortune bestowed upon them. Lord Alfred Douglas was born to high social position, wealth, good looks, and a talent which produced at least a few sonnets which have been anthologized for more than half a century. Olive Custance Douglas was endowed with the same gifts on a more modest scale. The privileges which came so easily to them they threw away as thoughtlessly as they received them. Lady Douglas was not the woman to save her husband from the violence of his own emotions, which make him one of the most psychologically interesting and least appealing figures in the annals of English literature.

The papers date from the turn of the century, from shortly after the death of Oscar Wilde. They add little to the knowledge of that most famous victim of Douglas’ power to fascinate and to destroy. Yet they give a vivid glimpse of the fashionable and semi-bohemian world of the Edwardian period in which Olive Custance and Alfred Douglas met and decided to try matrimony together. The attempt was far from a success but not altogether a failure. Though their union seems to have exacted quite a price from her conventional parents, from their only child, Raymond, and even from themselves, the Douglases lived on terms of friendly separation toward the end of their lives.

The two hundred and more letters from Alfred Douglas to his wife begin in June 1901, when Olive Custance seems to have introduced herself as a “girl poet” by sending a “beautiful letter” and a “crown of wild speedwells.” They touch upon Douglas’ visit to the United States in the autumn of 1901 when he unsuccessfully attempted to barter his name for an American fortune. They cover his subsequent courtship of Olive, who seems to have been quite as worldly wise and perhaps even as experienced as the man she married on March 4 1902. There are letters from almost every year up to 1919, which embrace the troubled course of Douglas’ relations with the Custances, with Olive, and with Raymond, who was more or less of an invalid.

The two hundred and more letters from Alfred Douglas to his wife begin in June 1901, when Olive Custance seems to have introduced herself as a “girl poet” by sending a “beautiful letter” and a “crown of wild speedwells.” They touch upon Douglas’ visit to the United States in the autumn of 1901 when he unsuccessfully attempted to barter his name for an American fortune. They cover his subsequent courtship of Olive, who seems to have been quite as worldly wise and perhaps even as experienced as the man she married on March 4 1902. There are letters from almost every year up to 1919, which embrace the troubled course of Douglas’ relations with the Custances, with Olive, and with Raymond, who was more or less of an invalid.

A handful of poetic manuscripts mostly by Alfred Douglas came with the papers. Some of them are expressions of dependence on Olive and love for her. Others — not unexpectedly —are bitter attacks upon her character: “I know you now, Circe and Sycorax,” he concluded in summing up the first dozen years of their married life. There are also two manuscript poems signed Olive Custance and dedicated to John Gray: “The Songs of Love” and “The Silence of Love.” To the collection of Douglas papers was added Lord Alfred’s correspondence with Madame Francis d’Avilla, who translated some of his poems into French. The letters, which run to over one hundred, begin in 1930 and extend to within six weeks of his death on March 20 1945. Olive Douglas had died thirteen months earlier, on February 12 1944. The letters shown here cover a multitude of subjects, including Madame d’Avilla’s translation. A copy of her translation, Palmer, Paris 1937, is also displayed– the copy presented by the translator to her mother.

[1] Bulletin of the New York Public Library, Astor, Lennox … v.68 1964, pp. 8-9.

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Richard Le Gallienne on Opals (1897)



Not unaware of the wickedness of praising the new-born, and far from unaware of the perils of the praiser, I venture humbly to suggest to those interested in such matters that Miss Olive Custance’s little volume of ” Opals ” (Lane) contains the best poetry written by a woman for quite a long time. You see, years are bringing discretion — for no one who knows the woman-poetry of the day can call this extravagant praise. Comparisons here are more than usually dangerous, and I shall venture on them no further than to express the opinion that the poetry written by women at the moment is full of talent but singularly lacking in temperament. It is profusely intellectual, definitely emotional, and infinitely spiritual. The expression of one’s feelings in exact rhetoric is what, of course, many mistake for poetry, and women particularly make the mistake of supposing that there is nothing so easy as to put your heart on paper. The result is good love-letter, but mediocre poetry. To unlock the heart one needs a golden key, and the women are fewer than the men who sufficiently understand the mystery of words—understand that to put a thing into words, as we say, is not to rob it of its original mystery by a superficial clearness of statement, but actually to recreate it in another medium ; and that whatsoever qualities of mystery and indefinable suggestiveness belonged to the thing itself must be repeated in its literary embodiment. Is it of spring we would write, there are words that were once violets, words as sad as the voice of the cuckoo — is it of woman, no woman was ever so beautiful as some words.

The face-value of words is but their least important value. Far more important is what we might call the nervous system of words ; all that associated significance which thrills and vibrates beneath the printed surface. It is not what a line means, but what it suggest; that makes it poetry. However many meanings it may possess, the only meaning that really matters is the meaning of beauty—and what that is who shall say ? It must mean no more, but must mean no less, than the droop of an eyelid, the colour of a flower, or the sound of running water.

I’m afraid Miss Custance doesn’t much trouble her head about literature and “the moral idea”; what is more to the purpose is that she instinctively understands some of the secrets of the use of words. The importance of her own moods, the exquisiteness and strangeness of living, the mystic beauty of the world, and all the glory and pathos it seems to mean in certain hours : music played at twilight, the sound of the rain, friends, and flowers (the friends as flowers, the flowers as friends), the sudden wonderful face of love, fair as a shooting star, her own beauty and the beauty of the morning sky, beautiful pain and all the mysterious sadness of joy — of such is the kingdom of earth for this young poet. And the words she finds for these moments are as rich and subtle, and yet as simple, as the moments themselves. Of one rare quality Miss Custance’s poetry immediately asserts the possession—the power of enrichment. Certain quite simple flowers and colours and textures possess this quality, but words possess it too seldom, for it is a sensuous quality ; and though poetry that is simple and passionate is of not uncommon occurrence, poetry which fulfils the third Miltonic condition is rare. I have an idea that some critics believe this sensuous charm a common Were of the moment. As a matter of fact, however, it is just the quality in which the literature of the moment is singularly poor. Clever-ness is everywhere, but where is enchantment ? Are there half-a-dozen living English writers who possess this charm ? It would be rash to say that there were, and no.doubt it will sound mill more rash to claim it for a little book by a very young poet. Yet, is it so rash after all to claim it for poetry such as this ” Dreamed Tryst “?


Beloved one! when the shy Dawn flower-sweet,

In her white sleeping gown of mist and pearl,

Sees the great Sun, and from her cloud-hung bed

Slips softly, flushing like a startled girl,

And stands upright on fair rose-coloured feet

While all the golden light is round her shed …

‘Tis then then yearning severed souls may meet …

Slowly the glory widens in the sky, . .

And in the meadows thick with folded flower

The daisies stir already in their sleep . . .

My soul lay waiting all the long night hours,

But now thy promised presence hovers nigh,

In this still room I seem to hear the sweep

Of thy soul’s wings . . . O! Whither shill we fly?


Or this—” A Pause ” :

O do you hear the rain

Beat on the glass in vain?

So my tears beat against fate’s feet

In vain … in vain … in vain …


O! do you see the skies

As gray as your grave eyes?

O! do you hear the wind, my dear,

That sighs and sighs and sighs …


… Tired as this twilight scene,

My soul droops sad with dreams …

You cannot know where we two go

In dreams… in dreams… in dreams…


You only watch the light,

Sinking away from night…

In silver mail all shadowy pale,

The moon shines white, so white…


… O! if we two were wise

Your eyes would leave the skies

And look into my eyes !

And I who wistful stand …

One foot in fairy land,

Would catch Love by the hand …


Among many reasons one might give for one’s delight in those two poems, the reader must have noticed one–the great beauty and truth of the Nature pictures. For descriptive magic alone Miss Custance’s poems should rank high. And, like all her effects, this magic is won by such apparent simplicity of means. There is no sense of straining the eye upon the object. Just the flash of a phrase, and the miracle has happened. The picture is there, as though Nature had written her name in dewdrops. Who by taking thought could better give the beauty of rain than in these six simple words:

A silver net of sudden rain.

Miss Custance, like Verlaine, is a lover of the rain. Here are other rain pictures :


In the gray west a faint gold stain …

Dusk and the darkness, sisters twain,

Kiss through a silver veil of rain,

The gray west full of rain.


We catch stray scents from sweet drenched primrose stars —

… And then the shower is over and rose-bars

Bridge the sun’s western garden and gold lake.

Full of rain crystals,  the asparagus

A jewelled tangle seems of strange green hair !


In further illustration of Miss Custance’s gift of beautiful and forcible phrase, particularly as applied to nature, I quote the following scattered lines and passages :


Stars grow thick round the amber moon.

. . . sun-soft summer air.

Spirit of Twilight, in the golden gloom

Of dreamland dim, I sought for you and found

A woman weeping in a silent room

Full of white flowers that moved and made no sound.

The hedges glimmer vaguely with wild fruits.

The sky folds over like a flower,

Whose petal tips of purple grey

Flush flame-like at the sunset hour.


And for a certain “large utterance” seldom heard in the poetry of women I would instance this beautiful river-picture :


. . . In shadow of heat branches, let us go

Down to the rive side where rocks our boat

Beneath the whispering willows … I will row

And you shall steer … nay! rather let us float

Tide-taken past the patient marigolds

Whose dew-filled cups to Phoebus’ self remote

Are lifted up at Dawn. See! Day unfolds

Her sunset robes refulgent in the West.

Night’s heavy lids that Light’s strong hand upholds

Droop low and hide the splendour. . . . Let us rest!


One pleasant characteristic distinguishes Miss Custance from the typical woman poet—she doesn’t pretend to be a man, but is quite consciously charmed with her own girlhood ; though maybe one should not assume that the “frail girl in whom God’s glories meet ” of “The Poet’s Picture” is necessarily the poet we are enjoying. Indeed her book, so to say, is a girl, a girl-poet, almost cruelly alive, experimentally passionate, tremulously sensitive to every sound straying across the Aeolian harp of life. The little book seems to flush and tremble in one’s hand. It is so exquisitely a girl.

It is girlish in its sadness, a luxurious sadness which is only a form of music, a way of dressing the hair, a wearing of “opals.” “Opals” indeed describes these poems with an imaginative accuracy rare in titles : beautiful, troubled, distinguished, sad, fated, as opals. Girlish, yes — in everything but its art. One notes a very occasional carelessness, an extravagant and not always intelligible use of the French dot-and-dash . . . pause and suggestion. “Shimmerous” is a word you can use too often — perhaps once even is too often. But after all such criticisms are made; the spontaneous original charm, even power, of these “Opals” is undeniable. It has seldom happened that a young poet’s first volume has been at once so full of beauty realised and so rich in promise of beauty to come.

[1] The Westminster Budget (London, Greater London, England) · Fri, Aug 20, 1897 ·  Page 12 (and elsewhere; widely syndicated).

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SONGS! that like rainbows following after storm
Spanned suddenly with flame-like wings of hope
Some silent void of sorrow in my heart,
Dark with vain prayers and desolating tears,
Or rising softly in a happy hour,
Were mirrored like pale colours of the Dawn
In my glad soul, as in a dancing sea,
And borne on crests of laughter to the light!

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The Douglases on stage

The lives of Olive Custance, her husband, Lord Alfred Douglas and even their son, Raymond have served in recent years as an inspiration for playwrights.


Des Keogh & Fiana Toibin in My Scandalous Life, W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre, New York, February 2 – March 6, 2011.

My Scandalous Life (2004), by Irish dramatist Thomas Kilroy, is a monologue of Lord Alfred reminiscing about his life, occasionally interrupted by Olive’s Irish maid, as Olive lies dying upstairs. 

In The Garden of The Asylum (2011) Thomas Kilroy switches to the story of Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce and Raymond Douglas, son of Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas) and Olive. Both spent time at the Psychiatric institution in Northampton, England. Thomas Kilroy fashions this drama based on a fictionalised meeting in the garden of the asylum. Available from RTE:

olive and bosieOlive and Bosie, (performed for the first time in May 2017) and written by Nigel Fairs, is set at the time when Bosie is in prison for the defamation of Winston Churchill. Here is a review: and here is a trailer:

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A tragic wedding?

tragic weddingThe newspapers had a field day on 11th March 1902, ‘announcing the simultaneous announcements’ in The Times of the breaking-off of the engagement between Olive Custance and George Montaigu and the “quiet” marriage of Olive Custance and Lord Alfred Douglas.

And so, with the minimum of ceremony, Lord Alfred Douglas, suggestively described as having recently produced “some weak imitations of Oscar Wilde’s poetry” married the “tall brunette, with an intellectual face” whose “crowing glory is her hair which is chestnut colored” and whose poems follow “the lines laid down by Eileen Thronycroft Fowler and John Oliver Hobbes.”

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Peacocks: A Mood

peacocksIn gorgeous plumage, azure, gold and green,
They trample the pale flowers, and their shrill cry
Troubles the garden’s bright tranquillity!
Proud birds of Beauty, splendid and serene,
Spreading their brilliant fans, screen after screen
Of burnished sapphire, gemmed with mimic suns–
Strange magic eyes that, so the legend runs,
Will bring misfortune to this fair demesne…

And my gay youth, that, vain and debonair,
Sits in the sunshine–tired at last of play
(A child, that finds the morning all too long),
Tempts with its beauty that disastrous day
When in the gathering darkness of despair
Death shall strike dumb the laughing mouth of song.

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Sonnet to Olive

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.

—  ’To Olive’ (IV) by Lord Alfred Douglas, 1907

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