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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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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. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Inn-Dreams-Poems-Olive-Custance/dp/1901157695/

More information on Primrose Hill: https://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/the-regents-park/things-to-see-and-do/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. (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Inn-Dreams-Poems-Olive-Custance/dp/1901157695/)


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 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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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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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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