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others dedicated to the male form more generally; in Parker’s case, the focus is on a number of poems, published and unpublished, that she feels shed light on the poet’s exploration of her sexuality.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 . . . 
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, 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.
 Heading for Heaven, no doubt.
 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.