Tag Archives: poems

The Virgin’s Crown

They shall weave a crown of lilies for her head,
For her feet they shall bring the rose;
And the maiden that treads in the virgin’s tread
Shall follow wherever she goes.

And the crown of the virgin shall be of gold,
And the lilies shall be of snow,
And the rose that blooms at her feet shall unfold
Like the lily that buds below.

For the crown of the virgin is pure and white,
And the roses are sweet and fair,
And the lilies that bloom in the pale moonlight
Are the sign of the maidens’ prayer.

And the maiden that treads in the virgin’s tread
Shall follow wherever she goes,
For the crown of the virgin shall be her head,
And the rose shall bloom at her toes.

Published in Lord Alfred Douglas’s Sonnets (1908), Richards Press, along with three other poems by Olive.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Easter Song


Oh the world’s all clad in green today,
With buttercups and daisies gay,
And the little clouds have wings of white,
And the sky is blue and the sun is bright.

The little birds that sang so well
In the winter’s worst are too glad to tell
Of the days that come, and the days that go,
And the winter gone and the world aglow.

All the earth is singing so,
For the Easter-tide and the roses blow,
And the hearts of men keep holiday,
For the world is sweet on Easter day.

The music of the bells doth rise,
From every belfry to the skies,
And all the little hills and dales
Are pealing out their Easter tales.

The flowers they bloom, the birds they sing,
For the glory of their risen King,
And the hearts of men keep holiday,
For the world is sweet on Easter day.

Published in “Poetry: A Magazine of Verse” in 1914.
From Olive Custance Collection,
University of Victoria, Special Collections.

This attribution is secondhand , so I am not 100% sure about it. I am currently checking.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Secret Garden

Within a walled enclosure, green with box,
I found a garden of all beauty made.
A world of flowers grew there; every shade
Of colour fell upon the curious rocks
That gave the garden an enchanted look.
Here blue and purple muscari unrolled
Their slender spires of blue and purple gold;
Here sweet alyssum the winds of morning shook;
Here tulips spread their gaudy chalices;
Here bright anemones, with coloured flames,
Flared up among the other blossoms’ names,
A glory and a wonder to the bees;
And here was every flower that ever grew,
And every colour that the rainbow knew.

But this was not enough. I found a gate,
And, entering, I was in another world.
Here the imagination might unfurl
Its wings, and fly beyond the common state
Of human life, and find a new estate
In the dominion of the sun, and be
A radiant and resplendent entity.
Here was the fairyland of fable; great
Green trees, like giants standing in the sun,
With trunks of silver and with leaves of gold,
Whose branches all mysterious stories told
Of fairies and their doings, every one.
Here were the pools where water-nymphs arise,
And mirrors for the stars to see their eyes.

This was the garden of the hidden things,
The secret garden of the hidden springs.

“The Secret Garden” was first published in The Sketch in 1926.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

In Memory of Rupert Brooke

Not where the grasses shiver on the plain,
Nor where the rustling banners toss their glint,
Nor in the shimmer of a silk-lined tent,
But where a thousand rifles lash the rain,
And lead leaps singing through the leaden sleet,
Your heart was stilled for evermore, O sweet.

Not where the evening hangs her purple fringes,
Nor where the dawn breaks like a rose in flame,
Nor where the lovers carve their tale of names
On some unfooted shore of singing syringes,
But where the wave shall never lift your feet,
You lie at peace for evermore, O sweet.

Not where the nightingale makes music meet,
Nor where the hyacinthine woods are gay,
Nor where the dim laurels shed their spray,
But where the drums are muffled in the street,
Your heart was stilled for evermore, O sweet.

O world of over-burdened loveliness,
That asked not of him half he had to give!
And thou, whose dulcet singing lips are mute,
But hast, as one whom beauty doth not bless,
Given all, gone on before us to the grave—
There is no pain like beauty, and no rest.

published in The New Witness in 1918

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

‘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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized


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 ! …

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized