Tag Archives: poetry

One of Olive’s admirers …


John Davidson. Portrait from “The Yellow Book.”

At sixteen Olive Custance was introduced into the literary society of 1890s London, meeting such men as the publisher John Lane, the writer and critic Richard Le Gallienne,  the future Father John Gray, and many others of the fin de siècle literary scene. One of these was also the now largely forgotten Scottish lyric poet , John Davidson. Davidson visited London, joined the Rhymers’ Club and frequented Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, as literary men still do (eg. www.edmundburke.club)

Davidson was immediately taken by what Le Gallienne called the “flower-like charm” of the young Olive, and he made an eery prophecy about her, predicting both the course of her poetry and the nature of her marriage. It  begins like this:

“At sixteen years, she knew no care:
How could she, sweet and pure as light?
And there pursued her everywhere
Butterflies all white.”

And ends like this:

“There only came to her forlorn
Butterflies all black.”

The poor man walked into the sea in 1909 and was never seen again. May he rest in peace.

Source: Manuscript in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

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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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New biographical work on Custance

Review by Edwin James King

Adams, J. “Olive Custance: A Poet Crossing Boundaries.” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, vol. 61 no. 1, 2018, pp. 35-65. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/679212.


The British writer, historian and television producer Jad Adams has produced a extensively researched biographical account of Olive Custance. It is now, by a few hundred words,  the longest such work in print (the other two shorter ones are Father Sewell’s [1] and my own[2].) So I although I have to declare an interest, in the parliamentary sense of that term, I am perhaps as well-informed on the subject as I am opinionated, because I am deep in study of the same documents as Mr Adams. He is very much a confrère, rather than a competitor, so I hope he will not take any criticisms too much too heart. In this review I will explain why I enjoyed this article and why I also found it somewhat disappointing, at least as a biography of a poet.

Drawing largely on the work of various biographers of Lord Alfred Douglas and synthesising the information they give about Custance, Adams also gives some new information from the diaries in the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library and from letters in the Eccles Collection in the British Library. I have been looking at the London documents for a few years and have bought a ticket to New York to read the documents there in February 2018.  But I have also read documents from a few other places that Adams hasn’t visited (Oxford, British Columbia, Paris). It is not a level playing field … Adams is a scholar of a whole generation of writers so he cannot be everywhere at once; I am an Olive Custance fanatic and my main research focus is her and her alone.

One oft-neglected fact about Olive Custance is that most of the poetry that made her a celebrated figure of the ‘decadent’ 1890s was the work of girl of between 15 and 17 and not of a mature woman [3]. She was a well-read young girl with a lively imagination, fed by readings of Byron, Swinburne and Pater and artistic and sophisticated playacting with her younger sister, Cécile. She never went to school, but at 16 met the delicately handsome poet, John Gray, Oscar Wilde’s former intimate and future Catholic priest. She immediately fell in love with him, as her first ‘fairy prince’. In fact she fell in love with most of the really interesting people she met from then on (aided and abetted by a maid who enjoyed living and loving vicariously, rather like Juliet’s maid in Romeo and Juliet.) One of the young men was the poet and writer Richard Le Galienne, who believed she had the makings of a poet. Once her parents could be persuaded that she was old enough to be published (it took a few years), she turned out to be quite a hit. Her poems in the popular papers such as The Pall Mall Gazette reached a far wider audience than many of the serious-minded decadents and aesthetes whose handcrafted limited editions usually never ran to more than 200 copies and who rather disdained the mass market. She eventually married Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s lover and her second ‘fairy prince’;  he was a better poet than she was, but neither he, nor John Gray, nor even Oscar Wilde enjoyed the worldwide attention of Olive Custance as a poet in the period known as the fin de siècle and the Edwardian era. In those days, Olive’s poems were read out during tens of thousands of peaceful family home evenings round the fire or the piano in places as far apart as London, Dublin, Kansas, Melbourne, Cape Town and Dehli; but today, of course, almost no one has heard of Olive Custance. She is known, if at all, as Oscar’s boyfriend’s wife.  That said, Adams’ work is part of a genuine revival. After the work of Nancy Hawkey[4] and Father Brocard Sewell in the 1970s there was a 40-year lull. But now, Olive Custance is coming out of the literary woodwork.

So what does Adams find in all those diaries and manuscripts? Unfortunately, the diaries do not cover her childhood or teenage years at all, and even the adult ones are often mutilated and incomplete.  This can lead to a great of deal of misconceptions, and also means one needs to do a lot of ‘joining up the dots’.  In general, Adams does this with an open mind, a strong sense of the cultural context and a deal of common sense. A breath of fresh air about her marriage, gleaned from the diaries, is that despite their complicated personalities, Bosie and Olive seem to have had a normal marital life; Adams makes a point of making a point about this because this truth has often been occluded by other writers, in their fascination for the theory that their married life was an impossible sham in sexual terms.

Adams gives more attention than has hitherto been given to Richard Le Gallienne, and this is encouraging; especially as the gossip at the time was that he and Olive had been lovers and yet scholars have for some reason tended to discount this. It all contributes to my impression that Le Gallienne was the man who was instrumental in making her reputation as a poet. Adams also seems to get all the complicated chronology around the courtship of Olive and Bosie completely right where other scholars have got muddled over it. (‘Bosie’ was the nickname of Lord Alfred Douglas, perhaps because he was “beau”.)

In regard to the poems themselves, Adams suggests that Custance was a poet who loved to bear her soul in verse, and yet most of the time he does not use her poems as a source for his biographical exposition; which is a pity as they cast a lot of light on her marriage, her beliefs, her priorities and her general outlook.  The only notable exception to this is when he makes a respectful nod to Dr Sarah Parker’s sapphic reading [5] of a number of poems. Nor does he speak much or at all about her style and development as a poet. In the end, although the account is informative and interesting, we are not left with any real impression of Custance as an artist.

There are also one or two biographical blind-spots that at the risk of seeming peevish, one feels it important to highlight. Apart from references to John Lane and the 1890s circle, we do not get a clear sense of the kind of society in which Olive grew up nor the company she kept in London later.

It is suggested that she grew up in the country, which is not quite true. The family only moved there properly when she was in her late teens, and it was in 1893 (when Olive was 19) that her father inherited the property at Weston Hall, Norfolk.  Before that time Eleanor (the mother), Cécile (born 1876) and Olive (born 1874) lived mainly in London, though no doubt many dreamy summer holidays were spent in Norfolk with their grandparents.  (The move to the country may in fact have had something to do with Colonel Custance’s disquiet about his eldest daughter’s social habits in the city.) The period covered by her published diary (1905-1910) [6] is not really covered much at all in the article, and her collections The Blue Bird (1905) and Inn of Dreams (1911) are ignored as life events and also for biographical clues they contain.

The continuing production of verses in the 20s, 30s and 40s, up to and including the Second World War, is not mentioned at all.  These gaps might not be important, but for the fact that we are only interested in her in the first place because she was a poet. Another lacuna is her conversion to Catholicism, which happened of her own accord when she was separated from her husband, and which had probably been in her mind for a long time. Such conversions were an important feature of the lives of a great many artistic people in those days, especially of ‘decadents’, so it is not an ephemeral detail. Although mention is made that at the time of her death she had lapsed, no previous mention is made of her conversion in 1917; nor is it mentioned that shortly before she died, she had expressed a desire to return to the Church.[7]  In general, although the correspondence now available does cast light on her life in the 20s and 30s, this is not adequately covered; especially as it included important and intriguing new friendships such as that with the famous Lord Leverhulme, the soap millionaire, and with the eccentric demonologist, Montague Summers. Marie Stopes is mentioned, and so is John Betjeman, but they were more friends of Bosie’s than of Olive’s.

The article is part of a larger and more ambitious project to provide extended biographical pieces about neglected ‘decadent women’ of the 1890s which will no doubt be brought together in a book in which some of what I have described as ‘gaps’ may well be filled. I have perhaps been a bit harsh in this review, but the context of the wider project perhaps puts the article’s shortcomings in perspective: Adams is mainly interested in Custance as a figure of the 1890s and it is therefore this period of her life which seems the most relevant and interesting, and the relationships of that period which seem to define her.

Father Sewell first expressed the view that Custance’s identification with decadence was nothing more than a pose; and other scholars have suggested that her labelling as a decadent is a mistake, caused simply by her intimate association with figures close to Oscar Wilde.  And yet the label sticks rather persistently. In 1920 Mary C. Sturgeon suggested that we “find in the verse of Olive Custance a complete devotion to beauty, and no other concern at all.” (Studies of Contemporary Poets, 1920, p. 402.) Based on a cursory reading of Opals and Rainbows, one can understand that opinion (even if it is an over-simplification), but even when read in a hurry the next two collections create a very different impression. Adams, however, is much rougher: “if enjoying art and sex without an apparent morality was decadent, then that is what she was.” For a real Olive Custance fan like me, that hurts. C’est trop, Monsieur Adams, c’est trop!

Walter Pater wrote in 1891 that “a true Epicureanism aims at a complete though harmonious development of man’s entire organism. To lose the moral sense therefore, for instance the sense of sin and righteousness, as Mr. Wilde’s heroes are bent on doing so speedily, as completely as they can, is … to become less complex, to pass from a higher to a lower degree of development.” [8] Olive Custance was more of Pater’s tribe than Wilde’s on the question of personal morality; few scholars pick this up.

So, although this new account fills some gaps in the picture, it leaves many still in need of attention, and unfortunately it fails to create an appetite to read the poetry for its own sake or for what it can tell us about the lady behind it. Olive wrote in 1905: “Like a shy child I bring you all my songs.”  The shy child, and her songs, still remain rather in the shadow of the men in her life. So there is plenty more work for people like Adams and me to do.

Edwin King published an edition of Custance’s Inn of Dreams in 2015 and is currently preparing Wild Olive: The Life and Collected Poems of Olive Custance (Lady Alfred Douglas) for publication in 2018.


[1] Brocard Sewell, Olive Custance: Her Life and Work (London: The 1890s Society, 1975).

[2] Olive Custance, Edwin James King (Ed.), The Inn of Dreams: Poems by Olive Custance, London: Saint Austin Press,  2015.)

[3] This is stated in a letter to AJ Symons, dated 27th November 1925, in the Norman Colbeck Collection, University of British Columbia Library, Canada.

[4] Nancy Hawkes, “Olive Custance Douglas: Introduction to a Bibliography” and “Olive Custance Douglas: An Annotated Bibliography of Writings About Her” in English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, Volume 15, Number 1, 1972, pp. 49-51 and 52-56.

[5] Sarah Parker, The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity, 1889–1930 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2013).

[6] Caspar Wintermans, I Desire the Moon: The Diary of Lady Alfred Douglas (Olive Custance), 1905–1910 (Woubrugge: The Avalon Press, 2004).

[7] Rupert Croft-Cooke, Bosie, (New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1963), p. 372.

[8] Walter Pater, ‘A Novel by Mr Oscar Wilde’, The Bookman, 1, Nov. 1891, pp.59-60; reprinted in Walter Pater: Sketches and Reviews (1919).


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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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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 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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