Tag Archives: poetry

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

“Peculiar flavor” and “preoccupation with the esoteric” … a 1950s view of Custance and friends

THE EIGHTEEN-NINETIES. A Period Anthology in Prose and Verse,
Chosen by Martin Secker. London: The Richards Press. p. xvi, 616.

(Review from the Dalhousie Review, Volume 32, Number 2, 1952)

This new edition of the Anthology first published in 1948, is another indication of the considerable revival of interest in the fin de siecle which has been evident during the past few years. This phenomenon in literary taste is probably due to reaction against much hasty and slovenly writing in an age of rage, pain and uncertainty.

The inner resources are once more being summoned-by the few, at least-as providing the only solace, the only verities. It is this unconscious quest for the felicity that comes with “. . . the cultivation of the self, the consolations of art”, as John Betjeman puts it in his Introduction, that identifies the modern reader with the writers of the period . “If we do not recognize the note of rebellion,- we will hear, those of us who can hear rhythm and rhyme, the accom- paniment of sound craftsmanship.” This is what is too often neglected by the critics of the Nineties. The revolt, the determination to shock, and the Victorian social climate which brought forth such lush and often over-exuberant manifestations being now vivid only to specialists, the often exquisite manner and matter of the writers of the day – all gone now, sadly, except Max Beerbohm – seem too often to have been overlooked. They are slowly earning acceptance once more. Certainly the spell is an entrancing one, and once it claims a happy victim, holds him fast. In the Introduction, Mr. ·Betjeman has slipped into the very polished periods of the decadence to tell of the publisher-compiler Martin Secker, worthy successor John Lane, and of the reading and sifting that finally resulted in this book.

Appropriately (and inevitably, to any lover of the period) the Dedication is to Sir Max Beerbohm. In Eighteen-Eighty and Diminuendo. selected from his writings, “The Incomparable Max” gives the flavor of an age as savoured by his bitter-sweet palate. As Hotbrook Jackson points out, the New Urbanity was finely exemplified in Max’s strangely modern personality, and one sees the decadence smiling at itself in his pages. ·

It appears that the arrangement of the selections is alphabetical by author and, therefore, it is only accidentally felicitous that Aubrey Beardsley should be first on the list. One has always been curious about Under the Hill, of course, and it is re-prin ted here. :Like a good many other things in this book, it is quite unobtainable and long out of print, and one has never seen it. Beardsley died early and this unfinished fragment is his only prose work. His amazing versatility is made apparent in this collection whose frontispiece is his illustration to The Three Musicians, which poem is also reproduced.

Beardsley may not have been essential to the period but he would have been out of place elsewhere and in his brief career he epitomized the courageous and often bizarre creative personality of the day. It was, as Max Beerbohm called it, ” … the Beardsley Period.” 

At times, the peculiar flavour of much Nineties writing becomes only too apparent. It reads almost as if Dawson, Olive Custance, Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde and Beardsley were all one. The passion for close description of lush detail, of beauty grafted to elegance ; the preoccupation with the esoteric in all manner of luxurious trappings, outlandish sights and sounds and ‘scarlet’ sins, becomes mere posing at its worst. and most ingenious invention at its best.

But there is so much more here: George Moore, HenryHarland (editor of The Yellow Book), Arthur Symons (editor of The Savoy), Richard La Gallienne, perhaps most capable of evoking the true Nineties aura, as in A Ballad of London with its much-quoted ” … iron lilies of the Strand”. Here one will find also his exquisite, wonder-inspired Ode to Spring which is far from the Strand and patchouli and Bohemia. To browse through these pages is to come across many an example of the very special concern of the Nineties men with acute observation of externals and of the things of the mind. The long complete Lovers of Orelay of George Moore is quite typical prose in this sense, while Vincent O’Sullivan’s The Lady and Arthur Symons’ In Bohemia are poems which could, one might almost say, have been written at no other time.

This eloquent and elegant selection may well inspire the desire to write well, and if it does it will justify itself even beyond its inimitable period attraction. In the broader view, the attempt being made at the end of the last century to find a way for art in a bourgeois industrial society is still going on, and the contemplation of the earlier attempts makes the Nineties of real interest and importance to-day.



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

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

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).


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


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