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/)
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!
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
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’ 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.