‘A girl's love’: Lord Alfred Douglas as homoerotic muse in the poetry of Olive Custance
journal contributionposted on 05.10.2016, 10:53 by Sarah Parker
This article explores the relationship between the poet Olive Custance and her husband Lord Alfred Douglas, arguing that Custance constructed Douglas as a male muse figure in her poetry, particularly the sequence ‘Songs of a Fairy Princess’ (Rainbows 1902). The introduction sets out Custance's problematic historical positioning as a ‘decadent’ poet who published nothing following the Great War, but whose work came too late to fit into strictly ‘fin de siècle’ categories. I suggest, however, that Custance's oscillating constructions of gender and sexuality make her more relevant to the concerns of modernity than has previously been acknowledged and her work anticipates what is now termed ‘queer’. The first main section of the article traces the cultural background of the fin de siècle male muse, arguing that Custance's key influences—male homoerotic writers such as Wilde and Pater—meant it was logical that she should imagine the muse as male, despite the problems associated with gender-reversals of the muse-poet relationship which have been identified by several feminist critics. I then move on to focus specifically on how Shakespearean discourses of gender performance and cross-dressing played a key role in Custance and Douglas's courtship, as they exchanged the fluid roles of ‘Prince’, ‘Princess’ and ‘Page’. The penultimate section of the article focuses on discourses of fairy tale and fantasia in Custance's ‘Songs of a Fairy Princess’ sequence, in which these fantasy roles contribute to a construction of Douglas as a feminised object, and the relationship between the ‘Prince’ and ‘Princess’ is described in terms of narcissistic sameness. My paper concludes by tracing the demise of Custance and Douglas's relationship; as Douglas attempted to be more ‘manly’, he sought to escape the role of object, resulting in Custance losing her male muse. But her sexually-dissident constructions of the male muse remain important experiments worthy of critical attention.
- The Arts, English and Drama
- English and Drama