Alfred Noyes 1880–1958
English poet, critic, essayist, short story writer, novelist, biographer, autobiographer, and dramatist.
An extremely prolific author in several genres, Noyes is primarily known for his conventional English poetry. Defying the modernist movement that attained popularity in the early twentieth century, he was never recognized as an important poet by most literary scholars, and his traditional style led to his eventual critical and popular neglect after World War I. He incorporated standard subjects—everyday life, England's past, the English countryside, the romance and danger of the sea—into his work.
Noyes was born in Wolverhampton, England. In 1898 he began his studies at Oxford, but left a few years later without earning a degree. An avid reader and budding author, he published his first book of verse, The Loom of Years, in 1902, while still an undergraduate. He continued to write prolifically and in diverse genres, such as short stories, novels, literary criticism, political commentary, and essays. After his marriage in 1907 to Garnett Daniels, an American woman, Noyes spent much time in the United States. When she died in 1926, Noyes converted to Roman Catholicism, a decision that profoundly altered the course of his work. His subsequent writings are explicit in their adherence to Catholic doctrine. As a professor at Princeton University, he taught F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edmund Wilson, and John Peale Bishop. His involvement in the Roger Casement affair—an English man accused of recruiting Irish soldiers to liberate Ireland from England—garnered much mixed publicity for Noyes. He continued to travel and lecture throughout the United States until his death in 1958.
Noyes's first poetic work, The Loom of Years, demonstrated his strong command of language and meter. Its cheerful lyrics, fanciful tales, and dance-like rhythms met with immediate success. In "The Highwayman," the poet's frequently anthologized piece, he intensifies a dramatic, romantic story with driving rhythms. In mood and pacing, "The Highwayman" presages Tales of the Mermaid Tavern as a well-researched historical piece, although some find it lacking in psychological subtlety. His most ambitious works, Drake and The Torch-Bearers—a trilogy comprised of Watchers of the Sky, The Book of Earth, and The Last Voyage—received mixed critical response. Drake, Noyes's serialized sea epic, highlights the exploits and adventures of
the famed English navigator. The grandeur, scope, and strong nationalist overtones of the poem drew praise from some critics while others objected to the epic's ornate and archaic diction and to the predictability of its plot. The Torch-Bearers, concerning scientific advancements in astronomy, biology, and modern discoveries and inventions, is judged a notable but uneven and unsatisfying work.
Critics assert that the appeal of Noyes's poetry can be found in its lyrical and technical aspects: the heartiness of the songs, the rhythm of the ballads, and the diversity of metrical forms. Initially, his prolific output garnered praise, as commentators underscored his energy and enthusiasm. After World War I, however, Noyes was derided for the trite and dated nature of his poems. Temperamentally and stylistically wed to the poetry of an earlier era, Noyes rejected the innovations of twentieth century literature. As a distinguished advocate of traditional English literature, he chose traditional subjects and experimented within the confines of traditional prosody. Critics contend that Noyes's late conversion to Roman Catholicism reinforced his conservatism. Yet in his resistance to what he considered to be the caprices of modernism, he has consequently suffered the neglect of modern readers and literary scholars.
The Loom of Years 1902
The Flower of Old Japan 1903
The Forest of Wild Thyme 1905
The Golden Hynde 1908
Tales of the Mermaid Tavern 1913
Watchers of the Sky 1922
The Book of Earth 1925
The Last Voyage 1930
Shadows on the Down and Other Poems 1941
Collected Poems 1950
A Letter to Lucian and Other Poems 1956
Other Major Works
William Morris (biography) 1908
Rada (drama) 1914
Walking Shadows (short stories) 1918
The Hidden Player (short stories) 1924
Some Aspects of Modern Poetry (criticism) 1924
The Opalescent Parrot (criticism) 1929
Voltaire (biography) 1936
Orchard's Bay (essays) 1939
The Last Man (novel) 1940
Pageant of Letters (criticism) 1940
Two Worlds for Memory (autobiography) 1953
The Accusing Ghost; or, Justice for Casement (essay) 1957
Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1906)
SOURCE: A review of Drake: An English Epic, in The Times Literary Supplement, July 6, 1906, pp. 241.
[This review of Noyes 's Drake: An English Epic criticizes the work for its mediocre writing and lack of depth.]
Courage is a great quality everywhere; but perhaps it is seldom greater than in the young poet who sets out to write an epic. Most brave things are done in the stir of the blood, in the eye of a man's comrades, in the passing of a moment. Here is a thing that has to be done alone through months or years that must bring many hours of discouragement. The intellectual fire that is to accomplish it is not of that comparatively easy order which flames high for a moment and then dies down in smoke; it is of that rarer and finer sort which glows continuously red hot from the beginning to the end of the great enterprise. And that is the same thing as saying that it comes more naturally to the steadiness of maturity than to the ardour of youth. Probably no great epic has been written by a young man. Virgil and Tasso may not have been very old as we count age to-day, but Virgil was at least forty when he began the Æneid, and Tasso, who was only thirty-seven when his great poem was published, lived in an age when men were older at thirty than they are at forty to-day. What the exact age of Mr. Noyes is we do not know; but we imagine him to be younger, even in years, than the youngest of his great predecessors. And there lies the difficulty. For youth, which has nearly all the good things of life in its hand, cannot quite have them all; and, to speak frankly, one of the things it cannot have is the epic. For the very essence of the epic is to see life whole, and that is the one thing which is impossible to youth. It is an admirable remark that Mr. W. P. Ker makes in his "Epic and Romance":—"The whole business of life comes bodily into the epic poem." If that be accepted, there is no further question about the matter. The race of the epic is a race which is not to the swift, nor its battle to the young.
It is probably this general law which is the explanation of what is certainly the fact—namely, that Mr. Noyes's epic is far from fulfilling the promise of his earlier volumes. It has a fine exordium, and what may be almost called a magnificent conclusion, pieces of elaborate and stately work, with a high ambition in them, and a genuine inspiration behind them. The poet has not merely sat down and said to himself, "Now I will write an epic poem, and this theme is unused and seems as likely as any other." His heart is in the matter; he really cares for the great deeds of Elizabethan England, and the ideal which he divines in them is for him no mere memory of glory, but a living and inspiring force, the strength of England's Empire as it is to-day and the secret of all that it may be in the future. That is a great theme, and one thinks at once of the parallel of Rome and Virgil; but such themes, of course, do not in themselves involve or contain "the whole business of life." That has to be put into them somehow, in Virgil's way, by help of Dido and Euryalus, and Ascanius and Camilla; by retrospect and anticipation, which is again Virgil's way and Milton's too; by episode and metaphor and simile and allusion, as is the way of all epics. That is where Mr. Noyes fails. Here are three long books of blank verse, and, speaking broadly, there are no episodes in them and only two characters. There are fine lines and fine passages, of course; but the fact seems to be that the poetic power which was enough to fill the lyrics of his last volume with such abundant life has not been enough to give life to an epic. It is one thing, and a great and delightful thing, to write such poems as "Apes and Ivory" and "The Sweet o' the Year"; it is another thing to write an Æneid or a Paradise Lost.
"Drake," then, as an epic, as a whole, cannot be called a success. An epic must, by...
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William Aspenwall Bradley (essay date 1907)
SOURCE: "Alfred Noyes's New Volume" in New York Times Book Review, September 7, 1907, pp. 539.
[In the following review, Bradley finds The Flower of Old Japan a disappointing effort in mediating between William Blake and Lewis Carroll.]
Mr. Noyes's second American publication will not, we think, materially assist his reputation—which was left somewhat in suspense by his first volume. In fact, we believe that it will rather retard his serious recognition as a poet in this country. For if the selection of poems which was published here last year as an introduction to American readers was inconclusive; if it served on the whole to display the brilliance of...
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Clayton Hamilton (essay date 1908)
SOURCE: A review of The Golden Hynde, in The North American Review, September, 1908, pp. 451-54.
[In this review, Hamilton praises Noyes for his stylistic versatility while questioning the importance and relevance of his poems subject matter.]
The main difficulty in attempting to estimate the value of the work of Mr. Alfred Noyes is that we are likely to be bewildered by his manifold and eager productivity. The Golden Hynde and Other Poems, though it is only the third volume of his verse to be published in America, is the sixth of his volumes to appear in England; and Mr. Noyes is at present only twenty-seven years of age. His fecundity is amazing, and...
(The entire section is 1072 words.)
Richard Le Gallienne (essay date 1910)
SOURCE: "An English Epic by Alfred Noyes," in The New York Times Book Review, February 19, 1910, p. 92.
[In the following review, Le Gallienne classifies Drake as an anachronism, but not quite an epic]
There is no denying that at first sight Mr. Alfred Noyes's epic has the look of a fearsomely ponderous performance. The very make of the book, handsomely made as it is, with its reproductions of old portraits and old prints, suggests rather a weighty historical treatise than a poem. The words "Books I., xii.," on the title page, also, and the serried lines of 343 pages of blank verse tend to deepen one's misgivings—though here and there the eye catches with a...
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The New York Times Book Review (essay date 1910)
SOURCE: "New Poems by Alfred Noyes," in The New York Times Book Review, June 11, 1910, p. 339.
[This review characterizes Noyes's The Enchanted Island as "a better book than the author has given us hitherto."]
It is a common characteristic of the average human to be deeply discouraged over the popular contemporaneous mind; it is always so unintelligent, or so immoral, or so materialistic. Just now the general feeling is that it is too materialistic to appreciate true poetry, and therefore true poetry is not being written. As a matter of fact, if poetry were governed by the ordinary laws of supply and demand, its production would rank with cotton-spinning, or the...
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Joyce Kilmer (essay date 1913)
SOURCE: "At the Mermaid," in The New York Times, April 20, 1913, p. 237.
[Kilmer's review of Tales of the Mermaid Tavern suggests that this collection of poems elevates Noyes from a "jingle" writer to a place beside the "English Masters. "]
Generalizations are dangerous things. For instance, we are told over and over that this is an age of prose, "an age," according to William Watson, "that banishes the poets; scourges them with the scourge of apathy, from out her bosom's rich metropolis." The poet, it is said, has no longer an audience. We humbly accept this judgment, and long for the vanished days when Byron lived in luxury and Moore built country houses out...
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Brian Hooker (essay date 1913)
SOURCE: A review of Tales Of The Mermaid Inn, in The Bookman, June, 1913, pp. 445-48.
[In the following review of Tales of the Mermaid Inn, Hooker suggests that the poem is not Elizabethan because it is modern in "form, prosody and style. "]
The critical commonplace about Mr. Alfred Noyes's Tales of the Mermaid Tavern is that he portrays the Elizabethan period and the writing, fighting, adventurous London that was then. And this, like many commonplaces, is a halftruth none the worse for winnowing. Certainly, in the sense of representing these spacious times as their own literature presented them, the book is not Elizabethan at all: there is hardly...
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Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1922)
SOURCE: "Astronomy in Verse," in The Times Literary Supplement, March 23, 1922, p. 188.
[In the following review, Noyes is noted for his "readability" while providing a history of astronomy in verse.]
We have grown apt during the last hundred years to think of poetry as something which lives entirely and continuously on the heights, something in which we are at every moment conscious of a concentration of formal beauty with intellectual, emotional, and imaginative energy. But poetry was not always so narrowly defined, nor such large demands made upon it. Indeed, such definitions tend to admit of no poetry but lyrical. For nothing else, or hardly anything else, can...
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Richard Le Gallienne (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: "Alfred Noyes Among the Star Gazers," in The New York Times Book Review And Magazine, May 28, 1922, pp. 9, 22.
[In the following review, Le Gallienne criticizes Noyes for having the "idea that to make a great poem you have only to take a great subject and pour over it a kind of poetic sauce."]
To have attained any form or popularity is the unforgivable sin with a certain school of critics, who are either very young, or are gloomily middleaged and sour from having hopelessly pursued the popularity they deride, or are political revolutionaries, and regard popular success as a form of capitalism. For them the best seller must of necessity be the worst writer. For...
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Percy A. Hutchison (essay date 1925)
SOURCE: "Alfred Noyes Continue in the Grand Manner," in The New York Times Book Review, August 30, 1925, pp. 12, 23.
[In the following review, Hutchison surmises that while The Book of Earth is not as great as Paradise Lost, it still serves as a worthy attempt to "interpret through the medium of poetic verse the history of man and man's relation to God."]
It is by a curious coincidence that Mr. Alfred Noyes's The Book of Earth—which is Book 2 of the triology, The Torch Bearers, and has for its theme the evolutionary interpretation of creation—should have made its appearance so shortly after the trial at Dayton focused public attention...
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William Rose Benét (essay date 1930)
SOURCE: "Round about Parnassus," in The Saturday Review Of Literature, December 6, 1930, p. 420.
[In the following review, Benét discussed two successful aspects of Noyes's poetry: its lyrical quality and metrical "accomplishment."]
There are two books before us by Alfred Noyes, published by the Frederick A. Stokes Company. The first is Forty Singing Seamen and Other Poems, designed and decorated by Elizabeth MacKinstry, the second is the third volume of Mr. Noyes's trilogy, The Torch-Bearers, this one being entitled The Last Voyage. We have always admired Mr. Noyes's best work; though he has been a most copious writer and has frequently displayed...
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Joseph Slater (essay date 1957)
SOURCE: "Voice from the Past," in The Saturday Review Of Literature, August 10, 1957, pp. 31.
[In the following review, Slater notes that A Letter to Lucian And Other Poems keeps up a poetic tradition likened to that of Patmore, Belloc and Chesterton.]
When Alfred Noyes was twenty-seven, he wrote a poem for the seventieth birthday of Algernon Swinburne, which Swinburne liked so well that he invited his young admirer to dinner (lamb, mint sauce, beer) at "The Pines." Now, fifty years later, there comes a new volume of poems by Noyes, A Letter to Lucian and Other Poems, which Swinburne would have liked even better and in which, except for a few phrases like...
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Derek Stanford (essay date 1959)
SOURCE: "Alfred Noyes 1880-1958," in The Catholic World, Vol. 188, January, 1959, pp. 297-301.
[In the following excerpt, Stanford praises Noyes's lyrical poems while noting that his non-lyrical poem "Drake" is less successful.]
… But it is, of course, with poetry that Noyes' name is most commonly connected. How many classrooms must have thrilled to the elementary but compulsive music of such poems as "The Highwayman," "The Barrel-Organ," and "A Song of Sherwood"! With its rhythmic repetitions and its strong dramatic drive, the first of these pieces shows Noyes at his best. Few poems written this century can have served as the basis of a film-script, but "The...
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Hoxie Neale Fairchild (essay date 1962)
SOURCE: "Nothing Very New," in Religious Trends In English Poetry, Vol. 5, 1962, pp. 214-21.
[In the following essay, Fairchild explains that Noyes's collection. Early Poems, is "an urgent desire for some sort of spiritual affirmation."]
… The seventeen pages of Early Poems may surprise readers who associate Noyes with the invitation to come down to Kew, Reminiscent of Swinburne, Banville, Gautier, and Baudelaire, they show that Noyes begins in the nineties as a serious, mildly decadent, but non-Bohemian aesthete who is more interested in the mystical and occult side of French symbolism than most of his English contemporaries. There are hints of...
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Tobin, James Edward. "Alfred Noyes: A Corrected Bibliography." Catholic Library World XV, No. 6 (March 1944): 181-84, 189.
Revised and expanded bibliography, first published in October 1941, of works by Noyes and criticism about him.
Hamilton, Clayton. "The Youngest of the Epics." The Forum XLIII, No. 5 (May 1910): 550-58.
Negative assessment of Drake. Hamilton contends: "It is not in his subject-matter but in his handling of it that Mr. Noyes shows himself defective."
(The entire section is 204 words.)