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.