Alfred Noyes

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Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1906)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1621

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 one means or another, get hold of something of the richness and variety of life; and three long books with barely a whisper of a woman in them are, to say the least, against all the precedents. Two three pages out of a hundred and seventy are, indeed, given to Elizabeth; but, for one thing, there is more of Queen than woman in, them, and in any case the allowance is somewhat scanty. Then the villain Doughty, almost the only character beside Drake, is somehow entirely unconvincing. Even Drake himself, if the truth is to be told, is more conspicuous for fine words and fancies than for anything so human as blood or bone. When he looks back on his first sight of the sea as a boy,

There first he saw the wondrous newborn world,
And round its princely shoulders wildly flowing
Gemmed with a myriad clusters of the sun,
The magic azure mantle of the sea,

somehow it is a picture that is not very convincing as a picture of the boyhood of Drake; when he begins to suspect Doughty's treachery—

… Was there nothing certain, nothing sure
In those divinest aisles and towers of Time,
Wherein we took sweet counsel?—

we hardly seem to hear the voice of the terrible man who swept the seas, and made his name one which no Spaniard could pronounce without a shudder. Of course nobody talks in poetry exactly as he would talk in life; the novelist's seacook would be unendurable, as Stevenson knew, if he talked his own talk as it actually is. The business of art is to give, not reality, but the illusion of reality; and the defect of Mr. Noyes's Drake is not that he is not the historical Drake, which does not matter at all, but that he makes us very conscious that he is not, which does matter a great deal.

There are some half-dozen lyrics thrown into the three books. None of them will rank with the best in the poet's earlier volumes. Some of them have rather too many of the hackneyed stage properties of the Elizabethan age—"jolly good ale," "noses aglow," and the rest; and so smack a little too much of the opera, even of the comic opera. But there is a stately beauty in the song to which Drake finds Elizabeth listening:—

But the best is perhaps the Swinburnian praise of the sea, sung by Drake's "musicians" out in the Atlantic:—

That is, perhaps, the thing which sticks in the memory more than anything else in "Drake." But fascination does not belong, of course, altogether to Mr. Noyes; and in any case lyrics are the ornaments, not the stuff, of an epic poem. That must be looked for in the blank verse which tells the tale. Lovers of the metre in which English poets have done their very greatest things will ask how far the brilliant young author of "The Barrel Organ" has succeeded here. The answer must be that the bulk of "Drake" is written in sound and respectable, but not very distinguished, blank verse. The level is below that of the best of our young poets, below Mr. Phillips, for instance, and far below such beautiful blank verse as the "Penthesilea" of Mr. Binyon. But Mr. Noyes has his great moments, especially at the Leginning and end. here is a passage near the end:—

And now along the Patagonian coast
They cruised, and in the solemn midnight saw
Wildernesses of shaggy barren marl,
Petrified seas of lava, league on league,
Craters and bouldered slopes and granite cliffs
With ragged rents, grim gorges, deep ravines,
And precipice on precipice up-piled
Innumerable to these dim distances
Where, over valleys hanging in the clouds,
Gigantic mountains and volcanic peaks
Catching the wefts of cirrus fleece appeared
To smoke against the sky, though all was now
Dead as that frozen chaos of the moon,
Or some huge passion of a slaughtered soul
Prostrate under the marching of the stars.

And here are the last words of the noble exordium which precedes the poem:—

Mother and sweetheart, England; from whose breast,
With all the world before them, they went forth,
Thy seamen, o'er the wide uncharted waste,
Wider than that Ulysses roamed of old,
Even as the wine-dark Mediterranean
Is wider than some tido-relinquished pool
Among its rocks, yet none the 'less explored

To greater ends than all the pride of Greece
And pomp of Rome achieved; if my poor song
Now spread too wide a sail, forgive thy son
And lover, for thy love was over wont
To lift men up in pride above themselves
To do great deeds which of themselves alone
They could not; thou hast led the unfaltering feet
Of even thy meanest heroes down to death,
Lifted poor knights to many a great emprise,
Taught them high thoughts, and though they kept their souls
Lowly as little children, bidden them lift
Eyes unappalled by all the myriad stars
That wheel around the great white throne of God.

Here are the eloquence and beauty which are possible to youth; perhaps when the next books sppear Mr. Noyes will have added something of the varied experience which is only possible to age.

William Aspenwall Bradley (essay date 1907)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1578

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 his technique, the facility and cleverness of his versification, and his unusual verbal resources, without at the same time giving any evidence of deep-seated originality or genuine imaginative power, it at least contained a number of poems, like "The Swimming Race," in which there was much beauty of expression, and others, like "The Barrel Organ," in which, despite certain feeble affectations of manner, there was a blithe buoyancy of tone, together with a fresh unconventionality in the handling of metrical forms and in the use of the refrain.

In The Flower of Old Japan, on the other hand, it is possible to see little but futile ingenuity in the misdirection of poetic energy. The volume contains two long poems which were issued separately in England, but which are here brought together appropriately in that the second poem, "The Forest of Wild Thyme," is conceived in the same spirit as the title poem, and is, in a sense, a sequel to it. Of the former, Mr. Noyes says in his preface that it "must not be taken to bear any real relation to Japan. It belongs to the kind of dreamland which an imaginative child might construct out of the oddities of a willow-pattern plate, and it differs chiefly from wonderlands of the Lewis Carroll type in a certain seriousness behind its fantasy." "The Forest of Wild Thyme" also seeks, in another field but with the same underlying seriousness of sentiment, to construct the imaginative atmosphere of childish fantasy. Both poems are therefore attempts, as Mr. Mabie puts it in his preface to the earlier volume, to combine "the gay temper and the serious mood."

"The gay temper," for Mr. Noyes, is synonymous with the spirit of childhood. Hence, as he says of these two poems in his preface, "If the feet of the children are set dancing in them it was because as children we are best able to enter into that kingdom of dreams which is also the only true, the only real kingdom." One may, however, with some justice question just how representative such verse as he has written really is of the imaginative mood of childhood. Mr. Noyes has borrowed his precise form of fantasy from the modern nonsense verse which he appears to have accepted absolutely at its infantile face value. But such verse itself seems to us very often to have much more of sophistication, of the very antithesis of the child's way of thinking and feeling at the bottom of it, than is sometimes suspected. It is certainly a mistake to assume that because the child's view of nature appears grotesque to the grown man, the child himself is conscious of this grotesquerie or has any aesthetic appreciation of it. Much of what is today written either to please children or to interpret their incomplete or confused idea of things in general seems to us a gross libel on their intelligence, a slur on the pathetic seriousness of their attempts to construct a real world out of their incomplete knowledge and experience. Most nonsense-verse is puerile rather than childlike in any worthy sense of the word, and it seems to us that especially in the first of these two poems by Mr. Noyes, "The Flower of Old Japan," there is a very considerable measure of this sheer puerility which is not made any the more palatable by the fact that the poet has adopted not only the ideas, if we may call them so, but the very idiom of modern nonsense-writers:

This sort of thing is not redeemed by any amount of clever rhyming nor is the poem as a whole, of which it is perhaps an exaggerated example of the poet's style at its silliest, saved by the richness of its exotic coloring or the quaintness of some of its conceits and pictures. What might without the gratuitous intrusion of the note of infancy be acceptable as a sort of musical fantasia on Japanese themes and motives is marred irretrievably by the false affectation of simplicity which is in reality far from simple, while the jingling measures and abrupt staccato phrases well-nigh reach the limit of maddening monotony. Even if it were essential to his purpose to create the illusion of childish naïveté Mr. Noyes might have achieved this with less violation of the principles of sound taste. One is forced either to the conclusion that Mr. Noyes is indeed deficient in imaginative insight as well as in the higher control of his art to be obliged to resort to so poor and mechanical an artifice for the evocation of "atmosphere," or that he is the victim of that conception of pseudo-realism which is variously exemplified in the poetry of to-day, and which makes Mr. Noyes in effect to say that to write poetry from the child's standpoint it is necessary to write like a child, or as a child might be expected to write if it could actually write at all. The ease with which this theory can be carried to a reductio ad absurdum is only too apparent, if indeed The Flower of Old Japan does not itself represent that final effort of futility.

But even more extraordinary than Mr. Noyes's verse is the preface. We have already quoted some pregnant passages from this preface, which was prepared especially for the American edition and which gives every sign of having been written, as it actually was, some time after the poems themselves. Indeed, one could almost fancy that the poet had not even taken the trouble to reread the latter for the purpose of refreshing his memory as to their real character and his real purpose in writing them, so little do they seem to support the profound and almost metaphysical interpretation which he attempts to put upon them. There is not space here for a complete analysis of what strikes us as a fundamental want of correspondence between poems and preface. One point, however, is clear, even obvious—this is, that whatever importance we attribute to the form of nonsense verse as an interpretation of one side of the child's imaginative life, it is not, at all events, exhaustive. It certainly does not translate, or attempt to translate, the mood of simple serious wonder of childhood in which is contained the germ of its later religious feeling. If it represents anything at all, it is rather the reverse of wonder, the mood of practical matter-of-fact acceptance, the complete conviction of what Mr. Noyes himself says—namely, that the world of dreams is the only true, the only real world. It is only in its direct contact with reality from which it cannot escape into some imaginative atmosphere of its own that the mood of wonder is evoked in the child—or in the man either for that matter—and it is the very condition sine qua non of nonsense verse, the primary principle of its existence, that such reality be banished beyond its boundaries.

It would seem scarcely necessary to make the above distinction, or to point out that there is a fundamental difference between "Songs of Innocence" and, say, "The Bab Ballads," or the works of Edward Lear, if it were not for the fact that Mr. Noyes seems to have failed to make this very ordinary distinction for himself or to understand clearly the nature of the barrier that separates these representative examples of two antipodal classes of literature. His own verse he apparently feels to partake of the nature of both, to affect a synthesis between them. Hence the curious confusion in the following passage in his preface: "It is perhaps because these poems are almost light enough for a nonsense book that I feel there is something to them more elemental, more essential, more worthy of serious consideration, than the most ponderous philosophical poem I could write. They are based on the fundamental and very simple mystery of the universe—that anything, even a grain of sand, should exist at all."

But are they so based? To us it seems that, just because they are of a quality to fit into a nonsense book, they are devoid of the very slightest trace of genuine mystery or wonderment. And why, if even a grain of sand is so mysterious, the creation in The Flower of Old Japan, of so elaborate an artificial wonderland? No, it is impossible to be both William Blake and Lewis Carroll at one and the same time. Nothing of the former has been revealed in Mr. Noyes so far, and his attempt to force upon his own poems a superior construction more in accordance with the profound ideality and mystical intuition of that poet only serves to bring into still clearer relief their essential kinship with the paradis artificiels of the "wonder" writers….

Clayton Hamilton (essay date 1908)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1072

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 his variety is even more so. He has written poems in innumerable measures that have heretofore been used in English verse, and has invented many measures of his own. He has sung to the tune of masters as diverse as Swinburne, Blake, Rossetti, Tennyson and Heine, with a reckless facility and joyous grace, and has informed all his work with an individuality of charm. He can write a ballad or a lullaby, a song or a symphony, a light lyric or an ode; and he writes them all with the same extraordinary technical accomplishment and dauntless ease. He has not yet developed a blank verse of his own that is completely organized, and his spontaneity of rhythmic variation seems as yet inconsonant with the restrictions of the sonnet form; but he has written no verse that is bad, and much that is very, very good. Perhaps he is most at home in the triple measures which Mr. Swinburne has taught him how to wield.

It is safe to say that even the master himself has seldom surpassed the fluent melody of such lines as these, from "Orpheus and Eurydice":

There can be no doubt whatever of Mr. Noyes's ability to versify. Although he is still very young, he has already mastered the mechanism of his art, and is prepared to say with permanence of form whatever may be given him to say. The deeper question remains to be considered whether or not the things he has to say are of sufficient importance to warrant the hope that in him English poetry may find a successor to the great Victorians. The evidence as yet is incomplete; but a thorough study of his recent volume gives me faith to venture an affirmative prediction. To be sure, it is not yet possible to formulate his message,—much less to weigh and measure it. We can do that in the case of Keats: all that is necessary is to quote the last two lines of the "Grecian Urn," and explain them with sufficient fulness of understanding. Shelley also said one thing all his life; and it is conceivable that his message might be formulated in a single sentence,—though Matthew Arnold failed to do it in his famous glittering phrase. But Mr. Noyes, who has said so many different things, has as yet not said the one thing he was born to say. That very diversity which so amazes us in his work is probably a penalty that he pays for not yet having found out precisely who he is. He will not be truly great until, like Keats and Shelley, he shall succeed in revealing unity beneath his multiplicity.

But whatever may be the one thing that shall constitute his message, after his genius shall have found the centre around which it must be destined to revolve, I have faith that Mr. Noyes will say it; and the reason is that I have faith in the man himself, as he stands exhibited in all his work. His productivity and his variety are indicative more emphatically of his strength than of his incompleteness. He is productive because he is healthy; and he is various because he is divinely capable of being interested in "a number of things,"—to quote the "Happy Thought" of the Poet Laureate of Childhood, whom in many wise ways Mr. Noyes resembles. His healthiness of spirit is a boon for which to thank the gods. Nothing is the matter with his body or his soul. In this age of morbid introspection, he never looks upon himself to curse his fate. He never whines or whimpers: his sadness is the deep great sadness of a happy man. He religiously believes in being happy; and his triumphant youthfulness is a glorious challenge to the sort of maunderers who are forever saying, "Ah! but wait till you have suffered!" After all the moanings and the caterwaulings of the sorry little singers, we have found at last a poet to whom the world is not a twilight vale of tears, but a valley shimmering all dewy to the dawn, with a lark song over it.

Only two things, so far as I can see, may stop him. There is, of course, a certain peril in his facility. He writes so easily and well that he may be tempted sometimes to write merely for the joy of the working. Some of his poems are already just a little thin: they are done beautifully, but they did not of necessity have to be done at all. But his other danger is more considerable. In several of the poems of this latest volume, he shows a tendency to intellectual dogmatism. He expresses good thought in good verse, instead of writing poetry. This is especially true in the pieces in which he inveighs against war, with a deliberate reversal of Mr. Kipling's thunderous imperialism, and in those other pieces in which he translates his general truth into the too particular terms of Christian dogma. He is least representative of his England when he strives consciously to deliver a laureate utterance. When an intellectual or moral purpose gets in his way, he usually misses that perfect emotional fusion of content and expression which is poetry.

But these are, after all, only the defects of his qualities. Mr. Noyes is by far the most promising of all the younger English poets, because of his vigor and variety, his freshness of personality, and his ease of art. His career should be watched hopefully by all lovers of literature. We cannot now say what the future has in store for him; but it seems safe to predict that if any poet now writing is to inherit the mantle, it is he.

Richard Le Gallienne (essay date 1910)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1510

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 ray of hope the italicised lyrics set like sprays of blossom in the solid unrelenting text.

It is true that we have on the cover quotations of praise from Mr. Kipling and Mr. Swinburne to reassure us. Mr. Kipling vouches that "the tale itself held me yesterday evening from one end to the other," and Mr. Swinburne wrote "your noble and patriotic and historic poem." But then, if I may be excused the expression, Mr. Kipling is, and Mr. Swinburne was, so rabidly British that their opinion of any glorification of England is apt to be tainted with a suspicion of chauvinism. However, as we take heart, and bravely face Mr. Noyes's epic for ourselves, by degrees, though by no means at first, it begins to dawn on us that both those great poets were not so very far wrong. In spite of its anachronistic method, and its cumbrous build—not unlike the elaborate castellated Spanish galleons which Mr. Noyes in many places so picturesquely describes—the story does get hold of one, and there is no doubt whatever, as The London Times said, that "the air we are breathing is great air."

Mr. Noyes has written a special "Prologue to the American Edition," in which, after the manner of imperialistic poets, he naturally speaks of "England, my mother," but again with anachronistic affectation, speaks of America as "my Western sweetheart" and "sweet." Somehow the time seems past for such terms of endearment applied to great embattled nations, and particularly to this iron and "invincible republic." But some of the verses are worth quoting for the expression of that ideal of racial unity which our poets are the men to foster:

If, as I have hinted, Mr. Noyes's poem is an anachronism, it is, of course, a conscious one; for Mr. Noyes has evidently deliberately set himself to write the epic of Drake in much the same manner as an Elizabethan poet might have treated it—old Michael Drayton, for example, whose style and method, indeed, it much resembles. It resembles, too, in its longdrawn narrative, its highly decorated descriptiveness, its generally dreamy and richly colored atmosphere, one of those chronicles in tapestry which in Drake's time were hung upon the walls of royal chambers—tapestries

From Flanders looms, whereon were flowers and beasts
And forest work, great knights, with hawk on hand,
Riding forever on their glimmering steeds
Through bowery glades to some immortal face
Beyond the fairy fringes of the world.

William Morris, too, has evidently had his share in inspiring the method of this poem, "born out of its due time." Conformably with his Elizabethan models, Mr. Noyes opens his poem with a prayerful "exordium," in which he acclaims the greatness of his theme and invokes his "mother and love, fair England," to sustain his muse in its ambitious enterprise:

The large imperious legend of our race,
Ere it brought forth the braggarts of an hour,
Self-worshippers who love their imaged strength,
And as a symbol for their own proud selves
Misuse the sacred name of this dear land,
While England to the Empire of her soul.
Like some great Prophet passes through the crowd
That cannot understand …

This whole "exordium" is a-tremble with the prayerful passion of a noble patriotism, a patriotism which, however, comes occasionally to seem a little overstrung, almost hysterical, as it continues to pray or prophesy and apostrophize through twelve long books. Yet it is but fair to say that the books, as we read, do not seem as long as they look, for I repeat that the story does hold one, though, its power being cumulative, it is hard to illustrate by quotation. The most vivid episode is undoubtedly the execution of Doughty, a gentleman adventurer who, with others of his class, sailed with Drake on The Golden Hynde on his historic expedition to ravage the Spanish Main. Drake had sailed under the express patronage of Elizabeth, of whom Mr. Noyes gives a striking picture, but Lord Burleigh, who did not approve of Drake's plan, had sent Doughty with him as a spy. Doughty simulates friendship for Drake, but secretly stirs up mutiny among his crews, and Drake, at last discovering his treachery, brings him to trial on a lonely shore on the Straits of Magellan, the skeleton of one of Magellan's old mutineers dangling mournfully on the wind hard by. Drake's crews decree that Doughty must die. Doughty gayly accepts his fate and begs them all to feast with him before his execution.

I would I had space to illustrate by quotation the solemn impressiveness with which Mr. Noyes pictures for us this strange scene.

The figure of Drake, while impressive, is rather that of a demigod than of a human being, and the tender side of him, as in his love story and in his religion, a curious blend of piracy and Puritanism, seems a little oversentimentalized. It is, indeed, when Drake speaks that the dramatic unreality, the naif limitations, of Mr. Noyes's old-world method reveal themselves. Of course, the reader is expected to accept the artistic conditions of the poem, yet it is hard to imagine Drake talking like this:

And Drake, be-mused, leaned smiling to his friend
Doughty and said, "Is it not strange to know
When we return yon speckled herring gulls
Will still be wheeling, dipping, flashing there
Just as we leave them? Ah, my heart cries out
We shall not find a sweeter land afar
Than those thyme-scented hills we leave behind!
Soon the young lambs will bleat across the combes,
And breezes will bring puffs of hawthorn scent
Down Devon lanes; over the purple moors;
Lavrocks will carol and the plover cry,
The nesting peewit cry; on village greens
Around the Maypole, while the moon hangs low,
The boys and girls of England merrily swing
In country footing through the flowery dance:
Roses return: I blame them not who stay,
I blame them not at all who cling to home.
For many of us, indeed, shall not return.
Nor ever know that sweetness any more.

For me the value of the poem lies chiefly in its pictures, its tapestried description. Take this fine picture of a Spanish galleon:

For through a mighty zone of golden haze,
Blotting the purple of the gathering night,
A galleon like a floating mountain moved
To meet them, clad with sunset and with dreams.
Her masts and spars immense in jeweled mists
Shimmered: her rigging, like an emerald web
Of golden spiders, tangled half the stars!
Embodied sunset, dragging the soft sky
O'er dazzled ocean, through the night she drew
Out of the unknown lands, and round a prow
That jutted like a moving promontory
Over a cloven wilderness of foam,
Upon a lofty blazoned scroll her name
San Salvador challenged obsequious isles
Where'er she rode …

Also the poem is charged with the romantic learning, the legendary geography, the fairy-tale maps of the time, of one of which Mr. Noyes gives this delightful description:

And on the table lay the magic chart,
Drawn on a buffalo horn, all small-peaked isles,
Dwarf promontories, tiny twisted creeks,
And fairy harbours under elfin hills,
With marvellous inscriptions lined in red—
As Here is Gold, or Many Rubies Here,
Or Ware Witch-crafte, or Here is Cannibals.

And Mr. Noyes is very skillful in conveying the haunted mystery and marvels of the unknown tropic seas:

Sometimes at midnight round them all the sea
Quivered with witches' oils and water-snakes.
Green, blue, and red, with lambent tongues of fire.

Mile upon mile about the blurred black hulls
A cauldron of tempestuous color coiled.
On every mast mysterious meteors burned,
And from the shores a bellowing rose and fell
As of great bestial gods that walked all night
Through some wild dell unknown, too vast for men….

Scattered amid the narratives are some charming lyrics in the Elizabethan manner, brought in as, in their voyaging, the skilled musicians, who were a romantic feature of Drake's cruises, would strike up a song amid the lonely seas. Here are a few verses of perhaps the most beautiful:

So it will be seen that if this poem must be classed as an anachronism, a brilliant tour de force, if we cannot take it quite seriously as an "epic," it is, none the less, rich in manifold fine qualities, and animated by a noble poetic spirit.

The New York Times Book Review (essay date 1910)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1237

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 manufacture of porcelain bath tubs—lower, indeed, since no one can deny the utility of these last-named arts. The truth is, that, as with the wind of the world or the soul of man, no one can say whence poetry cometh or whither it goeth; but one thing is certain: so long as there is Youth to listen or Age to be reminded, so long as the Huntress and the Persuader war in the veins of men, the poet, good, indifferent, and even bad, will have his audience. The fact that poetry is not a commercially profitable form of literature is beside the question. If any proof were needed that even this froward generation is willing to dance if properly piped to, the popularity of Alfred Noyes both in England and in America would sufficiently attest it.

The Enchanted Island, and Other Poems, is a distinct advance, as a whole, upon Mr. Noyes' previous work. Though it would be hard to find anything more perfect than his earlier song,

There's a barrel-organ carolling across a golden street

In the City as the sun sinks low,

with its onomatopoetic swing, its music, and its deep, underlying humanity, there is in this volume, on the other hand, no trace of the earlier immaturity. Here the author has found himself, and he strikes a clear, distinct, and very manly note. He understands how to be simple without falling into the commonplace, robust without being brutal, and to distinguish the beautiful from the decadent-beautiful. A characteristic of the book is an extraordinary quality of make-believe, of illusion, as though we had stepped by accident upon a magic carpet, and had been straightway transported—miraculously, to be sure, but with a curious matter-of-factness about it, too—back to the period before shades of the prison-house began to close about the growing boy. Wordsworth says that

Nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;

but Mr. Noyes has very nearly accomplished it in "The Tramp Transfigured." It begins with ingratiating gravity:

All the way to Fairyland across the thyme and heather,
Round a little bank of fern that rustled on the sky,
Me and stick and bundle, Sir, we jogged along together,

and it would be a very dull-hearted or dull-witted person who would not follow the adventures of the tattered tramp who

"became a butterfly—
(Ain't it hot and dry?
Thank you. Sir; thank you. Sir!) a blooming butterfly,"
with a serious interest that quotation can do little to suggest.

It is this quality of convincingness—which of course is nothing more or less than imagination—that gives the poems upon the naval heroes of England their splendid sweep and power. "The Admiral's Ghost" (which proves beyond a doubt that Nelson was the reincarnation, at England's need, of Sir Francis Drake) and "The Island Hawk" contain more than one of those thrills down the spine and glows at the heart by which we measure the value of patriotic poetry. One wonders if their author was aware of the inconsistency which set these verses cheek-by-jowl with "Lucifer's Feast," a gruesome description of the particularly dreadful hell to which the bad men go, who fight each other in their countries' quarrels. This poem is one of those agglomerations of epithet and figure which highly imaginative poets have to get out of their systems once in a while, and yet it would not be strange if it were a favorite child. One can imagine Shelley as ranking "Queen Mab" above the "Ode to a Skylark."

There are echoes in plenty in An Enchanted Island, and Other Poems—echoes, it should be said, of the spirit, not of the letter, but Mr. Noyes is no less happy in his admirations than in his originalities. His masters are Meredith, Swinburne, and Stevenson, and not one has reason to be ashamed of him. It would be invidious to compare the

and Stevenson, it is to be hoped, is somewhere conscious of that exquisite bit of fooling, "Bacchus and the Pirates." In this veracious, wonderfully rhymed narrative, half a hundred terrible, piping, cut-throat, elegant, dreamstruck, diffident, tottering, jubilant, innocent, fanciful, horrified, lunatic, goggle-eyed, ribbonless, respectable pirates, including Captain Hook, and "Silver himself, with his cruel crutch, and the blind man Pew," had the rare fortune to kidnap Bacchus as he lay asleep on the beach of the "happiest of the Happy Islands," and bear him away "in the lurching bows of the old black barque,

But the flame-haired god revenged himself, and the diffident pirates ended sadly as Christy Minstrels, while Hook conducted the big brass band.

While it is to be hoped that in the future Mr. Noyes will give us more frolicsome verse like "Bacchus and the Pirates," and more of "the glory of deep-sea kings," it is also to be hoped that he will realize where his richest ore lies, and will not neglect that mine. For there are indications in The Enchanted Island that it is in Mr. Noyes to become a great poet, a poet of the People, and of the New Day of the People, that other men have tried in vain to become. "The Electric Tram" is not an important poem, judged by the standard of weights and measures, or a carpenter's foot-rule, and its title is as ordinary as most real things are. But every line of it is instinct with "a veined humanity." And "Rank and File" is too long, perhaps; it becomes monotonous through repetition, but there is perhaps no poem of the new century with which to compare it in nobility of purpose or in dignity of expression.

Hints and facets of One—the Eternal,
Faces of grief, compassion and pain,
Faces of hunger, faces of stone,
Faces of love and of labor, marching,
Changing facets of One,—the Eternal,
Streaming up thro' the wind and the rain,
All together and each alone.

You that doubt of the world's one Passion,
You for whose science the stars are astray,
Hark—to their orderly thunder-tread!
These, in the night, with the stars are marching
One to the end of the world's one Passion!
You that have taken their Master away.
Where have you laid Him, living or dead?

Not Meredith or Swinburne or Stevenson could have compassed the grave and pregnant beauty of those lines. Meredith is more thorough master of the word that cleaves to the thought till the twain are one flesh; Swinburne surpasses him in the melting or the fiery phrase; Stevenson has as light a hand, but here is a poem that no one but Alfred Noyes could have shaped and polished. This is poetry that is worth any man's making, and is worthy any man's reading.

Joyce Kilmer (essay date 1913)

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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 of "Lalla Rookh." Then, in the face of all this, there appears a young man decently dressed and seemingly well-fed, with no visible means of support except poetry. Is there no generalization to account for this phenomenon? Yes, indeed, say our wise pessimists, this is no exception to the rule. This man gives the public not poetry but rhymes, jingling platitudes to please the mob. If he offered them poetry he would offer it in vain. And just as we are on the point of assenting to this plausible theory the poet himself disproves it. He writes Tales of the Mermaid Tavern.

There was splendid vigor in Drake, Sherwood was full of the magic of romance, and in the volume called The Enchanted Island were many lyrics of haunting loveliness. But with Tales of the Mermaid Tavern Alfred Noyes takes his place undeniably and triumphantly among the masters of English literature. The prophecies of Swinburne and Edmund Gosse, made on the publication of his earlier works, are fulfilled. Not in this generation is the country of Wordsworth and Tennyson to lack a great poet.

Dealing, as they do, with the men and events of bygone centuries, these poems are, nevertheless, infused with the modern spirit. We have passed through an age of materialism, of cold negation, of obsession with things physical and temporal. Now, all over the world, eyes weary with questioning the unresponsive earth are turned again to the skies; once more we are beginning to affirm rather than to deny; to acknowledge, sometimes with a curious sense of embarrassment, that we have souls. Such men as Belloc and Chesterton in England and Bazin and Francis Jammes in France are calling our attention to ancient truths whose glories have not grown dim because for a while we tried to shut them from our sight. The new spirit in the thought of the world is the spirit of belief, of idealism, of a chivalry higher than that of any of the ages past. And so the poet whose concern is solely with bodily pleasure and pain, with the transient phenomena of civilization, with little passions and emotions, is rushing to oblivion. And the world, always ready to listen to authentic song, hears gladly of the courage of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, the patriotic faith of Sir Walter Raleigh, and the firm friendship of the poets who met in the Mermaid Tavern. For not only are these names fragrant with romance, they are symbols, exemplars of the immortal virtues of the soul of man.

In the introductory tale the poet turns down a narrow lane off Fleet Street and finds himself before a little inn. He stares at the worn green paint on the doors and shutters, at the swinging sign with its siren twisting and smirking above fantastic rocks, and recognizes it as the Mermaid Tavern. Through its old walls come sounds of laughter and clashing wine cups and a ringing chorus:

At the end of the song a tall, crimson-clad figure strides to the inn door, and the poet, seeing his murrey-colored velvet cloak, caked with mud, knows him to be Sir Walter Raleigh. He follows him into the inn parlor, to receive a buffet on the head, and to hear shouts of "Sack! Malmsey! Muscadel!" and to learn that he is pot-boy of the Mermaid Inn. He fills his new rôle with delight, for what a company he has to serve—Michael Drayton, Kit Marlowe, Lyly, Peele, Dekker, Ben Jonson, and Shakespeare himself! During the rest of the story his own thoughts and adventures are left untold; he appears only as the reporter of the great happenings and greater talks that come to pass in the smoke-darkened parior of the famous old inn. Before the day closes Sir Walter Raleigh has sung the ballad of "A Knight of the Ocean Sea," telling of Sir Humphrey Gilbert's wild voyage and noble death. It is a splendid poem, full of salt spray and thundering waves of rhythm, and when it is done Michael Drayton rises to praise all brave seafaring men, and especially the subject of Raleigh's ballad, bidding all his friends "Stand up," and drink to his immortal fame.

From this tale of the sea we pass to the chronicle of events vastly different and much richer in romantic interest. Jonson sings a gay little song of Will Shakespeare's poaching exploits in Charlecote Wood, and, as he finishes it, sees the Puritan Richard Bame peering in through the doorway. The poets tease this dismal visitor for a while, but they stop suddenly when they see the pamphlet he carries—"A Groat's Worth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance." As together they read this strange document, the last work of their dead companion, Robert Greene, a hand is laid on Kit Marlowe's shoulder and the voice of Shakespeare asks for the scurrilous attack of which he is the object. He reads the familiar lines about the "upstart crow beautified with our feathers … an absolute Johannes factotum in his own conceit," and puts the paper down to defend its author against the Puritan's insinuations. He has received, he says, another message from Robert Greene, written on his deathbed. And he reads a pathetic letter, a lament for wasted talent and a ruined life, and a contrite apology for the foolish attack which has given Greene an unhonored fame down to the present day.

The situation is tense as Shakespeare finishes his reading and the entrance of a company of jovial players comes as a relief. There are some moments of shrewd comedy, in which Greene's reputation is saved from the clutches of the Puritan Bame, and the company separates after a rousing song.

To this chapter of romance and tragedy succeeds the broad comedy of "Black Bill's Honey-Moon." This is a joyous fantasy, telling of the amazing adventures of Black Bill, bo'sun of the galleon Cloud i' the Sun, who came to grief from his love of honey and learned at length the use of bears. Mr. Noyes enjoyed writing this thoroughly; it is done with the whimsical abandon that characterizes "Bacchus and the Pirates."

Now comes the greatest and most tragic passage in the book, that which tells of the sordid death of Kit Marlowe. The tale is called "The Sign of the Golden Shoe." Chapman sings of the poet as a little boy playing in the streets of Canterbury. Then Nash, who witnessed Marlowe's death, pours out in nervous, fiery terza rima his hatred for the wretched woman who seduced the young poet and for her vile follower who killed him. Seldom in recent years has more passionate scorn been put into verse.

This is, we have said, the book's greatest story. Surely no other part of the long poem surpasses it in dramatic intensity. Yet, it is difficult to make comparisons, for the nature of the poetry varies from tale to tale. Here is the episode of sprightly Will Kemp, the jester, who danced across England. We see London gay with fern and hawthorn and with the blue and yellow and scarlet garments of the morris dancers, we listen to the sweetest, merriest lyrics that have been sung since Corinna went a-Maying. We see Ben Jonson borne in triumph on the shoulders of his friends from prison to the tavern door, and we shout with the crowd, "For all good inns are moons or stars, but the Mermaid is their Sun!" Then on a gloomy All Souls' Eve we sit with Ford and Drummond of Hawthornden and hear the old sexton chant the pedlar-poet's ballad of the secret burial of Mary, Queen of Scots. Gregory Clopton, clerk of the Bow Bell, sings out the chiming phrases that chronicle the splendid fortune of "Sweet Dick Whittington, Flos Mercatorum and a barefoot boy!" And finally we hear of Raleigh's noble death, and of his widow's tremendous vengeance on his betrayer. Here is wide range of versemaking; here are delicate love songs, rousing choruses and gripping narratives of high adventure.

Technically, merely as exercises in the musical arrangement of words, some of the songs in The Tales of the Mermaid Tavern are comparable only to the choruses in Atlanta in Calydon. But this technical perfection is not obtrusive—Mr. Noyes is no mere juggler of phrases. The interest of the stories is so great that the poet's skill is for the moment unnoticed, the reader's mind is full of grief for poor Kit Marlowe, or of joy in the comradeship of Jonson and Shakespeare in the warm comfort of the Mermaid inn. And through it all, every haunting line, is the insistent note of triumphant idealism, that idealism which once was graven on tablets of stone, and which once flooded with the light an inn older and fairer than the Mermaid.

Brian Hooker (essay date 1913)

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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 a page in it which could have been written before 1850, or which is not unmistakably dated as modern by form and prosody and style.

There is no need to argue about it, or even to point out the demonstrative details: the Elizabethans did not write like that. They did not versify like that either; nor, so far as we of this late day have any means of judging, did they think like that. But this subtler question demands a little more analysis.

Now, here is a thoroughly modern bit of criticism, albeit spoken in character. Bacon might well enough have so objected, and Shakespeare so answered—if the idea had ever occurred to them; but we may doubt its occurrence to the Bacon who, for all his learning, calls the Witch of Endor a "Pythonissa" and quotes his Homer in Vergilian Latin, or to the Shakespeare who, both as poet and as manager, costumed all times alike. It is Mr. Noyes who feels a joy in jumping time and space, and who shares with us that pleasure: the Elizabethans, in a manner of speaking, dwelt as gods outside and unconscious of time; and Shakespeare could never have written Bacchus and the Pirates, precisely because in his mind they would have met as naturally as Touchstone and Hymen. This conjuring with great names borrows its whole enchantment from distance: it is wonderful for us to sit at table among great names which have already outworn the drums and trampings of three hundred years; but for themselves there was no such wonder. Wings are not wonderful to angels; and it is obvious, though inconceivable, that elephants do not feel elephantine. What Mr. Noyes has done, therefore, is more than merely to imitate Elizabethan verse or to attempt a futile realism of archeology. He is a poet, not a fabricator of antiques; and his creation is our own vision (and his) of the Mermaid Tavern, a new light and life upon a tradition grown great in growing old: a transfiguration of those souls of poets dead and gone in bodies not the same but glorified by centuries of imagining. What the Elizabethan Age thought of itself we see darkly through the glass of its own literature; to that nothing can ever be added; it is done. What the Elizabethan Age actually was in daily fact we cannot possibly know; it is gone, erased, dissolved into oblivion. But what the Elizabethan Age is now, for us, is another and a living thing, as real as a dream and as immortal as a soul; and in recreating this Elizabethan Age of ours, Mr. Noyes has done again what Shakespeare did for the ancient Rome and Athens of his own day. And that, after all, is the only thing that really matters. We are concerned with past times and distant places only as they exist for us: with the present connotation of words like "Elizabethan" or "Athenian" or "mediæval"; with the traditional personalities of Alexander and Cleopatra and Cæsar and Hamlet and George Washington; for these are now a portion of our thought and an influence upon our living, whereas that which they actually were has long ceased to exist. Thus the Middle Ages of Scott and Victor Hugo, the Pompeii of Bulwer-Lytton, may be historically quite inaccurate; nobody really knows or ever will; but they are at least alive among us, and the facts are dead. Indeed, in a certain sense, these fictions are truer to the life than was that very life itself. Cæsar and Lincoln were in fact something more than they or their contemporaries knew: their future fame was part of them. It is no quibble to say of the actual Hamlet or Macbeth that their chief historical act was to furnish material for Shakespeare. And the whole truth about those gatherings at the Mermaid could not have been apparent to themselves, precisely because it has taken time to prove their greatness: there sat the characters of a poem which would not be written until the year nineteen hundred and twelve.

And in this imaginative embodying of the Elizabethan spirit as it has come down to us, this holding up of the mirror to our romantic and traditional sense of what the Mermaid must have been, these poems are marvellously successful. The book has that cross-section effect, as of a world created, which is the hallmark of a few great novels: that sense of a window opened upon a bright and busy scene wherein every sharp detail suggests unobserved complexities and more is felt than meets the eye. You have this feeling about the India of Kim, the Paris of Notre Dame, the Georgian society of Vanity Fair; but it is a very rare thing to find it in a poem. Mr. Noyes's own Drake, for example, with all its fertility of gorgeous images, had no charm to unseal these magic casements. The Faerie Queene is perhaps the best example of the quality in English—if we except Shakespeare's creations of Bohemia and Arden. And the method by which this feeling is produced is a remarkable development of one of the first devices of literary craftsmanship—the device of going back into romance for the origin of something immediately familiar to the reader. It is that formula of the folk-tale which begins with the long nose of the elephant or the short tail of the bear, and tells a story to account for it: "and if you doubt the story, just look at the next elephant you see." The conjuring with great names, of which I have already spoken, is a part of this; the very title of the volume is a case in point; and the device is worked out imaginatively in a myriad of details, a gold thread woven through the poems to give the texture brilliancy. We meet with "brick-layer Ben"—

The T, for Tyburn, branded on his thumb,—

and the mention of that mark is like a credential and an identification. Some of us recognise it; others are informed so casually that they feel reminded. It is as simple as an inference of Sherlock Holmes—and as bewilderingly effective. These allusions, moreover, are not hung upon the work like tags, but imagined keenly and emotionally; they are the very stuff of which the dream is made.

Analyse that, after you have done merely enjoying it: try to resolve the elements of learning and artistry and sentiment; see how information is informed with melody, how in the blending and modelling of all, one line will help the poem in various ways, how the brain serves the heart. And you will suspect why the old tradition of the world paid poets the honour of astonishment. For the test of any true creation is that the more you examine it and dissect and discover and understand, the more material you have for wonder.

To attempt a critical appraisal of this book within the limits of a page or two would be somewhat unsatisfactory and perhaps a little premature; for there is too much in it, both for better and for worse, to encourage the superficial balancing of a fault here against a merit there in the endeavour to anticipate posterity. Rather it has seemed of interest to approach a single phase of its craftsmanship in the character more of an observer than of a judge. There is many another phase of equal interest; and to one such in particular it is worth while to call attention. If any single book might comprehend and settle for all time that long-disputed question of morality and art, then that book is the Tales of the Mermaid Tavern. It is all here, precept and example and illustration: for whomsoever will really read; the matter is concluded. But how and why these poems have offered a conclusion must be left for the nonce to the observation of the reader.

Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1922)

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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 maintain that concentration continuously for very long. Even the "Paradise Lost" scarcely does so; and perhaps the human mind could not bear to read such poetry if poets could write it. The strain might be too great. As it is, only people of exceptional aptitude for poetry can read without fatigue at a sitting more than a few books of the Æneid or the "Paradise Lost"; and are there any poets except Homer, Virgil, Milton, and Dante who can even pretend to maintain themselves continuously on those heights? Lucretius cannot, certainly; nor the author of "The Prelude" and "The Excursion."

Mr. Noyes has no claim to be of the rank of Lucretius or Wordsworth. But he may have done a service by his effort to recover for us some lost regions of the old wide, almost universal, kingdom of poetry. Verse came before prose in the beginning. Once not only was every tale told but every science taught in verse. That led to many breaches of the later law that nothing should be said in verse which could be equally well said in prose. But surely we have now let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction. With all its poetic limitations, the eighteenth century knew, what we have forgotten, that there is a pleasure in verse for its own sake, a pleasure which prose cannot give. And it was the poet who turned his back on the eighteenth century who said that poetry was the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science. And if so, science should not be excluded from the possible subjects of poetry. Even a poet who cannot keep continuously on the heights may by his verse give something of science which prose cannot give.

That is what Mr. Noyes tries to do here for astronomy. His poem is a sort of sketch of the history of astronomy in seven chapters, with a Prologue and an Epilogue. The chapters are Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, William and John Herschel. The conception of the poem took shape in Mr. Noyes's mind during a night which he spent on a summit of the Sierra Madre Mountains when the first trial was made of the new 100 in. telescope. His experience that night is described in the Prologue. The poem attempts to give, does in fact give so far as a layman can judge, the gradual development, stage by stage, of modern astronomy. It is admirably lucid. Whatever is said can be understood by anyone. And yet the poet has not forgotten the "impassioned expression" which is only to be found on the countenance of science when it is a human eye that gazes at it. His "Torchbearers" hand on, each to his successor, the light of imagination, faith, and love, as well as that of knowledge. The poem reads everywhere in the stars the faith of Newton in:—

But it insists even more if possible on another act of faith, the very poetry of mathematics and especially of astronomy, the faith that truth is music and music truth. It shows us Kepler urging that:—

And it pictures Newton and Newton's laws as foretelling:—

and Herschel, himself a musician, declaring that algebra, conic sections, fluxions, all pertained to music; and that it was by them, by the music of mathematics, that he would build his heavenly city, which his faith told him would be a "Holy City of Song."

The poem is written in an easy, readable blank verse, not distinguished, but never dull. A few lyrics are inserted: none of them remarkable. None of them achieves the lyrical escape; the best, because the one which least attempts it, is Newton's call for simple friends:—

And this one verse of it, perhaps the best, has in it more obvious faults than those inexorable astronomical divinities, time and space, will allow us here and now to discuss.

One other note. The only one of Mr. Noyes's sections which has much directly human interest is that of Galileo, into whose story he has introduced several figures beside that of the hero. He has attempted in it an ingenious though hardly convincing defence both of the Church which persecuted Galileo and of Galileo who surrendered and recanted. It is a pity, too, that he has added an assertion, almost demonstrably wrong, that Milton when creating his Samson was thinking rather of Galileo than of himself.

Richard Le Gallienne (essay date 1992)

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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 this reason Rudyard Kipling, one of the two or three men of genius at present writing in the English language, has long been impudently brushed aside as of no account by such egregious criticasters, say, as Harold Monro. "With the verse of Rudyard Kipling," says that amiable gentleman, "we are not much concerned. Its sale far exceeds that of any other living verse-writer—except, perhaps, John Oxenham." But, of course, Alfred Noyes is far from being Rudyard Kipling, and I only mention them together because their success in selling their books makes them alike the target of those who have failed in that desirable end. Their popularity, indeed, is very different in quality and won by very different means. One is a man of genius, of original and energetic mind, who has written the truth that is in him, careless of its reception; the other is a man of facile talent, with a small though genuine lyric gift, but a much greater gift of echoing fluency of writing not merely imitative poetry, but imitation poetry in almost incredible quantities. It is to be feared that, in Mr. Noyes's case, his popularity is to be regarded as something in his disfavor as a poet, however much it may be to his credit as an astute business man, who has, very properly, made the most commercially of his talents, and who, it is to be feared, has mistaken the rustle of his box-office receipts for the rustle of the loved Apollian leaves.

It may come of this box-office fame, or it may have been natural to him, that he has for some time been attempting ambitious themes, which, one regrets to say, are so very much bigger than himself. Men who drive fat oxen, you know … And Mr. Noyes is of no capacious build. Nor is he made of Miltonic marble, or Dantesque steel. There is a rather pretty mocking bird somewhere in his brain, and he has a gift for rattling off ballads of organ men, highwaymen, pirates and such like picturesque figures, in a pleasing manner, though with little originality. He writes "words," as the phrase is, with no little skill and gusto, to the old familiar ballad tunes. Occasionally in his first and best volume he struck a more personal lyric note, with real singing charm, and sometimes an intenser thrill. "Haunted in Old Japan" haunts me still—"Wind among the roses, blow no more!"—and there was a poem about two strong swimmers with a fine refrain—"two strong swimmers were they"—and there were one or two love poems with a real ache in them; and, indeed, the whole volume was full of memorable things, some of which I think must go on being remembered. But that volume gave a promise which no succeeding volume by Mr. Noyes has kept. As, perhaps, I may be allowed to mention, I had the honor of introducing that volume to America, with no little enthusiasm, in the pages of the North American Review, it is with the more regret that I find it impossible any longer to read Mr. Noyes with pleasure. I did my best to read the brocaded plush epic of Drake, but never, it seemed to me, had a manly theme been treated with such effeminacy of handling. In the "Exordium" of that epic Mr. Noyes addresses himself to his theme in similar language of dedication as that employed by Virgil and Milton:

Oh, thou blind master of these opened eyes,
Be near me, therefore, now…

The lecturer on English literature at Princeton sees the high Muses about him, summoning him to "the unattempted task" ("things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme") of singing "England's epic age"—

Worthy the great Homeric toll of song,
Yet all unsung and unrecorded quite—

a theme that had hardly waited—such had been one's previous impression—for Mr. Noyes. And now, once more, in Watchers of the Sky, which is but the first part of a "trilogy" entitled The Torch-Bearers Mr. Noyes regards himself summoned to celebrate in song the achievements of the great astronomers, to sing the epic of scientific discovery. He seems to be under the impression that the idea has occurred to no other poet before him, ungratefully forgetting Tennyson, from whom it is easily possible to gather single lines on the very same theme before which these 281 pages crumble into dust. In his "prefatory note" Mr. Noyes says, "even if science and poetry were as deadly opposites as the shallow often affirm." But, surely, it is a very long time since any one regarded them as "deadly opposites." On the contrary, "science" has long been regarded as so essentially poetical, its mere facts so stupendously "imaginative," as to need the aid of no mere "poet" to celebrate them. The mere statement of then? is enough. Mr. Noyes, however, deems otherwise, and, having, as he tells us in his "prefatory note," been present at the unveiling of the great 100-inch telescope, "on a summit of the Sierra Madre Mountains," in a blank verse "Prologue," entitled "The Observatory," he records his experiences on that occasion, and tells us how, after watching the trial test of the great spyglass, he wanders out into the night and is met by the usual poetic Presences, urging him to make a "trilogy," embodying this latest achievement in astronomic science in a sweeping retrospect of all the adventurous endeavors that had gone before:

So the mantle was thrown across Mr. Noyes's modest shoulders by hands divine, and so we have the present volume. In reading the "Prologue" one had already felt certain misgivings as to Mr. Noyes's power to cope with his high argument, as one noted what little use he made of the humbler poetic possibilities ready to his hand in his account of his journey to that observatory on the Sierra Madre Mountains. Here at least was the opportunity for some fine descriptive writing. One must be pardoned for thinking of Tennyson's powers in that direction. Though Tennyson might have failed with Copernicus or Galileo—and it is unlikely that he would have failed—it is easy to imagine what pictures he would have drawn of that august approach. How dismally Mr. Noyes misses this comparatively minor opportunity I have not space to illustrate, but this quotation will give some idea of his vapid colloquialism of style:

When Mr. Noyes finally settles down to tell the stories of his various astronomers, from Copernicus to William and Sir John Herschel, one simply wonders—why? It is hard to see what gain there is either to poetry or science in such uninspired restatement, in the most denatured blank verse that has been written since Lewis Morris, of such glorious matters as Mr. Noyes has had the temerity to make his province. Such "poetry" as Mr. Noyes has achieved is confined to a lyric or two. And, as for "science," the "poetical" verbiage employed merely darkens the radiant theme. Here is no such interpretative grasp of the imagination such as could alone justify Mr. Noyes's doubtless well-meant endeavor. It is questionable whether good blank verse would be properly employed on such a theme. But Mr. Noyes's blank verse!—well, the rest is silence. His poem harks back to the time of Erasmus Darwin with "The Loves of the Plants"—that, too, part of a "trilogy," "The Botanic Garden"!—a time when men still thought that things were better said in verse, however bad that verse might be. In the hands of a great poet it is possible that the facts of science might gain in expressive statement. It has happened, as we all know, in the case of Lucretius, as with Virgil's "Georgies"; and Tennyson, to say the least, by no means failed. Mr. Noyes's well-wishers had been only too pleased could it have happened again in his case. But, alas! I am bound to say that the articles in the Encyclopaedia Britannica on astronomy and astronomers thrill me with a deeper sense of the poetry of their theme than all Mr. Noyes's iambic decasyllables. Failing a great poet, prose is the proper medium for all such starry matters, and I would back Mr. Lytton Strachey to take Mr. Noyes's subject and give us a new thrill in the treatment of it, a really imaginative comprehension of it, such as Mr. Noyes's "trilogy" cannot approach.

Mr. Noyes seems to retain the old-fashioned idea that to make a great poem you have only to take a great subject and pour over it a kind of poetic sauce. He seems to possess an inexhaustible supply of such poetic sauce, and he has poured it over every subject, every great theme which the great masters of song first realized, as though it were their own personal agony or ecstasy, reborn through them with bitter travail and bloody sweat. When Dante writes of hell, no one doubts that he has been there, as when Coleridge sings of Kubla Khan no one doubts that he has walked the streets of Xanadu; nor is there any doubt that Keats was as intimate with the moon as Endymion himself. Our more recent poets, whatever criticisms may be made against them, are doing good service to poetry by insisting that poetry shall first be a personal experience, either here on the earth in Chicago or north of Boston, or in some imagined realm where they are as much at home as Wordsworth among his lakes and daffodils. Mr. Noyes is nowhere thus at home, and his Pegasus might be described as a high-powered touring car, visiting in rapid succession all the various "realms of gold"; he, meanwhile, tourist-fashion, notebook in hand, making rapid observations for future use, to be worked up on his return to his verse factory, either on his own typewriter or by dictation to a succession of wearied stenographers.

Thus he once "dropped in" at the Mermaid Tavern, and hobnobbed for five minutes with the great figures of the spacious times. He gave Ben Jonson and Walter Raleigh a swift "look-over," just as an American tourist, with a "schedule" in his hand, "does" Nôtre Dame, Versailles and Fontainebleau before lunch, and catches a boat from Calais to "do" Westminster Abbey and Stratford-on-Avon on the same day. So Mr. Noyes "tours" the romantic Past, and, boarding an airplane, he similarly starts a tour of the starry Infinite, taking in on his way the immediate Future. He tells us in his preface that he has employed in the Watchers of the Sky the same method he employed in his Tales of the Mermaid Tavern. He has—and with a like result. The title suggests those "Tales of a Wayside Inn" which, let any one who has felt himself superior to Longfellow read again to see how far short Mr. Noyes falls, not merely of Lucretius and Virgil and Tennyson, but of that modest New England master, who, of course, like Mr. Noyes, attempted far too many things, but did no few of them with a charm which only comes of sincerity. Mr. Noyes comes nearest to Longfellow in his retelling of the story of Tycho Brahe, which possesses some dramatic, or perhaps I should rather say idyllic, quality, particularly in his treatment of Tycho Brahe's love for Christine, and in which Mr. Noyes's lyric gift is once more discoverable. In his penultimate section, "Sir John Herschel Remembers," he has one or two lyrics worthy of his earlier day: this, for instance, in which "The Earth" sings:

and this, in which sings "The Sun":

Percy A. Hutchison (essay date 1925)

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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 upon the question of evolution. Not since Paradise Lost has there been so serious an attempt as Mr. Noyes's to interpret through the medium of poetic verse the history of man and man's relation to God. It is, therefore, with Paradise Lost that The Book of Earth challenges comparison.

Yet at the very outset it must be admitted that the wide gulf which separates the two poems places certain difficulties in the way. In Paradise Lost Milton took the compressed biblical account of creation and expanded it. The room thus provided for the range of the poet's powers of pictorial imagination were all but limitless. Mr. Noyes, by reason of the fact that he deals directly with events and more with intellectual origins, largely cuts himself off from such opportunities. The interpretation of the natural history of the universe in terms of evolution was not so suddenly arrived at as the lay reader is accustomed to believe. Many students in the centuries before Darwin recognized, in geological and zoological evidence, hints which led directly to the theory of evolution. Not one account, therefore, as in the Bible, but several accounts, albeit all of them fragmentary, claimed the attention of the younger poet. His achievement, consequently, must be judged more upon its intellectual merits than upon the color and the breadth and the animation of the painted scene. Whether Mr. Noyes was wise in the method of approach chosen—whether, indeed, he did not willfully blind himself to the tremendous poetic possibilities which opened before him the moment he elected to treat poetically the theme of evolution—is a question which may be postponed for the moment. Before attempting to say what Mr. Noyes might have done, it is first necessary to see just what it is that he has done. There are ten parts, or movements, to The Book of Earth. The genesis of the epic, or, if one prefer, the impetus to the succeeding poetic flight, is the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. And in these pages of prologue will be found many of the finest passages of the entire poem.

Out of the painted desert, in broad noon,
Walking through pine-clad bluffs, in air like wine,
I came to the dreadful brink.

So Mr. Noyes begins. And then,

The second book of the epic has for its theme the gropings toward evolutionary theory on the part of the ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Pythagoras and Aristotle. From Greece the epic moves eastward, and thence to the Italy of Leonardo da Vinci. The poet then turns to France, to Guettard and Pascal. The next to engage the attention is Linnaeus in Sweden; and after Linnaeus, Lamarck. Goethe comes next. Darwin is finally reached. The Book of Earth closes with an epilogue in the Grand Canyon. The major portions of the poem are in the flexible blank verse of the lines quoted from the Prologue; but the epic march is frequently interrupted by short passages in a variety of lyric meters. These lyric or semi-lyric interludes have something of the purpose and the effect of the chorus in Greek drama, and aid materially in increasing that grandeur which is indubitably the distinguishing feature of the epic as a whole.

The "Quest," which is the subject of The Book of Earth, begins

In the still garden that Pythagoras made,
The Temple of the Muses, firm as truth.

And Pythagoras and his golden brotherhood died—as many another before him and since—that the truth might live. The mob is outside the doors of the temple, with torches aflame,

A brutal bellowing, as of Asian bulls,
Boomed from a thousand mouths.

But before the fire is applied and the temple burned about the philosopher and his band of intellectuals the scroll is read which contains the sum and the essence of their wisdom. Mr. Noyes in the lyric interlude of the "Scroll" has admirably maintained the balance between the pronouncements of the Pythagoreans and the philosophic hesitancy which compelled them ever and anon to fall back upon the ancient religion of the Greeks. The lyric thus becomes at one and the same time a dictum and a psalm.

Mr. Noyes probably did well to moderate his enthusiasm for Pythagoras as an evolutionist, for there is little in Pythagorean teaching which may be construed as suggesting evolution, outside of the doctrine of transmigration of souls. And this doctrine is founded rather upon ethical considerations and Eastern mysticism than upon physical evidence. But in the physics of Aristotle, to which the poet presently moves, there is much that may be regarded as forerunning modern evolution. But the reader will linger over these pages of Mr. Noyes which eulogize the Greek philosophers less for his exposition of their teachings than for the many passages of superlative poetry which they include. Of Alexander the Great, dead in Babylon, he writes,

The conqueror, stricken in his conquered city,
Cold, in the purple of Babylon, lay dead;
And the slow tread of his armies as they passed,
Soldier by soldier, through that chamber of death,
To look their last upon his marble face,
Pulsed like a muffled drum across the world.

And of Aristotle:

A variation in the epic progress is attained by the author when he passes to Italy. The blank verse is still maintained; but dialogue—a dialogue between Leonardo and Giulio—turns expository narrative into momentary drama. Leonardo is the evolutionist in this drama, and Giulio the Fundamentalist. Da Vinci, when he finds fossils in the rocks far inland and asserts that here is indisputable proof the sea once covered the land whereon they tread, answers his interlocutor's doubts with as sharp a thrust of wit as might have been heard in Dayton. Giulio having asserted with Fundamentalist view that it was obvious the sea being where it was, the flood left the shells when it receded. Leonardo retorts that in that case Noah must have dropped them out of the ark.

But as the epic moves from Italy so must also the review of the poem, although not before having stated that the monologue on art and beauty which Mr. Noyes puts into the mouth of Leonardo (the monologue follows the dialogue above) not only does not suffer when compared with similar excursions by Browning, but, since it is free from the sentimental ism which not infrequently marred Browning's discussions, rather gains by the comparison. The book on Jean Guettard and Pascal must be passed over; and also the book on Linnaeus. But from the latter must be culled the song, or at least a part of the jolly song which with its humor lightens the pages.

The pen picture of Darwin on the yacht Beagle, searching the strange waters of the world, and the stranger lands, for the evidence which should add to the already accumulated proof of evolution, is a masterly piece of literary drawing. And the dilemma with which evolution confronts the Fundamentalist is as succinetly as it is powerfully posed.

Unless God made, for every separate isle
As it arose, new tribes of plants, birds, beasts,
In variant image of the tribes he set
Upon their nearest continent, grading all
By time and place and distance from the shore,
The bond between them was the bond of blood.
All, all had branched from one original tree.

With that unerring instinct shown on publishers' "jackets" for featuring the least momentous and the least interesting portion of a book. Alfred Noyes's attempted dramatization of the debate between Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce is given a prominent place. As a matter of fact, if there is any one part in which the epic of The Book of Earth may be said to fail it is in this attempted dramatization. Nevertheless there are redeeming features even here, and more than one sharply witty sally. Not the least of these is the parenthesis "(sound leather, British)" by which he characterizes the good Bishop's "traveling bag" mind. But this, we assume, will find most applause where Englishmen are not. Yet, even if this attempted resuscitation of an ancient debate were a dozen times more interesting than it is, it would be desirable to hurry on from it to the epilogue which brings Mr. Noyes's pageant to a close.

In this epilogue, which is a paean, a hymn, as well as a conclusion of what has gone before, Mr. Noyes rises to new poetic heights. It can not be quoted in its entirety; but omissions will not be indicated, for the effect of the hymn will be better preserved if apparently unbroken. It is morning in the Grand Canyon.

And as the consummate harmony—the singing of the spheres, and of animals, and of plants, and of earth and sea and sky—as the harmony flows from far away along the unfathomable abyss, the soul of the poet grasps the meaning of the song.

New every morning the creative word
Moves upon chaos. Yea our God grows young.
Here now the eternal miracle is renewed.
Now, and forever, God makes
heaven and earth.

Meagre as under necessity have been the excerpts from The Book of Earth, they will have been sufficient to make evident that a modern poet, attempting the theme of evolution, has indeed been able to challenge Paradise Lost. Even in the structure of the blank verse is this challenge made, for if Mr. Noyes's line is not so sonorous as Milton's it is more flexible, and in its thrust and parry more delicately adjusted to a scientific interpretation of creation than would have been the Miltonic line. In other words, Mr. Noyes's verse is adequate to his theme; and his theme is an exalted one.

On the other hand, this theme, despite its loftiness, when the effect has passed away, leaves the reader cold, as he is not left cold when the effect of Paradise Lost has passed away. But this is not to condemn Noyes any more than it is to elevate Milton. The cause goes deeper. In the biblical account man is the central figure: in the scientific account man falls from his heights. He is but a part of a creation which is vastly larger and more important than himself. The human element—and because the human element the most truly profound poetic element—is absent from The Book of Life just in proportion as it is present and all-pervading in Paradise Lost. Evolution, because of the subordination of the human element, can never make good its hold on man's imagination. When Arnold said "the strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry" he spoke not merely for today but for all days.

We cannot but feel, to come back to our beginning, that Mr. Noyes would have done better to have avoided his philosophers and his scientists and followed in colorful verse the pageant of evolutionary processes. But this he did not elect to do; and it will remain a theme for some later poet to undertake. Nevertheless, the net result would not have been different. Man would still be subordinate. The Book of Earth will not live as Paradise Lost has lived because of the lacking human factor. But because of its epic sweep, its dramatic power—most of all because of the loftiness of the design—Mr. Noyes's epic may not be neglected. It is a modern attempt in the "grand manner" of Dante and Milton. It is not entirely the poet's fault if failure was from the outset inherent in whatever might be his measure of success.

William Rose Benét (essay date 1930)

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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 nothing more than facility. He has even tried his hand at short stories and essays and at least one light novel. But his true forte remains what it was in the beginning when we first read "The Barrel-Organ," in which this poet whose poems are, at least, always bright with color, accomplished what might be called a Pavement Symphony. He caught up the rhythms of the barrel-organ, or as we call it over here, hurdy-gurdy, and displayed a command of metrics that actually transferred those reeling, rollicking rhythms to the printed page. More than this he built up his London scene around and behind the street piano with such skill and significance that anybody was compelled to recognize a new talent engaged in doing something refreshingly different from the general run of the verse of the time. In this first period of his he also produced a ballad, "The Highwayman" that has become a set piece for school recitation, and another, "Forty Singing Seamen," which for the first time delved in that mine of humorous fantasy that is the mythical Sir John Mandeville in his famous fourteenth century book of travels—humorous, that is, to the modern intelligence, though read largely as a gospel in its own day.

It is the last named of these poems that gives the title to the book Miss Mackinstry has illustrated with glowing colour. "The Highwayman" is here also. "Bacchus and the Pirates," from a later volume, transforms the old legend of the great vine of Dionysus sprouting up through that fabled ship of the Greek Ægean into a thumping recitation of how "Half a hundred terrible pigtails" (our old friends of "Forty Singing Seamen," being a crew of cutlasses that recall both Robert Louis Stevenson and the more comic creations of Ralph Bergengren) capture the god of wine on "the happiest isle of the Happy Islands," and the fate that befalls them thereafter. Then we have "The Admiral's Ghost," adding a new Devonshire belief to the story of Drake's Drum that Sir Henry Newbolt put into such memorable verses. We have never felt ourselves that Mr. Noyes quite brought off the effect he sought for in his ballad. "The Tramp Transfigured," a long fantastic poem with an allegorical significance that gets rather too involved, follows, and "Black Bill's Honeymoon," from Tales of the Mermaid Tavern, closes the collection. The second of its cantos quite succesfully adapts a metre of Drayton's.

Through all his voluminous work Noyes has demonstrated that he has unusual metrical range. As a narrative poet telling a high-spirited story full of the glamour of the past or of the Never-Never-Land, in swinging rolling choruses, he develops a vein of considerable humor and a music always somewhat akin to the music of his own Barrel Organ, good things to get from any man, as wine and song are good in front of a wood fire. We are aware that rather thin-blooded people have little use for such, as they conceive them to be, childish things. With this we are in pleasant disagreement. There is no mistaking Mr. Noyes's genuine gift for this sort of thing. In this sort he has enriched the world of books with new delightful matter. Indeed, finer to our mind than any poems shown here are his early "Orpheus and Eurydice" and that gem of the Tales of the Mermaid Tavern that concerns Will Kemp's famous dance over England for a wager and is entitled "The Companion of a Mile." In both these poems practically nothing goes wrong, the intention is fully achieved, the construction is sound, and the metrical accomplishment is little short of amazing. Indeed, any thorough study of Mr. Noyes's versification will reveal many a metrical innovation. Which brings us to what we consider his second claim to attention, the fact that the man, from the first, has been a genuine singer.

The trend of modern poetry, as we have remarked before, is quite away from the song. Mr. Masefield's is a far graver strain. Mr. De la Mare has, of course, given us enchanting songs, Mr. Hodgson a few, but of the purest lyric quality. There have been others in England. And we have had our own poets who were singers primarily. A notable example in America has been Miss Sara Teasdale. These poets, however, of our own generation and before, are no longer the poets of the immediate day. And the trend of that day is most certainly quite away from the song pure and simple. The younger poets have probably considered it to be rather too simple, a mistaken judgment in our own view if it is to mean that a kind of poetry that Shakespeare himself was the last to despise is gradually to go out of existence. Mr. Noyes began with undoubted aptitude for the lyric that is the song and retained his spontaneity for some time. This is not to say that he always wrote successful songs, but scattered through his work are delightful examples of what the Elizabethans referred to sometimes as "catches." Such an one is the well-known one on the mountain laurel, the one beginning "In lonely bays," the lyric in Drake, "Let not Love go too." Then there are such poems as the haunting "Mist in the Valley," the translation of Verlaine, the short poem, "The Waggon," where a religiosity which has always been the Nemesis of much of Mr. Noyes's verse, and a tendency toward melodrama and bathos in most of his more serious work—and he can be so serious that it makes one's mind ache—are shed away and a thorough sincerity is manifest. A selected volume of his lyrics and shorter poems would have to be most strictly edited, most carefuly sifted. A great deal would perforce go into the discard; but out of all the work he has done it is our own belief that a small gathering of the very best would surprise the critics who have been estranged by his worst, which has, unfortunately, been far too frequent.

Indeed, when one considers him at his best, either in mere metrics or in his later more deeply-felt and strongly-willed and always directly expressed meditations upon the mystery of life, it is difficult to see how it has been possible for him at times to write so badly. Yet it has. The reason may be that he seems, as revealed in his verse, a man of intense emotions sometimes quite out of the control of his reason. We can illustrate what we mean by something he does in "The Last Voyage," now before us. He has been giving us, though fragmentarily, an interesting dramatic picture of Louis Pasteur, whose significance in the history of medicine he fully appreciates. He comes to that hour when the Academy of France assembled "to instal their new immortal, Louis Pasteur, in a death-vacated chair." Renan is presiding. All the poet's sympathy is with Pasteur and against Renan whom he calls a "slight analyst of Christ" and whom he regards as cold and seems to hate for being witty. Pasteur is to speak "in eulogy of the dead," namely "Littré, his forerunner, who had been The chief disciple of Conte." Mr. Noyes shows us the "bent and grey Pasteur" musing that he cannot ever "tell a cynical throng like this" what he saw when he visited the dead man's house (Littré's), namely—and it is brought out portentously—a crucifix on the wall of the room where Littré worked …

which, to our mind, immediately takes all real point from the incident. It was not significant, surely, of anything in Littré, that his wife's crucifix was on the wall, beyond a natural deep human love. It may or it may not have meant more than that, but there is certainly not an iota of proof that it meant more than that. And, as to Renan, in spite of the poet's comments upon him, when his speech comes, after Pasteur's, even though he may have sought to prove "his own preëminent wit," it seems to us the expression of a difference of opinion polite even to gentleness. One feels that the scales are not being held even, that the poet's own passionate predilection has warped his interpretation.

We do not know whether or not Mr. Noyes has now become a Roman Catholic. We have read this last volume of his trilogy with respect for his faith, often in the past strongly, and sometimes overstrongly, asserted by him. There would seem to be indications that he had joined the Church toward a membership in which all his former analyses of the doctrine of Christianity seemed constantly tending. Certainly his introductory poem following the dedication seems to be the plain statement of such a step. It is a powerful poem of loss and overwhelming grief and the entrance forever into a strong City. It is a story as old as the Christian religion, and older, and (though we cannot share in the poet's convictions) we can understand the experience.

The earlier stanzas, with their slight reminiscence of the spirit of B. V.'s "The City of Dreadful Night" are impressive:

The main poem begins with the depiction of a great liner at sea. A child is dying upon it. The advice of an eminent surgeon on another ship is sought through the night by wireless. The ship is finally hove-to in midocean for the delicate operation that may save the child's life, the surgeon being in close touch with the course of events though separated from the actual place by leagues of sea. During the time that elapses the poet, in pondering on life and death and the mystery of existence, and started on his reverie by the conversation of some friends on the ship, ranges in his imagination back through time and considers some of the first pioneer sons of Æsculapius. The best of these "flash-backs," to our mind is the conversation between Doctor Harvey and Lord Bacon in Gray's Inn. Of Pasteur we have already spoken. Noyes has usually been successful in conjuring up some scene of an elder day. But the poem tries to do too many things at once. Soon it becomes almost a jumble. Certain interlude-poems are introduced that do not seem to belong at all to this particular book. One, "Wizards," is merely a well-wrought lyric in itself. One—a rather doggerel conversation between Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson in the old Raleigh Tavern—seems quite dragged in by the heels. Then, returning to the main narrative interest of the poem: the operation is unsuccessful, the child dies, the end of the book is the presentation of a religious compensation for the world's deepest grief and the expression of a faith.

Which is, in a manner of speaking, dialectic. The poem as a whole is of no such stature as the second book of the trilogy, The Book of Earth, which remains to us the best of the three. But, before we close, we should note that the interpolated poem on page 145, beginning "Every morning," and the like poem on page 149 beginning "Messages,—from the dead?" seemed to us sincerely moving expressions of that deep agony of desire recurring to those who have lost one deeply loved. We quote one section of the last:

Rememberest thou that hour,
Under the naked boughs,
When, desolate and alone,
Returning to thy house,
Thou stoodst amazed to find
Dropt on the lintel-stone
Which thou hadst left so bare,
A radiant dew-drenched flower
And thou couldst never know
Whose hand had dropt it there,
Fragrant and white as snow,
To save thy soul from hell?
Yet, in thy deepest mind,
Thou didst know, and know well.

Joseph Slater (essay date 1957)

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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 "a strong contingent of the F.B.I." and a hymn about the bodily assumption of the Virgin, he would have found almost nothing new or puzzling.

But that is the way Noyes would want it. Out of key with his time, trapped in a period when paintings have "three noses,"

when poets suffer from "hemlock numbing the heart, cannabis biting the brain," he has striven to keep alive the poetic tradition in which he grew up. And, to a remarkable degree, he has succeeded.

Even the faults of this book are old-fashioned. Its cliches are so different from our own that they have a kind of archaic charm: "naiad" rhymes with "hamadryad," valleys wind seaward, feet hurry, grey gulls hover, souls pass portals, and

Outward bound, with a song on their lips
Men still go down to the sea in ships.

Its poems of devotion can slump into Sunday-school pieties like "Via Crucis" or puff themselves into windy sermons like "The Roll of the Ages." Even its meters, usually flexible and surprising, can, when the poet is possessed by the demons of melodrama or exhortation, grind along with barrel-organ dullness.

These faults are perhaps the penalties of facility and of working in a style inherited and long since mastered.

But Noyes has also the ease and range of a traditional artist. The sixty-three lyrics of this volume are varied in form, tone, and subject. There are satirical ballades, deft and witty enough for Punch, where, indeed, they were first published. There are children's poems, a little like Stevenson's, a little lìke De la Mare's, which are so good that even children like them.

There was one wee glimmer in the long grass
Where a gold-green glowworm shone,
And just one light in the gardener's cottage,
And suddenly that was gone

—and which sing a tune that has not been much heard recently. There is "The Love-Song of a Leprechaun," of course. There is "A Devonshire Folk Song" about Drake and his Tavistock lass, naturally. But there are also three Horatian paraphrases, of which the best, "Diffugere Nives," is both English and classical in its elegance and sonority:

About half of the poems in the volume are religious, and they too vary greatly in manner and value.

Some are chromolithographs; some are tight and intricate medallions. The most ambitious and sophisticated is "A Letter to Lucian the Sceptic: Dated from the Island of Cos in the year A.D. 165" but intended rather for other skeptics on another island at "the end of an age." On the surface, it recounts with light mockery the visit of an evangelist to a land which has long since made the passage from superstition to science; beneath the mockery, however, can be felt the hunger of a man not satisfied by scientism:

But the poem generates no tension, because the contest it reveals is unequal: the irony of the Greek is heavy and hollow, the message of the evangelist is the Truth. Noyes is not a poet of doubt, complexity, and ambiguity; his religious faith is simple and certain, and he writes his best when he expresses it, as in "The Assumption," with the tenderness and concreteness of his poems of childhood and fairyland:

Before Earth saw Him she had felt and known
The small soft feet that thrust like buds in Spring.
The body of Our Lord was all her own
Once. From the cross her arms received her King.

Literary historians will place Alfred Noyes with those Victorian and Georgian poets, Patmore, Alice Meynell, Belloc, and Chesterton, who were, or ought to have been, his contemporaries. They should add that even in the new dispensation, among an alien people clutching their gods, he held to the old and matured within it and that the poems of his old age are better than those of his youth.

Derek Stanford (essay date 1959)

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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 Highwayman" was one of them. The magic of its opening translates itself readily into cinematic terms. One sees, as upon the projector's screen, a figure on a horse careering through the night:

"The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—Riding—riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door."

Even more akin to the picture-going experience is the conclusion of the poem with its clear visual imagery and violent action:

Ours is not an age when poetry addresses itself to all men. Specialization invades the arts, and with it there comes a sense of isolation. True, this century can name a number of poets who possess the common touch (one thinks of Chesterton, Masefield, and Belloc). But these had all published and formed their style before the end of the first World War, and those who followed after lacked their immediately accessible magic. It is to this earlier body of more popular poetry that the best work of Noyes belongs. Rhythm was always his forte, and by its employment he was able to express what would otherwise have appeared tritely sentimental. The feelings behind his justly famous lyric "The Barrel-Organ" make this clear. A glib invitation to love in Spring is the essence of the poem's repeated refrain; but though we may smile at its jejune content, few of us are proof against the form it assumes. Like the tinkling hurdy-gurdy music they imitate, the words extort a response from us:

There are not many colloquialisms in Noyes' poetry—far fewer than in Eliot's or Kipling's—but the world to which his rhythms belong is that of the music-hall with its songs, the drawing-room with its middle-class ballads. How redolent of the "people's palace of varieties" (in the palmy days before 1914) is this other number from "The Barrel-Organ":

In a like manner, the rhytham of "A Song of Sherwood" clearly belongs to "an evening round the piano" (a mode of entertainment growing rarer every year):

"Robin Hood is here again: all his merry thieves
Hear a ghostly bugle-note shivering through the leaves,
Calling as he used to call, faint and far away
In Sherwood, in Sherwood, about the break of day."

Noyes' great gift was for writing rhymed verse with a lilting measure and a lyrical refrain, and, whenever he deserted this for blank-verse, the result was not artistically happy. Drake (1908), the earliest of his three long poems, very much oversimplifies history. Noyes, at the time of composition, wrote as a fierce anti-Catholic, seeing the contest between England and Spain in much the same terms as the pan-Protestant historian, J. A. Froude. A similar lack of subtlety is apparent in his Tales of the Mermaid Tavern (1913)—a description of Elizabethan literary life in its often vicious hours of pleasure-seeking. Noyes was well enough informed as a scholar to know that the dramatists and poets of the day were, for the most part, a wild, abandoned crew. This he admits, but appears determined to invest them with a kind of "silver lining." His account of Marlowe's death in a brawl is very much an instance of this. Instead of the unscrupulous cad of a genius, we are shown a high-minded and spirited young man momentarily undone by a wicked courtesan. Noyes had, one may say, the public school prefect's view of history.

His most ambitious work was the three-volume, blankverse epic of science entitled The Torch-Bearers. Here, he celebrates the great names in European research: Copernicus, Galileo, etc. As in his prose writing, Noyes maintained that there was no intrinsic opposition between the religious and the scientific spirit when both of them were rightly understood. But where the question of precedence arises, Noyes himself opts for the leadership of religion.

Few critics would judge The Torch-Bearers to represent the poet's best work; but those who like their pill of science sugar-coated will read it for its popularizing information. In his Introduction to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth looked forward to the day when science, familiarized by reference and usage, should have become in the hands of the poet "a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man." Perhaps that time has not yet come. Perhaps the daily mention of atomic science, with its vast destructive possibilities, make it not a friendly but an alien element to the human imagination. But, however we may look upon the relationship between poetry and science, Noyes' poem stands as a large-scale venture in proclaiming a close liaison between them. Those who do not think the venture succeeds can, at least, point to no superior endeavor.

Hoxie Neale Fairchild (essay date 1962)

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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 Rosicrucianism, as when "The Symbolist" yearns to behold the "unknown land" behind the veil of the temple and "the Cross of flame." In "The Mystic," the motivation of this desire to break through to the ineffable and "drown the finite in the Whole" becomes more Spasmodic than aesthetic:

But within a few years the insurgency of his heart had moderated sufficiently to permit him to become the very pattern of a salable late-Victorian poet. It would be unfair to say that he completely renounced the romantic faith in favor of the shopworn vestments of romance: instead, he deliberately cultivated the latter in the interests of the former. The deep heart's desire was vulgarized, but after a fashion it was thereby kept alive. It survived even in his most infantile dreams of Old Japan, where

He was so copiously and steadily productive that the public had no chance to shake off the hypnotic effect of his insistently "musical" rhythms. His style was facile, communicative, picturesque—the language of Victorian romanticism discreetly colloquialized. As occasion demanded, he could remind you of Tennyson, Swinburne, Stevenson, Kipling, George MacDonald, Maeterlinck, Barrie, or Eugene Field. His favorite subject matter was delightfully "poetic": nature, love (very pure), patriotism (idealistic rather than bloodthirsty, but very manly), whimsical but preternaturally wise children, nonradical humanitarianism, the Gypsy Trail, Robin Hood, the Mermaid Tavern with sweet Will Shakespeare and medium rare Ben Jonson, highwaymen, fairies, "Apes and ivory, skulls and roses, in junks of old Hong-Kong."43 But he could also exploit the romance of everyday reality in pieces like "The Barrel-Organ," and except when he was trying to be very deep and mystical his tastes were mainly activistic. Although Noyes had some gift for Tennysonian brooding and scolding, he was always wholesome about it. According to A. S. Collins, he "found life good, and wrote of it joyously."44 To such optimism the "poetry-loving" public opens wide its warm uncritical heart.

Precisely to the extent that it has ceased to believe anything in particular, that public also likes its poetry to be surcharged with an amorphous religiosity. On this score Noyes was especially satisfying. In most non-Catholic poets of this period who have not lapsed into complete secularism, Protestantism has so completely melted into romanticism that we observe in them only the final outcome of the deliquescence to which this series of studies has been compelled to devote so much attention. The poems of Noyes, however, exhibit the entire process.45 The 1913 collection is obviously the work of a man who regards himself as a Protestant Christian. Liberty both political and religious is the theme of "A Roundhead's Rallying Song," perhaps the last of many imitations of Macaulay's Battle of Naseby. The No-Popery spirit of Tennyson's historical dramas survives in the epic Drake. The hero "fought for the soul's freedom" in "that great war/ That last Crusade of Christ against His priests." He prophesies that the New World will become the home of "Freedom, the last great Saviour of mankind." He tells his arrogantly sacerdotal Anglican chaplain:

Why, 'tis these very tyrannies o'er the soul
We strike at when we strike at Spain for England.46

Although Noyes's Protestantism demands no very meticulous loyalty to the doctrines of the Reformation, it is by no means devoid of specifically Christian content. "The Paradox" affirms the complete transcendent otherness of God. The Deity declares that man is incapable of understanding His ways but that He has shaped this world of light and darkness, peace and strife in a love which will reconcile all its paradoxes "If ye love one another, if your love be not weak." In "Creation," God wearies of the shadowless perfection of Heaven. He decides to make a world because he likes nature, and people, and little children, and is willing to suffer for His love. The emphasis on sacrificial love distinguishes this poem from Browning's Rephan, which it otherwise resembles. Several poems are exercises in apologetics. If man's spiritual impulses and their embodiment in Christianity have arisen from the evolutionary process, can that process be traced back to blank "Nothingness"? Surely The Origin of Life is God. Nowadays, Noyes proudly insists, the Christian is the courageous rebel and the secularist the timid slave of convention.47

Noyes's defense of the faith is anti-intellectualistic: he believes in God because he does not believe in reason. "I am weary of disbelieving," "The Old Sceptic" declares. He has read too many books; now he "will go back to the love of the cotter who sings as he delves," back to

The cotter's faith is no narrower than the rationalist's, which rejects "the deep dark vision, if it seem to be framed with lies." The speaker has no theological arguments against the unbelievers—only the same doubleedged doubt which they themselves have taught him. To debate these mysteries is worse than fruitless, "For creeds are many, but God is one and contains them all," and "nothing is true or false in the infinite heart of the rose." Hence the speaker (like Browning in Christmas-Eve) will return to where "the light of the chapel porches broods on the peaceful lane."

The difficulty is that Noyes's Protestantism has acquired a vaguely mystical latitudinarian sophistication utterly incongruous with the faith of the chapel, whose ministers would not like such phrases as "deep old foolish tales" and would be puzzled (as would Dante) by the notion that "nothing is true or false in the infinite heart of the rose." And the simple prayers which his mother taught him were not addressed to a "lawless infinite Poet." Again like Browning, he wants something quite different from what the chapel can give him.

The Old Sceptic helps us to understand the sentimental mystique of childhood which motivates Noyes's long poems, The Flower of Old Japan and its sequel, The Forest of Wild Thyme. Their fabric is woven of strands derived from Stevenson, Barrie, George MacDonald, and Macterlinck. The children's adventures are far too complicated to be related here. The reader must savor for himself the jumble of serious mysticism and Peter Pan, Wonder-Wander Town and the Heavenly Jerusalem, fairies and angels. What matters for us is the fundamental theme of both poems—the spiritual insight of the child, who knows intuitively that all nursery songs such as Little Boy Blue and Hickory Dickory Dock are really one song which begins, "A child was born in Bethlehem." Little Boy Blue's horn is a sweeter, happier equivalent of Gabriel's:

Little Boy Blue is not precisely Jesus, but he is "the child-heart" through which the Healer is made manifest to men who remain loyal to the spirit of their childhood.

We may suppose that when Our Lord said that we must become as little children He meant that we must be humble, trusting, innocent, and obedient. The text does not imply that the child is a Wordsworthian "mighty prophet, seer blest." It is not inconsistent with Paul's "But when I became a man, I put away childish things." One cannot but feel that the Christian view of childhood has been heavily romanticized in such lines as these:

The identification of "fairy-land" with "Eden" deprives both words of their proper meaning.50

In "The Flower of Old Japan" the Maeterlinckian children must return to their own English home to discover that

There, not in far Japan, grows the flower they have sought. Inconsistently, Noyes explains it all in his own adult person:

Carol, every violet has
Heaven for a looking-glass!

All the shores when day is done
Fade into the setting sun;


We have found, O foolish-fond,
The shore that has no shore beyond.

Deep in every heart it lies
With its untranscended skies;
For what heaven should bend above
Hearts that own the heaven of love?

Carol, Carol, we have come
Back to heaven, back to home.51

Fairyland is heaven (or Eden), and heaven is home, and home is love, and the whole mess exists solely within the human "child-heart" which includes all truth and goodness and is transcended by no spiritual reality external to itself. This is not the sort of thing one learns in a Nonconformist chapel or in any other Christian place of worship.

Another of Noyes's favorite themes appears to deny that optimism for which his public admired him, although it may have enhanced his reputation for profundity. The whole world is bound together in "one Passion." Human suffering, he tells the unbeliever, bears witness to the truth of the Crucifixion, for

The shaping of the world was a sort of pre-Crucifixion, an agony of sacrificial love which has united the suffering industrial toiler and the suffering artist with a suffering God.52

No orthodox Christian would deny that the whole meaning of the Cross is the whole meaning of man's life. Much depends, however, on whether this thought is interpreted centripetally or centrifugally. It may be used either to draw us to the foot of the Cross or to dissolve the Cross in that world which it was meant to save. The latter process, as readers of my fourth volume may remember, enables Browning to ignore the historicity of Christ while applying His name to the universe of romantic pantheism:

That one Face, far from vanish, rather grows,
Or decomposes but to recompose,
Becomes my universe that feels and knows.53

Similarly Noyes, who in this respect may well have been influenced by Browning, believes in "the cosmic Christ" and rebukes those

To prepare the way for this Christ is the supreme function of the poet. In "Art, the Herald" "the voice of one crying in the wilderness" scorns the conventional supernaturalism of the "foolish-fond," for "Is not the heart of all things here and now?"

Come; come and see the secret of the sun;
The sorrow that holds the warring worlds in one;
The pain that holds Eternity in an hour;
Our God in every seed self-sacrificed,
One star-eyed, star-crowned universal Christ
Re-crucified in every wayside flower.54

The borrowing from Blake is symptomatic.

The Resurrection is pantheized in much the same way. It is prevented from being thought of as anywhere by being thought of as everywhere, though the most convincing evidence is provided by the flowers that bloom in the spring. So also with the Holy Sacrament: miserable slumfolk trying to find a bit of light and warmth and nourishment in "An East-End Coffee-Stall" unknowingly partake of the Eucharist as "They crowd before the stall's bright altar rail." Lest such imagery should seem too restrictively precise, The Testimony of Art is that all religious symbols are man's creative attempts to impose a "golden shape" upon "the Soul we cannot see":

but now poets know many other ways of making Him smile.55

Thus diluted and smudged over everything, Noyes's religion encourages him to sing:

The final step is achieved by subjectivizing this cardiac confusion in "the poet's heavenly dream," asserting that

In the last analysis there is no real difference between the message of "the cosmic Christ" and the "child-heart" message of Little Boy Blue. Both imply a movement away from historic Christianity toward the romantic experience. Nothing in Noyes's prewar poetry helps us to understand why he became a Roman Catholic in 1925, and an attempt to solve the problem would lead us too far beyond the terminus of this study. But Noyes may as least be credited with an urgent desire for some sort of spiritual affirmation; and the mind of such a man may undergo astonishing changes.


42Collected Poems, I, 11, 16.

43Ibid., pp. 25, 49.

44English Literature of the Twentieth Century, p. 29.

45 I do not mean that the process can be traced step by step from earlier to later poems. Different phases of it are jumbled together throughout his prewar career.

46Collected Poems, I, 242-43, 251, 268, 320.

47Ibid., I, 86-87, 243-44; II, 113.

48Ibid., 1, 57, 58, 59.

49Ibid., pp. 139-40.

50Ibid., p. 129.

51Ibid., pp. 46, 47.

52Ibid., I, 241, 245; II, 7. In the Collected Poems of 1913, expressions of the "child-heart" theme tend to appear more frequently in earlier poems and expressions of the "diffused Crucifixion" theme in later, but to the end of our period neither idea is decisively abandoned in favor of the other.

53Religious Trends, IV, 145.

54Collected Poems, I, 74, 75.

55Ibid., II, 32-33, 76, 77-78.

56Ibid, I, 3; II, 66, 76.

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