Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1906)
SOURCE: A review of Drake: An English Epic, in The Times Literary Supplement, July 6, 1906, pp. 241.
[This review of Noyes 's Drake: An English Epic criticizes the work for its mediocre writing and lack of depth.]
Courage is a great quality everywhere; but perhaps it is seldom greater than in the young poet who sets out to write an epic. Most brave things are done in the stir of the blood, in the eye of a man's comrades, in the passing of a moment. Here is a thing that has to be done alone through months or years that must bring many hours of discouragement. The intellectual fire that is to accomplish it is not of that comparatively easy order which flames high for a moment and then dies down in smoke; it is of that rarer and finer sort which glows continuously red hot from the beginning to the end of the great enterprise. And that is the same thing as saying that it comes more naturally to the steadiness of maturity than to the ardour of youth. Probably no great epic has been written by a young man. Virgil and Tasso may not have been very old as we count age to-day, but Virgil was at least forty when he began the Æneid, and Tasso, who was only thirty-seven when his great poem was published, lived in an age when men were older at thirty than they are at forty to-day. What the exact age of Mr. Noyes is we do not know; but we imagine him to be younger, even in years, than the youngest of his great predecessors. And there lies the difficulty. For youth, which has nearly all the good things of life in its hand, cannot quite have them all; and, to speak frankly, one of the things it cannot have is the epic. For the very essence of the epic is to see life whole, and that is the one thing which is impossible to youth. It is an admirable remark that Mr. W. P. Ker makes in his "Epic and Romance":—"The whole business of life comes bodily into the epic poem." If that be accepted, there is no further question about the matter. The race of the epic is a race which is not to the swift, nor its battle to the young.
It is probably this general law which is the explanation of what is certainly the fact—namely, that Mr. Noyes's epic is far from fulfilling the promise of his earlier volumes. It has a fine exordium, and what may be almost called a magnificent conclusion, pieces of elaborate and stately work, with a high ambition in them, and a genuine inspiration behind them. The poet has not merely sat down and said to himself, "Now I will write an epic poem, and this theme is unused and seems as likely as any other." His heart is in the matter; he really cares for the great deeds of Elizabethan England, and the ideal which he divines in them is for him no mere memory of glory, but a living and inspiring force, the strength of England's Empire as it is to-day and the secret of all that it may be in the future. That is a great theme, and one thinks at once of the parallel of Rome and Virgil; but such themes, of course, do not in themselves involve or contain "the whole business of life." That has to be put into them somehow, in Virgil's way, by help of Dido and Euryalus, and Ascanius and Camilla; by retrospect and anticipation, which is again Virgil's way and Milton's too; by episode and metaphor and simile and allusion, as is the way of all epics. That is where Mr. Noyes fails. Here are three long books of blank verse, and, speaking broadly, there are no episodes in them and only two characters. There are fine lines and fine passages, of course; but the fact seems to be that the poetic power which was enough to fill the lyrics of his last volume with such abundant life has not been enough to give life to an epic. It is one thing, and a great and delightful thing, to write such poems as "Apes and Ivory" and "The Sweet o' the Year"; it is another thing to write an Æneid or a Paradise Lost.
"Drake," then, as an epic, as a whole, cannot be called a success. An epic must, by...
(The entire section is 1621 words.)