AT WOLVERHAMPTON, STAFFORDSHIRE,
ENGLAND, Alfred Noyes was born on September 16, 1880. At twentytwo,
while a student at Exeter College, Oxford, he first tasted popular
acclaim with his book of verse, The Loom of Years (1902).
He retained it with The Flower of Old Japan (1903), Poems
(1904) and The Forest of Wild Thyme (1905). Blackwood's
Magazine published serially, 1906-08, his Drake: An English
Epic (1908), a blank verse poetic drama in the anti-Catholic
tradition of English history, especially in its relation to Spain.
Also in blank verse, his Tales of the Mermaid Tavern (1913)
attempts to glamorize the often corase pleasure-seeking hours
of a number of famous Elizabethan literary figures. He returned
to his more successful medium of rhymed verse with a lilting
measure and a lyrical refrain in Forty Singing Seamen (1907)
and The Enchanted Island (1909).
In 1907 he married Garnett Daniels,
daughter of Colonel G. B. Daniels of the United States Army.
She died in 1926 and the following year he married Mary Angela
Mayne, widow of Richard Weld-Blundell, a member of one of the
oldest Catholic families in England. Later in the same year he
himself became a Catholic. His second marriage was blessed with
a son and two daughters.
In 1913 he delivered a series
of lectures on "The Sea in English Poetry" at Lowell
Institute, Boston, and from 1914 to 1923 he held the Murray professorship
of English literature at Princeton University. He edited a Book
of Princeton Verse (2 volumes, 1916-19).
He was attached to the British
Foreign Office in 1916, and was named a Commander of the Order
of the British Empire in 1918. The honor was conferred largely
in recognition of his work in Ireland on the case of Roger Casement.
Casement had disclosed British atrocities against the natives
on their Brazilian rubber plantations and British big business
employed big government to discredit him. An unsuspecting tool
at the time, Noyes' conscience kept him unofficially on the complex
case until he wrote The Accusing Ghost of Roger Casement (Citadel,
1957), a vindication of the man forty-one years after he had
been hanged. And on the same theme in 1958, Noyes collaborated
with Robert McHugh on a play entitled "Roger Casement."
It was produced in Dublin.
More obviously flowing from his
conversion to Catholicism was his unusual apologetic. The
Unknown God (Sheed, 1934), "in which he filched the
weapons of agnostics to argue the cardinal contentions of the
Faith, was hailed as a work of original perception by Catholics
and non-Catholics alike." It has been described as "the
spiritual biography of a generation." His conversion is,
of course, recorded in his autobiography, Two Worlds for Memory
His ambitious blank verse trilogy
narrating the discoveries of science, The Torchbearers, which
he conceived as a torch to be carried through the ages, has been
variously hailed by one critic as "the greatest of his works,"
and referred to by another as one which "few critics would
judge to represent his best work." Time is tending to favor
the latter judgment. Following its first two volumes, The
Watchers of the Sky (1922) and The Book of Earth (1925),
came his conversion and in the final volume, The Last Voyage
(1930), he writes at least with the conviction of faith.
As a literary critic he will
be best remembered for Some Aspects of Modern Poetry (1924),
The Opalescent Parrot (1929), Pageant of Letters (Sheed,
1940), and Horace (1947), the first volume in Sheed
& Ward's Great Writers of the World series. Some of his other
essays he collected in New Essays and American Impressions
(1927) and Orchard's Bay (Sheed, 1939). The
latter is interspersed with a number of original poems.
The most of Noyes' poetry at
his best is comprised in his Collected Poems (Lippincott,
1947) which embodied final revisions as well as the elimination
of unsatisfactory efforts. As an anthologist he successfully
selected and edited The Golden Book of Catholic Poetry (Lippincott,
The Pro Parvulis Book Club conferred
the Downey Award upon his story for children, The Secret of
Pooduck Island (Stokes, 1943), which had its setting
off thecoast of Maine. He also wrote a book of verse for younger
readers, Daddy Fell into the Pond (Sheed, 1952).
As has been indicated, Noyes
was not led into Catholicism by any of the Catholic apologists
but rather by nineteenth century nonbelievers. He was nearing
fifty when he realized that his life had been (as he expressed
it) "walking in my sleep through worlds unrealized,"
that is, without his knowing the meaning and purpose of life.
He found, in reading such men as Voltaire, Spencer, Darwin, Haeckle,
and the Spinozian Goethe, that on one point or another they either
attested to or pointed the way to that fuller Faith in which
he eventually found harbor. By this same process of induction
he wrote his most controversial work, Voltaire (Sheed,
1936). Many of its critics, schooled for the most part in the
Scholastic tradition, were puzzled, it not pained, by his seemingly
favorable treatment of the thought of one whom they had always
known as a detester of all religion. Noyes' purpose had not been
to whitewash Voltaire but to show that "the atheists and
skeptics, who regarded the French thinker as their leader, were
quite unaware of the support which Voltaire himself, consciously
or unconsciously, had given to the central principles and central
beliefs of that [Christian] faith!' By an anonymous letter Noyes'
book was denounced to Rome. Douglas Woodruff, editor of The
Tablet, who saw the letter, said that it seemed the work
of an all but illiterate woman, the type of missive he said his
paper received regularly and just as regularly threw into the
wastepaper basket. But the Vatican, concerned with orthodoxy
rather than with orthography, suspended the book until the matter
could be examined and judged. Cardinal Hinsley and Cardinal Pacelli
(later Pope Pius XII) intervened on Noyes' behalf and in April
1939, the verdict was rendered: Mr. Noyes need change nothing
whatsoever in the text but he should write a new preface "clarifying
points that might have been misconstrued and emphasizing the
fact that he held no unorthodox views." It was so done.
A word should be said about his
fiction. Six short stories of the sea, submarines, and spies
in the First World War make up his Walking Shadows (1918).
Beyond the Desert (1920) is a melodrama laid in Death
Valley, Arizona. Eleven short stories, each touching upon some
drama of religious experience, comprise The Hidden Player
(1924). The Sun Cure (1929) is a slight satire on
literary modernists. In No Other Man (Stokes, 1940), published
in England as The Last Man, a secret weapon wipes out
the entire human race excepting the inventor of the diabolic
scheme and an American girl and a young Englishman. It is a modern
morality of no little power.
Originally delivered as lectures
at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick and first published
in Canada, and then in a revised and enlarged edition in the
United States, The Edge of the Abyss (Dutton, 1942), is
a powerful if a rather rhetorical rebuttal of some of the modern
neo-pagan opponents of Christianity.
Yale University conferred upon
him an honorary Litt.D. and Glasgow University an honorary LL.D.
He was a member of the Athenaeum and the Beefsteak Clubs.
He returned to the United States
and Canada to lecture during 1940-41, and remained in retirement
in California for some years when he returned to his home on
the Isle of Wight, perched betwixt the hills and the sea. In
his later years he was afflicted with partial blindness. He died
in his seventy-eighth year on June 28, 1958.
As his host, we remember him
as a quiet, gentle man; devoted to his family (of whom he carried
eagerly-shown snapshots). He enjoyed a game of chess and spoke
of having been fond of swimming. Although he must have been asked
to recite them untold times, he recited with first-time feeling
and freshness the two poems by which he will be forever remembered:
"The Highwayman" and "The Barrel-Organ."
published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig,
Sixth Series, 1960.