Search for Books by:  

 Bookshop | Contact Us | Home


Join Our E-Mail Announcement List!

Alfred Noyes

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 (Lippincott, 1953).

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, 1946).

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."

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


Bookshop | Contact Us | Home

copyright © 2005 Catholic Authors