|In his early 20's Alfred Noyes wrote The Highwayman, the beloved ballad for which he is best remembered.
What can you make of a major 20th Century Poet so old fashioned that some of his most ardent admirers think of him as contemporary of Wordsworth and all those old Romantics? Who was reviled in is life by some as an unpatriotic pacifist and by others as militarist and jingoist—sometimes in the very same years? Who moved from skeptical free thought to ardent Catholic apologist? Who as a science fiction novelist invented the idea of a doomsday weapon and inspired George Orwell? Who penned beloved children’s novels and whose last book was an apology for not having come to the defense of an Irish patriot hung by his country decades earlier?
All of that describes Alfred Noyes, who died on June 25, 1958 on the Isle of Wright.
Noyes was born on November 16, 1880 in Wolverhampton in the English West Midlands. His father operated a grocery and tutored Latin and Greek. When the boy was four years old the family moved to Aberystwyt, Wales where his father taught school. Growing up on the wild, beautiful Welsh coast, the boy absorbed romantic folk tales, and the locals love of language.
Enrolling at Exner College, Oxford in 1898, Noyes excelled at rowing and spent much of his time writing starry-eyed poetry. Although a fine student he failed to earn his degree because he skipped his final examinations in 1902 to meet with the publisher of his first collection of verse, The Loom of Years.
Noyes quickly established himself as both a popular poet and a critically respected one. He issued five more collections before he turned 33 years old in 1913. These included some of the poems for which he is best remembered today like The Barrel Organ from the 1904 volume Poems with its refrain:
Go down to Kew in lilac-time, in lilac-time, in lilac-time;
Go down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)
And you shall wander hand in hand with love in summer's wonderland;
Go down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn't far from London!)
Two years later his great ballad The Highwayman was published in Blackwood’s Magazine and included in his collection Forty Singing Seamen and Other Poems. The rhythmic ballad with its evocative images and story of doomed sacrificial love quickly made it an enduring favorite. In 1995 it was voted Britain’s 15th favorite poem of all time in a BBC poll. It remains a favorite recital piece and has been set to music several times, most notably by Phil Ochs in 1975:
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.
Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard.
He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred.
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
As a young poet Noyes was unabashedly looking backward and drawing inspiration from English history and lore. A major project of these early years was a 200 page epic poem Drake about the Elizabethan explorer, pirate, and naval commander Sir Francis Drake. The blank verse opus was issued in two volumes in 1906 and ’08.
It was possible in those early years of the 20th Century for a popular poet to make a good living in Britain. And so Noyes did. He never needed to take up a profession or trade. He was a literary man. As such he was able to woo Garnett Daniels, youngest daughter of the U.S. Consul at Hull, Colonel Byron G. Daniels who was an Army veteran of the Civil War veteran who was for some years. The couple wed in 1907 while the second volume of Drake was in preparation. It was by all accounts a blissfully happy union.
Noyes continued to mine English lore for inspiration. In 1911 he published a full length play in verse Sherwood. Although not overtly political and far from a socialist the play invited comparisons between the oppressive capitalists and their protectors in government in his day and rapacious Prince John and his minions. His fascination with Robin Hood was also displayed in one of his most popular poems published the same year A Song of Sherwood:
Softly over Sherwood the south wind blows.
All the heart of England his in every rose
Hears across the greenwood the sunny whisper leap,
Sherwood in the red dawn, is Robin Hood asleep?
Hark, the voice of England wakes him as of old
And, shattering the silence with a cry of brighter gold
Bugles in the greenwood echo from the steep,
Sherwood in the red dawn, is Robin Hood asleep?
As tensions in Europe rose and war seemed to be closing in, Noyes turned his attention to the threat. He considered himself a pacifist. In 1913 he published a long anti-war poem called The Wine Press that got wide spread admiration and attention on both sides of the Atlantic. He began lecturing on peace. His American wife convinced him that he should take her home for a visit and take advantage of invitations to speak on the subject in the U.S.
The couple spent six weeks in the States making it as far west a Chicago in February and March. The tour was so successful and Noyes so enjoyed the adulation and attention that they returned in October for a second tour. On that round an appearance at Princeton so impressed school authorities that he was invited to join the faculty. Beginning in 1914 Noyes lectured in poetry in the spring semester every year until 1923, returning to England for the balance of the year. He was a popular teacher and his students included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop.
Noyes kept up this commitment even through World War I when u-boats sometimes made the crossings dangerous. The war also challenged Noyes’s pacifism. He had never been an absolute no-war-ever type. He had opposed the Boer War because it was offensive and to him manifestly unjust. But, he asserted, that when threatened by an aggressive and unreasoning enemy, a nation could not but fight. Thus he fell in line with many pre-war anti-militarists, anti-imperialists, pacifists, and socialists who abandoned their opposition to war to line up enthusiastically behind their country’s arms.
Kept from enlisting due to his poor eye sight, Noyes did war duty with the Foreign Office in a propaganda assignment. He also churned out morale-boosting stories and poems for the home press. This material, though popular, was well below his usual standards as if his heart was not all the way in it. Few of these pieces are now remembered except for two ghost stories that occupy a niche among horror story fans--The Lusitania Waits and The Log of the Evening Star.
After the war, with much of his generation brutally wiped out, Noyes quickly returned to his pacifism as if a veil had been raised from his eyes. The Victory Ball inspired by his revulsion an official gala he attended in which he imagined the ghosts of the dead and the broken hearted young women left behind mingling with the high and mighty and mighty who had sent them to their doom, appeared in the American Saturday Evening Post in 1920. It was later set to music as a symphonic poem by Ernest Schelling and a ballet by Benjamin Zemach.
The symbols crash,
And the dancers walk,
With long silk stockings
And arms of chalk,
And white breasts bare,
And shadows of dead men
Watching them there.
Shadows of dead mean
Stand by the wall,
Watching the fun
Of the Victory Ball’
Other writers and poets were stirred by the horror of the war and by winds of change in culture and literature. The post-war years saw the spectacular rise of the imagists and modernists. Whatever moral and ethical concerns he might have shared with the likes of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, they were moving stylistically in directions he did not wish to follow. He continued to produce the highest quality, but quite old fashion verse. More over his inner prude was deeply offended by the excesses of some, especially James Joyce, who he despised. He traded critical barbs with the new literary types, dimming somewhat his reputation among later scholars.
Noyes’s principle project during the twenties was an epic three volume trilogy The Torch-Bearers comprised of Watchers of the Sky, 1922; The Book of Earth, 1925; and The Last Voyage in 1930) which dealt with the history of science. The books included poetic profiles of major figures in the history of science. The final book took a new direction with his new found faith and discusses how all of the great advances of modern technology cannot unite to save a dying girl and of the “flame of solace” only religion can bring.
Although otherwise productive, the 1920’s brought heartbreak, a religious awakening, and finally a new relationship. Noyes’s beloved wife Garnett died in 1926 at Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France, while the couple was visiting a friend. Heartbroken Noyes, a firm pre-war skeptic, turned to religion for solace, particularly to the mysteries of Roman Catholicism.
This process was undoubtedly influenced by Mary Angela Mayne, the war widow of Lieutenant Richard Shireburn Weld-Blundell, a member of the old recusant Catholic family. The two were married in 1927 and he officially converted a year later. He described his intellectual conversion process in The Unknown God, published in 1934 and one of the most widely read and admired Catholic apologetics of its time.
The couple settled in the near idyllic Lisle Combe, a 19th Century country house on the Undercliff near Ventnor, Isle of Wight.
In 1939 Britain and Europe were once again plunged into war and Noyes had to face his old dilemma again. Faced with what looked like an even more evident evil in the world, he again threw his support to the allied war effort. But this time in addition to rah-rah stuff for the press, there was much more nuance in his writing.
In 1940, as bombs fell on London, Noyes published his science fiction novel The Last Man, published in the U.S. as The Only Man. After a super weapon—a death ray—falls into the hands of all of the powers, each one pledging to use it only as a “last resort”—each of them in turn deploys it virtually wiping out life on Earth. An accidental survivor, who was trapped on a sunken submarine at the time of the attack, escapes to find himself alone. He journeys across Europe to find others like him before arriving in Italy where he discovers a beautiful young girl and her scientist employer who had survived in a diving bell while photographing the sea bed. It turns out that the professor is he inventor of the ray which he leaked to the governments knowing what would happen. His plan was to survive with his assistant and repopulate the world with her as Eve to his new Adam. The hero and girl discover the horrible truth.
The book was one of the first dystopian novels and the Death Ray was the very first use of a doomsday weapon that became a staple of science fiction after the Atomic and Hydrogen bombs made the concept all too real. The book was widely praised. George Orwell wrote one major review and later cited the book as one of the inspirations for Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In still neutral America the book was also popular and a new round of speaking invitations brought Noyes and his wife across he dangerous Atlantic in 1940. He lectured widely and advocated for Britain with a nuanced damnation of war itself. A series of lectures he gave in 1941 at Mount Allison University, New Brunswick, Canada called The Edge of the Abyss was published the next year pondered the future of the world, attacking totalitarianism, bureaucracy, the pervasive power of the state, and the collapse of moral standards.
Noyes remained in America through the war and afterwards settling in California. Besides his popular press, pro-allies pieces, he also wrote If Judgment Comes, a long poem in which Hitler stands accused before the tribunal of history. He also wrote the first of two children’s books, the whimsical The Secret of Pooduck Island, set off the coast of Maine featuring a family of squirrels threatened by their natural enemies, skunks, weasels, and humans, and the ghost of a Native American man who suffered a terrible sorrow.
Noyes remained in the United States until failing health and eyesight drove him home to the Isle of Wright in 1949. Now virtually blind he dictated his remaining works which included another book for children, Daddy Fell into the Pond and Other Poems in 1952. He returned to science fiction and fantasy with The Devil Takes A Holiday in which the title character vacations in Santa Barbara only to discover that human on their own were supplying enough evil to render him superfluous. His last book of poetry, A Letter to Lucian and Other Poems, came out in 1956.
Now suffering not only from blindness, but crippled with polio, Noyes’s last book was an effort to correct an old personal wrong. When the internationally recognized human rights crusader and Irish Patriot Sir Roger Casement was scheduled to be hung for this involvement with the 1916 Easter Uprising, Noyes was a leader of a raft of respected English intellectuals who planned to launch a public campaign on his behalf. British authorities showed public figures and known sympathizers purported selected pages from some of Casement’s diaries that portrayed him as a promiscuous homosexual. The dirty trick release of what came to be known as the Black Diaries revolted the prudish poet and, as expected neither he nor almost any other public figure dare expose themselves to danger by defending a “pervert.”
Years later at a public appearance Casement’s sister came up to him and accused him of being a murderer and moral coward for not speaking up. Heartbroken, Noyes revisited the case and in The Accusing Ghost, or Justice for Casement concluded that he argued that Casement had been the victim of a British Intelligence plot. He did not, however, confront his own revulsion at homosexuality. The book was widely praised at the time and the argument that Casement had been “framed” for his sexuality took hold. However in 2000 independent analysis of the original documents showed they were authentic.
Noyes died on June 25, 1958 of complications from polio at his Isle of Wright home and was buried in Catholic cemetery at Freshwater.