Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Alfred Noyes

by Derek Stanford


Article about Alfred Noyes, Catholic poet and scholar. Author of The Unknown God .

Larger Work

The Catholic World

Publisher & Date

The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, January, 1959

He stole the weapons of agnostics to support the Faith.

Alfred Noyes Catholic poet and scholar—died, in his seventy-eighth year on June 28, 1958 in England. He was known widely for activities in a variety of fields. He had toured Canada and the United States as a lecturer and had held the Murray professorship of English Literature at Princeton University between 1914 and 1923. His marriage to an American girl, Garnett Daniels, strengthened this transatlantic entente. In Ireland, during the first World War, he was unhappily associated with the case against Sir Roger Casement. Many years afterwards, he sought to make amends for his words in his book The Accusing Ghost of Roger Casement (Citadel, 1957). This was followed in March, 1958 by a play Roger Casement, written in conjunction with Robert McHugh and performed in Dublin. Based on the sum of the latest evidence, it finally discharged for Noyes his mixed feelings on this mysterious and vexing subject.

He was also known as a Catholic writer of highly unusual apologetic. His masterly study The Unknown God (Sheed and Ward, 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. In a book Voltaire (Sheed and Ward, 1936) he endeavored 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." After a cordial acclamation from both the Catholic and the Anglican press, the second edition of this work was denounced to Rome by anonymous letter. Douglas Woodruff, who saw this missive, said that its handwriting seemed to be that of an all-but illiterate woman. He remarked that, in the offices of the Tablet, they received a dozen such epistles every week and dispatched them directly to the wastepaper basket. The Vatican, however, saw things differently, and the book was temporarily suspended. Cardinal Hinsley and Cardinal Pacelli (afterwards Pope Pius XII) intervened on Noyes' behalf, and in April, 1939 a letter was issued from the Archbishop's House, Westminster, stating that "the competent authorities desired no alteration whatsoever in the text." However, in conformity with their recommendations, the author wrote a new Preface to the book clarifying points that might have been misconstrued and emphasizing the fact that he held no unorthodox views.

Noyes line of thought was bold and new, and, being outside the scholastic tradition, was not immediately recognized as valid. Its tactical virtue was that it took up the argument for God's existence at a point where secular philosophy had left it, whereas the more traditional Catholic thinking tended to write off post-Renaissance secular theories as so many graceless aberrations. Noyes, by a novel insight, indicated affinities between the perennial philosophy and the cogitations of Victorian agnostics.

In Chapter Two of The Unknown God, Noyes shows how Herbert Spencer was forced to assume a First Cause (infinite, absolute, and independent) consonant with the opening affirmation of the immortal Nicene Creed: "I believe in one God Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible." Science, suggested Noyes, was opposed to religion only in so far as it adopted a positivist temper foreign to its true workings. We remember how Aristotle stated that philosophy begins with wonder. Well, Noyes thought that the humility proper to the scientific spirit was essentially one of wonder and openness. As Kierkegaard finely observed. "Wonder is the sense immediacy has of God and is the beginning of all deeper understanding."

The tale of Noyes' Catholic conversion is told in a number of his writings. There are references to it in certain of his poems end chiefly in his lyric "The Last Voyage" which appears at the end of The TorchBearers. This poem commemorates his first wife and speaks of her death at St. Jean de Luz. Noyes and she were staying in a house owned by Catholics in whose garden there stood a little chapel with an image of Our Lady. Noyes' wife was a Protestant but a woman of fine devotion, and, in the poet's mind, this human and divine love became associated:

Look down, look down, upon the sunlit valley,
Over the low white parapet of the garden;
And you shall see the long white road go winding
Through the Basque vineyards . . .
But you shall not see
One face, nor shall you hear one voice that whispered Love, as it died . . .
Only one wooden image
Knows where she knelt among the lonely mountains
At Roncesvalles, in one last prayer for me.

In 1927 Noyes married again, this time to Mary Weld-Blundell, who belonged to one of the oldest Catholic families in England. Later, he himself was received into the Church. Part of the story of his conversion is told in his autobiography Two Worlds for Memory (Lippincott, 1953), while the more intellectual steps by which he was won to the Faith are set forth in The Unknown God. At the time of his first wife's death, Noyes described himself, looking back upon his life, as "walking in my sleep through worlds unrealized." "I was driven," he writes, "as never before, to ask myself what I could really hold as true." And now his wide reading from many sources began to assume a patterned shape.

By a vast "consilience of inductions" he was led toward the incarnational revelation of God. Again and again, it was the words of "godless" nineteenth-century thinkers who attested or pointed the way, to that fuller Faith in which Noyes was to find harbor.

From the Spinozan author of Faust, he was able to cull this passage on the greatest gifts of the Church. "The sacraments," wrote Goethe, in his autobiography, "are the highest part of religion, the visible symbols of divine grace.... Whether the Sacrament is taken with more or less acceptance of the mystery, or with more or less accommodation to the intelligible, it always remains a great holy act, representative in the world of faith of what man can neither attain nor do without. But such a sacrament should not stand alone; no Christian can partake of it with the true joy for which it is given, if the symbolical or sacramental sense is not fostered within him. He must be accustomed to regard the inner religion of the heart and that of the external church as absolutely one, as the great universal sacrament, which again resolves itself into many others, and communicates to these separate rites its holiness, indestructibleness and eternity." Other strange "testimonies" from official nonbelievers now came together in Noyes' mind, and out of their miscellany resulted this synthesis which was—Faith. Thinkers who had led other men from Christ now played their part in leading one back. Such are the ironies of the Divine Mercy!

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 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 wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
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:

Back, he spurred like a madman, shouting a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high,
Blood-red were his spur & in the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat;
When they shot him down on the highway,
Down like a dog on the highway, And he lay in his blood on the highway,
with a bunch of lace at his throat.

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 to express what would otherwise forte, and by its employment he was able 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:

Come down to Kew in lilac-time, in lilac-time, in lilac-time;
Come 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;
Come down to Kew in lilac-time
(it isn't far from London!).

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":

So it's Jeremiah, Jeremiah,
What have you to say
When you meet the garland girls
Tripping on their way?

All around my gala hat
I wear a wreath of roses.
(A long and lonely year it is
I've waited for the May!).

It any one should ask you,
The reason why I wear it is—
My own love, my true love,
is coming home today."

In a like manner, the rhythm 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's most ambitious work was the three-volume, blank-verse 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.

This article was taken from the January 1959 issue of The Catholic World, published by The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle in the State of New York.

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