Rediscovering the Work of Alfred Noyes

Friday evening I attended a party to mark The Epiphany of the Lord, wherein our gracious hostess asked those of the guests who were so interested to give a recitation. I prepared several pieces, among which was an amusing poem entitled “Daddy Fell Into the Pond”, from the collection of children’s poems of the same name by the English writer Alfred Noyes. I was somewhat dismayed to discover that all but one of the assembled company were not entirely familiar with Noyes by name, though the majority did know what is probably Noyes’ most famous poem, “The Highwayman”, which both American and British schoolchildren study; in this country, the work is usually examined in high school, given its thematic material. Particularly for my Catholic readers, it seems to me that Noyes should be better-known that he appears to be at the moment.

Alfred Noyes was the son of a Latin and Greek teacher, who was born in England but spent much of his childhood in Wales. He went up to Oxford where he became well-known as a rower, but ultimately left without getting his degree: he had a meeting scheduled with a publisher to bring out his first book of poetry at the time he was supposed to be sitting his final exams. This began a highly productive period in which “The Highwayman” and other poems were published, to great acclaim, and in which he met his first wife, the daughter of an American army officer. This connection led to tours of and travel within the United States, and eventually a position as a visiting professor at Princeton, where F. Scott Fitzgerald was among Noyes’ many students. During World War I while continuing to write his own work, Noyes worked for British Propaganda alongside another English author whose work needs to be rediscovered by younger generations, the great John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir.

While on holiday on the Riviera in 1926 Noyes’ wife died; this profoundly affected Noyes, particularly because the friends they were staying with were Catholics and had a little shrine to the Virgin Mary in their garden where he would reflect and pray. The following year, he met and married Mary Weld-Blundell, the widow of a British Army officer who had been killed during World War I, and who herself was a member of one of England’s oldest Catholic noble families. This was obviously a case of certain shared experiences: both having lost a spouse, both having gone through the War, and with Noyes moving increasingly from agnosticism toward Catholicism. They went on to have three children together.

Noyes ultimately converted to Catholicism after his marriage, and chronicled the process primarily in two books, “The Unknown God” and “Two Worlds for Memory”. The former, gentle reader, really should be on your bookshelf, sitting next to C.S. Lewis’ “Surprised by Joy”, Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy”, or the “Confessions” of St. Augustine, for it is an excellent examination of the intellectual steps whereby Noyes came into the Church. Unlike these writers however, Noyes took a more unusual tack to arrive at where he did, for he begins by assuming that the writings of prominent skeptics, agnostics and atheists such as Spencer, Darwin, and Huxley in fact pointed toward theism, rather than away from it.

So why is Noyes not better known among Catholic readers? Probably because of some trouble he got into in 1938, when his book “Voltaire” was placed on the Index List. Noyes used the same line of thinking he had expostulated in “The Unknown God” some years earlier to show that, whatever Voltaire may have written about the Church, Voltaire was actually not able to disprove the existence of God or that the Church of his own day was wrong, only that some reforms were necessary, given the predilections and peccadilloes of many French prelates prior to the Revolution. For a devout Catholic to point out this fact in a refutation of Voltaire would seem to us today to be little more than an honest acknowledgment of the fact that ours is a Church founded by God, but run by sinners. Christ promised us that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church, but he did not promise us that we would be free from Borgias, Mazarins, or the like.

However someone – who presumably did not understand the point the author was trying to make – denounced Noyes to Rome, where more cautious minds did not like commentary which seemed in their nostrils to reek of unorthodoxy. Ultimately the future Pope Pius XII, then-Cardinal Pacelli, had to intervene on Noyes behalf to get the ban lifted the year after publication, provided that an introduction be written in subsequent editions of the book so that Noyes could clarify that he was not promoting heterodox views or excusing Voltaire. This Noyes was happy to do, but it is possible that the taint has remained on him since, in the minds of certain Catholics.

For this scrivener one of the more attractive features of Noyes’ thinking is his ability to turn the skeptic, the agnostic, or the militant atheist on his head. I have found as I grow older that I am inclined to agree with Noyes’ way of thinking, albeit from a cultural rather than a philosophical or scientific perspective. It is the reason why I can look at what may, on first impression, seem a piece of blasphemy or nihilism, and turn the intent of the author of that work to attack God, the Church, or what have you on its head, and into something personally fortifying. Thus, for example, the work of artists such as Andres Serrano or Chris Ofili are, for me, reminders of Christ’s warning in the Gospel of St. John, 15:18-21. Do I want one of their works on my wall? Absolutely not – but knowing it exists reminds me of the fact that I am part of the Church on earth, where suffering is to be my lot.

To close on a less polemic example of Noyes’ writing, here is a poem he wrote during a visit to New York; the city was marking the end of World War I, and Noyes went into Central Park to try to find a quiet spot. While walking through the park he came across the monument to Ludwig van Beethoven sculpted by Henry Baerer, which has since been moved to a different location in the park, meaning the effect on the modern visitor would not prove to be quite the same as what Noyes would have seen. Still, the words are beautifully evocative:

Beethoven In Central Park

The thousand-windowed towers were all alight.
Throngs of all nations filled that glittering way;
And, rich with dreams of the approaching day,
Flags of all nations trampled down the night.
No clouds, at sunset, die in airs as bright.
No clouds, at dawn, awake in winds as gay;
For Freedom rose in that august array,
Crowned with the stars and weaponed for the right.

Then, in a place of whispering leaves and gloom,
I saw, too dark, too dumb for bronze or stone,
One tragic head that bowed against the sky;
O, in a hush too deep for any tomb
I saw Beethoven, dreadfully alone
With his own grief, and his own majesty.

Alfred Noyes (1880-1958)

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