CA. Other Poets and Works

2. Alfred Noyes (1880-1958). Poems, 1902-41.

  Alfred Noyes (), a Dream of Old Japan, until Japan began to define itself.  

a. Early work. In The Loom of Years (1902), The Flower of Old Japan (1903), The Forest of Wild Thyme (1905), The Flower of Old Japan and Other Poems (1907), The Enchanted Island (1909), The Lord of Misrule (1915), The New Morning (1918), and Songs of Shadow-of-a-Leaf (1924), Noyes turns repeatedly to ‘Old Japan’ for images of a utopian land of ‘brooks of dreams’, ‘pig-tailed sailors’, and ‘scents of opium’. Aside from the occasional proper noun, ‘Fuji’ or ‘Miyako’, these include virtually nothing recognisable about the actual Japan of the early twentieth or any other century. Typical is NIPPON, in which the speaker ‘dream[s] of Nippon’ on ‘a cloud of white / Drifting before the sunset / On seas of opal light’. This opening is followed by four like quatrains before Noyes achieves closure with lines that summarise his response to ‘Old Japan’: ‘I saw that fairy mountain. . . . / I watched it form and fade. / No doubt the gods were singing, / When Nippon isle was made’. More than twenty such poems, some in revised form, are collected in Noyes’s Collected Poems (2 vols., 1910; enlarged and revised, 1927), though in editions of the Collected Poems published after the Second World War all trace of the fairyland called Nippon has disappeared.

b. JAPANESE DOVES. In Shadows on the Down. London: Stokes, 1941. The utopian representations that characterise Noyes’s early verse about ‘Old Japan’ easily become their own opposites when confronted with experience of an other that has insisted on its own ability to define terms. Noyes’s last poem about Japan responds to troubling world events in which the Japanese have intervened alarmingly in the European and American history being written about them, and is frankly racist. The Japanese are compared overtly to spoilt children and chimpanzees; the poem relies on images of Japanese men ‘slapp[ing] white women’, and ‘smack[ing]’, stripping, and imprisoning ‘white men’, so that they may ‘keep [the] East all yellow’, even while they ‘kill John Chinaman’. The diction degenerates into pigeon English intended to parody Japanese speech: Hitler is ‘the velly best fellow’, the Japanese are ‘solly’ because they ‘tink’ their bombs have missed a humanitarian target, and are somewhat afraid of the ‘Mellicans’. The work culminates in martial threats against ‘Somebody [who] wanted to stamp like Prussia’ but has ‘grown too big for his boots’.

c. Critical response. Noyes’s biographer, Walter Jerrold (in Alfred Noyes, 1931), believed that Noyes ‘boldly passed through the magic portals of fairyland and brought thence much that is tender, joyous and deliciously thrilling’ when he ‘put himself in the Japanese position for a singing while’, but as early as 1936 Gatenby (A20) noted that contrary to Noyes’s assertions in the poem Two [Japanese] Painters (1909) ‘in Japan people do not ride on milk-white mules, there are no eyes like holy violets, and cherries and peonies bloom in different seasons’. Miner, writing two decades later (A25), discusses several of Noyes’s more blatant misrepresentations and adds of the same poem that the ‘only excuse’ for ‘its demands upon the reader’s credulity’ is that ‘the events occur in far distant Japan where anything may happen’. Margaret McDowell gives Noyes more credit than is perhaps his due when she writes that he ‘shared the interest of some of his contemporaries in Japanese art and culture’, though qualifies the proposition in noting that his interests were ‘national rather than international’ (‘Alfred Noyes’, British Poets, 1914-1945, Dictionary of Literary Biography 20, 1983).





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