Alfred Noyes was born in Wolverhampton in 1880. His father became a teacher in Aberystwyth, and the Welsh coast and mountains were an early inspiration. In 1898 he went to Exeter College, Oxford, where he distinguished himself at rowing, but he failed to take his degree. Noyes was visiting his publisher at the time to arrange publication of his first volume of poems, The loom of years (1902).
Between 1903 and 1908, five further volumes of poetry were published, including Poems (1904) which includes the poem The barrel-organ with its refrain “Come down to Kew at lilac time”. Noyes’s best loved poem, The highwayman, was included in the volume Forty singing seamen and other poems (1907). One of his most remarkable works, Drake, an epic in blank verse which first appeared in Blackwoods magazine, was published in two volumes (1906 and 1908).
A biography of William Morris and other volumes of poetry followed, with Noyes’s popularity increasing, both in Britain and the United States. From 1914 to 1923 he was Professor of Modern English Literature at Princeton University. Noyes wrote for both British and American audiences, and a number of his books, such as The lord of misrule, and other poems (1915), and Beyond the desert: a tale of Death Valley (1920) were published solely in the United States.
In 1916 he returned to Britain for military service, on attachment to the Foreign Office, where he worked with John Buchan on propaganda. He was made a C.B.E. in 1918. During this time, Noyes also became involved in the controversy surrounding Sir Roger Casement, the Irish patriot, for which he was subsequently criticised by W.B. Yeats. Another epic work of poetry by Noyes was The torch-bearers, published in three volumes (Watchers of the sky, 1922; The book of Earth, 1925; and The last voyage, 1930) exploring the history of science and its links to Christianity.
Noyes was received into the Catholic Church in 1927, and published a book of theological essays, The unknown God, in 1934. However, following the publication of a biography of Voltaire in 1936, which reflected Voltaire’s views in a positive manner, in the belief that they brought him nearer to God than agnosticism, the work suffered a “suspension of approval” by the Vatican, which was not resolved until 1939.
In 1929 the Noyes family made their home at Lisle Combe, St Lawrence, Isle of Wight, immortalised in the volume of essays and poems Orchard’s Bay (1939). The former family home at Hanover Terrace, Regent’s Park was sold to H.G. Wells.
Much of the period of the Second World War was spent in Canada and the United States, where Noyes became an advocate of the British war position. He returned to Britain in 1949, suffering from increasing blindness, and his subsequent works were all dictated.
Noyes’s autobiography Two world’s for memory, describing his life on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, was published in 1953. His last volume of poems was A letter to Lucian (1956), and his last book, The accusing ghost, or justice for Casement (1957), sought to question the authenticity of the “diaries” of Roger Casement and explain Noyes’s earlier involvement in the matter. Alfred Noyes died on 25 June 1958 and was buried in the Catholic cemetery near St. Saviour’s Church at Totland.