Farewell World War I, hail the poet

“The co-existence of fiery passion and exquisite tenderness in a single character is a fact of human nature which did not escape the observation of Shakespeare.”

— Alfred Noyes

It is our custom here in December each year, when thoughts drift to reminiscence and so often lead to the wine cellar, to put forward a somewhat lighter spin on Princeton’s history to harmonize with that nice bottle of port you’ve been saving to keep yourself off Aunt Edna’s naughty list (which tends to otherwise run much longer than Santa’s). As we’ve noted before, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and its sly 20th-century usurper, Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story, seem the type of literary canapé to accompany such socially positive efforts, and it’s always a temptation to lean in that direction. But not this year, I think.

Since we examined in June the Victory Reunions of 100 years prior, I’ve had the end of World War I stuck in my mind. This arises from an amateur historian’s suspicion that, within the United States at least, its lessons may be doomed to fade just as surely as the recollection of that reunion. The Revolutionary War is the alpha, so that’s pretty safe. The American Civil War is so horrendous, repugnant, local, and tied to our national sin on racial issues as to never be far away. World War II is so vast in scope and impact as to serve a useful sketch for World War Last, and I doubt we can suppress that. But the idea of World War I fading to the level of public consciousness of the War of 1812 or the Mexican War or the Spanish-American War seems bizarre.

Fortunately, in considering that, we have the happenstantial help of a British Princetonian, one whose homeland is not yet in danger of that forgetfulness: Alfred Noyes, an acclaimed poet a century ago and a professor of Adlai Stevenson 1922. Stevenson, in 1954, reminded the senior class of the Noyes’ poem “Princeton, May 1917”:

The windows fill with light,
Where Princeton calls to Magdalen, tower to tower,
Twin lanthorns of the law …

Alfred Noyes
Alexander Bassano, via Wikipedia
You, the curious internationalist, may well be wondering what an acclaimed 40-year-old British poet was doing in New Jersey during a total mobilization at home. So, some backstory. Noyes was a poet early on, to the exclusion of almost all else (except maybe rowing), and in fact missed his exams at Oxford to meet with his publisher, so he technically had no degree. His Wordsworthian romantic poem “The Highwayman,” written in 1906 when he was but 26, put him on the map and is still one of the most famous in Britain. Besides that, his early reputation came principally from Drake, a 200-page poem about the sea, finished two years later. In the midst of these romances he married Garnett Daniels, the American daughter of an Army colonel. So in 1913 he took two literary tours with her over here to familiarize himself, and to lecture on peace and disarmament in advance of the potential war; his lengthy anti-war poem The Wine Press was published that year and well-received. He stopped by Princeton and was a hit with both the faculty and students, so was invited back as a visiting lecturer in English literature for one semester a year beginning in 1914, returning to England in the interim. His highly successful split tenure lasted 10 years.

After Garnett died, his visits became haphazard, but he loved the United States and reappeared frequently until he himself died in 1958. And of course this is reflected in Princeton calling to Magdalen in his poem. This exemplum of serendipity will serve us well, for Noyes will this holiday season be both a poignant farewell to World War I and a welcome foreshadowing of great American literary and educational developments of the 20th century.

So it was that on Armistice Day 1918 Noyes was in Britain, and attended a gala charity ball in honor of the Allied victory. Commonplace at the time, this type of event was reflected, for example, in the very first Hercule Poirot short story, The Affair at the Victory Ball, in 1923. But it did not sit well with the pacifist poet, and in 1920 he sought to haunt the public permanently with “The Victory Ball,” a brutal imagining of the war dead observing the frivolity of the living in their name.

Victory! Victory! On with the dance!
Back to the jungle the new beasts prance!
God, how the dead men grin by the wall,
Watching the fun of the Victory Ball.

Thus Noyes’ finest work ushers out our reflections on World War I, although we, as his partygoers, ignore it at our peril.

Meanwhile, back at Princeton each year, Noyes’ tenure coincided with a student explosion in interest in the literary world, although one of those H.G. Wells time-travel plots would be valuable to see which was the cause and which the effect. A short list of his students during the war years is enough to give a sense of the level at which his courses operated: John Peale Bishop 1917, future poet, novelist, and reviewer/essayist for Vanity Fair and The Nation; F. Scott Fitzgerald 1917, who requires scant further introduction; and the forbidding literary critic and public thinker Edmund Wilson 1916, Fitzgerald’s posthumous editor.  

In fact, this era resulted in Noyes editing A Book of Princeton Verse from his students in 1916 for Charles Scribner 1875 and Whitney Darrow 1903’s 10-year-old Princeton University Press.  Dependably reflecting both the sensibilities of 20-year-olds and the tenor of the times — heavy on martial images, regrettably light on romance, very regrettably heavy on classical Greek allusion — the verse, as Noyes notes in his forward, compares favorably to then-noted Oxford student poetry. Seven poems by Bishop are included, including “The Witch’s Daughter 1692,” an exotic tonal descendant of Noyes’ “Highwayman”; none by Fitzgerald, whether by virtue of reserving his copyrights, or absence from class because of academic struggles, or whatever else is unclear; and four by Wilson, one of which will serve as a little stocking-stuffer to those of us — all of us — who retrospect on our student days in amazement:

The Prelude

Our autumns were unreal with the new:
New men and books we found, new hopes we had
While dismal rains deplored what we might do,
Or sunshine, when the very sun was sad.
Etched towers and pale skies would winter bring;
We thought and questioned, swore to this or that,
Till questions and resolves died out in spring,
Nor vexed the trees which shadowed where we sat.
All pondering, we seldom spoke our thought;
Nor, gazing, often let ourselves be seen,
But, once away, gauged what that talk had taught;
Knew, only then, how great that glimpse had been.

Meanwhile, those theatrical loyalists who may recall that Wilson and Fitzgerald together wrote the 1915 Triangle Show The Evil Eye, will appreciate that Wilson additionally drafted Bishop to play two female roles, amassing more literary talent on one stage than some colleges have in their entire alumni bodies. Eventually, Noyes’ literary impact on Triangle peaked in 1923, when four classmates from 1924 — W.H. Smith, P. Lloyd-Smith, Louis Laflin, and F.H. Davis — adapted his epic poem as Drake’s Drum, regarded for decades as the best book musical the Club ever produced. Smith also wrote for it the second best-known Triangle ballad ever, a fine one for New Year’s Eve:

All the ships that pass in the night, for havens far and lands out of sight,
Like maidens we have known of yore, soon vanish to be seen no more.
They bow and smile, and fade in the darkness, harbingers so bright.
Sail on!
We will meet again all the stately ships that pass us in the night.

But of all Noyes’ students, it may in the end be Stevenson, the practical student politician and managing editor of the Princetonian, who best understands our reflective needs here at year-end. “Princeton 1917,” evoking the mystical nature of the campus in the anti-war spirit of “The Victory Ball,” is actually about George Washington returning to the Princeton battlefield, and leading the dead of both sides, now united in the New World, in prayer.

“Land of our hope, land of the singing stars,
  Type of the world to be,       
The vision of a world set free from wars
 Takes life, takes form from thee;       

Where all the jarring nations of this earth,   
 Beneath the all-blessing sun,
Bring the new music of mankind to birth,      
 And make the whole world one.”

And those old comrades rise around him there,        
 Old foemen, side by side,      
With eyes like stars upon the brave night air,
 And young as when they died,          

To hear your bells, O beautiful Princeton towers,    
 Ring for the world’s release.
They see you piercing like gray swords through flowers,     
 And smile, from souls at peace.        

God bless us, every one.