The Internet Is Not Yet Full: A Brief Tale of Two Poems

In a brief moment of quiet this afternoon, I was browsing the poetry shelf in my home library today and noticed a book I did not know we owned: Sonnets of This Century, edited and arranged, with a critical introduction on the sonnet, by William Sharp. The little volume was published by Walter Scott of Paternoster Row, London, in 1888 (though the copy at Google Books shows a publication date of 1886), and contains a reasonable selection of nineteenth century sonnets. I browsed the author index and noticed a small number of entries by Algernon Charles Swinburne, who has long been my favorite poet. I did not recognize any of the titles, so I opened the book and read one called “Hope and Fear”:

Hope and Fear

Beneath the shadow of dawn’s aerial cope,
    With eyes enkindled as the sun’s own sphere,
    Hope from the front of youth in godlike cheer
Looks Godward, past the shades where blind men grope
Round the dark door that prayers nor dreams can ope,
    And makes for joy the very darkness dear
    That gives her wide wings play ; nor dreams that fear
At noon may rise and pierce the heart of hope.
Then, when the soul leaves off to dream and yearn,
May truth first purge her eyesight to discern
    What once being known leaves time no power to appal ;
Till youth at last, ere yet youth be not, learn
    The kind wise word that falls from years that fall—
    ‘Hope thou not much, and fear thou not at all.

The poem is the first in a collection of sonnets Swinburne published in “Tristram of Lyonesse and Other Poems” in 1882. I do not have a copy of Tristram and had never seen the sonnet before. It is certainly not Swinburne’s best, but the last line is somewhat catchy. So I was rather surprised when I pulled another book off my shelf—A Letter to Lucian by Alfred Noyes, published in 1956—and quite by accident landed on the following poem:

Excerpt from Ballade of the New Stoicism

James Epictetus Hall possessed at most
    A yacht at Cowes, a shipyard on the Clyde,
Expense accounts, a cook for boiled or roast,
    A Rolls, and all the horse that he could ride.
    And when a distant cousin faintly tried
To touch him with a passage from St. Paul,
    He murmured, in a tone of stoic pride:
Hope thou not much, and fear thou not at all.

In London he became the perfect host.
    He wrangled that O.M. for Mr. Hyde
Who called his God a turnip lantern ghost
    But said that Sex must never be denied.
    Tahiti, he observed, should be our guide;
So Mrs. Hyde ran off with Mr. Hall
    While Nanny, from the nursery window, cried:
Hope thou not much, and fear thou not at all.

He left his Dido on the Libyan coast
    And took his peerage at a single stride.
He bought the Morning Star and Evening Post,
    And all the Muses nestled to his side.
    Left wingers, leaping o’er the Great Divide,
Ate oysters in the new baronial hall.
    Was any still small want unsatisfied?
Hope thou not much? Great heaven, why hope at all?


    Gallows bird Villon, with your thief’s neck wried,
You nailed one ballade, soiled with blood and gall,
    Fast to the gibbet where a comrade died,
In fearful hope, forgiven and shriven for all.

Aside from the shock of reading the exact same line in two poems authored some seventy years apart that I had selected accidentally and fortuitously, I was startled to find Noyes cribbing from Swinburne. Although I have not read more than a book or two of Noyes’s work, in my mind Noyes has never stood well in comparison to Swinburne, and I did not expect the two to have had much in common. Noyes is at times less cerebral, but can also wax more professorial, and was in his later life a Catholic; whereas Swinburne was to the end a bit of a wild and irreverent Dionysian. But, as it turns out (and as is likely well known to anyone who has ever looked into Noyes’s life for more than five minutes, which I had not until today), Noyes was an ardent fan of Swinburne: he wrote quite an homage to Swinburne on his seventieth birthday, and a powerful memorial upon Swinburne’s death. Noyes also lectured on Swinburne from time to time.

Strangely, though, it is difficult to find any secondary information on the internet about Swinburne’s influence on Noyes, and one is left to reading Noyes’s own writings on Swinburne. Maybe it has never been a matter of scholarly interest—I can’t really imagine very many English Ph.D.s writing dissertations on Noyes, or taking much interest in his literary influences. More surprising, though, is that Google has almost no awareness of Noyes’s poem, Ballade of the New Stoicism. I suppose the dearth of information may also have something to do with the fact that Noyes’s work is still under copyright in many countries. Noyes died in 1958, so his work will likely remain under copyright (including the UK and US) through 2028 at the earliest.

Swinburne was born in 1837 and died in 1909; Noyes was born in 1880. Surprisingly, it is much easier to find information on Noyes’s influence on Swinburne. In her biography of Swinburne, Clara Watts-Dunton (wife of Theodore Watts-Dunton, Swinburne’s roommate and caretaker) wrote: “For instance, of the poems of Mr. Alfred Noyes he spoke with genuine enthusiasm. He followed that writer’s poetic career with pleasure and the appreciation of a critical poet for a fellow craftsman.” One of the only mentions of Swinburne in this volume of criticism of Noyes’s poetry mentions Swinburne’s opinion of one of Noyes’s poems. I also found one newspaper article from 1913 that suggests Swinburne regarded Noyes as the greatest English poet since Tennyson (he wasn’t). On the other hand, I also found a far less favorable anecdote recounted by Ezra Pound: Noyes insisted on reading to Swinburne his poem in memorial of Rosetti’s death (d. 1882). According to Pound, when asked for his opinion of the poem, Swinburne responded that he had wished Noyes had died, and Rosetti had written the poem.

At any rate, I find it fascinating that there is nowhere on the internet (I consider the internet those sites reachable by Google—if Google doesn’t know about it, it doesn’t count) a copy of Noyes’s poem, much less commentary on how it relates to Swinburne’s. Seems there is still room for new content on the internet.


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