Roden Noel, father of Conrad Noel, the 'turbulent priest' of Thaxted featured in the very first issue of Paragon Review, is now relegated to anthologies. Desmond Heath, married to Conrad's grand-daughter, Sylvia Putterill, has, while increasing our awareness of the poet's status, shown the background of social privilege against which both men reacted, in his recently published book, Roden Noel: A Wide Angle, now available in the BJL, or from DB Books: 60, Esmond Rd, London W4 1JF (Hardback - £10 to students: post/pack. add £3).
I wish I had talked more about Roden to my mother-in-law, Barbara Putterill, before she died, aged 94, in 1991. She never met him and 'he used to help Browning' is, tantalisingly, about all I can remember. But after her death there was a treasure trove of letters connected with him to sort through, and a book began to disturb my sleep! My motive in compiling it was mixed: a tidy-up, a centenaryish tribute to a virtually forgotten poet, a growing respect for his genius, and a gradual awareness that the story deepened our understanding of Conrad Noel's thinking.
For the Hon. Roden Noel, son of the Earl of Gainsborough, god-child of Queen Victoria, Groom of the Privy Chamber, was an uneasy aristocrat who resigned his courtly position and, after a disastrous attempt at a business career, devoted his life to poetry, philosophy and a practical philanthropy that concentrated on the plight of the poor, for which he was once given the title 'The Children's Knight'. Whilst he became 'an Advanced Liberal with Democratic Leanings', Roden was unable to embrace socialism's 'levelling-out' of idiosyncracy and eccentricity, which tendency Conrad certainly inherited, as can be seen in his Byways of Belief. This love of the unorthodox may well have been influenced by his father's honest and pantheistic approach to religion. Unlike Blake, Roden was a nature worshipper, but unlike Wordsworth, he faced her 'disinterest' quite squarely, declaring that 'Truth must embrace both horns of the dilemma'. Roden once wrote, on the subject of dying, that 'emptying self of self, with Truth we shall be blent' - a strangely uplifting yet unorthodox remark.
He was himself 'a poor, sprighted soul, / Bisexual, conflicting ...', and was capable of some Manichean outpourings - 'Yea, God inhabiteth both Hell and Heaven', for example - to the consternation and anger of his friend Henry Sidgwick - though perhaps this is only a deeper way of saying that the essence of music is discord!
Roden Noel was born in 1834, educated at Harrow and Trinity, where he was elected a member of the Cambridge Apostles. He graduated (using the nobleman's privilege of not having to take exams?!) with a view to entering the church. But his 'religious scruples' prevented him from so doing and he spent a year travelling in the Libyan desert with a friend, Horatio F. Brown, and eventually developed severe sunstroke, from which he was nursed back to health by the de Broe family in Beirut. Paul de Broe was the Director of the Ottoman Bank there and Roden not surprisingly fell in love with his daughter, the tall and willowy Alice to whom he was later married in All Soul's, Langham Place. They had three children and it was the death of Conrad's little brother, Eric, from rheumatic fever, at the age of five, that engendered Roden's best known book A Little Child's Monument, which drew many comparisons with Tennyson's 'In Memoriam' and went into three editions.
|Drawing of Roden Noel aged 34, by George Richmond|
Noel by then was a poet known and criticised for his cornucopian imagery, and this tragedy affected his style, inspiring some very different and almost mantra-like verses - 'I am lying in the grave, love, / In thy little grave, / Yet I hear the wind rave, love, /And the wild wave! / I would lie asleep, darling, / With thee lie asleep, / Unhearing the world weep, darling, / Little children weep! / O my little child!'
This experience both shattered and eventually restored Roden's faith, though for a year he wrote nothing and passed some time exploring the dark caves of Sark - 'with a light in my hat'. He also became interested in the rise of spiritualism, and discusses this in his correspondence with Thomas Hardy.
Roden Noel was becoming recognised as a poet of considerable promise. Tennyson sent for him and gave him much advice. 'You are no minor poet' he wrote, 'Your book is full of true poetry'. Of a long allegorical poem entitled 'A Vision of the Desert' Tennyson said, 'This is one of the finest things I have ever read'.
The British Quarterly, known as the 'Hang, Draw, and Quarterly', also praised it - 'Perhaps one of the most solemn, awful poems of the present century. Let his imagination and physical faculty be well yoked and guided by his own cultivated taste, and we must all admit the advent of a great poet'. Hardy wrote of a shorter piece - '"A Southern Spring Carol" might have been written by Keats. By this I do not mean that it is an imitation of Keats, but that if he had lived till now he might have penned such verses.' But whether he fulfilled his admirers' hopes was always debatable, since his style tended towards the 'agglutinative use of adjectives' (Pall Mall Gazette). 'White comets thwart more shadowy froth-precipice's gloom!' is an example, and his jarringly apt simile, 'the gum-bud of her mind', when describing the young Beatrice, is typical of a poet who can also write - regarding a child's death, 'Embryo souls, who tortuously mount, / Like fallen water, to their natal fount', and who said his tenderest ambition was to see his children's children 'Play like a last dear dawn around his age'.
Conrad Noel, who was not impressed with his father's early pieces 'recognised his genius' and lectured on him at least once. After his brother's death, how could he not have been affected by a poet gazing at the sky above the Eigher one night, and exclaiming 'Yea thou, my darling, gleaming out of God ...', or at dawn, again in the mountains, (Roden was a member of the Alpine Club) 'Methought I knew no living sun was there, / Only his phantom in astonished air / Rises again, though he hath set and died'.
Such 'soundbites', misleading though they may be as a general characteristic of Noel's verse, abound, and as Percy Addleshaw said, 'Once read, they have the burr-like quality of sticking. Very slight efforts of memory are required to bring them into play. This is a further, and unanswerable, sign that they possess real merit and distinction . . . '. Again, Conrad might readily have quoted another, 'Yea' - 'If thou breathe but on a point of dust, / The same shall thrill and falter into Man'. And as a measure of his father's spirituality, '...all is spirit, and the world is wrought / In one live loom of myriad-minded thought'. Many years later Edward Elgar chose Roden's 'Sea Slumber Song' to open his 'Sea Pictures'.
An understandable fallacy is that Roden Noel's long poem 'The Red Flag' is, in the light of later events, a revolutionary piece. In fact it is anti-revolutionary. 'Liberty ... ever hides her eyes / When she beholds the infernal blade arise - / Ever a gory growth, a venemous thing, / Now named Mob-rule, now Slavery to a King.' The masses, he points out, can be roused into action not only by military antagonism, but by the perfectly legal ways of society - 'Who declared war?', he says, 'for ye shall bear the blame! . . . The man who dared to teach / That men are natural enemies to each . . .'. This perceptive view of tyranny could almost be his son talking, or Jack Putterill, Conrad's curate and later dubbed the other 'Red Vicar' of Thaxted. 'Gravity's one law, this another; profit / Can not bear a farthing taken off it!'
In those Dickensian days it was not difficult to find pitiful subject-matter - 'by the window sits a ragged dwarf, / With wolfish, pinched pale features, and a cough; / His nimble, skeleton, sallow fingers ply / At their incessant toil; a vessel nigh / Smokes with some viscous glue, belike shellac, / Gear of his craft . . .'. Nor did the young Groom shy from venturing this irreverent opinion: 'A Rubens cherub cumbersomely squat, / Labouring to upheave some royal fat / Skyward - the whole falls marvellously flat !' A young man ready for early retirement!
Roden's reputation as an essayist widened with his publication in 1886 of Essays on Poetry & Poets, and towards the end of his too short life, he frequently lectured on poets, donating the proceeds to the welfare of poor children. The scope of his reading was immense, and apart from poetry (he baulked however at 'studying' Browning's 'Sordello') he had a deep knowledge of classical philosophy, and was admired for two essays on Schopenhauer printed in The Academy of 1884. Noel's philosophy reveals him as a Romantic. His 'head' was logical indeed, but ultimately ruled by his heart. Writing about Keats, he says: 'There is a passage in 'Endymion' which contains vital truth, indeed, perhaps the very last word to be said in philosophy, though expressed in poetic language. The beauty and use in Nature is here declared to be dependent on the kisses of human lovers.' And in an essay on 'The Interpretation of Nature', he quotes Shakespeare - 'Stone him with hardened hearts, harder than stones', he sings, in 'Lucretia'. But stones are hard because hearts are, not hearts because stones are, though this is not the common opinion. To arrive at the true spiritual order, you must reverse the order of experience. Metaphor is the interpretation of one thing through another ... Light is in the sense, in outer space, because Light is in the spirit, in the understanding. To the opened inner eye there is indeed a Real Presence in the elements of the Eucharist'. What a father to a priest! And, from another letter, what could be Conrad's view of Pantheism, not approved by the Bishop who at first refused him Ordination - 'Pan is not dead - save in this sense - that God manifest in Nature is now, since the revelation of our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ, to be less worshipped than God manifest in Divine humanity.'
Roden Noel was not yet 60 when he died from 'ossification of the heart' at Mainz station, where he was about to catch a train to Stuttgart in order to visit his sister-in-law. 'Roden Noel dead. What shall we do with the corpse' was the literal translation of a wire that Alice received! I visited the cemetery three years ago, but the grave has gone. Its lease had run out and for a moment I wondered if I might be presented with a 100 year old bill!, but I was treated with great courtesy and shown the records and the precise place of his burial in that foreign wood.
In Barbara Putterill's box of papers was this handwritten tribute from John Addington Symonds:
The exaltation of enthusiasm which distinguishes Goethe, Wordsworth, Shelley, appears rarely in their contemporaries and successors Only perhaps in Roden Noel does the cult of Nature rise to the fervour point of philosophical and religious inspiration ... no one will deny the fact that literature in our age is penetrated through and through with a sympathy for Nature which we do not find in the last century, and which culminates in the poetry of Wordsworth, Shelley, Roden Noel.
All in all, you can see why I thought that a book was due, not least for this sort of thing, also from Barbara's collection - a letter to Alice posted May 24, 1894, the day before Roden died - 'It was so nice, little one, your coming so affectionately to see me off, and helping me to get off so comfortably. Love to the children and many kisses to yourself . . . Send me some articles about the cricket match yesterday or the day before. I wonder how I shall feel after the awful night in the train tomorrow'.