The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 48. Roden Noel
Only that indefinable something which constantly and mysteriously interferes in the history of poetry prevented the Cambridge poet, Roden Berkeley Wriothesley Noel, from attaining a rank in his art which would have taken him out of this chapter. As it is, there are none of his contemporaries who, to the present writer, seem to have come so close to majority, except his two close contemporaries at Oxford, R. W. Dixon and lord de Tabley. This “something” may, perhaps, be connected with two other things which have unfavourably conditioned many poets during the nineteenth century—undue voluminousness of work, and an undue influence of “the printed book”—not, as in the case of “Owen Meredith,” running into anything that even an unfavourable judge could call plagiarism, but communicating a sort of aura of secondhandness—a faint suggestion of reminiscence and pasliche. Of these two failings, the latter may almost be disregarded; at certain times (and they are usually not times of small things in poetry), it is almost inevitable. The bulk of the work and the causes or constituents of that bulk—undue fluency to start with and subsequent inability to compress or distil that fluency into something stronger and more forcible—is a more serious objection. Roden Noel’s most remarkable single book, A Little Child’s Monument—a collection of episodes on his own son Eric, who died at five years old—equals, for intense reality of feeling and general adequacy of expression, anything of its kind. But pure personal lamentation unrelieved by digression and, as it were, episode, is, of all kinds of poetry, and, perhaps, of literature, that which should be kept from undue expatiation and prolongation. The book contains most beautiful things; but the comment “something too much of this” must force itself upon the least cynical of readers. The same fault is observable in Livingstone in Africa, but is even more noticeable there because there is no depth of passion even to attempt to carry it off. He, perhaps, shows at his best in pieces like A Vision of the Desert, The Water Nymph and The Boy. Here, though there is not the slightest imitation, and the subjects, especially in the second-named poem, are quite different, there is a suggestion of Darley’s masterpiece Nepenthe; but the very mention of that poem implies a certain incoherence, a wealth and almost spilth of imagery and sound flung abroad “as boys fling nuts.” In this and other aspects, Roden Noel has been compared to Shelley, but no critic can fail to discern the difference between them. The intensity and mastery of Shelley always unify, for the time and in the poem, his prodigality of image and colour and symphonic arrangement; this can hardly be said of Noel. The Land’s End poem, Thalatta, wants, like much of the rest, carding and thinning and winnowing; but the study is a really fine one, and some of the shorter love-poems, as well as of the individual constituents of A Little Child’s Monument, escape almost all censure. Now, to make a pardonable repetition, he who can write without banality of the sea and of love and of death is a poet.