Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. IV. The Nineteenth Century: Wordsworth to Rossetti
Critical Introduction by Edmund W. Gosse
Thomas Moore (17791852)
[Thomas Moore was born at No. 12, Aungier Street, Dublin, on May 28, 1779. He began to print verses at the age of thirteen, and became popular in early youth as a precocious genius. He came to London in 1799, and was received into fashionable society. In 1803 he was made Admiralty Registrar at Bermuda, a post he soon resigned to a deputy and returned to England after travelling in Canada and the United States. In 1819 he was involved in financial ruin by the embezzlements of his Bermuda agent, and left England in company with Lord John Russell. He came back to England in 1822. After a very quiet life, the end of which was saddened by the deaths of his five children, he died at Sloperton on Feb. 25, 1852. His chief poetical works areOdes of Anacreon, 1800; Littles Poems, 1801; Odes and Epistles, 1806; Irish Melodies, 1807 to 1834; Lalla Rookh, 1817; The Fudge Family in Paris, 1818; Rhymes on the Road, 1819; The Loves of the Angels, 1823.]
WHEN Moore wrote his Life of Byron in 1830 and casually spoke of Mr. Shelley as a finer poet than himself, the world admired his generous modesty, but smiled at the exaggerated instance of it. Yet, even then, close observers like Leigh Hunt noticed that the dazzling reputation of the Irish lyrist was on the wane, and that his supremacy as a singer was by no means likely to remain long unchallenged. A few years earlier Christopher North had said, in his autocratical manner, of all the song-writers that ever warbled, the best is Thomas Moore. A few years later, as Keats and Tennyson came before the world with a richer and more artistic growth of verse, the author of The Loves of the Angels passed more and more into the background, until at last in our own day critics have dared to deny him all merit, and even to treat him as a kind of lyrical Pariah, an outcast at whom every one is welcome to cast a stone.
As usual in the case of such vicissitudes of taste, the truth seems to lie midway between the extremes, and as in 1830 it would have been salutary to point out how limited in interest, poor in execution, and tawdry in ornament much of Moores work was, it is now quite as necessary to recall to the minds of readers of poetry the great claims that he possesses to our respect and allegiance. When Moore began to publish,and it must be remembered that his earliest printed verses show much of his peculiar individuality,the genius of Burns alone reminded the public of that day of the existence of a singing element in literature. Neither Crabbe nor Rogers, the two poets then most prominently before the world, knew what it was to write a song, and it was into an atmosphere of refined and frigid reflection that Tom Moore brought the fervour of his Irish heart and the liquid numbers of his Irish tongue. He heralded a new age of poetic song, for although the Lyrical Ballads two years before had, in a far truer sense, announced a fresh epoch, yet their voice had been heard only by one or two. The easy muse of Moore conquered the town; he popularised the use of bright and varied measures, sparkling rhymes, and all the bewitching panoply of artistic form in which Shelley, the true songwriter, was to array himself. In a larger sense than he himself was conscious of, he was a pioneer in letters. He boasted, with no more gaiety than truth, that he originated modern Irish poetry:
Dear Harp of my Country! in darkness I found thee,
The cold chain of silence had hung oer thee long,
When proudly, my own Island Harp, I unbound thee,
And gave all thy chords to light, freedom and song.
He might have applied these words to the harp of England also, for if he was not destined to strike from it the noblest music, he it was at least who took it down from the wall, and tuned it for the service of greater poets than himself.
It is still possible to read Lalla Rookh with pleasure, and even with a sort of indulgent enthusiasm. Rococo prettiness could hardly reach a higher point of accomplishment, and the sham-oriental is perhaps not more hopelessly antiquated than our own sham-mediæval will be sixty years hence. The brilliance of Moores voluptuous scenes has faded; he gilded them too much with the gold of Mrs. Tighes Psyche, a preparation that was expressly made to tarnish. But underneath the smooth and faded surface lie much tenderness and pathos in the story of the Peri, much genuine patriotism in the fate of the Fire-Worshippers, much tropical sweetness in the adventures of the Light of the Haram. These narratives possess more worth, for instance, than all but the very best of Byrons tales, and would be read with more pleasure than those, were they not overburdened by sensuous richness of style. This quality, which Moore considered his chief claim to immortality, was in point of fact a great snare to him. His idealism, so far from allowing the presence of coarse and passionate touches, expunges them with incessant care, so that throughout the gush and glow of his descriptive scenes the eye and ear alike are conscious of no salient point, no break or discord by which the beauty of the whole can be tested. The reader sympathises with the French gentleman who said that he admired the pastorals of M. de Florian very much, but that he considered a wolf would improve them. In the Loves of the Angels this honeyed elegance degenerates into a tiresome mannerism; in Lalla Rookh it is still tempered by the vigour of the narrative, the freshness of the scenes, and the skill of the artist. The latter poem, indeed, is constructed with consummate cleverness; the prose story, in which the poetical episodes are enshrined, is both interesting and amusing, so that the whole work leaves on the mind of the reader a greater sense of completeness than any other of Moores books. In versification it displays him at his best and at his worst, it shows his mellifluous charm, his ardent flow of verse, and his weak, uncertain wing.
In one only of his writings Moore attained a positive perfection of style. Those homely and sentimental lyrics which have endeared themselves to thousands of hearts under the name of the Irish Melodies form a part and parcel of our literature the extinction of which would leave a sad blank behind it. When they were first produced, in slender instalments spread over a period of more than twenty-five years, they seemed universally brilliant and fascinating to the ears on whom their fresh tunes and dulcet numbers fell in a most amiable union. Here for once, it seemed, music and sweet poetry agreed in complete harmony, the one not brighter or more dainty than the other. Exposed to the wear and tear of sixty years, all the jewels in the casket do not now, any longer, look equally brilliant. Some have wholly faded, others have become weak or crude in colouring, while a few, perhaps one eighth of the whole, are as glowing and exquisite as ever, and shine like real stones in a heap of false jewellery. It is upon these fifteen or sixteen songs, amatory, patriotic and jocose, that Moores fame mainly rests, but though the support has become slender, it is lifted beyond all further fear of disintegration. The Irish Melodies belong preeminently to that minor and less ambitious school of lyrics which of set purpose dedicates itself to vocal singing. The highest lyrical poetry, of course, appeals to the inner ear alone, in that silent singing which is a sweeter thing than any triumph of the vocalist. No tune of the most transcendent aptness could throw fresh charm into the finest stanzas of Shelley, while the most clear-voiced and sympathetic singer would probably fail to make so subtle a scheme of words intelligible to any audience previously ignorant of them. But Moore is a master in that ritual of which Burns is the high priest, in which words of a commonplace character are so strung together as to form poetry easily grasped and enjoyed by the ear, while sometimes the Melodies reach a higher pitch, and may be judged by a more severe standard than the improvisatore ever knows. When his genuine and burning love of Irish liberty inspires him, the little amatory bard rises for a moment to the level of Tyrtæus and Campbell.
It is difficult at the present day to revive an interest in Moores satirical and humourous collections of verse, yet their gaiety was hailed with great enjoyment by a generation accustomed to Wolcots sturdy fun and the heavy hand of Gifford. In fact the public was excessively entertained by these brisk, smart epistles, in which the Horatian manner was carried to its last excess of levity, and in which witty personalities against public individuals were as thick as plums in a pudding. The Fables for the Holy Alliance were more serious and more trenchant than the rest, and perhaps just because their effect was greater at the time, it is less now. It is precisely the lightness of The Twopenny Post-Bag that supports it still on the stream of literature. In Rhymes on the Road Moore seems to be emulating Byron in his rapid interchange of cynical with romantic reflection, but he has not the muscular strength needed to draw the bow of Byron, and when he describes the view of Lake Leman from the Jura we miss almost painfully the note of the master. He is infinitely more at home in describing the gay world of Florence, and sentimentally regretting the domestic pleasures of an English home. Nor is the modern reader much scandalised, but only very much amused, to find little Mr. Moore inditing a long poem at Les Charmettes merely to insist upon the fact that he was not roused by reminiscences of Rousseau.