1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas Moore

Thomas Moore
Irish poet, singer, songwriter, and entertainer

THOMAS MOORE (1779-1852), born at Dublin on 28th May 1779, fairly shares with Lord Byron the honour of being the most popular poet of his generation. Whatever may be thought now of the intrinsic qualities of his verse, this much cannot be denied. The most trustworthy of all measures of popularity is the price put upon a writer's work in the publishing market, and when Moore's friend Perry, in negotiating the sale of the unwritten Lalla Roohh, claimed for the poet the highest price that had up to that time been paid for a poem the publisher at once assented. Moore was then in the heyday of his reputation, but twenty years later publishers were still willing to risk their thou-sands on his promise to produce. Much of Moore's success was due to his personal charm. This at least gave him the start on his road to popularity. There is not a more extraordinary incident in the history of our literature than the instantaneousness with which the son of a humble Dublin grocer just out of his teens, on his first visit to London, captivated the fashionable world and established himself in the course of a few months as one of its prime favourites. The youth crossed St George's Channel in 1799 to keep terms at the Middle Temple, carrying with him a translation of the Odes of Anacreon, which he wished to publish by subscription. In a very short time he had enrolled half the fashionable world among his subscribers, and had obtained the permission of the prince of Wales to dedicate the work to him. The mere power of writing graceful and fluent amatory verses would not alone have enabled the poet to work this miracle. Moore's social gifts were of the most engaging kind. He charmed all whom he met, and charmed them, though he was not a trained musician, with nothing more than with his singing of his own songs. The piano, and not the harp, was his instru-ment, but he came nearer than anybody else in modern times to Bishop Percy's romantic conception of the minstrel. To find a parallel to him we must go back to the palmy days of Provencal song, to such troubadours and jongleurs as Arnaud Daniel and Perdigon, whose varied powers of entertainment made them welcome guests wherever they went. It was not merely the fashionable world that the young adventurer captivated; the landlady of his lodgings in London, a countrywoman of his own, offered to place at his disposal all the money of which she had the command.

The fragment of autobiography in which Moore draws a softly-coloured picture of his early life in Dublin lets us into the secret of the seeming miracle of his social con-quest. Externals apart, the spirit of his social surround-ings in Little Aungier Street had much in common with the society to which he was introduced in London. He was born in the proscribed sect of Catholics, whose exclu-sion from the society of the Castle produced a closer union among their various ranks, and thus, from the first, Moore was no stranger to the more refined gaieties of social inter-course. It was, upon the whole, a gay life in Catholic society, though the conspiracy of the United Irishmen was being quietly formed beneath the surface. Amateur theatricals was one of their favourite diversions, and gifts of reciting and singing were not likely to die for want of applause. Moore's schoolmaster was a leader in these entertainments, a writer of prologues and epilogues and incidental songs; and at a very early age Master Thomas Moore was one of his show-boys, ardently encouraged in all his exercises by a very affectionate mother at home. Before he left school he had acquired fame in his own circle as a song-writer, and had published, in the Anthologia Ilibernica, verses " to Zelia on her charging the author with writing too much on love." This was in 1793. In that year the prohibition against Catholics entering Trinity College was removed, and next year Moore took advantage of the new freedom. As one of the first Catholic entrants, he had an exceptional stimulus to work, and there industriously acquired that classical scholarship with which he won the hearts of such learned Whigs as Lansdowne and Holland, while he charmed fashionable ladies with the grace of his songs. Young Moore's social atmosphere was, of course, strongly charged with patriotism and hatred of the excesses of English despotism. Some of his closest friends in Trinity were deep in the conspiracy of 1798. But even for his patriotism—a genuine passion which he never sought to disguise—Moore found plenty of sympathy among the Whig political leaders, when he made their acquaintance in the first years of the century.

Moore was fairly established in London society in the first year of the century, and from that time the hope of its applause was the ruling aspiration of his life and its judgment the standard of his work. In his letters to his mother, which are delightful prose lyrics and show the most charming side of Moore's character—he wrote to her constantly and with warm affection in his busiest weeks— we find him, even in 1800, declaring himself surfeited with duchesses and marchionesses, and professing his readiness at any moment to exchange all his fineries for Irish stew and salt fish. But he never did make the exchange, even for more potent attractions than the fare of his youth. He could not bear the shortest banishment from fashionable drawing-rooms without uneasy longings. The dignity and ease, the luxury, the gaiety, the bright-ness of fashionable life, wholly satisfied his joyous and self-indulgent nature. When men of rank courted his company, when princesses sang his songs and peeresses wept at them, Moore was too frank to affect indifference; he was in the highest heaven of delight, and went home to record the incident to his relatives or transmit it to posterity in his diary. If prudence whispered that he was frittering away his time and dissipating his energies, he persuaded him-self that his conduct was thoroughly worthy of a solid man of business: that to get a lucrative appointment from his political friends he must keep himself in evidence, and that to make his songs sell he must give them a start with his own voice. But his mind was seemingly not much troubled either with sordid care or with sober pru-dence ; he lived in the happy present, and he liked fashionable company for its own sake,—and no wonder, seeing how he was petted, caressed, and admired. Swift's saying that great men never reward in a more substantial way those whom they make the companions of their pleasures was often in Moore's mind. It was verified to some extent in his own case. Through Lord Moira's influence he was appointed registrar of the admiralty court in Bermuda in 1803. He went there to take possession, but four or five months of West India society, jingling pianofortes, and dusky beauties bored him excessively, and he appointed a deputy and returned to London, after little more than a year's absence. The office continued to bring him about £400 a year for fourteen or fifteen years, but at the end of that time embezzlement by the deputy, for whom he was responsible, involved him in serious embarrassment. This was all that Moore received from his great political friends, —no great boon as things went in the days of patronage. He had hopes from Lord Moira in the Grenville ministry in 1806,—hopes of an Irish commissionership or something substantial, but the king's obstinacy about Catholic emanci-pation destroyed the ministry before anything worth having turned up. The poet's long-deferred hopes were finally extinguished in 1812, when Lord Moira, under the Liverpool administration, went out as governor-general to India without making any provision for him. From that time Moore set himself in earnest to make a living by literature, his responsibilities being increased by his marriage in 1811. From his boyhood to 1812 may be called the first period of Moore's poetical activity. He had formed the design of translating Anacreon while still at college, and several of the pieces published in 1801 under the nom de •plume of " Thomas Little " were written before he was eighteen. The somewhat ostentatious scholarship of the notes to his Anacreon, the parade of learned authorities, he explained by his habit of omnivorous reading in Trinity College library. Throughout his literary life he retained this habit of out-of-the-way reading and clever display of it. Moore had really abundance of miscellaneous scholarship as well as great quickness in the analogical application of his knowledge; and, though he made sad havoc of quantities when he tried to write in Greek, there was probably no scholar of his time who would have surpassed him in the interpretation of a difficult passage. He seems to have spent a good deal of time in the libraries of the great houses that he frequented; Moira, Lansdowne, and Holland were all scholarly men and book-collectors. It might be asked,—What had " passion's warmest child," whose " only books were women's looks," to do with obscure mediaeval epigrammatists, theologians, and commentators % But it would seem that Moore took the hints for many of his lyrics from books, and, knowing the great wealth of fancy among mediaeval Latinists, turned often to them as likely quarters in which to find some happy word-play or image that might serve as a motive for his muse. The public, of course, were concerned with the product and not with the process of manufacture, and " Little's " songs at once became the rage in every drawing-room. He found his songs in Virginia when he landed there on his way to Bermuda. And not only were his songs sung but his poems were read, passing rapidly through many editions. The bulk of them were simple fancies, gracefully, fluently, and sometimes wittily expressed, the lyrist's models being the amatory poets of the 17th century from Carew to Bochester. Carew is the only eminent poet of that century with whom Moore will bear comparison. The highest praise that can be given to his amatory lyrics is that he knew his audience, wrote directly for them, and pleased them more than any of his competitors. His publication of 1806 was savagely reviewed in the Edin-burgh by Jeffrey, who accused him of a deliberate design to corrupt the minds of innocent maidens with his wanton fancies, and who had in consequence to figure in a ludicrous attempt at a duel—ludicrous in its circumstances, though Moore was ferociously in earnest. We may well acquit Moore of the diabolic intention attributed to him, but Jeffrey's criticism of his poetry as poetry was just enough, The only parts of the volume that Jeffrey praised were the satirical epistles. The vein essayed in these epistles Moore pursued afterwards in his Corruption, Intolerance (1808), and The Sceptic, a philosophical satire (1809) ; but as long as he kept to the heroic couplet and the manner of Pope he could not give full scope to his peculiar powers as a satirist. It may be remarked in passing that the result of the hostile meeting with Jeffrey is a striking evidence of the impressiveness of Moore's personality ; in the course of a few minutes' conversation he changed a bitter critic into a lifelong friend. Of all the poetical enterprises that Moore undertook, either at this period or later, none was so exactly suited to his powers as the task proposed to him by the publisher Power of supplying fit words to a collection of Irish melodies. The first number appeared in 1807, and it was so successful that for twenty-seven years afterwards writing word* to music was one of Moore's most regular occupations and his steadiest source of income, Power pay-ing him an annuity of £500. Six numbers of Irish melodies were published before 1815; then they turned to sacred songs and national airs, issuing also four more numbers of Irish melodies before 1834. Moore entered into this work with his best and most practised powers and with all his heart. From his boyhood he had been in training for it. The most characteristic moods of Irish feeling, grave and gay, plaintive and stirring, were embodied in those airs, and their variety touched the whole range of Moore's sensi-tive spirit, carrying him far beyond the shallows of his spurious Anacreontic sentiment, namby-pamby when not prurient; he wrote with full inspiration, unreserved sin-cerity, and thoroughly roused faculty. Divorced from the music, many of them are insipid enough, but they were never meant to be divorced from the music; the music was meant, as Coleridge felt when he heard them sung by the poet himself, to twine round them and overtop them like the honeysuckle. Moore accomplished this with exquisite art. His most conspicuous failures may be traced to his habit of taking as his starting-point not an emotional incident but some unmanageable intellectual con-ceit. Hence arose intellectual discords, incongruous and imperfectly harmonized fancies, which even the music can hardly gloss over.

The regent's desertion of the Whigs in 1812 cut them off from all hope of office for many years to come, and Moore from his last hope of a snug sinecure, when Lord Moira also was practically " oblivious " of him. There was at once a marked increase in his literary fertility, and he broke ground in a new field, which he cultivated with pre-eminent success—political squib-writing. Moore was incapable of anything like rancour, but he felt the dis-appointment of his hopes enough to quicken his fancy and sharpen the edge of his wit. The prince regent, his old friend and patron, who was said to have begged all Lord Moira's appointments for personal favourites, was his first butt. The prince's defects and foibles, his fatness, his huge whiskers, his love for cutlets and cura§oa, for aged mistresses and practical jokes, were ridiculed with the lightest of clever hands. Moore opened fire in the Morning Chronicle, and crowned his success next year (1813) with a thin volume of " Intercepted Letters," The Twopenny Post Bag. A very little knowledge of the gossip of the time enables us to understand the delight with which Moore's sallies were received in the year which witnessed the imprisonment of Leigh Hunt for more outspoken attacks on the regent. Moore received every encouragement to work the new vein. He was at one time in receipt of a regular salary from the Times; and his little volumes of squibs published at intervals,—The Fudge Family in Paris, 1818; The Journal of a Member of the Pococurante Society, 1820; Fables for the Holy Alliance, 1823; Odes on Cash, Corn, Catholics, and other Matters, 1828 ; The Fudges in England, 1835—went through many editions. The prose Memoirs of Captain Pock (1824) may be added to the list. Moore's only failure was Tom Cribb's Memorial to Congress (1819), for which he had made an elaborate study of thieves' slang. It was of course on the side of the Whigs that Moore employed his pen, and his favourite topics were the system of repression in Ireland and the disabilities of the Catholics. He made rather too serious a claim for his pasquinades when he spoke of " laying the lash on the back of the bigot and the oppressor." It was not exactly a iash or a scourge that he wielded. It was in happy, airily malicious ridicule of personal foibles that his strength lay; he pricked and teased his victims with sharp and tiny arrows. But, light as his hand was, he was fairly entitled to the enthusiastic gratitude of Ms country-men for his share in effecting Catholic emancipation.

The disappointment of 1812, which started Moore en his career as a squib-writer, nerved him also to a more sustained effort in serious verse than he had before at-tempted. Lotto, Rookh would never have been written if the author's necessities had not compelled him to work. To keep himself at the oar, he contracted with the Long-mans to supply a metrical romance on an Eastern subject, which should contain at least as many lines as Scott's Pokeby, and for which the publishers bound themselves to pay three thousand guineas on delivery. The poem was not published till May 1817 Moore, as was his habit, made most laborious preparation, reading himself slowly into familiarity with Eastern scenery and manners. He retired to a cottage in Derbyshire, near Lord Moira's library at Donington Park, that he might work uninterruptedly, safe from the distractions of London society; and there, "amid the snows of a Derbyshire winter" as he put it, he patiently elaborated his voluptuous pictures of flower-scented valle3's, gorgeous gardens, tents, and palaces, and houris of ravishing beauty. The confidence of the publishers was fully justified. Moore's contemporaries were dazzled and enchanted with Lalla Bookh. It was indeed a wonderful tour de force. There was not a single image or allusion in it that an ordinary Englishman could understand without a foot-note. High testimonies were borne to the correctness of the local colouring, and the usual stories were circulated of Oriental natives who would not believe that Moore had never travelled in the East. Moore was less successful in realizing Oriental character than he was in details of dress and vegetation. His fire-worshipper is an Irish patriot betrayed by an informer, his Zelica a piously nurtured Catholic maiden brooding over unpardoned sin, his Mokanna a melodramatic stage monster,—though they are so thickly covered with Oriental trappings that their identity is considerably disguised. Of the four tales put into the mouth of Feramorz, th» " Veiled Prophet" was the least suited to Moore's Turkey-carpet treatment. Wn can understand the enthusiasm with which Moore's Orien-talism was received as "the best that we have had yet," and we can honour the honest labour with which he achieved this success; but such artificial finery, as the poet himself had the sense to suspect, could have onlya temporary reputation. He deliberately sacrificed the higher qualities of poetry for accuracy of costume and soft melody of rhyme and rhythm, and he had his reward. His next Orientalism, the Loves of the Angels, published in 1822, was hardly less popular than Lalla Rookh. The artificiality of the manufacture was shown by the ease with which, after a few editions, he changed his angels from Jews into Turks, to evade a charge of impiety which was supposed to impede the sale of the work. Immediately after the completion of Lalla Rookh Moore changed his residence to Sloperton Cottage in Wiltshire, to be near Lord Lansdowne and the library at Bowood, his next literary project being a life of Sheridan. His plans were inter-rupted by the consequences of the rascality of his deputy at Bermuda, which has been already mentioned. To avoid arrest for the sum embezzled, Moore retired to the Continent, and fixed his residence at Paris. He could not return till November 1822, when the affair was com-promised. His friends lamented that the attractions of Paris occupied so much of his time, but, though his diary contains almost daily records of visits to operas, fetes, and fashionable entertainments, it shows also that he was Jbusier than he seemed. He wrote a goodly number of squibs during his exile, besides composing the Loves of the Angels and accumulating materials for his prose tale of the Epicurean—a fair amount of production- consider-ing his slow and painstaking habits of composition. His alertness of mind, self-possession, and steadiness of purpose enabled him to work as few men could in the midst of diver-sions and distractions; and, although he himself took a brilliant part in conversation, we can see, from a compari-son of his diary with his published writings, that he kept his ears open for facts and witticisms which he afterwards made his own. The darling of the drawing-room was as much bee as butterfly. On his return to England he resumed work steadily at his memoirs of Sheridan, writing Captain Rock as ajeu d'esprit by the way. The Sheridan triumphantly despatched in the autumn of 1825, Moore's next important work was the Life of Byron. 'The first volume of this was published early in 1830, and the second was ready by the end of the same year. In 1831 he com-pleted a memoir of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, for which he had been collecting materials for some time. Moore's biographies call for no comment, except that they were faithful and conscientious pieces of work. He spent much industry in the collection of characteristic anecdotes, for which his position in society gave him exceptional opportunity. His connexion with the burning of Byron's autobiography is too complicated a question to be dis-cussed here. His own version of the circumstances is given in his diary for May 1824.

It was a misfortune for the comfort of the last twenty years of Moore's life that he allowed himself to be drawn into a project for writing the "History of Ireland" in Lardner's Cyclopaedia. Scott and Mackintosh scribbled off the companion volumes on Scotland and England with very little trouble, but Moore had neither their historical training nor their despatch in writing. Laborious con- scientiousness and indecision are a fatal combination for a man who undertakes a new kind of task late in life. The history sat like a nightmare on Moore for fifteen years, and after all was left unfinished on the melancholy collapse of his powers in 1845. From the time that he burdened himself with it Moore did very little else, beyond a few occasional squibs and songs, the last flashes of his genius, and the Travels of an Irish Gentleman in Search of a Religion, although he had tempting offers of more lucrative and, it might have been thought, more congenial work. Moore's character had a deeper manliness and sincerity than he often gets credit for; and his tenacious persistence in this his last task was probably due to an honourable ambition to connect himself as a benefactor with the history of his country, by opening the eyes of the English people to the misgovernment of Ireland. It was a misjudgment altogether; the light irony of Captain Rock was much more effective than the minute carefully- weighed details of the history. Moore's last years were harassed by the weakness and misconduct of his sons, and by pecuniary embarrassments. An annual pension of £300 was conferred upon him in 1833, and he had always received large sums for his work; but, while waiting for the sinecure which never came, he had contracted an unfortunate habit of drawing upon his publishers in advance. After the death of his last child in 1845, Moore became a total wreck, but he lingered on till 26th February 1852. The diary, which he seems to have kept chiefly that it might be the means of making some provision for his wife, and which contains so many touching expressions of his affection for her, was edited by Lord John Kussell with his letters and a fragment of autobiography in 1853- o'o. The charge of vanity has often been brought against this diary from the writer's industry in recording many of the compliments paid him by distinguished personages and public assemblies. It is only vanity that is annoyed by the display of vanity in others. (W. M.)

The above article was written by: William Minto.

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