Sunday 17 February 2013

Memoir of the Late Thomas Moore (1852)

Portrait of Thomas Moore
THOMAS MOORE was born in Dublin on the 30th of May, 1780, the son of a small tradesman, who afterwards became a quartermaster in the army, It is not easy to decide when he first attempted verse. Upon looking back he could not discover when he was not a scribbler. In his thirteenth year he was already a contributor to a magazine; in his fourteenth he had addressed a sonnet to his schoolmaster; and some three years before he sent his production to the Irish periodical, he had distinguished himself in another branch of art by undertaking principal characters in amateur theatricals. Moore was privileged to be precocious without paying the penalty of precocity. When he was twelve years old, he accompanied his father, a Roman Catholic, to a patriotic dinner held in honour of the French Revolution, then a recent event, and regarded, as he himself tells us, as a signal to the slave, wherever suffering, "that the day of his deliverance was near at hand. Men's hearts, it has been written, are cradled into poetry by wrong. The early genius of Moore was, no doubt, nurtured by the sufferings of his race, and maintained in vigour and freshness until the decaying music of his native land came to claim him wholly as her own. The Act of Parliament having opened the University to Roman Catholics in 1703, the young poet immediately availed himself of this opportunity. The year following his admission, while still a child, he wrote and published a paraphrase of Anacreon's fifth ode, and then proceeded to the translation of other odes by the same poet, for which he vainly hoped the University Board might deem him "deserving of some honour or reward." Disappointed in his expectation he, nevertheless, continued his task, and occupied himself in improving his verses and illustrating them by learned annotations, until he reached his 19th year, when he quitted Ireland for the first time, and set out for London, "with the two not very congenial objects of keeping his terms in the Middle Temple and publishing, by subscription, his translation of Anacreon." The translation duly appeared in 1800. It was dedicated to George IV., then Prince of Wales, who, we may remark, received no further honour at the poet's hands.

In 1803, Moore had the misfortune to obtain worldly advancement. He was promoted to an official situation in Bermuda. In the year named, Moore set out for Bermuda, and subsequently visited the United States. The effects of the voyage were to subdue the admiration with which he had previously regarded "American institutions," and the publication, in 1806, of two volumes of Odes and Epistles. The well-known "Canadian Boat Song" owes its origin to this tour. In his passage down the St. Lawrence, Moore jotted down, in pencilling, upon a fly-leaf of a volume he was then reading, both the notes and a few of the words of the original song by which his own boat glee had been suggested. The volume was given, at parting, to a fellow-traveller as a keepsake. Years afterwards the book found its way back to its former owner, who, to his great surprise, discovered that the music of this celebrated glee was actually as much his own as the words. In the original note to the song, the reader is informed "that the words were written to an air which the boatmen sang to us frequently." Extraordinary as it may appear, the air had never been heard at all until Moore presented it, for all time, to the lovers of plaintive song and romantic imagery.

Two years after the publication of the descriptive sketches, illustrating the poet's travels, appeared the Works of the late Thomas Little, a gentleman, "who gave much of his time to the amatory writers." Long before his death Mr. Moore became thoroughly ashamed of Thomas Little and of the compositions of his wanton and salacious pen. The Fudge Family, written in 1817, after a visit to Paris with Mr. Rogers, the Twopenny Posting, and similar productions, full of point, wit, and polish, are unrivalled as political lampoons, and preserve to this hour their first exquisite relish. The apprenticeship of Moore was served when he commenced the Irish Melodies, which have rendered his name famous wherever music is cherished. From that hour his genius triumphed, and most deservedly.

The publication of the Irish Melodies commenced in 1807, and, continued at intervals, was concluded in 1834. They have been translated into Latin, Italian, French, and Russian, and are familiar as proverbs amongst the fellow-countrymen of the poet, and indeed wherever English is understood and music loved. A lengthened criticism of these admirable songs -- now sparkling -- now plaintive -- here glowing with fervour -- there laden with pathos -- all teeming with exuberant illustration -- is scarcely needed here.

The year 1812 found Moore, in his 23rd year, enjoying a well-earned fame, but on circumscribed ground. He had not as yet given to the world a long and continuous work, and shown how well he could sustain the brilliancy that seemed too keenly elaborate for a protracted effort. In that year, however, impelled by the suggestions of his friends, the poet resolved to take the field against his most favoured competitors, and to attempt a poem upon an Oriental subject, of the dimensions which Sir Walter Scott's then recent triumphs had rendered the poetical standard. A negotiation was at once opened with the house of Longman, but it led to no decisive result, and for two years the matter slumbered. Finally, an interview took place between Messrs. Longman and Mr. Moore, with a view to an arrangement, and before it closed, "much to the honour and glory of romance," as Moore with becoming pride relates, the publishers chivalrously undertook to pay the poet 3,000 guineas for his poem, even before seeing a single line of the production. In 1815, some progress having been made in the task, Moore wrote to his publishers, expressing his willingness to submit his manuscript for their consideration. The answer was in conformity with the magnanimity of the original engagement. "We are certainly impatient for the perusal of the poem," wrote Messrs. Longman, "but solely for our gratification. Your sentiments are always honourable." Another year elapsed, and in 1816, the work being complete, was placed in the hands of the publishers. In 1817 Lalla Rookh appeared, Messrs. Longman made no unsound or hasty calculation. The poem was hailed with a burst of admiration from sceptics as well as believers.

And no wonder! It was a triple triumph of industry, learning, and genius. The broad canvas exhibited a gorgeous painting; from beginning to end the same lavish ornament, the same overpowering sweetness, the same variegated and delicate tracery, the same revelling of a spirit happy in its intense enjoyment of beauty that characterised the miniatures and gems that heretofore had proceeded from the artist's pencil. So far from betraying a diminution of power, or an inability to maintain his high-pitched note, the poet pursued his strain until he fairly left his reader languishing with a surfeit of luscious song, and faint from its oppressive odours. We peruse the romance, and marvel at the miraculous facility of the writer who has but to open his lips to drop emeralds and pearls, like the good princess in the fairly tale. Nor does astonishment cease when we learn, that, eager and all but involuntary as the verse appears to issue from its source, the apparently effortless composition is actually a labour performed with all the diligence of the mechanic and all the forethought of science.

Moore had done something more than read over D'Herbelot. He had devoured every book he could get relating to the East, and did not rise from his occupation until he positively knew more of Persia than of his own country, and until his acclimated genius found it as easy to draw inspiration from the influences of a land he had never seen as from the living and silent forms by which, in his own country, he had been from his childhood surrounded. Eastern travellers and Oriental scholars have borne testimony to the singular accuracy of Moore's descriptive pen. Travellers, also, who followed the poet across the Atlantic, and visited after him Bermuda and America, dwell upon his scrupulous exactness in all his references to these regions, whether they regard monuments or manners. As far as Lalla Rookh is concerned, one extraordinary piece of evidence is most conclusive. The poem, translated into Persian, has found its way to Ispahan, and is thoroughly appreciated on the shores of the Caspian. In London, the poem looks like an exotic; there it is racy of the soil.

In the Autumn of 1817, and the fulness of his triumph, Moore visited Paris with Mr. Rogers, and picked up, as we have already noted, the materials of his Fudge Family, a satire written on the plan of the New Bath Guide, and intended to help the political friends of the satirist at the expense of their opponents. Time has taken away from much of the interest that attaches to those squibs of the hour, but age can never blunt the point of their polished wit or dull its brilliancy. The popularity of the Fudge Family kept pace with that of Lalla Rookh. In 1819 the poet went abroad again, this time with Lord John Russell. The travellers proceeded in company by the Simplon into Italy, but soon parted company, Lord John Russell to proceed to Genoa, Moore to visit Lord Byron in Venice. Moore had made the acquaintance of Byron in 1S12, when the latter, then in his twenty-fifth year, had just taken the world by surprise with his publication of the earlier cantos of Childe Harold, The poets took to each other as soon as they met, and their friendship continued unimpaired until death divided them.

Returning from Rome, Moore took up his abode in Paris, in which capital he resided until the year 1822. The conduct of the Deputy in Bermuda had thrown the poet into difficulties, and, until he could struggle out of them, a return to England was incompatible with safety. There were not wanting friends to run to the rescue, but Moore honourably undertook to provide for his own misfortunes. Declining all offers of help, he took heart, and resolutely set to work for his deliverance. After much negotiation, the claims of the American merchants against him were brought down from 6,000 guineas to 1,000. Towards this reduced amount, the friends of the offending deputy subscribed £300. The balance (£750) was deposited "by a dear and distinguished friend" of the principal in the hands of a banker, to be in readiness for the final "settlement of the demand." A few months after the settlement was effected, Moore received £1,000 for his Loves of the Angels, and £500 for the Fables of the Holy Alliance. With half of these united sums, he discharged his obligation to his benefactor.

Great poets are, for the most part, masters of prose. In 1827, Moore appeared before the public as the author of a prose romance. The Epicurean, intended originally to be written in verse, retains the essential beauty of a poem. It reproduces the feeling and the fancy of Lalla Rookh, its soft and glowing colouring, and all its erudition. The spirit is borne along in the perusal with a soothing, dreamy, fascinating motion, yet is sustained throughout by a lofty, wholesome, and consolatory thought. In the Epicurean, Moore made amends for the levities of his youth, and for once the fancy of the poet was sublimed by the moral and religious aspirations of the teacher. Love had ceased to be mere gallantry. It is here the noblest, purest, best of human passions. The discontent of the Athenian philosopher -- his uneasy longing after immortality -- his communion with the devoted Alethe, move angelic in her nature than the angels of the poet -- her Christian martyrdom his own death, are all described with masterly skill, and with the finest perception of moral and artistic I beauty. If the eye of the sensualist is too palpably evident in many of Moore's metrical compositions, it is altogether invisible in the ethical romance, which is consecrated to piety alone. Never did meek religion present herself in more enchanting a guise before.

In 1825 (previously to the publication of the Epicurean) Moore wrote a Life of Sheridan, in 1830 he issued his Notices of the Life of Lord Byron, and in the following year the Memoirs of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, in all the biographies maintaining his well-earned position. In his Life of Sheridan he did not shrink from the difficulties of his task. To borrow the language of a critic at the time, "He did not hide the truth under too deep a veil, neither did he blazon it forth." Of Byron, Moore (influenced by his affection) thought more tenderly than the majority of his contemporaries. The character of the staunch ally, old associate, and brother bard, is finely painted in the Notices, and to the honour of Moore be it said, he knew how to stand by his departed friend while fulfilling his obligations to the public, whom it was his business to instruct. The History of Ireland, published from time to time in Lardner's Cyclopedia, we believe it to be the latest, as it is the most elaborate and serious, of our author's compositions.

(This article was originally published in the Belfast Newsletter on 8 March 1852. The text along with other extracts can be found on my website Eddies Extracts.)

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