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This article was written by Richard Garnett and was published in 1894
Thomas Moore, poet, was born at No. 12 Aungier Street, Dublin, on 28 May 1779. His father, John Moore, a native of Kerry, was a grocer and wine merchant; his mother, Anastasia, was the eldest daughter of Thomas Codd, a provision dealer at Wexford. Both were Roman Catholics. After receiving some education from an eccentric schoolmaster named Malone, Thomas was placed at the grammar school kept by Samuel Whyte. Whyte had been R. B. Sheridan's schoolmaster as long ago as 1758, and his school was considered the best in Dublin. The instruction given in Latin was very defective, but by the help of extra lessons from an usher named Donovan, Moore, who was a remarkably clever and forward boy, contrived to acquire sufficient Latin to justify his entrance at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1794, the partial removal of the Roman catholic disabilities in 1793 having enabled his mother to realise her wish of educating him for the bar. In 1793 also, Moore, who had already lisped in numbers, made his first appearance as a poet by contributing ‘Lines to Zelia’ and ‘A Pastoral Ballad’ to the ‘Anthologia Hibernica,’ one of the most respectable attempts at periodical literature, he says, that had ever been ventured upon in Ireland, but which ceased after two years, ‘for the Irish never either fight or write well on their own soil.’
In 1795 he commenced his college course, in which he obtained a considerable reputation for wit and literature, but few of even such university honours as were then open to Roman catholics. He formed an intimate friendship with Robert Emmet, and narrowly escaped being drawn into the plots of the United Irishmen. His principal performance while at the college was a metrical translation of Anacreon, which the provost, Dr. Kearney, would willingly have recommended for a special reward, but doubted if the university could properly countenance anything ‘so amatory and convivial.’ Moore took it with him to London on going thither in 1799 to enter himself at the Middle Temple, and succeeded in arranging for its publication. It appeared in the following year, with the addition of copious notes. The publication was by subscription, and Moore was greatly annoyed to find only the provost and one fellow of Trinity among the subscribers. He found, however, a more distinguished patron in the Prince of Wales, to whom he was destined to become so inimical, but who then accepted the dedication of the book. Moore was personally introduced to him on 4 August 1800, probably through the instrumentality of Lord Moira, and had a most gracious reception. The secret of his social success was less his promise as a poet than his remarkable musical gifts. His playing and singing had already created a furore in Dublin, and speedily opened the mansions of the English aristocracy to him. He was a welcome guest at Donington, Lord Moira's seat, and soon became virtually domiciled in England, though always maintaining an affectionate correspondence with his family, especially his mother, his devotion to whom is one of the most amiable features of his character.
In 1801 Moore's original amorous poetry, exceptionable on the ground of morality, and with no conspicuous literary recommendation except its sprightliness, appeared under the title of ‘Poems by the late Thomas Little.’ In August 1803 he received the appointment of admiralty registrar at Bermuda, and proceeded thither in the following month in a vessel bound to Norfolk in Virginia, where he was detained for a long time before he could reach his ultimate destination. He soon determined that it was not worth his while to remain, and, leaving his office to a deputy, he made his way to New York in April 1804. After a short stay he set out on a tour through the States, visiting Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston. He then went to Canada, where he was enraptured by the Falls of Niagara, and arrived in England in November. He again took up his residence in London, and followed his former course of life, generally admired and caressed, but pursuing no profession, writing the ‘Canadian Boat Song’ and other pieces, and endeavouring to procure a better appointment for himself, or one for his father. In 1806 his ‘Odes and Epistles’ were published, the latter containing some severe attacks upon America. Jeffrey, making this comparatively innocent book pay for the sins of the late Thomas Little, indited a savage review in the Edinburgh, which led, in July of that year, to a hostile meeting between author and critic. Great ridicule was brought upon both by the seasonable interruption of Bow Street officers before a shot had been fired, and the circumstance that no bullet was found in Jeffrey's pistol. An explanation ensued, and the combatants were firm friends for the remainder of their lives; Moore became a frequent contributor to the Edinburgh, and lived to refuse the editorship.
In the following year (1807) Moore entered upon the path in which he found his truest title to remembrance, and which at the same time procured him for many years a considerable income, by the publication of his ‘Irish Melodies,’ with music by Sir John Stevenson. They were issued at irregular intervals in ten numbers, each containing twelve songs, except the last, which contained fourteen; and the publication did not cease until 1834. For each of these songs Moore received a hundred guineas, £12,810 in all, or at the rate of £500 a year, and the undertaking was as satisfactory to the publisher as to himself. What was of still more importance, it provided him with a solid basis for his reputation by making him the national lyrist of Ireland, a character which, notwithstanding the numerous charges which may justly be brought against his ‘Irish Melodies,’ on the ground both of false poetry and false patriotism, he must retain until some one arises to deprive him of it. Better isolated pieces have no doubt been written by some of his successors, but he, and he alone, has produced an imposing body of national song; nor have his fancy, melody, and pathos, on the whole, been yet equalled by any competitor. It is remarkable that while beginning to produce this airy music he should at the same time have been writing three heavy and ineffective satires — ‘Corruption’ and ‘Intolerance’ (1808), and ‘The Sceptic’ (1809) — which fell very flat. He had not yet discovered the proper vehicle for his satiric power, but he was soon to do so. In 1811 the Prince of Wales became regent, and it speedily appeared that he had no intention of fulfilling the hopes which his constant support of the opposition during his father's government had excited among the supporters of catholic emancipation.
Moore himself was too deeply committed to the cause of Irish patriotism to accept anything from a reactionary court, but his virtue was exposed to no trial, for Lord Moira, the only one of his patrons who had not utterly broken with the regent, accepted the governor-generalship of India, whither Moore could not accompany him. The hopes which had so long buoyed him up thus ended in his Bermuda sinecure and the post of barrack-master which Lord Moira had procured for his father; and private disappointment conspired with public spirit to animate the little metrical lampoons on the regent and his favourites which began to buzz about society at the time, and which, when collected in 1813 into a volume under the title of ‘The Twopenny Post Bag,’ obtained an unmeasured success. Nor was this unmerited; the best are the perfection of stinging satire, the very impersonation of gay, witty, airy malice. Form and matter are equally admirable, and they are not likely to be surpassed. Moore had struck an enduring vein, and so long as his powers remained unimpaired he was continually producing the like brilliant trifles, for which at one time he received a handsome annual salary from the ‘Times.’ His later performances in this style, however, are inferior to ‘The Twopenny Post Bag;’ detached strokes are as telling as ever, but there is less concentration and unity.
In the interim Moore had married, on 25 March 1811, Bessie Dyke, a young actress of no claims to birth, but who proved the best of wives, and who, as Earl Russell says, ‘received from him the homage of a lover from the hour of their nuptials to that of his dissolution.’ Accustomed though he was to the most brilliant society, he resolved to live mainly in the country, and settled for a time at Kegworth in Leicestershire, to be near Lord Moira's seat. After Lord Moira's departure for India he removed to Mayfield Cottage, near Ashbourne. In the same year he formed another intimacy which had much influence on his life — his friendship with Lord Byron, which, like his connection with Jeffrey, grew out of a misunderstanding. Moore's demand for an explanation of a passage and note in ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,’ which he considered to convey an imputation upon the veracity of his account of his duel with Jeffrey, led ultimately to a meeting of the two beneath Rogers's roof, and the establishment of as close a friendship as the infinite dissimilarity of the parties would allow. Byron's regard for Moore hardly amounted to attachment, but was at least cordial and disinterested; and though Moore evidently felt more awe than love for his formidable ally, he was exemplary in the discharge of the ordinary duties of friendship. Another acquaintance, contracted a little later, that with Leigh Hunt (united with Moore in hostility to the regent), promised well, but soon grew cold under the influence of political estrangement, and was converted into bitter animosity on Moore's part by Leigh Hunt's posthumous attack on Byron.
With a young family rising around him, and disappointed in his hopes of provision from the public revenue, Moore found the necessity of increasing his means, and determined upon a great poetic effort. So high was his ability rated that his friend Perry, of the ‘Morning Chronicle,’ found no difficulty in enforcing on Longmans the stipulation that Moore should receive not less than the highest sum ever given for a poem. That, Longmans said, was £3,000, which they agreed to pay without having seen a line of the projected work. Moore chose an Eastern subject, wisely, for Byron had made the East the fashion. After many unsuccessful experiments, he hit upon the idea of ‘Lalla Rookh,’ shut himself up at Mayfield with a library of books upon the East, and by 1815 had produced enough to induce him to offer the publishers a sight of the manuscript. They declined, saying that they felt unbounded confidence in him. When at last the poem was completed in the commercially disastrous year 1816, Moore, with equal magnanimity, offered to rescind the contract if the publishers' affairs rendered this course expedient. They remained firm; ‘Lalla Rookh’ was published in 1817, and at once gained a success rivalling Scott and Byron. Moore's fame speedily became European; perhaps no English poem of that age has been so frequently translated. The style to which it belongs is now completely out of fashion; and were it to revive it may be doubted whether there would be any resurrection for a work of prodigious talent, but uninformed by creative or even true lyrical inspiration. Its most remarkable characteristic is perhaps the poet's extreme dexterity in cloaking Irish patriotic aspirations under the garb of oriental romance. Where he is thinking of Ireland he expresses himself with real emotion; and much praise is due to the graceful conception and elegant execution of ‘Paradise and the Peri;’ otherwise the poem is but the ware of a very accomplished purveyor of the literary market.
Shortly before its publication Moore had displayed more genuine inspiration in his ‘National Airs’ (1815) and ‘Sacred Song’ (1816). The words here adapted to music vied with the popularity of the ‘Irish Melodies,’ and included pieces so universally known as ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’ and ‘Sound the Loud Timbrel.’ ‘The Fudge Family in Paris,’ published under the name of Thomas Brown the younger, consists of humorous skits in the style of ‘The Twopenny Post Bag,’ inspired by a visit to Paris paid in Rogers's company in the autumn of 1817. ‘The Fudges in England,’ ‘Rhymes on the Road,’ and ‘Fables for the Holy Alliance’ were later attempts in the same manner, published under the same pseudonym, the last named appearing in 1823.
Moore now seemed at the summit of fame and fortune. On his return from Paris in 1817 he had found a delightful country retreat at Sloperton Cottage in Wiltshire, which he chose for the sake of being near Lord Lansdowne. Scarcely was he established there when a sudden and entirely unforeseen calamity fell upon him by the defalcation of his deputy at Bermuda, which rendered him liable for £6,000. In 1819 he took refuge in Paris, and almost immediately proceeded with Lord John Russell on a tour to Italy, where he met Byron at Venice, and received from him the gift of the ‘Memoirs,’ destined to give rise to so much discussion. He was unable to return to England until April 1822, when the debt to the admiralty, reduced by arrangement to £1,000, was paid by the help of Lord Lansdowne, whom Moore, with his constant spirit of independence, insisted on repaying almost immediately. He returned to Paris for a time, and finally took up his abode in England in November. While in Paris he had written ‘The Loves of the Angels,’ a poem on the same subject as Lamartine's ‘Chute d'un Ange,’ and with affinities to Byron's far more striking ‘Heaven and Earth;’ for the rest much in the style of ‘Lalla Rookh,’ but inferior. The scriptural relations of the piece excited considerable reprehension, unreasonable from any point of view, and utterly unforeseen by Moore, who had conceived himself to be atoning for the sins of his youth by a poem full of sound morality. After selling four editions he bent to the storm, and ‘turned his angels from Jews into Turks,’ not much to the advantage of his poem. He had also while in Paris commenced a new poem, ‘Alciphron,’ which, not answering his wish, he rewrote as a prose fiction, ‘The Epicurean,’ which was published in 1827; ‘Alciphron’ being added as an appendix in 1839. The tale is striking and picturesque, but its utter infidelity to ancient manners, and ignorance of the system of philosophy which the hero is supposed to represent, brought upon Moore a severe and humorous castigation from T. L. Peacock in the ‘Westminster Review’ for 1827. In April 1824 appeared his first serious prose work, though the machinery is humorous, ‘The Memoirs of Captain Rock.’ It is an indictment of the Irish church, principally on the ground of tithe exactions, clever and not unjust, though necessarily one-sided. In October 1825 appeared ‘The Life of Sheridan,’ his early schoolfellow, which he had meditated for many years. It is a fairly adequate piece of work. Moore narrates agreeably, but has little gift for the delineation of character.
Byron meanwhile had died (April 1824), and the disposition to be made of his memoirs had become an urgent question. It is difficult to believe that they might not have been published with some omissions, when we find Moore continually speaking in his diary of having read them with no expression of consternation or disgust. It is impossible, however, to judge positively of the weight of the objections in the absence of the document. Scott thought there was only one reason, but a sufficient one — ‘premat nox alta,’ he adds. The perfect disinterestedness of Moore's conduct is unquestionable.
In November 1821 Moore had sold the ‘Memoirs’ to Murray, but on 17 May 1824 he induced Murray to return them to him, and at once burned them. But ‘he repaid to Mr. Murray the sum (2,000 guineas) he had received for the “Memoirs,” with interest’. To effect this, however, he had had to borrow from Longmans, and the desire to escape from debt led him ultimately, at the intercession of Hobhouse, to agree to write the life of Byron for Murray, the latter repaying the two thousand guineas, and adding £2,000 more for the literary labour. It was indeed impossible that a tolerable biography should be written without the alliance of Moore and Murray, one having the best qualifications, and the other the best materials. The book appeared in 1830, and has ever since enjoyed a vigorous vitality as the indispensable companion of Byron's own writings. If Goethe's saying be true, that he who has done enough for his own time has done enough for all times, its reputation will long survive its circulation. It was exactly the biography which that age required: by no means complete or entirely authentic, nor claiming to be so, but presenting Byron in the light in which contemporaries desired to regard him, and in every respect a model of tact and propriety. The fearless criticism and the deep insight which are certainly missing were not at that time required, and until they are supplied elsewhere the work will rank as a classic, even though its interest be less due to the efforts of Moore's own pen than to the charm of the letters which he was the first to give to the world. The first edition was nevertheless published at a loss; but the book soon established itself, and Murray engaged Moore to edit Byron's works, a task of which he acquitted himself ably. At the same time he produced the biography of a very different person, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, in which he evinced some signs of dissatisfaction with his old friends, the whigs. Another book, which might be regarded as patriotic in some of its aspects, appeared in 1834, ‘Travels of an Irish Gentleman in search of a Religion.’ Though little more than a nominal Catholic, Moore took considerable interest in theological questions, and this lively book displays not only humour but learning, for which he was partly indebted to his freethinking neighbour in Wiltshire, Dr. Brabant.
Moore's next and last work brought him money, but little else save trouble and mortification. It reflects credit upon his patriotism that he should have undertaken ‘The History of Ireland’ for Lardner's ‘Cabinet Cyclopædia;’ but the task was not only beyond his powers, but entirely out of his line. Moore depended even more than most writers upon subject; he was absolutely nothing without a theme to attract and dazzle, and no entertainment can be extracted from the confused annals of Ireland prior to the sixteenth century. He had himself sorely misconceived the conditions of his undertaking. The book, which was to have been completed in one volume, required four, the last of which did not appear until 1846, and the exhausted author fairly broke down under the effort to write the preface, which he was compelled to leave to the publisher. The intervening years, though barren of any but domestic events, had been in this respect most unhappy, and only cheered by the bestowal in 1835 of a literary pension of £300 through the interest of Lord John Russell, to which a civil list pension of £100 was added in 1850.
Most fortunate in his wife, Moore was most unfortunate in his children. He lost two daughters in infancy; in 1829 his most beloved child, Anastasia, died of consumption; his second son, John Russell, who had obtained a cadetship in the East India Company's service, died in 1842 of disease contracted from the climate of India; the eldest, Thomas Lansdowne Parr, a wild but gifted youth, after causing his parents great trouble and expense by his extravagance, disposed of the army commission which had been obtained for him, and eventually died in Algeria as an officer of the French foreign legion, March 1846.
Moore had not only previously lost his parents, but also his sisters, and was absolutely bereaved of all his kindred. These trials, most terrible to his affectionate nature, combined with the crushing weight of his Irish history and the general consciousness of failing powers to reduce him to a condition little better than imbecility, though occasionally relieved by flashes which showed that, though the exercise of the mental powers was impeded, the powers themselves were not destroyed. In December 1849 he talked not only freely, but most agreeably, to Lord John Russell and Lord Lansdowne; but the same evening he was seized with a fit, after which his memory almost entirely failed him. He died 25 February 1852, and was interred at Bromham, a neighbouring village about four miles from Devizes. A window in his honour was placed in the church there by public subscription. His civil list pension was continued to his widow, and for her benefit the £3,000 paid by Longmans for the copyright of his ‘Memoirs, Journals, and Correspondence’ was invested in the purchase of an annuity; she died at Sloperton Cottage on 4 September 1865.
Moore's position as a poet cannot be considered high in comparison with that of his great contemporaries. Nevertheless, alone among modern poets, he united the arts of poetry and music in the same person, and revived the traditions of the minstrel and the troubadour of the middle ages. This affords a sufficient answer to most of the objections which have been urged against his ‘Irish Melodies’ and similar pieces, except those of occasional false taste and false glitter, against which no defence is possible. They have been said to be of little value divorced from their music; but, replies Professor Minto, they were never intended to be divorced from their music. On the same ground, deep thought would have been out of place.
Moore's position as the national lyrist of Ireland is in some respects anomalous: endowed with the Celtic temperament in a high degree, he was entirely devoid of the peculiar magic, as Matthew Arnold describes it, which is the most infallible characteristic of Celtic genius. Apart from the conceits of his early lyrics, his is in an eminent degree the poetry of good sense; his highest flights are carefully calculated, he makes the best use of his material, and never surprises by any incommunicable beauty, or anything savouring in the remotest degree of preternatural inspiration. After the song, his most congenial sphere is the satiric epigram, where his supremacy is unquestionable. Everywhere else he appears as the poet of his day, adapting consummate talents to the description of composition most in vogue, as he might with equal success have adapted them to almost any other. He would have been a conspicuous figure in almost any age of poetry except a dramatic age, and many who have since depreciated him would find, were he their contemporary, that he greatly surpassed them in their own styles. Such ability is, of course, essentially second-rate.
As a man, Moore is entitled to very high praise. He was not only amiable, generous, and affectionate, but high-minded and independent to a very unusual degree. His history abounds with disinterested actions, and refusals of flattering offers which he feared might compromise his dignity or the dignity of letters. He has been unjustly blamed for neglecting his wife for London society. There can be no doubt that his principal motive for settling in the country was to exempt his wife from the mortification of vicinity to a society which would not hav