Poet and biographer, b. May 28, 1779, at Dublin, Ireland; d. February 26, 1852, at Devizes, England
Moore , THOMAS, poet and biographer, b. May 28, 1779, at Dublin, Ireland; d. February 26, 1852, at Devizes, England. His father was a grocer till 1806 when he was appointed barrack-master at Dublin. His mother, a woman of varied accomplishments, did much to train him for his remarkable success in society. Thomas early manifested a remarkable power of rhyming, singing, and acting. When fifteen he was entered at Trinity College, Dublin, which by the Catholic Relief Act of 1793 had opened its doors to Catholics, who were, however, hardly more than tolerated. Denied all incentive because of his religious belief, Moore gave little or no heed to academic honors. A curious point noted by a recent biographer is that Moore was entered as a Protestant, possibly by his school-master, Mr. Whyte, who himself a Protestant, wished to qualify his favorite pupil for all the good things that the college offered to non-Catholics. Moore probably was not aware of this; at any rate he never availed himself of it. Though his education and associations were mostly Protestant, and though he himself was in fact after his first year in college scarcely more than a nominal Catholic, he never changed his creed. Among his intimate friends was Robert Emmet, whose tragic death made on him a lasting impression. Moore shows this in his writings, as in the beautiful lyric, “O breathe not his name”, and also in the veiled allusions in “The Fire Worshippers”, one of the four long poems of “Lana Rookh”.
After graduating in 1798 he set out in the following spring for London to study law. He was never admitted to the Bar, as legal studies had for him no attraction. Literature was more to his liking. When scarcely fifteen, some verses of his appeared in a Dublin magazine “The Anthologia Hibernica”. While in college he wrote a metrical translation of the “Odes of Anacreon” which he published in London in 1800, with a dedication “by permission” to the Prince of Wales. He published in the following year his first volume of original poems under the title of “The Poetical Works of the late Thomas Little”, which met with severe criticism on the grounds of indecency. Later editions were expurgated; but Moore showed his fondness for amorous poetry by recurring to it in “The Loves of the Angels”. Again criticized, he bent to the storm by “turning his poor Angels into Turks”. Moore’s success almost from the day he set foot in England was extraordinary. It was no doubt his personal charm and the masterly singing of his own songs that gave him the start in his successful career. Like the ancient bard he sang his own verses to his own accompaniment, and was welcomed everywhere.
Early in 1803 the Government proposed to establish an Irish laureateship and offered Moore the position with the same salary and emoluments as the English office of similar title; but Moore declined the honor. Another offer later in the year, that of Registrar of the Admiralty Court of Bermuda, he accepted and left England in September for his post of duty. After four months’ trial, finding the office not to his liking he appointed a deputy and sailed for New York. He visited the principal cities of the States, and then went to Canada. He was delighted with his Canadian tour, but was far differently impressed by “the land of the free” and its people. Judging everything from his pro-English viewpoint, he could find scarcely anything to admire in the young republic which had so lately gained its independence from England. After an absence of fourteen months he returned to London “with a volume of poetic travels in his pocket” which with later additions he published in 1806 under the title of “Epistles, Odes and other Poems”. In addition to his animadversions on America it contained several amatory pieces. The famous critic, Jeffrey, in an article in the “Edinburgh Review” attacked the book severely and called its author “the most licentious of modern versifiers”. This brought on the famous “leadless duel”, and paved the way for the lifelong. friendship between the poet and the critic. Another challenge from Moore, this time to Lord Byron for his sarcastic reference to the “leadless pistols” used in the meeting with Jeffrey, resulted in another close friendship between “hostile forces”.
In 1807 Moore published the first numbers of his “Irish Melodies”. Were all his other works lost, these would give him the right to the title he so much prized, “The Poet of the people of Ireland“. The importance and the difficulty of this undertaking—to fit words to the old national airs of Ireland—Moore fully realized. But the task of marrying words to these airs was no easy one. “The Poet”, as Moore himself wrote, “who would follow the various sentiments which they express, must feel and understand that rapid fluctuation of spirits, that unaccountable mixture of gloom and levity which composes the character of my countrymen and has deeply tinged their Music”. Almost all contemporary writers, among them Shelley and Landor, spoke enthusiastically of the melodies, saying that they were lyrics of the highest merit. His friend and biographer, Lord John Russell, wrote in 1853 that “of all lyrical poets, Moore is surely the greatest”. Moore continued to write these at intervals for twenty-seven years, receiving $500 for each, which gave him an annual income of $2500. Six of the ten numbers of his melodies were published, when he tried his hand with like success at “Sacred Songs” and “National Airs”.
The lyrics, however, did not take up all his time. In 1808 he published poems on “Corruption” and on “Intolerance” and in the following year “The Skeptic”. These attempts at serious satire, in which he used the heroic couplet of Pope, did not meet with success. Quite different was his next venture, this time in a lighter strain and directed against the prince, his former patron, who on becoming regent through the insanity of his father had changed front and broken with the Whigs, with whom Moore had previously allied himself. These pieces, together with those he wrote against several members of the Ministry, were gathered together and published in 1813 with the title “Intercepted Letters or The Two-penny Postbag”. In this sort of light-hearted satire Moore had struck a rich vein which he worked for more than twenty years with his “Fudge Family in Paris“, “The Fudges in England“, and “Fable of the Holy Alliance“. Moore’s reputation in the literary world of his time was of the highest, as is shown from the business arrangements made for the copyright of “Lalla Rookh” (1817). Longmans, the publishers, agreed to give the highest price ever paid for a poem, $15,000, and that, too, without seeing a line of the work. And twenty years later they still called it the “cream of the copyrights”. After considerable reading and some discouraging experiments, he hit upon the idea of founding a story on the long and fierce struggle between the Persian fire-worshippers and their haughty Moslem masters—a theme that had much to recommend it to an Irishman familiar with the long struggle between his countrymen and their rulers. Men who had lived long in the East marveled at his skill in reproducing so faithfully life in the Orient with its barbaric splendors.
Scarcely was this off his hands when the news arrived that he must make good the loss of $30,000 caused by his agent in Bermuda. Moore had not saved anything out of his large income. His friends would have come to his assistance; but he would not allow them. To escape arrest he took refuge in 1819 on the continent. More than three years he had of rather enjoyable exile, most of which was spent in Paris where his family joined him in 1820. He had in 1811 married a young actress, Miss Bessy Dyke. Towards the close of 1822, after settling the Bermuda claim, which had been reduced to $5,000, he took up his residence again in England. Heretofore he had been almost exclusively a writer of verse; from this on he is primarily a writer of prose:—he becomes a biographer, a controversialist, an historian. During the summer of 1823, he accompanied Lord Lansdowne on a visit to the south of Ireland. While there he learned much of the discontent among the peasants, of their secret organizations, and of their mysterious leader, Captain Rock. On his return he read history, and as a result of his reading and his sight-seeing, he wrote a “History of Captain Rock and his Ancestors” in which he gives the history of agrarian crimes and denounces, not the Shanavests of “Foggy Boggy Tipperary” whom eight years before he called murderous savages deserving the sword, but the bad laws of England that generated all sorts of crime. The book made its way everywhere. In England, perhaps for the first time, the cause of Ireland received a hearing. Naturally it became popular in Ireland where even Catholics, notwithstanding (in the words of Moore) “some infidelities to their religion which break out now and then in it”, expressed in a formal manner their gratitude for his defense of their country.
This favorable reception delighted Moore; only now he began to know Ireland and her people. He came back at times to his own and endeavored to make amends for his former lack of sympathy, as may be seen in some of his later writings, as the “Life of Lord Edward Fitzgerald” (1831). This, which is probably his best prose work, was a labor of love; for in writing a sympathetic account of a young Irish patriot who suffered for his country in the uprising of 1798, Moore could hardly hope for encouragement from an English reading public. In the meantime he had published the “Life of Sheridan” (1825), a work which had engaged his attention during the preceding seven years. So successful was it financially that the publishers added $1500 to the original price of the copyright. Its chief value lay, as the critic Jeffrey said, in the historical view it gave of public transactions for the past fifty years. The next prose work, “The Epicurean” (1827), has some merit as a story, but not as a study of ancient manners or as a presentation of the Epicurean philosophy. Moore was to be Byron’s editor; he became, instead, his biographer. His “Life of Byron” (1830) is one of the most popular biographies ever written, though the picture given is not wholly true to life.
After finishing the life of Fitzgerald he wrote a theological treatise which he dedicated “to the people of Ireland in defense of their Ancient National Faith“, and called it “The Travels of an Irish Gentleman in Search of a Religion” (1834). The Irish Gentleman wishes to become a Protestant, studies hard at home and abroad, but fails to find anything either in Scripture or the Church Fathers to justify a change. This vindication of the Catholic Church is a curious book written as it was by one who had married a Protestant, and was glad to have his children brought up as Protestants. In his fifty-fifth year Moore doubtless took a different view of life, and saw the folly of mere worldly advantages when these involved a sacrifice of religious truth. Similar motives likely influenced him in his next and last work, “The History of Ireland” (1835-46). During much of his life he had been more of an English Whig than an Irish Nationalist. But the last of it he gave generously to his country by calling the attention of the English people to their misgovernment of Ireland. The task which he undertook was, however, too much for him; the one volume intended lengthened out into four, and then stopped at the reign of Queen Elizabeth.
Moore was now broken down. Financial troubles had constantly harassed him, notwithstanding his large income. He had expected, and with good reason, great things from the Government when his friends the Whigs got in power. A recognition came in 1833 when he received a literary pension of $1500, to which was added, a few years before his death, another pension of $500. He was not spared domestic troubles. Two daughters died in infancy; the third lived only to be a girl of sixteen. Of his two sons one died from consumption in 1841; the other, Thomas, wild and extravagant, died in Africa in 1845. At this time Moore wrote in his “Diary”: “The last of our five children is now gone and we are left desolate and alone. Not a single relative have I now left in the world”. He had previously lost his parents and his sisters, his favorite Ellen dying suddenly at about the same time as his son Thomas. His life was now practically over, and he died in his seventy-third year and was buried at Bromham, near Devizes in Wiltshire. Moore’s biographer, Lord John Russell, declared: “When these two great men” (Scott and Byron) “have been enumerated, I know not any writer of his time who can be put in comparison with Moore”; and yet when Moore wrote, England was rich in great writers. Such praises as this may appear exaggerated today when critical opinion has swung to the opposite extreme, especially among younger writers. The truth, as usual, seems to lie between two extremes. Much of Moore’s work is ephemeral, but there remains a group of lyrics that are as perfect of their kind as anything in the world of literature. In 1841 Moore collected and arranged his poems, to which he wrote interesting prefaces.
M. J. FLAHERTY