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Thomas Moore in the DIB

09 October 2019

A new series of RIA lunchtime lectures on the immense achievements of Thomas Moore commences on Wednesday 9 October with a talk by Professor Harry White MRIA. Read White's comprehensive DIB entry on Moore.

Thomas Moore (1779–1852), writer and musician, was born 28 May 1779 at 12 Aungier Street, Dublin, the first child of John Moore and his wife, Anastasia (née Codd). The couple were married in 1778 and had nine children in all, six of whom died in infancy. Moore was baptised a Roman catholic in the church of St Andrew's, Westland Row, Dublin, on 30 May 1779. The household was a prosperous one, and in later life Moore recollected that his parents frequently entertained at home and that music was prominent on these occasions. His early musical education was at the instigation of his mother, who arranged for him to have singing lessons and instruction on the harpsichord and pianoforte. He attended a private school in 1784 and by 1786 was enrolled in the ‘English grammar school’ in Grafton Street run by Samuel Whyte. Whyte introduced him to the art of elocution and public speaking and encouraged him in private theatricals and in his first efforts at verse.

University career and early publications Moore first appeared in print in October 1793 with verses in Anthologia Hibernica, a Dublin magazine. At Whyte's school he studied Greek and Latin, but he also took instruction in French and Italian from private tutors. In June 1794 he attended Dr Carr's Latin school in preparation for his registration at Trinity College, Dublin. While the penal laws had formerly forbidden the entry of catholics to Trinity, the 1793 Catholic Relief Act permitted catholics to register; they remained excluded from scholarships and fellowships, although Moore was awarded premiums (non-stipendiary prizes) in his first year there. Despite his mother being a devout catholic, Moore appears to have abandoned the formal practice of his religion as soon as he entered Trinity, but never formally renounced it.

Moore's years in Trinity were deeply marked by revolutionary politics. Although he himself did not join the United Irishmen, he was closely associated with many in college who were directly involved in the movement, including Edward Hudson and Robert Emmet. He published (pseudonymously) two articles in December 1797 and January 1798 in which he gave explicit support to the idea of rebellion, and addressed Henry Grattan on the removal of the viceroy and the threat of dissolution of the Irish parliament. In April 1798 Moore appeared before a tribunal in Trinity to answer the charge that he belonged to a lodge of United Irishmen in college and that he was thereby a party to sedition. Although he was acquitted of any wrongdoing (and thus not expelled from the university, as were many), the memory of ‘that time of terror and torture’ endured throughout his lifetime (he used the phrase in his biography of Lord Edward FitzGerald in 1831), and the experience itself was to prove explicitly formative in his development as a writer and musician. It was Hudson who introduced Moore to A general collection of the ancient Irish music (1797) by Edward Bunting and Emmet who fixed in Moore's mind the seminal idea of Irish music as a fundamental expression of loss and political will.

Moore took his degree in the spring of 1799 and left Trinity for the Middle Temple in London. Although his legal studies there were uncertain and intermittent (he later remarked that the exclusion of catholics from high legal office was itself a disparagement), he very rapidly began to enjoy the acquaintance of socially advantaged Irish and English friends, some of them connected with the London stage. In July 1800 he published his translation of the Odes of Anacreon, with a dedication to the prince of Wales. He also received further musical instruction in London and began to compose and perform songs. The success of Moore's Anacreon widened his social circle to include members of the Irish peerage (among them Lady Donegall) and the royal household. While the publication of the pseudonymous The poetical works of Thomas Little, Jr. in 1801 was an initial success, it soon stimulated a degree of controversy (because of its amatory if not licentious content) which never wholly abated throughout Moore's career. He collaborated briefly with the singer Michael Kelly on an opera (or ‘afterpiece’), ‘The gypsey prince’, which was given at the Haymarket in July 1802.

In 1803 the Irish peer Lord Moira offered Moore the post of registrar of the naval prize court in Bermuda (through the offices of George Tierney, treasurer of the navy). Moore accepted the post, and on 25 September 1803 sailed from Spithead en route for Norfolk, Virginia, and from there to Bermuda, which he reached on 14 January 1804. By April of that year he had appointed a deputy in his stead, and he sailed for Halifax, via Norfolk and New York. From Norfolk he went to Washington (where he met Thomas Jefferson in the White House), thence to Baltimore and Philadelphia (where he met Edward Hudson) and Niagara, where the falls made an enormous impression on him. He finally returned to England on 12 November 1804. Although he had been popular in Bermuda (where as late as 1925 he was still recalled as ‘the poet laureate’ of the islands), his poor impression of urban life in the United States adumbrated the scathing reception which his verses would receive there in 1806. The publication of Epistles, odes and other poems that year occasioned a scabrous notice by Francis Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review which caused Moore to challenge Jeffrey to a duel. This was interrupted by the police, and Jeffrey's pistol was found not to be loaded. The two men thereafter became close friends. Nevertheless, the generally adverse reaction to Moore's new volume (especially in the United States, where his work was generally disdained for several years afterwards) caused him to despair of his livelihood, and on returning to Ireland in late September 1806 he found his family in severe financial difficulties, his father's grocery business having failed.

Irish melodies With the assistance of Lord Moira (the dedicatee of the 1806 Epistles) Moore travelled again to London early in 1807. There he responded to an invitation from James Power (1766–1836) and William Power, who ran a music publishing firm in Dublin, to set a collection of Irish airs in direct emulation of George Thomson's collections of Scottish and Irish music. It was also agreed from the outset that the musical arrangements would be by Sir John Stevenson, organist and master of the choristers at St Patrick's cathedral, and by 1807 a friend of Moore's for almost a decade. The vogue for publishing collections of Irish melodies was by then well established, although Moore was to acknowledge that Bunting's A general collection of the ancient Irish music was the primary inspiration for his own work. By June 1807 Moore had once again returned to Ireland, where he completed the first and second numbers of the Irish melodies: these were published in April and August 1808 in London and Dublin by James and William Power. Moore would continue to issue settings until 1834, by which time he had reached his tenth volume.

Reviews of the early volumes were few, although the success which they enjoyed was immediate. Moore himself was gratified by the enthusiasm of friends (Byron was enraptured by the early volumes), but a notice in the Anti-Jacobin Review serves as a valuable corrective to the notion that the Moore–Stevenson arrangements were simply received as innocuous drawing-room ballads: ‘several of them were composed in a very disordered state of society, if not in open rebellion. They are the melancholy ravings of the disappointed rebel, or his ill-educated offspring.’ Moore also wrote two polemical satires at the time he was setting the melodies: Intolerance and Corruption both explicitly affirm the poet's contempt for religious-political tyranny, specifically with regard to protestant dominion over catholic life in Britain and Ireland. Given the context of these satires, to say nothing of Moore's expressly political reading of Irish music in the prefaces which he wrote to the Irish melodies, there can be no doubt as to Moore's own intentions. Moore was providing texts to what he described as ‘our national music’, and those texts must in Moore's view reflect an unmistakable intimation of dispossession and loss in the music itself. Moore himself was by 1841 in no doubt that, of everything he had written, the Irish melodies would be ‘the only work of my pen, as I very sincerely believe, whose fame (thanks to the sweet music in which it is embalmed) may boast a chance of prolonging its existence to a day much beyond our own’ (Letters). Moore became involved with private theatricals in Kilkenny, and in the festival there sang from the Irish melodies and gave the first performance, in October 1810, of his Melologue upon national music. It was at Kilkenny that he met Elizabeth (Bessy) Dyke, whom he married in London on 25 March 1811. He was almost sixteen years her senior. The couple would have five children.

1811–24 Moore's return to England after an interval of four years, during which he had frequently been the object of harsh criticism and ridicule in the Irish and tory press, marked a new beginning. In September his play with music, ‘M.P., or The blue stocking’, was a modest success at the Lyceum, although he did not enjoy the experience of writing for the theatre. The songs, however, were separately published by Power, who also issued further numbers of the Irish melodies and the Melologue. After a hostile correspondence Moore met Byron for the first time, and the two became immediate and lifelong friends; Byron (then twenty-three and little known) referred to the older man as ‘my father confessor’. Moore was a frequent guest at Holland House in London, a stronghold of whig opinion and influence, and he was also on good terms with the prince regent (afterwards George IV), who dismayed Moore (among so many others) when he retained the tory cabinet and anti-catholic position of his father.

Lord Moira's allegiance to the regent put an end to Moore's hopes of political preferment. He wrote a brilliant satire ridiculing the regent's change of political stance, which he issued anonymously: its success prompted Moore to contribute satires to the Morning Chronicle, and later (in 1814) he wrote criticism for the Edinburgh Review; some of the satirical pieces were collected and published as Intercepted letters, or The two-penny post-bag (1813). He also briefly considered writing a dictionary of music, partly because ‘being a kind of mixed work between literature and music, it would be a good thing to begin with’ (Letters). His position as a controversial, witty, and often savage critic of the British establishment was confirmed, even as the romantic lyricism of the Melodies seemed to contradict his reputation for ebullient satire. More than one biographer has remarked that it is surprising that Moore was not imprisoned (as was his friend Leigh Hunt) for such productions.

The fifth number of the Melodies (including ‘’Tis the last rose of summer’ and ‘The minstrel boy’) appeared in 1813, with a prefatory note stating that the series was nearing its end. In 1814 Moore made an agreement whereby the publisher Longman would pay him £3,000 for Lalla Rookh – an astonishingly high sum. Moore's daughter Olivia, born in 1814, died in the spring of 1815, and from May until October of that year Moore was in Ireland with his family. He published the first volume of his Sacred songs in 1816, with airs by Stevenson, Haydn, Beethoven, Avison, Mozart, Martini, and Moore himself. In May 1817 Longman published Lalla Rookh, a sequence of four long poems interspersed with songs. The first edition was sold out in a fortnight, and the work was reprinted six times within the year. Lalla Rookh consolidated Moore's position as a romantic writer equal in standing to Byron and Shelley (if not Wordsworth), and its international reputation was further enhanced by the enthusiastic reception it enjoyed in continental Europe, above all in Germany. It was translated into German, French, Italian, Polish, Russian, and Persian, and excerpts from the work were set by Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz, and many other composers. Lalla Rookh can be regarded as a crowning example of orientalism, but contemporary reviewers did not miss its allegorical relevance to Ireland, especially in regard to those themes of rebellion and betrayal which dominate much of the verse. The English novel and the domestic landscapes of Wordsworth's poetry would overtake Moore later in the nineteenth century, but the work itself relates literature in English to those preoccupations with the East which characterise the German romanticism of Goethe and Schiller.

In 1818 James Power published the first number of Moore's National airs (with a separate edition, published by his litigious brother William, in Dublin). It is possible that some of these melodies may have been composed by Moore: their provenance is uncertain, other than that Moore identified them as being Indian, Portuguese, Russian, Scotch, Venetian, Italian, and Spanish. In April of that year Longman published The Fudge family in Paris, a scathing epistolary satire on tory politics in verse that features an Anglo-Irish family of empty-headed tourists and opportunists, which received mixed reviews in the English press but which was an enormous success nevertheless. Five further volumes followed. By now, Moore and his family were settled in Sloperton cottage (near the town of Devizes, in Wiltshire). On receiving news that his deputy in Bermuda had absconded with £6,000, Moore was summoned to appear before the lords of appeal in the admiralty court on 2 July 1819. Although he received several offers of financial help, Moore resolved to settle his debts abroad, and on 24 August embarked for France. He travelled through Switzerland and Italy, and met Byron in Venice. It was to be their last meeting, and Byron gave him a manuscript of his memoirs. By November he was back in Paris and, with no hope of the Bermuda debt being settled in his favour, arranged for his family to join him there. They settled in Paris and spent the summer of 1820 in a cottage near Sèvres, where Moore continued to work on his Irish melodies, the eighth volume of which appeared in December 1820 in two simultaneous editions: the London edition had symphonies and accompaniments by Sir Henry Bishop, whereas the Dublin edition had similar material by Stevenson. In 1821 he supervised the publication of a volume containing the words to all the melodies thus far published, but in the preface deplored that the verses should appear without the music: words and airs should be kept ‘quietly and indissolubly together’ (preface to Melodies (1821 ed.)).

In November 1821 Moore returned to England in order to reach a compromise settlement of his debt, but it was not until the following September that he was given word that it had been cleared, and the family stayed in Paris until November 1822. In December Moore published The love of the angels, a poem of some 2,000 lines which comprises three tales, each told by an angel who has lost his place in heaven by loving a mortal woman. This meditation on ‘the fall of the soul’ has been described as ‘Moore's greatest tribute to womankind’ (Jordan), but its infringements on religious orthodoxy were so widely criticised that in later editions the angels became Turks and ‘God’ became ‘Allah’.

Late fiction, biography and memoirs The memoirs of Captain Rock appeared in 1824. It was Moore's most sustained consideration of Ireland's subjugation to date (‘in Ireland to be a catholic was to be an outcast from the commonest privileges of humanity’) and was predictably received and rejected on that account. In May of that year Moore, having lost legal control of Lord Byron's memoirs, witnessed the burning of the sole extant manuscript, which had by then passed into other hands. Coming within weeks of Byron's death (in April), this episode resolved Moore to write a biography of the poet. His biography of another friend, Memoirs of the life of the Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan, was published in September 1825, and Francis Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review acclaimed it as ‘the best historical notice yet published of the events of our time’. Between 1826 and 1830 he was much preoccupied with gathering materials for his work on Byron (and painfully inducing or circumventing controversy in the process). He published a collection of songs, Evenings in Greece, in 1826, and a novel, The epicurean, in 1827.

Of all his prose works, the Letters and journals of Lord Byron, with notices of his life (1830) excited the greatest diversity of critical opinion. Macaulay's frequently cited review (Edinburgh Review, 1831), in which he remarked that Moore ‘has contrived to exhibit so much of the character and opinions of his friend, with so little pain to the feelings of the living’, best characterises Moore's adroit and sensitive approach to a notably controversial subject. Controversy abided, however, not least on the publication of The life and death of Lord Edward Fitzgerald (1831), in which Moore returned to his favourite theme of rebellion induced by cruelty and repressive government. Moore did not repine, however, and pressed on with research for his massive History of Ireland, which appeared in four volumes between 1835 and 1846. The work was not a success, and Moore himself adopted a characteristically self-critical attitude to its scholarly failings, many of which stemmed from his inability to read documentary sources in Irish. Moore prepared a ten-volume edition of his Poetical works (with newly written autobiographical prefaces attached to each volume) in 1841.

Death and posthumous reputation Moore's last years were marred by illness, depression, and tragedy. All five of his children predeceased him. In 1849 he lapsed into senility from which he did not recover, and he died 25 February 1852 at Sloperton.

Moore's posthumous reputation as a Georgian sentimentalist, which endures to the present day, has almost wholly eclipsed the true nature of his achievement in music and letters, to say nothing of his fame as a political satirist and his monumental undertakings in biography, poetry, fiction, and history. He was among the most widely noticed and famous writers of the romantic generation not only in Britain and Ireland, but throughout Europe and the United States, and his published work was formative in many spheres of public opinion (notably Ireland, the catholic question, and slavery). His Irish melodies defined the reception of music in Ireland for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, specifically with regard to the politicisation of folk music which Moore himself helped to encourage, and they consolidated the notion that art music in Ireland should function exclusively as a vital but dependent intelligencer of verbal meaning.

The 'Discovering Thomas Moore: Ireland in nineteenth-century Europe' lecture season runs throughout October and November, accompanied by a new exhibition at the Royal Irish Academy Library, in collaboration with Queen’s University Belfast.

Sources: V. Ní Chinnéide, ‘The sources of Moore's melodies’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, lxxxix/2 (1959), 109–54; W. S. Dowden (ed.), The letters of Thomas Moore (1964); E. MacWhite, ‘Thomas Moore and Poland’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, lxxii C (1972), 49–62; H. H. Jordan, Bolt upright: the life of Thomas Moore (1975); T. Tessier, La poésie lyrique de Thomas Moore, 1779–1852 (1976); S. Deane, ‘Thomas Moore’, in Deane (ed.), The Field day anthology of Irish literature (1991), i, 1053–6; H. White, The keeper's recital: music and cultural history in Ireland, 1770–1970 (1998)

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