Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1646
Few men of letters have been able to write on Thomas Moore without disparaging the financial and social success of his life or the great mass of his work, mostly verse, from which so little of any worth is still remembered except Irish Melodies. The quantity of his work and the ready charm that contributed to his success in London society are largely attributable to the fact that Moore, like many other aspirants from the provinces, had to get on as best he could. Starvation in a garret may be the mark of genius but only posterity can decide between the respective merits of Thomas Chatterton and William Blake. Moore took no chances; he stuck by the Whigs, forswore his early Republicanism, and modulated his Irishness into its most acceptable form in the London drawing room, the real source of political power and hence patronage in Regency England. He also sang Irish songs, thereby gaining practically the only claim he has on the memory and affections of later times. The rest of his work fills up that yawning gulf of trivia that kept the London publishers prosperous, their readers contented, the popular authors wealthy, and the best of contemporary English writers—among them Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Blake—out of sight.
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However, Moore was in his way a pioneer. He always claimed to have originated modern Irish poetry, enjoying a personal application of the song that takes its title from the opening words:
Dear Harp of my Country! in darkness I found thee,The cold chain of silence hung o’er thee long,When proudly, my own Island Harp! I unbound thee,And gave all thy chords to light, freedom and song!
In the rest of the lyric Moore sums up his subjects—death, love, mirth, and patriotism—and specifies his technique as being “wild sweetness.” The revolutionary effect of this combination in London when he began the composition of Irish Melodies in 1806 (seven years after his arrival there from Dublin) was more noticeable because of the stolidity of both the serious and the popular light verse of the time, to both of which Moore had contributed enough to acquire a lucrative government post in the Bermudas. He left London in 1803 to take up the post, but he soon returned and set to work on his Irish Melodies, exile from London having apparently sharpened his love for Ireland. This new style of drawing-room entertainment, which Moore, being an accomplished musician, often provided in person, was soon earning him five hundred pounds a year. The lyric was restored to popularity in English literature not by William Wordsworth’s and Samuel Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads(1798), by Robert Burns, or by Blake, all of whom preceded him, but by Moore’s Irish Melodies.
Moore gave a sample of his ability to write lyrics to folk tunes in the “Canadian Boat Song” of his feebly satirical Poems Relating to America (1806); he heard his “voyageurs” sing the song as they rowed down the St. Lawrence from Kingston to Montreal. Both words and music, of Irish Melodies, were published in ten parts between 1807 and 1834, with editions of the words alone appearing from 1820 on. Time established the concert repertoire selected from the songs: “The Harp That Once Thro’ Tara’s Halls,” “Believe Me if All Those Endearing Young Charms,” “She Is Far from the Land,” “’Tis the Last Rose of Summer,” “The Minstrel Boy,” and “Sweet Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well,” to which may be added the “Canadian Boat Song” and two later songs, the “Vesper Hymn” and “Oft in the Stilly Night” from National Airs (1820), lyrics and arrangements of folk songs from most European countries.
Only one of the lyrics remained in the repertory as a poem apart from its setting. “The Time I’ve Lost in Wooing” shows Moore’s abilities to advantage: The rhymes are feminine in the longer lines and in triples (wooing . . . pursuing . . . undoing); the shorter lines (none is long) end in masculine rhyme; the alternations give a pleasing variation to the run of the poem, and the poem in three stanzas reaches a witty conclusion that echoes the Caroline poets. In the conflict between Wisdom and Beauty the poet’s time has been wasted in pursuit of the latter; he knows this but still cannot cease his pursuit: “Poor Wisdom’s chance/ Against a glance/ Is now as weak as ever.” Of the language of the lyrics, English poet and man of letters Edmund Gosse observed that “words of a commonplace character are so strung together as to form poetry easily grasped and enjoyed by the ear.” The secret of Moore’s original and continuing popularity lies in his having provided acceptable poetry for the ear, not for the eye. Because the gift so enjoyed by Elizabethans has become lost, it is little wonder that later audiences needed to be assisted by folk tunes.
In the collected editions of Moore’s works, the Irish Melodies number 125, beginning with “Go Where Glory Waits Thee” and ending with “Silence Is in Our Festal Halls,” Moore’s elegy for Sir John Stevenson, who wrote the arrangements for the parts. Most of the parts as they were issued contained Moore’s dedications to his patrons as well as advertisements from his publisher, Power, to the general public, in which it was insisted that there were plenty more “airs” in the treasury of Irish folk song for future parts. A certain amount of national feeling is evident in both advertisements and dedications, especially in that to the first part, which includes a letter from Moore referring to the Irish reputation for song as “the only talent for which our English neighbors ever deigned to allow us any credit.” A more important preface is that to the third part. As well as dealing with the age of Irish songs, their resemblance to Scottish song, and the harmonic peculiarities of Irish music, Moore refers to three aspects that in their way sum up much of the melodies: their national feeling, their peculiar mixture of defiance and despondency, and their being not poems but lyrics to songs.
On the last point, he begs exemption from “the rigors of literary criticism” because he can “answer for their sound with somewhat more confidence than for their sense.” This statement is admirable but makes it difficult to discuss the Irish Melodies as if they were poems. If Moore’s guiding principle was to make them singable, only a singer can argue in their behalf. Moreover, many a trite phrase and conventional rhyme can be excused on this ground. Moore’s other two remarks point to two obvious features in the lyrics. They often begin strongly and fade into resignation with a parting, death, the passage of time, or the decay of good customs. Where the poems reach a strong conclusion, they do so generally by appealing to the divine or to Ireland. The endings to two patriotic poems illustrate the difference: “Let Erin Remember the Days of Old” declines into “Thus, sighing, look through the waves of time/ For the long-faded glories they cover.” By contrast, “Sublime Was the Warning” challenges Irish national aspirations by appealing to the success of Spanish independence after the Napoleonic Wars and concludes with “The young spirit of Freedom shall shelter their grave/ Beneath shamrocks of Erin and olives of Spain.”
The Irish quality of the poems is most apparent in their subjects. Some are taken from Irish history, others contain references to Irish legends and customs, but the thread that runs through the volume is “Erin.” Much of the reference to Ireland is a prophecy of longed-for independence, a purely poetic exercise Moore’s contemporaries in London must have thought it, but history has realized Moore’s longing, and it would be an interesting point to settle how much his songs had to do with maintaining Irish nationalism during the struggles of the nineteenth century—such songs as “Erin, Oh Erin,” “Oh the Shamrock,” “Where Is the Slave?” and the better-known “Minstrel Boy” and “The Harp That Once Thro’ Tara’s Halls.” The most curious of these is “As Vanquished Erin,” which describes how the Fiend of Discord persists in sending “his shafts of desolation . . . through all her maddening nation.” When Erin asks the “Powers of Good” when this will end, the Demon answers, “Never.” This is possibly the most accurate statement Moore made about Ireland.
The phrase that sums up the quality of the lyrics in the Irish Melodies is Moore’s “wild sweetness,” an unusual and romantic combination of opposites, its Irishness, one may say. However, the sweetness of the verses is obtained by both a technical dexterity (Moore maintains, as he must, the rhythm of the melody in a variety of meters) and a neatness of phrasing that might be called Irish wit were it not that, except in a few light pieces of which “The Time I’ve Lost in Wooing” is the best, this gift is usually spent on general topics and does not show to advantage: “Love, nursed among pleasures, is faithless as they,/ But the love born of Sorrow, like Sorrow, is true.” Much of the wild note comes from the subjects of war, chains, and heroic death, and also from the ecstasy of the love poems, tinged as they generally are with sadness. Oddly enough it is probably the romantic combination Moore achieved that was responsible for the gradual disfavor into which the Irish Melodies fell about the turn of the century, though they are still referred to in James Joyce and Sean O’Casey. When the Gaelic Revival and the independence of Eire finally arrived, a more genuine folk song with real Irish lyrics seems to have lessened Moore’s popularity and reduced it to the proportions of the man himself, whom Sir Walter Scott once called “a little, very little man.”