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.
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...
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