(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Thomas Moore 1779-1852

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms of Thomas Little, Esq. and Thomas Brown the Younger) Irish poet, lyricist, satirist, biographer, novelist, translator, historian, and playwright.

The following entry presents criticism on Moore from 1937 through 1994. For further discussion of Moore's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 6.

One of the most popular writers in London during his lifetime, Irish-born Thomas Moore achieved great popularity for his poignant lyrics in The Irish Melodies (1808-34) and his exotic epic poem Lalla Rookh (1817). Even though he spent the majority of his time in England, Moore considered himself to be Ireland's first national writer, devoting himself to the Irish national cause and speaking out on behalf of his native land's emerging Catholic community. Although modern critics have relegated Moore's name to the list of minor English romantic writers, his poetry was generally held in high regard by fellow poets, and he is credited with influencing Lord Byron, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Biographical Information

Moore was born in Dublin on May 28, 1779, the first-born of Roman Catholic parents John Moore and Anastasia Codd Moore. As a child Moore exhibited a lively propensity for music and singing, as well as writing and reciting poetry. He was sent to the private Classical English School when he was five, and two years later was enrolled at the English Grammar School, considered Dublin's best, where he was schooled in Latin and Greek and became fluent in French and Italian. By age fourteen he had had one of his poems published in a new literary magazine called the Anthologia Hibernica (“Irish Anthology”), and by 1794 he had entered Dublin's Trinity College, where he began printing nationalistic articles in the Press. Two of his friends during this time were part of a group of revolutionaries known as the United Irishmen, which organized the Irishmen Rebellion of 1798. Moore's friend Robert Emmet was wounded during the failed rebellion (he was hanged in 1803 for his part in another outbreak) and became the subject of some of Moore's most highly-acclaimed lyrics. Moore himself was interrogated by British officers about the rebellion, but refused to testify against any of his acquaintances. The episode greatly influenced Moore, who often treated the struggle for Irish nationalism in his subsequent writings. In 1799 Moore received his B.A. degree and in the spring moved to London—his first trip away from Ireland. Although he ostensibly went to prepare to enter the Middle Temple Bar, he spent the majority of his time translating the Odes of Anacreon, which was published the following year to such widespread acclaim that Lord Byron christened him “Anacreon Moore.”

In the meantime Moore had returned to Dublin, though he would occasionally visit London, where he would meet influential people in part through his writings, but also because of musical and theatrical appearances. Already he exhibited a partiality for aristocratic company and the companionship of well-mannered ladies and gentlemen, a preference which would continue for the remainder of his life. While known as affable, Moore was also viewed as ingratiating, and seen as fawning over his acquaintances. Indeed, detractors saw him as servile and disapproved of him for apparently deferring to any opinion which the influential classes wished to make popular. London society embraced him even further with the publication of the sentimental verse in The Poetical Works of the Late Thomas Little, Esq. (1801). Two years later he was appointed Registrar of the Admirality in Bermuda by his noble patron, the Earl of Moira. Later, leaving his post in the charge of his deputy, Moore made his first trip to the United States and Canada. In 1806 he published the sentimental and oftentimes naughty selections in Epistles, Odes, and Other Poems. Francis Jeffrey, the powerful editor of the Edinburgh Review, so lambasted the volume for its immorality and licentiousness that Moore challenged him to a duel, though the altercation was eventually stopped by police, and the two men later became friends. The sensual imagery and frankly amorous themes of some of the poems, though, truly established Moore as an author of popular love-poems.

The Irish Melodies, published in ten volumes between 1808 and 1834, formed the cornerstone of Moore's career. He had been approached by publishers to write the words to traditional Irish folk tunes that had been collected a few years earlier. Sir John Stevenson was to arrange the songs. As lyricist, Moore was an almost perfect fit. With his Irish patriotism, his desire to promote the cause of Ireland, and his musical ear, Moore created a literal hit. As part of his contract, Moore had to sing selections from the Melodies at numerous private gatherings, which led to his being nicknamed “Melody Moore.” It is ironic that in the midst of the tremendous success of The Irish Melodies and his being hailed as the “Bard of Ireland,” Moore had been married in London (in 1811) and had made a permanent home for himself and his family in England.

Moore next devoted himself to exhaustive research for his oriental poem Lalla Rookh (1817). Encouraged by England's early nineteenth-century intense interest in the East, Moore intended to achieve a milestone in the oriental tale genre. Poring over such eastern source materials as histories, translations from oriental literature, travel literature, and scholarly readings, Moore produced the heavily-annotated exotic verse tale Lalla Rookh, which achieved instant and widespread success. The following year he turned to satire in the highly successful Fudge Family in Paris (1818). A series of letters from an English family on vacation in Paris to characters back in England, The Fudge Family pokes fun at Continental policies and economics. Almost twenty years later Moore followed with The Fudge Family in England (1835), a poorly received volume that critics claimed did not compare with the original. After a tour of the impoverished south of Ireland in 1823, Moore's Irish nationalistic consciousness was heightened, and he turned again to Irish patriotism, publishing Memoirs of Captain Rock (1824), whose title character is an Irish Robin Hood figure, and detailing his country's past in the massive four-volume History of Ireland (1835-46).

By 1818 Moore, having paid little notice to his bureaucratic post in Bermuda, was faced with financial troubles when it was revealed that his deputy had embezzled about six thousand pounds of government money. Moore, accountable for the money, could not repay it at once, so, upon the advice of friends, he left for France, remaining there until 1822, when the debt was finally repaid. The following year he published the irreverent poem Loves of the Angels, about the adoration of three heavenly beings for three mortal women. Thereafter, he turned his talents increasingly toward prose, publishing the biographies Memoirs of the Life of the Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1825) and the celebrated, two-volume Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, with Notices of His Life (1830-31), which reveal Moore to be a fair and perceptive observer of his subjects. By this time, Moore was under contract to complete the enormous History of Ireland. Exhausted from the task and worn out from personal sorrows (all five of his children had predeceased him), he fell into senile dementia in 1849 and died in 1852.

Major Works

Moore was at his best either when he was penning sharp satires that treated contemporary social subjects, or, conversely, when he was writing light, sentimental poetry, which critics have praised for its rapturous diction and precise rhythms. It is this latter style for which he is most remembered. The sentimental and tuneful lyrics in the beloved Irish Melodies exhibit Moore's technical mastery in selecting words that enhance melody and rhythm, with such songs as “At the Mid-Hour of Night” and “'Tis the Last Rose of Summer” describing love, loss, and Irish mythology. For the immensely successful Lalla Rookh, Moore envisioned an exotic, Eastern setting for a romance involving the title character, the young princess of Delhi, who journeys to meet her intended, the king of Bucharia. To entertain her as she travels, the young king sends along a poet, Feramorz, who recites four tales to her and in time wins her affection. However, in the end Feramorz reveals himself to be the young king himself.

Another dreamy romance set in the Orient is The Loves of the Angels, a much criticized poem considered blasphemous by religious and conservative leaders. Based on the biblical tale in which the sons of Gods (his angels) are alleged to have fallen in love with the daughters of men, The Loves of the Angels so incensed the public that Moore, worried about charges that he was a heretic, revised the work for its fifth edition, changing the setting to Islam in order to shift the focus away from Christianity. Moore's only novel, the unsuccessful The Epicurean (1827), is also based on Eastern materials, turning on the Christian pilgrimage and redemption of Alciphron, a young Greek leader in Athens. By far Moore's biggest success in prose is his Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, a carefully and thoroughly researched work that remained the standard volume on Byron's life well into the twentieth century. Byron, long Moore's beloved friend, had entrusted Moore with his manuscript memoirs at the pair's last meeting, with the understanding that Moore was to publish them after his friend's death. After a miserable disagreement among Byron's relatives and friends, the manuscript was burned. The Letters and Journals of Lord Byron is made up of the poet's remaining letters and journal extracts, all edited by Moore.

Critical Reception

With comparisons of his style to that of Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Robert Southey, and Robert Burns, Moore was perhaps overrated during his lifetime; at one point he was even regarded as the supreme poet of his day. The praise, though, was often countered by complaints that his style was superficial and excessively ornate. This is borne out in many contemporary reviews of Lalla Rookh, which emphasize the fact that its sensual imagery is dazzling and excessive at the expense of a captivating storyline. Other early critics found fault with what they considered to be a misrepresentation of the East: a portrayal of a glorious, exotic, lush landscape without any mention of the “dirt and every disgusting impurity,” as reported in the British Review of 1817. Moore's reputation remained high for about a half century following his death, after which he fell out of favor among critics, who viewed him as a minor writer at best. The field of Moore criticism lay fallow until the late 1930s, when two major studies reintroduced the poet as a subject for serious critical debate. At that time interest grew in Moore's use of the Orient as a setting, with critic Wallace Cable Brown examining the poet's intense study of Eastern source materials. By the 1950s Moore's strength as a light satirist began to attract critical attention, and by the late twentieth century, Moore studies had expanded to include exploring his influence—both positive and negative—on contemporary writers, including Keats, Byron, and Thomas Love Peacock. Another strong vein of contemporary criticism has revolved around Moore's writings as the product of a colonized nation. Mohammed Sharafuddin, for example, in his lengthy and in-depth 1994 study of Moore, has argued that the poet used the oriental setting of Lalla Rookh to surreptitiously deal with issues involving Irish independence and religious freedom. Other critics, including Leith Davis, have looked at the differing ways The Irish Melodies has been received in both Ireland and England, while scholars like Frank Molloy have investigated how Moore's patriotism and heroic idealism influenced nineteenth-century Irish migrants and their descendants in the colonial society of Australia.