The Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779-1852) gave popular music a strong flavor of his native country with his Irish Melodies, lyric poems of love and nostalgia that he set to traditional Irish tunes or new music he had composed himself.
In his own time, Moore was considered a major figure in the literature of the British Isles, comparable in stature to such poets as Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, both of whom he numbered among his friends. His output ranged from epic poetry to satire, and he was an energetic writer of prose who authored the first major biographies of several important figures of nineteenth-century literature and politics. But it is the Irish Melodies, which appeared between 1807 and 1835, for which Moore remains best known today. They include such evergreen melodies as “The Last Rose of Summer,” “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms,” and “The Minstrel Boy.”
Published Poems at 14
Thomas Moore was born on May 28, 1779, in Dublin. His background might be called lower middle class today; his father, John Moore, was a shoemaker and grocer and later the manager of an army barracks. His mother, Anastasia Codd Moore, had a strong interest in the arts, and young Thomas was placed in Dublin's top private schools, including (from 1786) the English Grammar School, considered the best in the city, and later Dr. Carr's Latin School, which prepared him for a university education. He was a top-notch student who had his first poems published in the Dublin magazine Anthologia Hibernica in 1793 when he as just 14. He also appeared in stage plays; he was always an enthusiastic performer and would later help popularize many of the Irish Melodies himself by singing them in concert.
Despite his academic accomplishments, Moore faced discrimination as a Catholic in a British and Protestantcontrolled Ireland. His application at Trinity College ranked high among those of incoming students, but he was ineligible to receive a scholarship for which he otherwise would have qualified, and his father had to pay his tuition. At Trinity, Moore became friends with two other Irish students, Robert Emmett and Edward Hudson, who became leaders in a 1798 rebellion against English rule. Moore, who had written an anonymous pamphlet in support of the rebel cause, was questioned by British officers and described his own activities but did not name those of his friends. He was allowed to remain at Trinity.
Moore's collegiate career was nevertheless successful in spite of these upheavals. He received a bachelor's degree in 1799, by which time he had already begun his translation of the Odes of the ancient Greek poet Anacreon. His translation was published in 1800 and sold well. Moore worked on a law degree in London, but abandoned it and never practiced law. He settled on a career as a writer but rejected the title of Irish Poet Laureate, arranged for him by an influential friend, because he felt it would cramp his ability to express controversial political ideas. Instead, in 1803, Moore took a British government post as Registrar of the Admiralty Prize-Court for the colony of Bermuda. He sailed for the New World in the fall of 1803, arriving in 1804 via Norfolk, Virginia. On this trip Moore toured the United States and Canada, leaving a deputy in charge in Bermuda. He was impressed by Niagara Falls but disliked the New World and its egalitarian atmosphere; the young United States would be a prime target of his satirical writings in years to come.
In 1801 Moore published some of his youthful poems in a volume called The Poetical Works of Thomas Little Jr., the pseudonym probably referring to his short stature—he stood only slightly over five feet tall. In 1806 Moore published a second book, Epistles, Odes, and Other Poems. Both books contained romantic passages that by the standards of the time were considered risqué. They succeeded in spreading his name in the literary world but attracted some negative reviews. The worst came from Francis Jeffrey, the editor of the Edinburgh Review. Moore challenged Jeffrey to a duel that became famous for its incomplete status; police were called to break it up before it could begin, and when it was revealed that Jeffrey's gun had been unloaded the whole time, Moore became the subject of ridicule.
Published Irish Melodies
Moore bounced back in 1807 with the first volume of the Irish Melodies, originally written at the suggestion of the publishers James and William Power. Folk song collections like Moore's were not uncommon at the time; even the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven published several collections of folk songs from the British Isles. Moore's Irish Melodies were also prefigured by the folk song collecting activities of Sir Walter Scott in Scotland, but Moore, who was assisted in the musical arrangements of the songs by his friend Sir John Stevenson, outstripped his predecessors commercially. The songs were immediately successful in Ireland, and then in England; over the first half of the nineteenth century they spread across Europe and were translated into many languages. In the United States, Moore's Irish Melodies inspired a whole tradition of Irish-flavored melodies running through the works of Stephen Foster (whose “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” strongly resembles Moore's compositions) and beyond.
Moore's 124 melodies contained 40 about love, 30 about Ireland, 15 about wine and friendship, 20 on miscellaneous life topics, 10 on people and events of the times, 6 about nature, and 6 on autobiographical topics (some of which overlapped with other categories). In years to come they would give Moore the general distinction of being the “Poet of the People of Ireland,” with such lyrics as “'Tis the last rose of summer / Left blooming alone / All her lovely companions / Are faded and gone.” Unlike the works of Scottish poet Robert Burns, Moore's Irish music was adapted for English and assimilated Irish consumption; he did not use the Gaelic language or heavy Irish dialect in his texts. With his financial status assured, Moore married actress Elizabeth (Bessy) Dyke in 1811. For the rest of his life he lived in England, not Ireland. The pair had five children whom they raised Protestant, and in later years Moore would be criticized by hardcore Irish nationalists as insufficiently devoted to the cause.
However, Moore worked to embed messages supportive of the Irish cause in some of his writings. Chief among these was the long poem Lalla Rookh, published in 1817 and acquired from Moore by the publisher Longmans for $15,000, the highest price ever paid for a poem up to that time. The poem consists of four shorter tales set in the Middle East and centering on a military struggle between Persians and their Arab rulers. The poem was hailed by British travelers for its realistic depictions of life in the Middle East, but for Irish readers it carried overtones of Ireland's long struggle against Great Britain. Despite the profits from Lalla Rookh, Moore suffered a financial setback when it came to light that his deputy in Bermuda had embezzled and absconded with $30,000, for which Moore was held responsible. Rather than allow friends to help, Moore fled England and spent three years in Paris.
In 1813 Moore published the first in a series of satirical books, Intercepted Letters, or, The Twopenny Post Bag. He followed that up with tales of the perambulations of a fictitious Fudge Family that allowed him to focus on whatever targets he chose at a given time. An example was 1818's The Fudge Family in Paris. Moore used the pseudonym Thomas Brown the Younger for these books, but the real identity of the author was no secret. The Fudge Family books presume a body of topical knowledge that few readers have today, but they were quite successful in their own time and enabled Moore and his family to move to an old country house called Sloperton Cottage in the Wiltshire region. He continued to issue satirical works such as Odes upon Cash, Corn, Catholics, and Other Matters (1828).
Moore took up the cause of Irish peasants directly in 1824 with a prose story called Memoirs of Captain Rock, a satirical work in which he created a Robin Hood-like Irish folk hero who takes the side of peasants against their landlord. Another Moore work identified with his Irish sympathies was The Life and Death of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, a biography of one of the leaders of the 1798 revolt of the United Irishmen. Moore continued to write new Irish Melodies and also began new musical collections of National Airs and Sacred Songs. In 1827 he produced a novel, The Epicurean, which was set in third-century Egypt and in which he attempted to justify his own unorthodox approach to Christianity. He reflected on his own Catholic faith in his 1833 book Travels of an Irish Gentlemen in Search of a Religion.
Penned Biography of Byron
In addition to the Fitzgerald work he wrote a biography of the 18th-century comic playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Life of Sheridan, 1825), and, in 1830, Life of Byron, about the British poet George Gordon, Lord Byron. Moore was uniquely situated to write a biography of Byron because he had been in possession of the poet's letters, but he is thought to have burned those letters because of their controversial content. Moore is considered one of England's greatest literary biographers.
In later life, Moore worked on a giant History of Ireland that remained unfinished at his death. In 1841 he issued a collection of his own works in ten volumes, writing an autobiographical preface to each volume. He outlived all five of his children, several of whom died young; his son Thomas lived a dissolute life and died in Africa in 1845. Moore himself did not see Ireland after 1838. In 1846 Moore's health began to decline, and he suffered from senile dementia, which began very suddenly, during the last three years of his life. He died at Sloperton Cottage on February 25, 1852. New editions of the Irish Melodies continued to appear throughout the nineteenth century, and they were translated into languages as distant as Hungarian, Polish, and Russian. In the words of The Contemplator Web site, “Thomas Moore's work popularized Irish music throughout the world.”
Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians, centennial ed., edited by Nicolas Slonimsky, Schirmer, 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 144, Gale, 1994.
Jones, Howard Mumford, The Harp That Once—A Chronicle of the Life of Thomas Moore, Holt, 1937.
Strong, L.A.G., The Minstrel Boy: A Portrait of Tom Moore, Knopf, 1937.
White, Terence de Vere, Tom Moore The Irish Poet, Hamilton, 1977.
“The Contemplator's Short History of Thomas Moore,” The Contemplator, http://www.contemplator.com/history/tmoore.html (February 8. 2008).
“Thomas Moore (1779-1852),” Books and Writers, http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/tmoore.htm (February 8, 2008).
“Thomas Moore: 1779-1852,” http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/∼matsuoka/Moore.html (February 8, 2008).
Moore, Thomas, famous Irish poet, ballad singer, and song composer; b. Dublin, May 28, 1779; d. Sloperton Cottage, near Devizes, Wiltshire, Feb. 25, 1852. He had no regular musical training, but learned to play the piano with the aid of the organist William Warren. He was in London from 1799 to 1803, and then received a position as a government functionary in Bermuda. However, he stayed there only a few months, returning to London by way of the U.S. and Canada. In London he became extremely popular as a ballad singer in the houses of the aristocracy. Between 1808 and 1834 he publ. A Selection of Irish Melodies, with music by John Stevenson. In 1817 he issued his celebrated poem Laila Rookh. An ardent Irish nationalist, Moore played an important role in the creation and revival of Irish poetry and music. Among his own melodies are Love thee, dearest, When midst the gay, One dear smile, and The Canadian Boat-Song. He freely borrowed his musical materials from popular Irish tunes and in some cases modified them sufficiently to produce apparently new songs. He also composed short concerted vocal pieces, the terzetto O lady fair and the 3-part glee The Watchman winning wide popularity. In 1895 Stanford publ. The Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore: The Original Airs Restored.
S. Gwynn, T M. (London, 1905); W. Trench, T M. (Dublin, 1934); J. Flannery, T M.: Minstrel of Ireland (Pinellas Park, Fla., 1991).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis Mclntire