AFTER TARA’S HARP: THE FORTUNES OF THOMAS MOORE AND IRISH IDENTITY TODAY.
Before there was W. B. Yeats as Ireland’s national poet and unofficial laureate, there was Thomas Moore (1779 -1852). The man, his influence and legacy, nonetheless remains something of a mystery and beyond the kind the mystery loving Yeats could have dreamed up. His story, well evoked in Linda Kelly’s Ireland’s Minstrel, still raises questions relevant to Ireland today.
Moore, the Dublin grocer’s son who hobnobbed with royalty and aristocrats, the poet who managed seriously to charm almost everyone he ever met (Disraeli declared no one’s conversation was more delightful) and being forgiven even by those he occasionally criticized or insulted from Jefferson to the Prince of Wales, was a phenomenon, but one now almost forgotten… Unless perhaps by Irish Americans. For them, Moore’s snapshots and mementos of Erin like The Meeting of the Waters and the tear and a smile yearning for the country have remained part of a specifically emigrant’s culture more than the legacy of the nationalist Yeats. The latter would be more influential in Europe.
The two never quite saw eye to eye, but as Catholic emancipationist Daniel “O’ Connell acknowledged, Moore fostered “patriotism” – a love of roots one could say, which is a bit different from full-bodied nationalism. Regardless, in the nineteenth century one and half million copies of sheet music for The Minstrel Boy alone was sold in America, and that speaks no uncertain success.
Moore hadn’t begun with patriotic poems and airs. These developed over years during some of which he had been involved with theatre (which is how he met his actress wife), coming to the fore around 1808. They had been assisted on the musical side by Irish composer John Stevenson who variously composed airs or arranged melodies Moore suggested could accompany his verses. To their advantage the verses began to see the light of day at a time when Irish music was being seriously discovered by Edward Bunting.
Prior to this and in the wake of his studies at Trinity Dublin in the late seveteen hundreds, Moore’s poetry had taken a more purely social direction which reached full expression in London where he went to study law. The Odes of Anacreon (translations and paraphrases of Anacreon) were published to great acclaim there in 1800 though this proved a bit of an embarrassment later in life as the more patriotic Irish Melodies conceded: “He was born for much more, and in happier hours/His soul might have burned with a holier flame/ But alas for his country…”
In some respects Moore was always hugely Irish, but not in a way commonly acknowledged either inside or outside of Ireland, namely in terms of a rather “rococo”, Marriage of Figaro type sensibility, the strain one may find so absent from the dourer Ulster to the point that zone can feel like a foreign country to further south. The Ireland that is neither sporting, horsey and hard drinking nor exactly pagan either is the more School of Scandal one that we glimpse in Boucher’s picture of Louise O’Murphy and hear in Moore’s own 1801 published The Poetical Works of the Late Thomas Little (Moore was a little man). This collection and In the wake of The Odes would confirm Moore lifelong in the sobriquet “Anacreon Moore”, the corruptor of good morals.
While that charge was almost certainly unjustified being based on a few exuberant exaggerations, it is undeniable Moore was broadminded. He forgave easily and overlooked things as in the case of Lord Byron whose loyal friend and ultimately biographer he was. (Beyond poetry, the later Moore became something of a pioneer in the art of biography – Byron, Sheridan, Lord Edward Fitzgerald). Given certain facts, Moore may have gone too far in overlooking the real edge of chaos and cruelty amid the bonhomie that Byron represented.
Until late in life when Moore laboured over a critical history of Ireland, arguably the same latitude was directed upon the many English connections and supporters Moore charmed in aristocratic society. He hoped to influence prominent people on Ireland’s behalf, but at least some of those he entertained would have been guilty, as Anglo-Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth realized, of funding extravagant parties by disappearing Irish forests. There is an irony in the fact that Moore’s chief society friend and patron was Lord Moira, who, though undeniably an opponent of the Britain/Ireland Act of Union, was no great friend to the Irish heritage. It was on his estate that back in 1781 Lady Moira had disrespectfully treated the precious find of the anciently buried Bog Queen who looms large in Seamus Heaney’s “North”.
Certain statements of Irish Republican founder Patrick Pearse about the virtues of hating and standing apart can grate today. They can sound anything from unchristian to fascist, but one maybe has to grasp the broader meaning of a poet’s rhetoric, namely that any meaningful defence of home and identity will require a few standoffs and refusals.
Even if she did fear being a financial burden upon friends, how could Sarah Cullen, the intended of United Irishman Robert Emmet, have married a British officer after Emmet’s execution? …It’s a bit like asking today how Jewish actor Miriam Margolyes could vote for anti-Semite Jeremy Corbyn and be a pro-Palestinian activist. The Irish like the Jews seem saddled with problem people with, in the case of the Irish, a genial to the point of ingratiating, universal friendliness possibly linked to some inferiority complex that feels it must endlessly give and comply. Something of the kind is behind the way the nation’s current political elite while defining Ireland past and present as almost wholly an Ireland of the welcomes, is selling the country down the river to please ruthless European policies (like organizing for massive immigration while Ireland suffers chronic homelessness problems).
One of the worst things colonialists do (according to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth) is to render the colonized almost grateful to be imposed upon by convincing them they possessed no prior culture. Moore’s Ireland of sweet places, memories and symbols, though better than nothing at all at a time when the Act of Union had virtually erased identity, was without notable complaint, or authority of historic culture, it’s little more than nostalgic tears.
The only throb she [Tara’s harp] gives
Is when some heart indignant breaks
To show that she exists
MOORE AND YEATS
Easy popularity and economic success apart, patriotic Moore and his later more deliberately nationalist successor, Yeats, nonetheless had a fair deal in common. Though Moore’s father had been a Gaelic speaking native from Kerry, both Dublin born poets were English speakers who knew no Irish, and both spent a lot of time travelling or living outside of Ireland in England, America, and continental Europe.
Yeats was born Protestant. Moore might as well have been so. Despite a purely political lifelong commitment to Catholic Emancipation and some belated reconciliation with Catholic theology in The Travels of an Irish Gentleman in search of a religion (1833), Moore was a virtual Protestant. Refusing to go to confession which he dismissed as an embarrassment, he married a Protestant and his children were raised Protestant. Moreover, like Yeats and as though admitting the impossibility of fully wooing any native muse, Moore finished up unexpectedly marrying not just a Protestant but an Englishwoman. (In both cases however their wives seem to have been commendably long suffering of their demanding spouses!). Both writers were born under the distinctly flexible sign of Gemini and in fact Moore’s natal pattern, of which presently, helps explain a few facts about him and we need all and any help we can get to manage that.
Even as a main pillar of the Romantic movement Moore is almost forgotten today but at one time, and despite his more eighteenth than nineteenth century style, he shared a place with Walter Scot and Byron (who praised him highly and admitted Moore’s influence on him). And Irish Melodies was an inspiration to such composers as Berlioz, Weber, Mendelssohn, Schumann, even Beethoven. Moore’s poetry constituted seriously bestselling material, causing Longmans of London to wager, sight unseen, the huge amount for the period of 3 thousand guineas upon the now almost unreadable Lalla Rookh orientalist epic. It was translated into most European languages, went through seven English editions in its first year and sold well for at least 30 years.
Nowadays most of us would probably agree with the British critic, William Hazlitt, that Moore “converts the wild harp of Erin into a musical snuff box” and even regretfully concede to Wordsworth that Moore wrote more “agreeable verse” than poetry as such; but no matter how we assess Moore under the effects of time and changed tastes, the questions still demanding answers are:
- how was such success achieved,
- how was it eclipsed and
- why was the influence, especially from any nationalist standpoint, so slight in the long term?
These questions deserve answers interesting in their own right, but they overlap with other almost more vital questions we can ask today like: what is the function of poetry, how does it work in different languages and is it relevant today, especially to Irish identity now that modern Irish poetry is largely remote from, (and often colourless for it) politics and identity issues.
Granted one would not expect most poets to be virtual bards, national/nationalist mouthpieces as such. At the same time, should they avoid this side of things to the extent especially Seamus Heaney so controversially did; and can and should poets presently remain silent in the face of very real new crises for Irish identity and culture that elements of the government are imposing?
The first question touches on the irrational quality of all life and may be best answered by what some would deem itself irrational, namely a quick look at Moore’s winner-takes-all birth pattern. It certainly helps that Moore can show us fortunate Jupiter conjunct his career and reputation Midheaven, itself fortunately trine Mercury, Moore’s ruling planet as a Gemini, and the natural planet of writing and writers. This alone would give Moore a head start among his peers while his role as specifically a poet for or about Ireland is well described by Neptune (itself conjunct Thomas in his house of career at 28 Virgo fortunately trine asteroid Ireland at 27 Capricorn). Neptune is almost more associated with music and composers than poets, so unsurprisingly the most famous verses were arranged for music. Moore’s own Poesia asteroid falls in his second house of goods and money, testimony to how he could so exceptionally make money from verse!
THE RISE OF MOORE
There was one area of life in which Moore was unfortunate and that was his children: his three daughters and two sons all died) and this is reflected by the close conjunction of Venus with wounded healer Chiron in the fifth of offspring; but though Moore undoubtedly did suffer in this area, such was not an uncommon misfortune for people of his time.
I had at first doubted the chart’s birth time because of the way it gives a strange cluster of Mars, along with moon and Saturn conjunct in the hidden twelfth house; but the 7 pm time it is telling us something. Overall the pattern must be registering because, incredibly, asteroid Anacreon is degree exact conjunct the Aquarian third house of writing. This bespeaks the originality and controversy around the writings of “Anacreon Moore” as he was often called. He rose to fame adapting the amoral Anacreon and the exercise gave him a style for his verse generally. Byron imitated both it and the witty amoralism which in Moore’s case probably often reflected exuberant playful exaggeration – though maybe not.
Sex sign Scorpio rises. And what are the Scorpio planets in Moore’s hidden twelfth doing? Politicians (for example Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump) often have Saturn or planets here as this connects them to the collective unconscious leaders need to pick up on, and Moore hopefully channelled some Irish feelings; but secret affairs, such as earlier in life some supposed of “Thomas Little” might be indicated. Usually, however, moon to Saturn is just depressing or cold with women, but it can reflect a smother mother and this Moore had. His mother was dominating and early made her son swear he must not be involved in uprisings against authority such as in his youth were happening.
Between the influence of his mother and the time at which Moore was emerging into the world (a time of enforced, false peace and anti- independence sentiment with an erasure of any Irish identity following the Act of Union in 1801), Moore can – largely – be exonerated of later charges he was not protesting and/or nationalistic enough on Ireland’s behalf.
Moore himself always regarded Irish freedom as being his real inspiration from the first. Even if true, there were limits to what he could actually know to protest and defend. The reality was that whenever he was in Ireland Moore lived in something of a bubble where the more desperate conditions of the people were not evident to him. Only later in his life did he witness some of severer realities and then he did begin protesting – but in prose as in Memoires of Captain Rock (1824) rather than verse.
Despite the fact that the future United Ireland Republican rebel Robert Emmet sometimes sat at piano with Moore when he played at airs he would later develop, Irish Melodies was originally only moderately political in inspiration, and only gradually came into being over years. The origins lay in response to Ulsterman Edward Bunting’s pioneering work (1796) on Ireland’s musical legacy to which Moore’s university friend Edward Hudson had introduced him..
THE DECLINE OF MOORE
How and why did Moore become quite so ignored and forgotten? As a poet Moore belongs to the Romantic movement, and despite a few enduring names like Wordsworth (whom Moore appreciated) and Shelley (who unlike Wordsworth appreciated Moore), the Romantic movement’s music has weathered better than its literature, especially poetic. Before Victorian realism, Dickens and Balzac took over, society had been enthusiastic readers of poetry which in epical bestselling works like Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan were precursors or substitutes for the novel. Because of its original orientalism supported by masses of informative notes, Moore could get away with Lalla Rookh during his lifetime and given an already established reputation, but he was at heart a lyricist who lacked skill with storytelling and the epic form. Once the novel was king Lalla would be left on the shelves; which leads to the question of the nationalist influence.
Compared with Lalla, the Irish Melodies were less easily set aside, especially by nostalgic emigrants, but within Ireland and in relation to post famine era problems and a rising nationalism they could only seem trivial against the more culture-heavy, psychologized and politicized work of Yeats. This poet took myth seriously and was supported by the likes of Lady Gregory who spoke Irish and had translated the Irish myths and histories.
Yeats though broadly speaking a Romantic, even a last of the Romantics, was most essentially a Symbolist and his work interacted not with the ubiquitously popular novel but the stage play. Ironically, the greatest influence that poetry might be said to have had for Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was through the influential, incendiary poetic prose of material like the play Cathleen ni Houlihan attributed to Yeats, though it seems it may have owed almost more to Lady Gregory.
THE FORTUNES OF POETRY, MOORE’S, NATIONAL AND OTHER
Avoca: The Meeting of the Waters
But I think this whole question of Moore’s slow but sure eclipse must be placed within the larger question of what is poetry and how it functions- which increasingly today is little enough even in Ireland.
At the time that Moore was starting out, though still hugely popular, poetry was becoming untethered from its original high status and was functioning ever less as any kind of special statement of anything. For some, and certainly for Byron, it was almost an alternative, almost doggerel means of commenting on or even messaging almost anything like confirming to Moore a visit to Leigh Hunt in prison. Message poetry could be tossed off while dressing for dinner …..“Tomorrow be with me, as soon as you can, sir/ All ready and dressed for proceeding to spunge on/ According to compact the wit in the dungeon….”
There are a variety of forms and functions poetry may assume in any age or clime, but its chief role was always somehow visionary or transcendent of the immediate, a reason the roles of poet and druid were linked in ancient Ireland and often regarded as prophetic.
The rhymed couplet has always been effective in English for social satire and Alexander Pope had done a masterful job with it in The Rape of the Lock. It was however so perfect something wilder and more irregular as under the Romantic movement was called for. Moore straddled eras and fashions. His Irish Melodies offered new and original themes but kept close to old forms. While individual poems like Breathe not his name on the death of Emmet and The Minstrel Boy are good poetry in their own right, a lot of Moore’s poetry exists to be sung. Unsung they risk sounding trivial…. or they could not help doing so once, by way of comparison, someone serious like Yeats appears on the scene at a time of turmoil. Serious national themes don’t fit well with doggerel or the jog trot of balladry.
IRISH IN ENGLISH AND HOW TO WRITE IRISH POETRY
But something more is involved here and its problem is still with us. The runaway success Moore and Byron enjoyed across continental Europe was much helped by the simplicity of translating them and their often bald statements.
This contrasts with quite a lot of unexpected mistiness in English language poetry which can be hard to convey. Even with a Norton’s Shakespeare to explain all words and references, even in English much of Shakespeare can seem remote, his language a musical “super tongue” as Camille Paglia has it. Anglo-Irish writing, Oscar Wilde’s especially, has by contrast a sharp clarity. Yeats as in some early works like the ponderous drama The Shadowy Waters which had Dublin audiences laughing, might be said to have substituted mistiness of theme or atmosphere for that of language and it didn’t work.
English is not rhyme rich after the manner of the European languages. One can’t be a Dante for producing rhyming variety with it, and failing that the effects can lapse into the predictable. The readers waits for the next clicking together of “me” to “see”, “you” to “too” and its inevitability can prevent absorbing the greater message for playing mental crossword puzzles. Milton was against rhyme and did not employ it in his most serious work. Auden, a superb poetic craftsman with a large and specialized vocabulary, can make rhyme serve his purposes (often ironic, playful or satirical), but it seems true to say we are liable to be more impressed and pay more attention when Auden elects not to rhyme as in ”Oh love, the interest itself in throughtless heaven…” Such stronger effects from a leading English poet prove Milton’s point. In English, at least If you have something important to say at any national or philosophical level, rhyme such as Moore regularly engaged is best limited or just dropped. Some of the powerful effect of Yeats’ rhetoric in The Tower collection is due to recourse to high style with moderate use of rhyme and the shock of a lot of direct bald statement.
This combination can reasonably be called Irish/Celtic but how much can and does even this literary stylistics quite reflect the people’s soul? I don’t hold it against Yeats or Moore (or other Celtic Twilight poets like AE) any more than myself that they didn’t have Gaelige to carry them further. But I think the lack must be taken into account and sometimes as a real limitation; and even without recommending classes for us, there are still as mentioned presently, a few things we might learn about the language that open upon the basis of Irish aesthetics and worldview.
SPENSER AND CULTURAL DESTRUCTION
I think it can fairly be said that among all poets and would-be moralists, Edmund Spenser, he of The Fairie Queen, holds a special place as being among the most hypocritical and even evil. An advocate for the Plantation of Ireland despite all the horrors he had seen stemming from it, he promoted the suppression of Irish language with the aim of imposing peace by ridding the people of their culture.
James Joyce whose Finnegan’s Wake is almost a revenge upon English, says of an Englishman (through Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist ) “his language so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech”. Unfortunately, loss of language is indeed a cultural destruction such as Spenser hoped for and that Joyce experienced along with a certain loss of soul. The latter is something only the structure and rhythms of language can reflect because language gives voice to native temperament or that un PC word “race”. But the latter is at least a part of the equation.
Moore implicitly believed in race when referring to the proximity of depression and levity in Irish character. It’s a distinctive and unusual trait and one that would be hard to duplicate through social training alone. Even Joyce assumes race (as in Portrait of the Artist): “I go to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”.
THE UNCREATED CONSCIENCE AND ITS IDIOMS
Which leads to the last question which is: long past the days of Moore and even Joyce, can any “uncreated conscience” now be formed, and formed apart from the native language and even poetry, which even in Gaelige since independence has produced some competent, interesting but hardly “bardic” and deeply soulful poetry?
It could actually be that by this time that music rather than literature would be more expressive of any “uncreated conscience”. Moore seduced many with his airs if not his messages; opera loving James Joyce would prefer to have been a singer, J.M Synge would prefer to have been a concert violinist. But if we keep to any idea of literature as the chief medium of expression though hampered through loss of Irish, the solution especially for those of us who don’t speak the language is at the very least to get acquainted with a few features of the language for their likely implications.
One thing immediately to note about Irish is its treatment of just the personal pronoun. Instead of I am, Je suis, Ich bin etc of European languages we have the inverted order Ta me (am me) and instead of I have, you have, he has etc, there is agam, agat, aige (at or to me, to him etc). It’s a feature which arguably belongs with the looser sense, (illustrated by certain tribal arrangements) of possession at the same time as we immediately rightly suspect that at another level (like the European languages and unlike English) the language is going to be distinctly inflected and conjugated and quite precise about relationships.
In some respects Irish is a very logical and precise language, even its alien and forbidding spelling system once got a handle on proves more consistent than the frequent anarchies of English spelling. Given the overall structural sense, a bit like Latin, unsurprisingly something like the directness of Latin and Ovid will be a feature of the poetry.
Given the pattern of elisions in Irish one could suspect that elision and transition of any kind (like Moore’s close neighboured depression and levity) would be a feature of the language. And in fact, modern Gaelic’s classic Cre na Cille was deemed virtually untranslatable into English on account of its many changes of register. In other words (no pun intended) in losing Irish there really are things the Irish cannot hope quite to illuminate and convey of their natural temperament.
IRELAND, EUROPE AND BLAKE
It has always been an enigma to me what is, but also isn’t, European about an Ireland which plainly isn’t very English despite using English language. Again it could be music might help clarify difference. European music is very directional, having for example little by way of the Irish reels against whose knot work and often spontaneous variations, most continental music is like a trellis around which melody can be twined while the trellis remains fully in view. What if anything am I sensing for any creative impulse and aesthetics?
Both Yeats and AE were strongly attracted to the work of William Blake, AE more to the art and Yeats to the poetry (which like so many people he got unnecessarily lost in trying to grasp its often opaque symbolism and idiosyncratic terminology).. The fact remains however that the non Celtic Blake accidentally supplies keys to the Irish aesthetic.
For Blake there was an absolute distinction between Grecian/Classic and Gothic which he regarded as distinctly Christian. “Grecian is Mathematical Form, Gothic is living form, Mathematic Form is eternal in the reasoning memory. Living Form is Eternal Existence”…. And with that we perhaps have the essential point for Irish music and much else.
Europe runs on the laws of Mathematics, Ireland on the laws of a fluid, organic Nature. For the Irish and perhaps many Celts, one does not come to the subject but like the figures looking out of the Book of Kells, one is already present within Nature like the figures in Blake’s forests or whirlwinds. The task is less to approach a subject than to exit from or stop the flow of what is already sounding, to capture and examine it. This is the reason, I would imagine that early Irish poets were involved in quasi Hinduistic patterns of learning and meditations in the dark.
I would say that the perennial Irish aesthetic which beside running waters and remembered sites Moore vaguely pointed to but didn’t quite grasp, is involved, like the poetry of Ovid and the music of late Richard Strauss, with the mystery of change and metamorphosis. And I doubt that better poetry than mine could quite capture, and almost certainly not in English, an example of what I register as one of the more distinctive phenomena of Ireland.
AE would doubtless call it it “the earth breath”, but he could never himself really evoke it in verse nor capture it in his haunting paintings. Possibly C.S.Lewis was trying to evoke it, but for children, when The Magician’s Nephew described the wood between the worlds as bright, peaceful and where everything seems to be growing, “a rich place, rich as plum cake”. In some early mornings of Ireland I recognize a strange peace almost physically rising toward me, transforming and shedding light. I have never experienced the same elsewhere but now and again, even at the other side of the world, for a few seconds its imprint occasionally seems to repeat and give itself to me like a special grace. Its transitions, and strange illumination are perhaps not for poetry, though they might just be for music.
Unless perhaps for Ulsterman Hamilton-Harty’s pleasant but only vaguely Celtic Irish Symphony (the movements have been named after sites in Ulster only!) , the fact that Ireland has no really expressive Irish symphony may belong with the nation’s less than European character when it comes to inspiration. However, future production of a tone poem, and perhaps incorporating something closer to Indian classical music able to convey subtle changes of nature and the spirit, might signal the contemporary culture had finally arrived at a more than literary, slowly evolved fullness.
Realistically however, that time may never now come about. After eight centuries of colonial status Ireland was declared a full republic as late at 1949. The still in many respects recovering and nascent society is under its most dire threat in centuries and not just from renewed haemorrhaging renewed emigration but purblind, destructive policies determined to be rid of so called “populism” and even dishonestly outlaw and portray it as so much fascism when citizens protest against an Ireland given an impossible but increasingly imposed Big Giver, Welcomes doormat role in the world.
Ireland has suffered through a good many genocides and near death experiences, but current events may well deliver the final blow and quickly. Irish Americans won’t need to be buying sheet music of patriotic songs in sympathy. They might need to be doing something more radical (black humour suggests buying up a remote island where a remnant can settle to preserve and develop the tradition – this should be in the Pacific where France only owns idyllic Tahiti because of an Irish ship’s captain’s interventions). Things happen quickly in the modern world and the current situation is a truly now-or-never serious one for Ireland in which its elites are now its latest enemy. If the problems are not confronted, there won’t be Moore’s fanciful memories for nostalgic popular consumption, but more like Beckettian lights out and silence.
POEM: IRISH CHANGES https://wp.me/p2v96G-1kp