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Jeffery W. Vail. The Literary Relationship of Lord Byron and Thomas Moore. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. ISBN 0 8018 6500 X. Price: US$45.

  • William D. Brewer

…plus d’informations

  • William D. Brewer
    Appalachian State University

In the summer of 1806, Thomas Moore (1779–1852) read a review of his Epistles, Odes and Other Poems by Francis Jeffrey that denounced him as "the most licentious of modern versifiers." Stung by this attack, he challenged the critic to a duel, but when the two men met on the field of honor they seemed more inclined to befriend than to kill each other, and the police intervened before the duel got underway. According to newspaper reports, the police subsequently examined the adversaries' pistols and found that they were unloaded. Much to Moore's chagrin, these reports led many to conclude that the duel was a farce and that he and Jeffrey were cowards. Moore immediately wrote to the newspapers defending his honor, and the controversy eventually died down. The public was, however, reminded of the abortive duel when English Bards and Scotch Reviewers was published in 1809. The anonymous author of English Bards mockingly alluded to Moore's "leadless pistol" and supplied an explanatory note: "The duel was prevented by the interference of the Magistracy; and, on examination, the balls of the pistols, like the courage of the combatants, were found to have evaporated." After the second edition of English Bards appeared under Lord Byron's name, Moore sent a letter challenging the young poet to a duel. However, Byron had embarked on his Grand Tour and did not read the letter until he returned to England in 1811. By that time, Moore had become a married man and his anger had cooled. He readily accepted Byron's explanation that he had not known about Moore's letter to the newspapers and thus had not intended to question its veracity. The poet Samuel Rogers invited them both to dinner, and they swiftly became close friends. In fact, the thin-skinned Irishman who had challenged Byron to a duel ultimately became his biographer, publishing the important two-volume Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, with Notices of His Life in 1830 and 1831.

Many of Byron's and Moore's contemporaries regarded them as political allies (promoting the Whig cause) and as members of the same "school" of poetry. An 1817 article in the British Review associated the poets with the "new Oriental school," and Robert Southey's dedication to A Vision of Judgment attacked them as members of the Satanic School of poetry. Moreover, Byron and Moore pay homage to the dead Keats together in Percy Bysshe Shelley's Adonais : "The Pilgrim of Eternity" (Byron) is closely followed by "The sweetest lyrist of [Ireland's] saddest wrong" (Moore). In The Literary Relationship of Lord Byron and Thomas Moore, Jeffery Vail contends that "Moore was a larger presence in Byron's life and work than any other contemporary writer. Byron's writing, his sense of identity as a poet and a man, and the understanding of him left to posterity were all strongly influenced and affected by his association with Moore" (189). According to Vail, whereas Byron and Shelley conducted philosophical debates with each other through their works, the literary influence that Byron and Moore had on each other was "positive" and "down-to-earth" (10), reflecting their preoccupation with contemporary politics and social issues. He also maintains that critics have failed to recognize the importance of Moore's multifarious writings and their influence on early-nineteenth-century English and Irish culture.

Nearly nine years Byron's senior, Moore was a nationalistic Irishman, a Catholic, and the son of a prosperous grocer. After receiving his Bachelor of Arts from Trinity College in Dublin, he achieved fame with Odes of Anacreon (1800), a volume of sensual, melodious, and Hellenistic lyrics that established his reputation with the same upper-class readership that was later to be enthralled by the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812). Odes earned him the nickname "Anacreon Moore." His next volume, The Poetical Works of the Late Thomas Little, Esq. (1801), was attacked by critics (including Samuel Taylor Coleridge) for its apparent celebration of libertinism. However, the fifteen-year-old Byron devoured and memorized Thomas Little, and Vail speculates that "Moore may well deserve the credit for awakening Byron's interest in poetry" (18).

Through astute comparisons of the poets' works, Vail demonstrates that Moore profoundly influenced Byron's early lyrics, his Regency-period political squibs and satires, and his A Selection ofHebrew Melodies (1815). Fugitive Pieces (privatedly printed in 1806), Byron's first book of verse, contains a dedication and preface modeled after the preface to Thomas Little and poems that resemble Moore's. Vail argues that the amorous persona created by Moore in Thomas Little inspired Byron to create his own persona, which later evolved into the Byronic heroes of Childe Harold and the Eastern Tales. However, Byron soon found out that being compared to Moore could be disadvantageous. The sensuality and libertine attitudes expressed in Fugitive Pieces scandalized some of his friends, and the chastened "young Moore" burned all of the copies of the volume that he could get his hands on. His subsequent collections, Poems on Various Occasions (privatedly printed in 1807) and Hours of Idleness (1807), contained fewer amatory verses. Meanwhile, Moore's reputation as a poetic libertine grew—Jeffrey and other moralistic critics damned Epistles, Odes, and Other Poems as a corrupting and perverting influence on its readers. As Vail points out, "Byron became increasingly aware of the dangers of being compared to Moore and being labeled an immoral poet" (36).

After the Prince Regent betrayed the Whig cause in 1812 by allowing the Tories to stay in power, Moore and Byron began to contribute anonymous political satires to the newspapers. Byron publicized his political alliance with Moore by dedicating The Corsair (1814) to his friend and acknowledging that he had written the anti-Regent poem "Lines to a Lady Weeping" (1812). As a result, he and Moore were pilloried by the Tory press. From that time on the two men were linked as Whig poets. Vail contends that Moore's development of an "informal, colloquial, [and] relaxed" Horatian style of satire "encouraged and helped Byron to construct his own unique satirical voice" (80). However, unlike Byron's Beppo, The Vision of Judgment, and Don Juan, Moore's satires lack a self-conscious narrator.

Inspired by Edward Bunting's General Collection of the Ancient Irish Melodies (1796) and Sydney Owenson's Twelve Original Hibernian Melodies (1805), Moore's Irish Melodies (published in installments beginning in 1808) provided the model for many subsequent collections of national melodies, including Felicia Hemans's A Selection of Welsh Melodies (1822), set to music by John Parry. Vail argues persuasively that Byron's Hebrew Melodies "could not help being written and published under the shadow of Moore" (81). During his Regency years, Byron frequently heard and was moved by Moore's performances of his songs at upper-class social events. Irish Melodies and Hebrew Melodies reflect their authors' sympathy for oppressed peoples and include both nationalistic laments and "defiant war songs" (97).

Although Vail maintains that the Byron-Moore association was generally positive, he admits that it had some negative effects on Moore's poetic confidence and the reception of his works. The publication of Byron's Hebrew Melodies challenged Moore's preeminence as a national melodist and made Moore's own collection of biblical verses, Sacred Songs (1816), appear like a copy of his friend's 1815 volume. Bitterly frustrated, Moore asked his music publisher, "Was there ever any thing so bad as the Hebrew Melodies?" (91). In 1813, Byron encouraged Moore to compose an "oriental poem," but when Lalla Rookh finally appeared in 1817 it also seemed belated and imitative, anticipated by Byron's incredibly popular series of Eastern tales, written at breakneck speed. In fact, Moore had to abandon one of the narratives that he had been writing for Lalla Rookh because it resembled Byron's The Bride of Abydos (1813) too closely. During his association with Byron, Moore's confidence in himself eroded; Vail notes that "Moore's letters and journals show that he consistently ranked Byron's poetry far more highly than he did his own, believing that the popularity of his own works would probably not outlive him" (137). In 1822, both Moore and Byron were inspired to write works based on the legend of angels falling in love with antediluvian mortal women, but in this case Moore was careful to stay out of his friend's shadow by making sure his The Loves of the Angels was published before the appearance of Byron's Heaven and Earth in Leigh Hunt's the Liberal. Vail argues that the tale of Rubi, the second angel of The Loves of the Angels, reflects "Moore's own thoughts and feelings about Byron's personal self-destruction through his incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh" (141). This was, of course, a subject that Moore carefully avoided in his monumental two-volume biography of his friend.

In his conclusion, Vail endorses Marilyn Butler's call for reevaluations of non-canonical Romantic-era writers who have fallen out of critical favor but whose works provide a valuable context for the achievements of their canonical contemporaries. As recent scholarship has shown, knowledge of such "minor" figures as Moore, Robert Southey, Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, Joanna Baillie, and Leigh Hunt enriches our understanding of the period's "major" authors. Vail makes a convincing case for Moore's importance as a major influence on Byron, especially during Byron's years of fame, and provides valuable and illuminating discussions of his works, particularly Lalla Rookh and The Loves of the Angels. The gregarious and talented Irish poet who fell under Byron's shadow clearly deserves further study as scholars continue to broaden the scope of Romantic-era studies.