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[Frederick Denison Maurice]
Sketches of Contemporary Authors. Mr. Moore.
The Athenaeum  Vol. 1  No. 9  (22 February 1828)  129-30.
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Literary and Critical Journal.

No. 9. LONDON, FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 22, 1828. Price 7d.


No. VI.—Mr. Moore.

Why is it that Ireland has not produced a great poet? According to the vulgar estimate of what is necessary to poetry, that country ought to have been peculiarly fertile in it. Irishmen are proverbial for strong, quick feeling, and rich fancy: yet we believe, there are few persons who would maintain, that Ireland has ever had a first-rate poet. It has always, in truth, been so ill-governed, that the national mind has never reached those ‘regions mild of calm and serene air,’ in which is the domain of ideal beauty. It has never been so relieved from the pressure of the present, as to gain for its intellect a sufficient comprehension of the eternal, which includes in itself the past, and the future. It has never been so much lightened of the load of outward objects, as that its imagination could learn to wield them with a majestic omnipotence as the symbols and interpreters of universal principles. Its feelings have been kept in a state of perpetual irritation, and have not been allowed to concentrate themselves into that quiet strength which is necessary for the purpose of embracing Truth and Good. Ireland, has, therefore, no great speculative, historical, or poetical writers: in one word, it has no philosophers:—Orators and novelists it has: for the qualities it wants are precisely those required to produce the higher excellencies whereby the poem is distinguished from the romance, and the history from the speech.

Mr. Moore is the writer who would be cited, if any were, as a contradiction to our statement, that Ireland has never nourished a great poet. But there are so many substantial reasons against his claim, that it is not difficult to show its insufficiency. His poems are deficient in the first great requisite, that which ought to be the groundwork, or, as it were, the very spirit of their beauty, truth. If we look merely at their imagery, at the pictures of outward objects which they display to us, it is clear, that in this they are found wanting. It is not that he regards them through a differently-coloured atmosphere, or on a different side, from other men; but that he studiously and elaborately represents them in a way in which no one ever saw them. It is not that he brings them too near him by a telescope, or examines them too much in detail with a microscope, or uses spectacles of green or purple, or looks at the landscape through a pictured window of a thousand different colours, or dims the glory of the sun by a smoky glass; but his very eye seems facet-cut, made up of innumerable different angles and surfaces—here refracting a ray, and there reflecting the corner of an object, so that he perceives no consistent or permanent appearance whatsoever, but lives in a universe of sparkling points and fragments, and wanders on from delusion to delusion. He never gives us a representation of what is; but, as if the world had, sometime or other, in its childhood, chosen to put itself into masquerade, and he had since got possession of the cast-off finery, he arrays it anew in the tarnished tinsel, and old artificial flowers, and pompously exhibits it, as if in mockery of things as they are. Every one must have observed, that, when we are placed in some accidental position, a bit of quartz or glass, upon an open bank or distant hill, will catch the rays of the sun, and shine with a dazzling brightness. If Mr. Moore were describing the landscape in which this had occurred to him, he would omit the broad blue sky, the fields, the forests, the mountain, and the lake, to dwell upon and exaggerate this momentary and casual triviality, to illustrate it by a thousand pretty images, and expand it into a galaxy of splendour. His fancy never looks abroad to great views; his mind always fixes upon some petty salient point, instead of the whole. To get a notion of the heavens, it follows the zig-zag flight of a butterfly; and, rather than contemplate the teeming profusion of the earth, in the general, it would hunt out some single snail, and then grow witty about a Frenchman’s dinner, or Lord Eldon’s decisions. In this respect, he and a Chinese painter are specimens of contrasted errors. The one delineates on his jars and screens only a part of what he sees, but frequently gives that part with amazing fidelity; though, omitting, to be sure, the light and shade, perspective, expression, and so forth. Mr. Moore adds to every thing he sees something of his own; which is not only shown so prominently as to throw into the back-ground whatever scrap or angle of truth there might at first have been, but which is also utterly inconsistent with it.

But not merely is it true that he does not represent to its the outward world in its natural simplicity, but, what is of infinitely more importance, he disguises human nature. He tries to improve it into prettiness, to varnish it into a sort of ball-room elegance; and being a person of great talent, succeeds in the attempt better than almost any one we could name. But this is a slender consolation. The thoughts in his poems are not our thoughts: nor his feelings, our feelings. They are not those that ever could occur to any one in the situations he represents; they are not those that would occur to himself. It will be said, however,—Where did he get them, if they were not the natural products of his own mind? We answer, they were not its natural, but its artificial products; obtained not by art, but by artifice. If an opera-dancer exhibits himself looking over a battlement, he does not stand as it would be his unconscious impulse to stand, supposing nobody were to see him; but he stretches out his hands, simpers, and performs a pirouette. So it is with Mr. Moore; instead of looking round him quietly, he simpers and pirouettes. It is obvious that there ought to be nothing in poetry which might not be the spontaneous outgrowth of the human mind in some one state of feeling or other; and this, for the plain reason that it is human nature, or its qualities in some other shape, with which the poet intends us to sympathise. Now, if, as is commonly the case with Mr. Moore’s works, a part of the sentiment be really such as might exist i the mind under the supposed circumstances, and part such as could only occur to all author thinking in the eye of the public, our feelings are continually withdrawn from the personage designed to be brought before us, and are distracted and dissipated by the inconsistency. We may make our meaning more clear by an illustration. One of the most beautiful of the Irish melodies is as follows:

‘I saw thy form in youthful prime,
Nor thought that pale decay
Would steal before the steps of time,
And waste its bloom away, Mary!
Yet still thy features wore that light
Which fleets not with the breath;
And life looked ne’er more purely bright
Than in thy smile of death, Mary!
‘As streams that run o’er golden mines,
With modest murmur glide,
Nor seem to know the wealth that shines
Within their gentle tide, Mary!
So, veiled beneath a simple guise,
Thy radiant genius shone,
And that which charmed all other eyes,
Seemed worthless in thy own, Mary!
‘If souls could always dwell above,
Thou ne’er had’st left thy sphere;
Or, could we keep the souls we love,
We ne’er had lost thee here, Mary!
Though many a gifted mind we meet,
Though fairest forms we see;
To live with them is far less sweet
Than to remember thee, Mary!’

The second of these stanzas is as exquisitely finished and as melodious as either of the others; but the thought is fundamentally inappropriate; for no one, lamenting over the grave of youthful loveliness, would think of the distant ingenuity of ‘The streams that run o’er golden mines.’ It immediately recalls us from the mourner to the author, and there is an end of our sympathy; yet this is by no means one of the worst among innumerable instances of the same kind in Mr. Moore’s poetry. The greatest evil of such passages is, that they are faults with the semblance of excellencies; like the ladies who are said to be fond of going to masquerades, in the disguise of nuns and vestal virgins.

There is, nevertheless, in Mr. Moore’s writings, considerably more of genuine feeling and sincere thought, than can be discovered at first sight; and to this, together with the factitious merit of their connection with music, must be attributed all their chance of permanent estimation. But, unfortunately, his habit of exaggerating every thing he describes, and of covering his personages, like the paste-board figures of our childhood, with the glitter of powdered glass, runs so completely throughout his works and mind, that his occasional fragments of single and direct expression, are always disguised in turns, and points, and prettiness. He has some of the gold of Ophir, but he is never satisfied without concealing it under French pinchbeck. Our readers have, doubtless, seen cathedrals, in which the delicate taste of some fashionable dean, or refined canon, had ornamented marble tombs and airy, tracery with a coat of whitewash; and, if we remember rightly, the bust of Shakspeare has received more than one layer of paint and varnish. So does Mr. Moore with his ideas. There are beneath the outer frippery many of the lineaments of the true poet. He hides his really graceful ringlets with false curls and artificial love-locks; and daubs over the living hues of health with blotches of white-lead and rose-pink. An Eastern Prince, having obtained a cast of the Medicean Venus, clothed it in the brocades of his favourite Sultana. The barbarians admired; the judicious traveller, though at the risk of his head, burst out into laughter.

There are innumerable persons, and more es-
pecially the lovers of music, who will compare his estimate of
Mr. Moore with their own consciousness of enjoyment derived from his poetry. To these we shall appear in the light of rugged Vandals, without any taste for elegance, or sympathy for refined feeling; but we may, perhaps, partly re-establish ourselves in the favour of our fair and gentle readers, by allowing that there really is, in the writings of their pet poet, a great deal of delicate tenderness and polished vivacity. In many of his shorter poems, where we have not time to grow weary of his constant succession of sparkling fire-works, he is one of the most delightful of writers. Even in his most fantastic evolutions, he is always graceful; and we acknowledge that, though not, like his friend Lord Byron, the Kehama of poetry, he is the most perfect and agile of Indian jugglers. The greatest mischief is, that others, who have none of his merits, in attempting to steal from him, steal only his defects. Thus, when, in the decline of the Roman empire, and of the fine arts, the figures of the deities were adorned with robes and jewels, the wife of Stilicho robbed the image of Vesta of its trinkets, but left behind the statue of the mighty goddess.

His wit, his festive merriment, his graceful feeling, and occasional strength of passion, are undeniable merits. But it will be allowed, even by his chief admirers, that something is wanting in the midst of all these. His joyousness is scarcely the rich and happy laughing of the heart, which is the only healthy kind of merriment. It has almost always a character either sensual or scornful, and leaves behind no consoling sense of permanent invigoration. Read any, the most pleasant and mirthful, of Mr. Moore’s compositions, and then turn to the gladness of Milton’s Allegro, and the difference is at once perceived. Our feelings are as distinct in the two cases as are those of the guests, during time wearisome excitement and glare of a festival, from those of a throng of children playing and rolling about among the primroses of a green and slushy meadow. His witticisms are commonly like icicles, cold, pointed, and glittering. They have none of the racy strength of Irish humour, and resemble far more the repartees of Rochester or Sheridan than those of Shakspeare, the jokes of Voltaire than those of Cervantes. The tenderness, which is unquestionably to be found in many parts of his works, is almost always unhappily mingled with some frivolous affectation, some fictitious caprice of fancy, which never grew out of the heart, and never can affect it. His heroes and heroines remind us as of some fanciful arabesques, or of his own Irish harp, in which a face of human beauty, and a breast that might well be the abode of human feelings, are united to a quaint complication of leaves, and volutes and gilded tendrils. His passion again, hot and earnest as it sometimes is, loses immensely of its effect by being surrounded, like the flame of the safety-lamp, by a net-work of delicate subtlety, which cut it off from all around. The most powerful lines, perhaps, which he has ever written are an execration of the conduct of the Neapolitans for yielding to the Austrians. Yet even in these, which are marked throughout by the most extreme intensity, it is impossible not to feel how much the strength of the poem is weakened by the elaborate ingenuity of the expression. Mr. Moore probably could not write otherwise if he would, and does not perceive the inferiority of his own style to that of the real lords of song. He is not likely to know that poetry abdicates its throne, and lays aside its glory, when it draws the materials of the ideal, not from the existing, or the possible, but from the limbo of vanity of an unfaithful fancy. But those who would aspire to a height which he has not attained, should know, as an ever-attendant truth and living presence, the conviction that it is the holy task of the poet to exalt and to purify human nature by the aid of its own, not of extraneous principles, and to imitate the craftsman of the forge, who frames from the rude iron the cunning tools wherewith he may afterwards construct from the same material a panoply of impenetrable strength. Mr. Moore is not likely to learn this from any consideration of general laws; but we imagine that he might be taught to see the inferiority of his own sphere of thought, by comparing the fate of similar writers to himself with that of those who have risen into a more elevated region. Without going to the literature of Italy or Spain, which would furnish us with ample illustration, and omitting that of France, which, as containing no poetry, would furnish us with no example of our meaning, let us look merely at our own country, and let Mr. Moore consider the difference between the reputation of Cowley and that of Milton. Such as the former clever writer is, when compared to the latter master poet; such is Mr. Moore, when weighed against Wordsworth; and such will he the difference of their estimation by our posterity. And in saving this, we are willing to throw out of the question the ‘Excursion’ which Mr. Moore has produced nothing to rival; but we would put against any, the most perfect song he has ever written, the lines beginning ‘She was a phantom of delight;’ or, for he has more than one superior among living poets, Mr. Coleridge’s exquisite stanzas, entitled ‘Love,’ but better known, we believe, by the name of ‘Genevieve.’

We have hitherto spoken chiefly of Mr. Moore’s serious poetry. His comic verses, which are mostly political, are certainly inimitable satires. There is in them an ease, a pointedness, a vigour, an unfailing flow of wit, which our language has scarcely ever equalled. He wants the terse, quaint, couplets of Hudibras, and the blasting energy of Churchill; but for lively sharpness, and even apt simplicity of expression, he has certainly surpassed every one we remember, except Pope. The age has done him injustice, in treating his odes and tales, as of more importance than his political squibs. It is in these that he is really unmatchable; while his metrical romance will be considered as a mere elegant curiosity, and as a song-writer, he will occupy an inferior place to Burns and Béranger. The ‘Two-penny Post-bag,’ and the ‘Fudge Family,’ will be remembered and liked as long as men retain their affection for wit; and yet we doubt whether many pages of these brilliant satires could be read without a sense of weariness and exhaustion. There is also another little book, the ‘Fables for the Holy Alliance,’ and ‘Rhymes on the Road,’ which was received with far less enthusiasm, and yet deserves, we think, in some respects, a higher reputation than the former volumes. There is in all of these a freshness and brightness which almost tempt us to wish, that the slavery of the world might continue for ever, provided Mr. Moore would for ever write about it as freely as he does at present.

The prose works of this distinguished man, are characterised by nearly the same peculiarities as his metrical writings. The perpetual repetition of the same style of ingenious imagery, drawn not from observation but fancy, the polishing away of sentences, till they are made to express the smallest possible quantity of meaning, the elaborate melody and finish of every period, and the want of general design and toning in the whole, the light butterfly flippancy, and exaggerated delicacy of sentiment,—these are all found in equal prominence in ‘Little’s Poems,’ and the ‘Epicurean,’ in his first verses, and his last prose. The unmetrical part of ‘Lalla Rookh,’ is by much his best production of this sort. Indeed, we will not hesitate to say that it is one of the most perfect tales in the language. Relieved as it is by the stronger passion of the poetry, we are content to read it as eminently airy and graceful; and to allow for its shallowness of feeling, and meagreness of thought. ‘Captain Rock’ is to the full as clever; but we confess that we are pained at seeing time wrongs of a nation advocated in a tone of ribaldry which might have become a Provençal Court of Love, or the drawing-room of Madame Du Deffand. Of ‘The Life of Sheridan,’ we had rather say as little as possible; for we look import it as an attempt, wretched even in the execution, to varnish and vamp into respectability the reputation of a particularly useless, worthless, and heartless wit.

Mr. Moore is not a man who produces any effect upon the world. He is not master of the circumstances of the age; but himself one of them. His politics have a dashing air of liberalism; but his dislikes and affections cling not to things, but names. He does not so much hate bad government, as the particular form of bad government which happens to come directly in his way, and which it is his humour to rail at. He therefore seems to care very little as to what ought to be substituted for existing corruptions, and sees the world’s chance of happiness, not in principles, but in the honour and distinction of some of his aristocratic friends. It is to Ireland that he has principally endeavoured to do good. Yet we much doubt, whether in surrounding that wretched country with a vague halo of fancy, he has not rather taught men to consider its substantial and degrading evils as melo-dramatic misfortunes, fit subjects for modern sentiment and old quotation, than as the deep-felt and agonizing sufferings of millions of living men. Every thing he has written would prove, however, that he is really attached to the cause of Ireland; and great part of what is least satisfactory in his mode of treating its miseries results, no doubt, from the national habit of viewing them rather as matter for metaphor, than constraining occasions of sober and earnest exertion.