Sunday, July 12, 2009

Bard Of Erin

Bard Of Erin
(The life and times of Thomas Moore: by Ronan Kelly).
Kelly’s first book, and an enviable start. It’s unfair to compare him to Holmes, but apart from the absence of a bibliography, he’s done a fine job. (Why would anyone publish a biography without a bibliography? How can someone like me plunder it for further reading if it ain’t there to plunder. And yes, there are pages of notes and their sources but that is not the same thing!)
Names accumulate their own bits and pieces and Moore is linked in odd ways to odd things in my memory. I had to wade though them while reading.
1) Primary school singing lessons, when we listened attentively to a radio broadcast with our “Booklets”, learning to sing “The Meeting of the Waters” and “The Minstrel Boy”. My introduction to The Irish Melodies. Their plastic paddy element makes me uncomfortable, as does the overt sentimentality, reinforced by what of think of as the John McCormack style of singing they induce. They are drawing room songs and the distance between the ugly realties of history and the glossy words is perhaps too great. But I like some of the lyrics he wrote. Like Campion’s or Dowland’s lyric writer’s, they work as song lyrics in ways they can’t on the page.
2) The Muldoon reading Byron’s “My boat is on the shore/my bark is on the sea/but before I go Tom Moore/ Here’s a double health to three”. While this is one of the great friendship poems, since I heard it, Byron has an Irish accent. This does weird things to Don Juan and seems beyond incongruous.
3) Bloom’s Joke about Tommy’s roguish statue wagging its finger over the meeting of the waters…the urinal is gone but the statue hasn’t. Nor has Kavanagh’s poem about it.
4) His roles as both the recipient of some of Byron’s best letters and as chief villain of Byron biographers for his participation in the burning of the famous autobiography, and his fudging some of his sources in his own, equally famous biography.
5) Martin Simspon's arrangement of "Believe me if all those endearing young charms".

Kelly writes well. The narrative keeps going, the discussion of the works, most of which I knew very little about, is enough to make me think I should read Lalla Rookh and maybe find a copy of the Byron Biography. He can turn a phrase neatly, with what his subject would have described as wit.
He doesn’t fall into the trap of expecting his subject’s politics to be either easy to label nor does he feel obliged to hammer Moore or to sit in judgement on him. He records his opponents’ comments and leaves it to the reader. There’s enough information for a range of reactions.

Why people expect a man’s political opinions at seventeen to be unchanged at forty seven is something I don’t understand, but it belongs with the school of commentators who would damn Galileo’s cringing from the instruments of the inquisition from the safety of their computer screens.

Given the lack of drugs, scandal or an early death, Moore's not a dramatic subject for a biography. Given his almost complete disappearance from the poetic canon most readers are unlikely to be familiar with his poetry either. So it’s worth being reminded of the huge advance for Lalla Rookh ($3000 pounds) and its popularity. Or that he could be spoken of as being equal to Byron (as well as Rogers, Bowles and Scott at a time when no one was bothering too much about Shelley and Keats). (I confess to being jealous of his advance for Lalla Rookh. 3,000 pounds. Forget fiddling with relative prices and calculations for inflation etc …3,000 pounds today would be more than acceptable as an advance for a poetry book. Please.Thank you)

Moore appears as a hard working, professional writer though obviously a bit vague at the contractual end of the business. Like Coleridge, he knew he had to worship the giants bread and cheese, and while he lacked STC’s brilliance he certainly outdid him in terms of work ethic and, perhaps more painfully, in finishing projects. The fact that he was a happily married man and took his family responsibilities seriously almost counts against him . A kind man, a nice man, a good fellow. Far better to be mad bad and dangerous to know. Of all the romantics he sounds like one of the few I’d like to have round for dinner on a regular basis.

Part of the strength of the biography is the way it effortlessly evokes that strange world of talkers and scribblers. The poets, many of whom have been forgotten despite their popularity, dining out on their reputations, gossiping about lady d-, trading epigrams and insults which lead to farcical duels with unloaded pistols at dawn, journalising and letter writing, taking off on grand tours to see the appropriate sights and have the appropriate reactions, keeping the local whores in business, while sloshing the local wine and dashing off another three volume poem for the lady readers at home. It’s the sheer volume of words that is astonishing. Byron's letters take up twelve. And that's the ones that survived.

This is getting too long. Moore later.

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