« PreviousContinue »
MOORE'S IRISH MELODIES.
Dublin, November 20, 1821. MR NORTH, THERE are really some people, and of extensive literary acquirements, who believe and assert that Moore is no poet-this is going too far with a joke. The critical demurs thrown out against him in good humour and whim, have been eagerly seized on by these poetical bigots, and magnified into almost an utter annihilation of his fame. This is the more dangerous and unjust, as those who devote themselves entirely to poetical pursuits, and are consequently the most powerful critics in that department of literature, are most apt to give themselves up to the exclusive admiration of one great master. That devotedness which bestows such unity and power on poetic talent, is too often accompanied by a littleness, and a selfish pedantry, which incapacitates its possessor from entering into the spirit, or justly appreciating the merit, of writings foreign to his style of thought. In the progress of his knowledge and opinions, he insensibly ascends from the plane of vulgar nature, he becomes the centre of arrother sphere of objects-acquires another principle of delight and test of genius, and not taking into account his aberrations from the current feelings of men, he appeals for proofs of his opinions to that common sense which he has left behind. Very unfortunately for common sense, the appeal is often as eloquent as it is unintelligible, and confounds the reader into coincidence with its opinions. Hence spring those shoals that one meets with-of neophyte followers of a school of taste, hot from conviction, and vaunting their new creed, as a boy does his breeches when he first gets into them-amazingly pleased and mightily inconvenienced. One can no more find his reasons, than the other his pockets, but both are conscious of a sort of promotion, and are satisfied. The followers may be despised, but the leaders cannot, they are not seldom our superiors; and the only method by which we can maintain just and fair sentiments against their overwhelming sophistry, is to bear in mind, that what is illiberal is very likely to be false. The discourses of
envy are in general much about the same-only that thought takes a circuitous rout to the opinion, which stupidity finds at once. One of our profoundest thinkers has discovered, with the Literary Gazette, though by a very different process, that Lord Byron also is no poet ;-thus genius and dulness travel different sides of the same circle, and meet at the same point.
Moore is not, I'll allow, like Wordsworth or Coleridge, the poet's poet, nor is it necessary, in order to enjoy his writings, that we should create a taste for them, other than what we received from nature and our horn-books. Yet his style is contemned as tinsel and artificial, whereas the great praise bestowed on those preferred to it, is that they are the only true natural. Now, if it requires study and progressive taste to arrive at a sense of the natural, and but common feeling to enjoy the beauties of the artificial, then certainly these names have changed places, since I met them in the dictionary. But let us shun, these horrific words, art and nature, and that wearisome controversy, which seems to have acted like a torpedo on every pen, and has turned genius, itself into babbling. If the subject was fresh, it would be well worth inquiring into; but the waters have been so troubled, and to so little purpose, that they must be allowed to settle, ere any one can hope to see the bottom.
Formerly people were content with estimating books-persons are the present objects universally. It is not the pleasure or utility a volume affords, which is taken into consideration, but the genius which it indicates. Each person is anxious to form his scale of excellence, and to range great names, living or dead, at certain intervals and in different grades, self being the hidden centre whither all the comparisons verge. In former times, works of authors were compared with ideal or with ancient models,—the humble crowd of readers were content to peruse and admire. At present it is otherwise,-every one is conscious_either of having written, or at least having been able to write a book, and consequently all literary decisions af fect them personally;
"Scribendi nihil a me alienum puto," is the language of the age, and the most insignificant calculate on the wonders they might have effected, had chance thrown a pen in their way. The literary character has in fact extended itself over the whole face of society, with all the evils that D'Israeli has enumerated, and ten times more-it has spread its fibres through all ranks, sexes, and ages. There no longer exist what writers used to call a public-that disinterested tribunal has been long since merged in the body it used to try. Put your finger on any head in a crowd, it belongs to an author, or the friend of one, and your great authors are supposed to possess a quantity of communicable celebrity -an intimacy with one of them is a sort of principality, and a stray anecdote picked up rather a valuable sort of possession. These people are always crying out against personality, and personality is the whole business of their lives. They can consider nothing as it is, by itself; the cry is, "who wrote it?"-" what manner of man is he?"-" where did he borrow it?" They make puppets of literary men by their impertinent curiosity, and when one of themselves is dragged from his malign obscurity in banter or whimsical revenge, he calls on all the gods to bear witness to the indignity he is made to suffer.
It is this spirit which has perverted criticism, and reduced it to a play of words. To favour this vain eagerness of comparison, all powers and faculties are resolved at once into genius,-that vague quality, the supposition of which is at every one's command; and characters sublime in one respect, as they are contemptible in another,are viewed under this one aspect. The man, the poet, and the philosopher, are blended, and the attributes of each applied to all without distinction. One person acquires the name of a poet, because he is a reasoner, another because he is mad, another because he is conceited. Johnson's assertion is taken for granted-that genius is but great natural power directed towards a particular object; thus all are reduced to the same scale-Wellington, Byron, and Kean, measured by the same standard. This fury of comparison
knows no bounds; its abettors, at the same time that they reserve to themselves the full advantage of dormant merit, make no such allowance to established authors. They judge them rigidly by their pages, assume that their love of fame and emolument would not allow them to let any talent be idle, and will not hear any argument advanced for their unexerted capabilities.
The simplest and easiest effort of the mind is egotism, it is but baring one's own breast, disclosing its curious mechanism, and giving exaggerated expressions to every-day feeling. Yet no productions have met with such success-what authors can compete as to popularity with Montaigne, Byron, Rousseau? Yet I cannot but believe that there have been thousands of men in the world, who could have walked the same path, and have met the same success, if they had had the same impudence. Passionate and reflecting minds are not so rare as we suppose, but the boldness that sets at nought society, is. Nor would want of courage be the only obstacle; there are and have been, I trust, many, who would not exchange the privacy of their mental sanctuary for the indulgence of spleen, or the feverish dream of popular celebrity. And if we can give credit for this power to the many who have lived unknown and shunned publicity, how much more must we not be inclined to allow to him of acknowledged genius, and who has manifested it in works of equal beauty and of greater merit, inasmuch as they are removed from self.*
These considerations ought at least to prevent us from altogether merging a writer's genius in his works, and from using the name of the poem and that of the poet indifferently. For my part, Mr North, I think, that if Thoinas Moore had the misfortune to be metaphysical, he might have written the Excursion, (but this with a perhaps)—that had he the meanness to borrow, and at the same time disguise the feelings of the great Lake Poets, he might have written the only good parts of Childe Harold-and had he the pluck or the whim to be egotistical, he might lay bare a little mind of his own, as proudly and as passionate
Coleridge, in his Biographia, esteems the choice of a subject removed from self, as a test of genius.
ly organized, as the great Lord, whom some one describes" to have gutted himself, body and soul, for all the world to walk in and see the show." So much for the preliminary cavils which are thrown in the teeth of Moore's admirers. They have been picked up by a small fry of critics, who commenced their career with a furious admiration of him, Pope, and Campbell, but have since thought it becoming to grow out of their early likings. And at present they profess to prefer the great works which they have never read, and which they will never be able to read, to those classic poems, of which they have been the most destructive enemies, by bethumbing and bequoting their beauties into triteness and common-place.
The merits of Pope and of Moore have suffered depreciation from the same cause the facility of being imitated to a certain degree. And as vulgar admiration seldom penetrates beyond this degree, the conclusion is, that nothing can be easier than to write like and even equal to either of these poets. In the universal selfcomparison, which is above mentioned as the foundation of modern criticism, feeling is assumed to be genius-the passive is considered to imply the active power. No opinion is more common or more fallacious-it is the "flattering unction" which has inundated the world with versifiers, and which seems to under-rate the merit of compositions, in which there is more ingenuity and elegance than passion, Genius is considered to be little more than a capability of excitement-the greater the passion, the greater the merit; and the school-boy key on which Moore's love and heroism is always set, is not considered by any reader beyond his reach. This is certainly Moore's great defect; but it is perhaps more that of his taste than of any superior faculty: And being on the subject of his defects, let me speak of them at once. There can be no doubt that Tommy Little will be Tommy Little all the days of his life, whether he praises liberty or flaxen locks -whether he paints maidens flinging roses at one another, or young Azim in yellow boots routing whole legions of Musselmen, to the tune of "Alla Akbar"-above all, in those lampoons, which some people call satires, where he displays precisely the spirit of a
spoiled child, pouting because he is turned out of company before the sugar-plumbs come on the table. But what of all that ?-extremes meet, and if he be half-man, half-infant, let not the peccadilloes of the child prevent us from rendering justice to the talents of maturity.
The gravest of Moore's critics is the Baron Lawerwinkel. The poet has allowed his objections to be just, and even, if I have not been misinformed, promised to profit by his advice respecting the ideal of the female character. The Baron's great demur is, that Moore is not the poet of Ireland ;-and pray, to use the language of your "Old friend with the new face," who the deuce ever said he was? The German sages know but little of Ireland when they talk in this manner. Born and bred in Dublin, a Hibernian Cockney, Moore knows as much about Irish feeling as Lady Morgan; but then he does not pretend to it like her ladyship. To be sure, he talks of liberty, and the wreath of Harmodius, like any other jolly old Grecian, but the gibs of all colleges write their themes after that fashion. He coquetted also a little with the loyalists-complained that some people had accused him of favouring revolutionary principles, and exciting popular feeling in Ireland; whereas, taking it for granted that there are a few rebels in this country, the devil a one ever thought of him. There are too some songs in the Melodies, over which young ladies shake their heads, and think the poet a kind of little hero for talking so big; but Moore has friends in Ireland, and he visited them the other day, who might have quieted his conscience, by assuring him that his songs will never excite any commotions here beyond the chords of the piano. He may also have learned from his trip, how much his countrymen have adopted his grateful sentiments towards their sovereign, who, by the by, understood at once and entered into the spirit of Irish feeling, better than e'er a poet or speechifier of them all.
But there are some patriotic people, who think that a country cannot exist without a national poet. Ireland in particular ought to be much obliged to these gentlemen:-some would give her Ossian-some would cram Ďermody down her throat-Charles Philips would lay hold of her for himself;
while others engage her for Moore.-The greatest obligation they can possibly bestow on their beloved country, is to hold their tongues. She has given birth to Burke, to Sheridan, to Wellington, to Moore-they may be, or may have been, first-rate men, but we have no right to fix on them against their wills, and against the testimony of their lives and pursuits, the epithet of national-they were men of greatness, and of the world. Ireland disdains to rank exclusively in her family those who do not openly claim the privilege. Grattan was a national orator,-what Burke and Sheridan were not; we can wait for a national poet,-what Moore is not. We have contributed our mite to the celebrity of Europe, and trust with confidence to our soil and fate to occupy in the eyes of posterity our proper space of consideration.
National feeling is a more subtle and a more innate spirit than even genius itself; it is not to be learned or gleaned from books, but must be imbibed with the milk of infancy, and the associations of youth. It is hereditary, and orally handed down in the great families of a country, and in the noblest of those families-its national peasantry. It is a privileged kind of enthusiasm, which the soil alone can bestow, far removed from the vulgar and secondary notions of patriotism, which school-boys are taught to gather from the declamatory writings of Greece and Rome. Its idea of liberty is not borrowed or second-hand founded on sophism or on precept; the contrary of the term, and therefore itself is unknown-liberty with it is implied in the natural feelings of pride and independence. There cannot be a stronger proof of real meanness and littleness of mind than the eternal mouthing of this word, to which no idea is attached :-it is sickening beyond the worst insipidity of cant to hear such writers as Moore and Byron aping the language of the ancients on a subject for which they evidently have no real feeling, and stringing truisms against slavery, devoid of all existence but for their own imaginations. 'Tis the extreme of cowardice and affectation mingled, which thus raises bugbears out of words, and falls down in trepidation before them.
Poets, at least a great many of them, are strange inconsistent creaturesthey strive to be patriots and cosmopolitans at once; both themes are so fertile and convenient, that they never perceive them to be contradictory. Vanity makes them aspire to be national, and vanity prevents them. Launched into the sea of words and sophistry, which they mistake for wisdom, they forsake all natural and national principle for some butterfly word that attracts their attention. And after a life of moral loves and hatreds equally vain, their discerning faculties fall into such a state of effacement, that so far from being imprinted with a national character, they have lost even their own, and are to be distinguished from the rabble of cities, and the harangues of market-places, merely by their su perior extravagance both of flattery and of spite-an atom more of creed or solidity they have not. No-nationality is not to be looked for among the poets of modern times. There are and have been great and enviable exceptions, especially in the land to which this is addressed; but here, with Lady Morgan and Mrs Peck to illustrate our national character, Miss Edgeworth to turn it into ridicule, and Moore to be put forth as our chosen minstrel, we are prettily represented in the literary world.
But you must be astonished at my contradictory reasoning. A firm admirer of Moore, I am equally indignant with them who have become blind to his merit from fickleness, and those who would imprudently elevate his reputation at the expence of his country's. In the airy spirit of gallantry, of trifling, of tenderness, and often of passion, no poet can be superior to Moore; but then it is in a language and feeling common to all the worldit is Irish, French, Circassian, or what you please. In the beautiful collection of the Irish melodies, those songs founded on national tradition are meagre, flat, and spiritless, nor can they even convey the story without the lumbering assistance of a note. There is, however, one exception, and a glorious one-" Rich and Rare"-which taken, music, words, and all, is worth an epic poem to the Irish nation,→→ simple, elegant, tender, sublime, it is the very essence of poetry and musicthere is not one simile or conceit, nor
one idle crotchet to be met with throughout.
Moore, in his preface to the new edition, expresses a great disinclination to a divorce between the tune and words-a modest confession, how much he thinks the latter dependent on the former. He is right, and this seeming defect is one of the great merits of the work: the musical as well as the poetical taste of the writer is evident in every line, nor is one allowed to shine at the expense of the other. Moore has composed some beautiful songs, but seems shy of exerting this faculty, dreading, perhaps, that success in that pursuit would detract from his poetical fame. The union of the talents is rare, and some have affirmed that they even exclude one another. When Gretry visited Voltaire at Ferney, the philosopher paid him a compliment at the expense of his profession; "Vous étes musicien," said Voltaire, "et vous avez de l'esprit ; cela est trop rare pour que je ne prenne pas à vous le plus vif interêt.' Nature certainly may be supposed not overinclined to be prodigal in bestowing on the same object the several gifts that are peculiarly hers, but as far as the assertion rests on experience, it is powerfully contradicted by the names of Moore and Rousseau.
All trains of thought appear to me to be set to music, unless when the mind is actively employed upon its own ideas, in reasoning, comparing, inferring, &c.-thus interrupting the natural links. Perhaps it is this which renders close thought an enemy to health; nature having given us an internal harmony to counteract the fretting effects of mental exercise,-to blunt as it were the edge of thought, we feel the ill effects of dispensing with it, when we pursue what we think a
more systematic mode of pursuing knowledge. The exercise of the imagination possesses this accompaniment in the highest degree, and the greatest transport we are capable of perhaps, is, in this consonance of the ear and eye, each framing for itself and enjoying the peculiar pleasures of its own sense. To inquire into the matter and origin of this mental harmony, would, for the present, bewilder me in metaphysics. But as to its degrees, which are here of important consideration, I am inclined to make a bold assertion, that naturally the lowest and most common trains of thought generate the prettiest tunes. The prettier the music, the more animal the pleasure-it sets merely the nerves in motion, and has more effect on the toes and fingers than on the imagination. Thus, by observing the thoughts which different kinds of music excite, we may discover the music that different degrees of thought demand. The music of the senses and that of the soul are hostile, and tend to exclude one another. The tune that a plough-boy thinks, as he paces along the furrow, and if he thinks at all, he thinks a tune,-is, I'm certain, considered as music, more beautiful than that to which Milton composed his Paradise Lost. The latter, if set, would scarcely be understood, though, according to the system, it should be found consonant to all the just rules of melody.
The foregoing paragraph is a sketch from a large system, which this is not the place to follow up. It would lead, however, to some useful speculations on the connexion between melody and thought, and consequently between melody and poetry. The principles of the latter connexion we are not only theoretically unacquainted with, but practically sin against every day. Think
As Power's new edition has not yet made its appearance, I subjoin the Preface, which I have through the medium of a friend.
"Though an edition of the poetry of the Irish Melodies, separate from the Music, has long been called for, yet having, for many reasons, a strong objection to this sort of divorce, I should with difficulty have consented to a disunion of the words from the airs, had it depended solely upon me to keep them quietly and indissolubly together. But, besides the various shapes in which these, as well as my other lyrical writings, have been published throughout America, they are included, of course, in the two editions of all my works printed at Paris, and have lately appeared, in a volume full of typographical errors, in Dublin. I have, therefore, readily acceded to the wishes of the proprietor of the Irish Melodies for a revisal and complete edition of the Poetry of the Eight Numbers; though well aware that it is impossible for these verses to be detached from the beautiful airs to which they are associated, without losing even more than the ‘anima, dimidium' in the process."
• This edition, in a beautiful pocket volume, has been published since we received this article. Editor.