If you were to ask a typical student of Romanticism to name the greatest British writers of the nineteenth century, you would expect a list that included Lord Byron, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Wordsworth. But if you had posed the same question to a British reader in the nineteenth century, the answer would almost certainly include the Irish poet and political satirist Thomas Moore.
The author of Irish Melodies (published as a series from 1808 to 1834) and Lalla Rookh, an Oriental Romance (1817), Moore was hugely popular during his lifetime. However, his literary reputation suffered shortly after his death in 1852 as younger Irish poets sought to break away from Romanticism’s perceived sentimentality to become increasingly outspoken and political.
College of General Studies Senior Lecturer in Humanities Jeffery Vail likens this backlash to “jazz figures like Miles Davis wanting to repudiate the accommodationist approach of someone like Louis Armstrong, even though he opened the door enormously for artists like that.”
Vail first encountered Moore as the point of access to one of his contemporaries, Lord Byron. Working on a dissertation about the literary relationship between the two poets, Vail found again and again that biographies of Byron largely ignored the role Moore played both in Byron’s life and in British and Irish Romanticism in general.
At the prompting of one of his professors, Vail turned to the University of Delaware archives, where he discovered a few of Moore’s unpublished letters. Excited by the manuscripts, he embarked on a wider search. “What I found,” he says, “was there were unpublished Moore letters everywhere I looked.” Vail has incorporated these letters, and others he gathered from more than 60 archives throughout Britain, Ireland, and the United States—including Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center—into a 2-volume collection, The Unpublished Letters of Thomas Moore, published in February 2013.
The project took 10 years of compiling, researching, and annotating to complete, and although the volumes include over 800 letters, Vail is certain he has not found all of the surviving correspondence. “Moore wrote so many letters during his lifetime that people are going to be finding unpublished letters of his probably 100 years from now,” Vail says. “I don’t know if anybody will feel like they have ever totally found all of them.”
Vail notes that the documents provide a glimpse of Moore’s charismatic and vibrant character: “Nobody went away from a first meeting with Moore without thinking, ‘My God, that’s one of the most charming men I’ve ever met.’”
The son of a grocer who was Irish and Catholic at a time when both groups were widely persecuted, Moore was further disadvantaged by his slight stature. “A less gregarious person might have been pushed to the side,” Vail says, “but he dominated, socially. He was inexhaustibly funny, with a naughty sense of humor,” qualities that gave him access to London society. At the height of his career he entertained earls, dukes, heirs to the throne—he even sang for the young Queen Victoria.
One of the most unexpected details that he found in his research, Vail says, was that as a student at Trinity College, Dublin, Moore took the oath of the Society of United Irishmen, a radical organization that demanded the removal of English control over Irish government. To have taken that oath, on the eve of the violent 1798 rebellion, was punishable by death.
The act seems surprisingly out of character for Moore, who later in his career spoke out against English injustice while opposing revolutionary violence. Vail interprets Moore’s decision to take the oath as an act of solidarity with his more radical friends. He suggests the bloody insurrection that followed helped to shape Moore’s pragmatic, incremental approach to politics and Irish independence.
In 1828, Moore wrote that biography “is like dot engraving, made up of little minute points, which must all be attended to, or the effect is lost.” Vail asserts that each of these letters represent a dot in Moore’s biography; in drawing them together we get a fuller appreciation of the artist. “Maybe it’s quixotic to feel like I can someday get the whole picture of Moore’s life and psychology,” Vail says, “but I think that if you’re really interested in a writer you strive to do that, even if you never totally can.”
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