The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

V. Lesser Poets, 1790–1837

§ 4. Moore

It can hardly be said that either Rogers or Campbell is a difficult poet to criticise, for, though estimates of both may differ considerably, the difference, as hinted already, will depend almost entirely on the general attitude of the particular critic towards poetry—a thing which can be allowed for, and compensated, with almost mathematical accuracy. No such process seems to be available in the case of the third remaining member of Byron’s selected group,Moore. It is almost unnecessary to say that he was extraordinarily popular in his own time; and this popularity had the most solid results, running hard, in all material ways, that of Scott and Byron. Not only did he receive three thousand pounds for the copyright of Lalla Rookh, but the actual sale of the much shorter and vastly inferior Loves of the Angels brought him in one thousand in the first few months. Although not a few of the Irish Melodies are masterpieces in their own kind, it would be interesting to know if any other poet ever received, as Moore is said to have done, during a great number of years, “a hundred guineas apiece” or their equivalent at the time, for each of more than a hundred and thirty short songs.The Paradise Lost comparison, misleading as it may be, certainly does come rather pat here. But the rebate of posthumous criticism on this prodigal reward has been heavy. For something like half a century it has been rare to find an estimate of Moore which, if not positively contemptuous, has not been at least apologetic. He is, perhaps, the best example existing to prove that, in literature, an accumulation of venial sins is much more dangerous than the commission of one capital sin or even more; and that, to any but exceptionally critical judgments to that manner happily born, and in that manner carefully bred, such an accumulation will not be compensated by an accompanying accumulation of non-capital merits.

And yet, Moore’s sins are but slight; in no case more than defects, and, in some cases, capable of being vindicated from the charge of being sins at all; while his merits are extremely numerous and, in some cases, of a kind the reverse of vulgar. It is not true that he was, in any bad sense, a toadeater, though, in certain ways, like Kingsley’s John Brimblecombe, he might appear to have “a gnathonical or parasitic spirit.” He had indeed, a catlike disposition to curl himself up near something or somebody comfortable; and it is amusing to find that, even in Paris, he was wretched till he managed to find a new Mayfield or Sloperton, not at Lord Moira’s or Lord Lansdowne’s door, but in “a cottage belonging to our kind Spanish friends the V……ls, and a few steps from their house.” But it does not appear that Moore was any more inclined to put up with insulting treatment than the cat itself is. Nobody ever doubted his courage, though the Jeffrey duel may have had a touch of the ludicrous; his conduct in the difficulties brought upon him by the fraud and flight of his deputy at Bermuda presents a memorable contrast, refreshing on his side if saddening on the other, to the conduct of Theodore Hook in almost precisely similar circumstances; and, even with that rather difficult person Byron, he seems to have maintained perfectly independent relations. For some time past, indeed, there has been a tendency to affect disgust at his destruction of Byron’s Memoirs. One would like to be quite sure, considering the symptoms of public taste at all times and certainly not least of late, whether resentment at the loss of something supposed to be piquant and naughty has not more to do with this than virtuous indignation at an imputed breach of trust. At any rate, it is nearly certain that, putting certain famous cruces aside, the Memoirs were much more likely to show Byron’s bad side than his good one; that they were left to Moore in absolute property; and that their publication would have brought him in far more money than the Life, good as it was and handsomely as it was remunerated.

But someone may say, “Never mind his character or his life. He shall be a most dishonourable little fellow if you like. But there is a foible, if not a taint, all over his literature. He is almost always trivial; and, even when he is not that, he is never intense. He never reaches passion, but only sentiment; and that sentiment is too often mawkish if not even rancid. He is almost purely imitative—at least in poems of any pretension. He is a clever craftsman, but never a real artist. He plays with patriotism, with politics, with everything. His ‘prettiness’ is only a mincing artificial variety; and his ‘favour’ was a thing of mere fashion, not long out of date.” That, one believes, is a pretty fair summary of the unfavourable, which seems to have become also the general, attitude to Moore; for nobody pays much attention now to the schoolboy “improprieties” of the “Little” poems, which were never very shocking, and of which, indeed, the poems have been purged in all their legitimate editions for more than a century. And, certainly, no person of sense will regard Moore as a serious “traitor.” Indeed, it is a clause in the more savage indictments that his nationalism was wholly insincere. The more moderate charge suggested above can, perhaps, be best traversed by a counter statement a little more in detail.

There can be little doubt that Moore has suffered in more ways than one from the extreme voluminousness of his writings. The standard one-volume edition of his Poems, subtracting The Epicurean (an exceedingly good piece of ornate prose), contains nearly seven hundred double-columned pages, which frequently themselves contain from eighty to a hundred lines apiece. The table of contents fills nearly twenty columns, with sometimes sixty entries in each—the individual poems running from a distich to a series of some thousands of lines. It does not suit the habits of the present day to read all this; still less, to take the slight trouble necessary to understand it; for much of it is “occasional” and requires commentary. And yet, it may be said unhesitatingly that, unless the whole of it is read, or, at least, what seems to the present writer an impossibly exhaustive selection of all its departments, Moore will not be properly known.

For one remarkable point about him will otherwise escape notice; and that is the curiously pervading and adequate character of such goodness as he possesses. Moore may not meet the lofty demands of lovers of “high seriousness,” but he is never bad except in his few and short serious satires, Corruption, Intolerance, etc., where he was trying something—and a very difficult thing—for which he was not in the least fitted; and in the rant of the “Phelim Connor” letters in The Fudge Family, which may itself have been intended as satire of the kind which he could manage. He may not soar very high, he may not dive very deep; but he skims the surface with a curiously light, deft and variously fluttering wing. Trivial he may be; mediocre, in a certain sense, he may be; but one remembers the just protest of even the severe Boileau in another case—Il n’est pas médiocrement gai; and some would add and maintain pretty stoutly that, now and then, Il n’est pas médiocrement tendre.