A book that I knew only by the cover,
climbed to a high shelf on a crumbling ramp
years ago, the relic of an old affair.
I took it down, hoping to find out
how one famous bard ran out of fame
and why he had come to haunt me suddenly.
I cracked the book. There was his Irish pout
engraved on the flyleaf, a spiteful genie
whose gratitude grew bitter in the lamp.
The curl of his lip, the eye’s tenacity,
show us Tom Moore was not prepared to die,
at least not in print. A preface tells
his life. Born in Dublin, a grocer’s son,
he studied with the tutor of Sheridan,
at fourteen enrolled at Trinity,
wrote the sensational “Odes of Anacreon”
that made him a star before the age of twenty.
Small of stature, “though in wit a man,”
he never grew up. But he sold more
poems than anyone but Byron who
called them “leadless pistols” in a satire.
Moore sent the modern Juvenal a challenge
then recalled it. They became fast friends.
When Byron died he left Moore as legacy
his Memoirs to transmute to pounds
in the crucible of public curiosity.
Tom committed them to a gentler fire.
London was shocked by his arrogance,
lack of gratitude or its excess, met
by heroic friendship or its opposite.
For scandal dines as heartily on silence
as on the juiciest gossip where
the subject is a free beauty or handsome poet.
The top blew off the kettle of conjecture.
His Memoirs might have served Byron’s defense;
the fire branded him as a demon, sure.
But Byron has all the world to tell his story.
Moore has, at the moment, only me.
What about his poems, are there any
lost treasures under the waterfall
of foxed and fading pages, a fire opal
shaken from the crown of a classic beauty,
or merry trinket kicked from a dancer’s ankle,
that rolled away flashing out of the world’s sight?
I turn the pages out of a sense of duty.
There are the Irish melodies sung in the twilight
of parlors by deep-bosomed ladies and old men.
There are the chiselled “Odes of Anacreon”
in praise of deep drinking and shallow passion.
And page after page, until my eyes are sore,
love poems, love poems by Thomas Moore.
You’d think that little else was worth his time,
or worse, that there was nothing easier
than falling in love and then making it rhyme.
Whom did you love, Tom? What maid or whore
escaped your manicured verses? There’s no sign
of struggle, not a curl or petticoat out of place,
nor desire that puts conscience on the rack.
Your ladies flirt and sigh. They don’t talk back.
Oh world of harps and blushes, plumes and lace,
you remember the name of love but not the face.
What did you feel when the last one slammed the door
and how could you tell her from the one before?
Meanwhile a strong wind has attacked the casement
in Tom’s defense, breaking up my irreverent
thoughts with louder thoughts that sound like wind
holding forth in the chimney, shaking the door
and drumming up the thunder for a storm.
Wind like thoughts, then wind in human form.
It is the furious ghost of Thomas Moore
rather dignified by death, or by the lightning.
“Who are you to disturb me in oblivion?”
“It’s quiet here but I’ve gotten used to it
now that my friends are dead and I’ve stopped waiting
to be rediscovered. There’s a worse thing
than being forgotten: false laurel, early fame
borrowed from an ancient poet’s name.
I paid for that. And I paid for my height
in love affairs that never made a rhyme,
their pain was so much greater than my art.
Honor this pure silence, and mind your own heart.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 4 Number 5, on page 35
Copyright © 2021 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com