Born in Dublin into a family with revolutionary sympathies, Thomas Moore (1779-1852) became one of the first Catholics to be admitted to that city’s Trinity College, in 1794. His friendship with his heroic compatriot Robert Emmet produced some early inflammatory writings for the cause of Irish freedom, though at his parents’ pleading he discontinued his radical activities. Moore did, nonetheless, stand by Emmet, who was arrested, tried, and hanged after he led an ill-fated rebellion in 1803. The poet refused to cooperate in the inquiry, and after Emmet’s death he composed a moving elegy, “When He Who Adores Thee,” based on the martyr’s words at his trial. The experience marked Moore for life; through it he found his true poetic voice as the soul and heartbeat of an oppressed Ireland. Though he was often criticized for being an armchair revolutionary and for fraternizing with the English oppressors, Moore remained committed to the Irish cause and he used his poems to carry its message into the drawing rooms and concert halls of England and the Continent, where his musical settings and his performances of them moved listeners and won him adulation as a celebrity.
In 1800, Moore published a book of translations of the ancient Greek poet Anacreon, and in 1801 early verses appeared under the pseudonym of Thomas Little. But it was not until 1807, when Moore fled to the Continent after a disastrous diplomatic caper in Bermuda, that he began the work which was to make his name as the pre-eminent poet-composer of his day. Composing new verses for traditional tunes, which he annotated and gave to John Stevenson and later to Henry Bishop to arrange, Moore published ten volumes of Irish Melodies. With the heyday of the piano and thanks to the growing fascination with the Folk Movements throughout Europe and the New World, Moore’s Melodies found their way into virtually every parlor and onto every concert platform of the 19th century, exerting a profound influence on American composers, among them Stephen Foster.
Lionized by contemporary composers and poets, Moore enjoyed an intimacy with Lord Byron, who entrusted his letters and diary to his Irish friend, plunging Moore into a messy legal battle with Lady Byron after her husband’s death and resulting in the destruction of the memoires that could have shed definitive light on Byron. Despite his hand in this unfortunate event, Moore did publish Byron’s journals, as well as a biography, which remains a classic. These became significant additions to Moore’s opus, along with his collection of sacred songs; an opera calledThe Blue-Stocking; and a book-length epic poem, Lalla Rookh.
–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing
Image: Thomas Moore, from “Duyckinick Evert A. Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women in Europe and America,” 1873