Preface to Irish Melodies

by Thomas Moore

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The recollections connected, in my mind, with that early period of my life, when I first thought of interpreting in verse the touching language of my country's music, tempt me to advert to those long past days; and, even at the risk of being thought to indulge overmuch in what Colley Cibber calls "the great pleasure of writing about one's self all day," to notice briefly some of those impressions and influences under which the attempt to adapt words to our ancient Melodies was for some time meditated by me, and at last undertaken.

There can be no doubt that to the zeal and industry of Mr. Bunting his country is indebted for the preservation of her old national airs. During the prevalence of the Penal Code, the music of Ireland was made to share in the fate of its people. Both were alike shut out from the pale of civilised life; and seldom anywhere but in the huts of the proscribed could the sweet voice of the songs of other days be heard. Even of that class, the itinerant harpers, among whom for a long period our ancient music has been kept alive, there remained but few to continue the precious tradition; and a great music-meeting held at Belfast in the year 1792, at which the two or three still remaining of the old race of wandering harpers assisted, exhibited the last public effort made by the lovers of Irish music to preserve to their country the only grace or ornament left to her, out of the wreck of all her liberties and hopes. Thus what the fierce legislature of the Pale had endeavoured vainly through so many centuries to effect, -- the utter extinction of Ireland's Mistrelsy, -- the deadly pressure of the Penal Laws had nearly, at the close of the eighteenth century, accomplished; and, but for the zeal and intelligent research of Mr. Bunting, at that crisis, the greater part of our musical treasures would probably have been lost to the world. It was in the year 1796 that this gentleman published his first volume; and the national spirit and hope then wakened in Ireland, by the rapid spread of the democratic principle throughout Europe, could not but insure a most cordial reception for such a work; -- flattering as it was to the fond dreams of Erin's early days, and containing in itself, indeed, remarkable testimony to the truth of her claims to an early date of civilisation.

It was in the year 1797 that, through the medium of Mr. Bunting's book, I was first made acquainted with the beauties of our native music. A young friend of our family, Edward Hudson, the nephew of an eminent dentist of that name, who played with much taste and feeling on the flute, and, unluckily for himself, was but too deeply warmed with the patriotic ardour then kindling around him, was the first who made known to me this rich mine of our country's melodies; -- a mine, from the working of which my humble labours as a poet have since derived their sole lustre and value. About the same period I formed an acquaintance, which soon grew into intimacy, with young Robert Emmet. He was my senior, I think, by one class, in the university; for when, in the first year of my course, I became a member of the Debating Society, -- a sort of nursery to the authorised Historical Society -- I found him in full reputation, not only for his learning and eloquence, but also for the blamelessness of his life, and the grave suavity of his manners.

Of the political tone of this minor school of oratory, which was held weekly at the rooms of different resident members, some notion may be formed from the nature of the questions proposed for discussion, -- one of which, I recollect, was, "Whether an Aristocracy or a Democracy is most favourable to the advancement of science and literature?" while another, bearing even more pointedly on the relative position of the government and the people, at this crisis, was thus significantly propounded: -- "Whether a soldier was bound, on all occasions, to obey the orders of his commanding officer?" On the former of these questions the effect of Emmet's eloquence upon his young auditors was, I recollect, most striking. The prohibition against touching upon modern politics, which it was subsequently found necessary to enforce, had not yet been introduced; and Emmet, who took of course ardently the side of Democracy in the debate, after a brief review of the republics of antiquity, showing how much they had all done for the advancement of science and the arts, proceeded, lastly, to the grand and perilous example, then passing before all eyes, the young Republic of France. Referring to the circumstance told of Cæsar, that, in swimming across the Rubicon, he contrived to carry with him his Commentaries and his sword, the young orator said, "Thus France wades through a sea of storm and blood; but while, in one hand, she wields the sword against her aggressors, with the other she upholds the glories of science and literature unsullied by the ensanguined tide through which she struggles." In another of his remarkable speeches, I remember his saying, "When a people, advancing rapidly in knowledge and power, perceive at last how far their government is lagging behind them, what then, I ask, is to be done in such a case? What, but to pull the government up to the people?"

In a few months after, both Emmet and myself were admitted members of the greater and recognised institution, called the Historical Society; and, even here,the political feeling so rife abroad contrived to mix up its restless spirit with all our debates and proceedings, notwithstanding the constant watchfulness of the college authorities, as well as of a strong party within the Society itself, devoted adherents to the policy of the government, and taking invariably part with the Provost and Fellows in all their restrictive and inquisitorial measures. The most distinguished and eloquent of these supporters of power were a young man named Sergeant, of whose fate in later days I know nothing, and Jebb, the late Bishop of Limirick, who was then, as he continued to be through life, much respected for his private worth and learning.

Of the popular side, in the Society, the chief champion and ornament was Robert Emmet; and though every care was taken to exclude from the subjects of debate all questions verging towards the politics of the day, it was always easy enough, by a side-wind of digression or allusion, to brng Ireland and the prospects then opening upon her within the scope of the orator's view. So exciting and powerful, in this respect, were Emmet's speeches, and so little were even the most eloquent of the adverse party able to cope with his powers, that it was at length thought advisable, by the higher authorities, to send among us a man of more advanced standing, as well as belonging to a former race of renowned speakers, in that Society, in order that he might answer the speeches of Emmet, and endeavour to obviate the mischievous impression they were thought to produce. The name of this mature champion of the higher powers it is not necessary here to record; but the object of his mission among us was in some respect gained; as it was in replying to a long oration of his one night, that Emmet, much to the mortification of us who glorified him as our leader, became suddenly embarrassed in the middle of his speech, and, to use the parliamentary phrase, broke down. Whether from a momentary confusion in the thread of his argument, or possibly from diffidence in encountering an adversary so much his senior, -- for Emmet was as modest as he was high-minded and brave, -- he began, in the full career of his eloquence, to hesitate and repeat his words, and then, after an effort or two to recover himself, sate down.

It fell to my own lot to be engaged, about the same time, in a brisk struggle with the dominant party of the society, in consequence of a burlesque poem which I gave in, as candidate for the Literary Medal, entitled An Ode upon Nothing, with Notes, by Trismegistus Rustifustius, D.D., etc., etc. For this squib against the great Dons of learning, the medal was noted to me by a triumphant majority. But a motion was made in the following week to rescind the vote; and a fierce contest between the two parties ensued, which I at last put an end to by voluntarily withdrawing my composition from the Society's Book.

I have already adverted to the period when Mr. Bunting's valuable volume first became known to me. There elapsed no very long time before I was myself the happy proprietor of a copy of the work, and, though never regularly instructed in music, could play over the airs with tolerable facility on the pianoforte. Robert Emmet used sometimes to sit by me, when I was thus engaged; and I remember one day his starting up as from a reverie, when I had just finished playing that spirited tune called the Red Fox, [1] and exclaiming, "Oh that I were at the lead of twenty thousand men, marching to that air!"

How little did I then think that in one of the most touching of the sweet airs I used to play to him, his own dying words would find an interpreter so worthy of their sad but proud feelings; [2] or that another of those mournful strains, [3] would long be associated, in the hearts of his countrymen, with the memory of her[4] who shared with Ireland his last blessing and prayer.

Though fully alive, of course, to the feelings which such music could not but inspire, I had not yet undertaken the task of adapting words to any of the airs; and it was, I am ashamed to say, in dull and turgid prose, that I made my first appearance in print as a champion of the popular cause. Towards the latter end of the year 1797, the celebrated newspaper called The Press was set up by Arthur O'Connor, Thomas Addis Emmet, and other chiefs of the United Irish conspiracy, with the view of preparing and ripening the public mind for the great crisis then fast approaching. The memorable journal, according to the impression I at present retain of it, was far more distinguished for earnestness of purpose and intrepidity, than for any great display of literary talent; -- the bold letters written by Emmet (the elder), under the signature of "Montanus," being the only compositions I can now call to mind, as entitled to praise for their literary merit. It required, however, but a small sprinkling of talent to make bold writing, at that time, palatable; and, from the experience of my own home, I can answer for the avidity with which every line of this daring journal was devoured. It used to come out, I think, twice a-week, and, on the evening of publication, I always read it aloud to our small circle after supper.

It may easily be conceived that, what with my ardour for the national cause, and a growing consciousness of some little turn for authorship, I was naturally eager to become a contributor to those patriotic and popular columns. But the constant anxiety about me which I knew my own family felt, -- a feeling more wakeful far than even their zeal in the public cause, -- withheld me from hazarding any step that might cause them harm. I had ventured, indeed, one evening, to pop privately into the letterbox of The Press a short Fragment in imitation of Ossian. But this, though inserted, passed off quietly; and nobody was, in any sense of the phrase, the wiser for it. I was soon tempted, however, to try a more daring flight. Without communicating my secret to any but Edward Hudson, I addressed a long Letter, in prose, to the * * * * * of * * * *, in which a profusion of bad flowers of rhetoric was enwreathed plentifully with that weed which Shakspeare calls "the cockle of rebellion," and, in the same manner as before, committed it tremblingly to the chances of the letter-box. I hardly expected my prose would be honoured with insertion, when, lo, on the next evening of publication, when, seated as usual in my little corner by the fire, I unfolded the paper for the purpose of reading it to my select auditory, there was my own Letter staring me full in the face, being honoured with so conspicuous a place as to be one of the first articles my audience would expect to hear. Assuming an outward appearance of ease, while every nerve within me was trembling, I contrived to accomplish the reading of the Letter without raising in either of my auditors a suspicion that it was my own. I enjoyed the pleasure, too, of hearing it a good deal praised by them; and might have been tempted by this to acknowledge myself the author, had I not found that the language and the sentiments of the article were considered by both to be "very bold". [5]

I was not destined, however, to remain long undetected. On the following day, Edward Hudson,[6] -- the only one, as I have said, entrusted with my secret, called to pay us a morning visit, and had not been long in the room, conversing with my mother, when, looking significantly at me, he said, "Well, you saw -- " Here he stopped; but the mother's eye had followed his, with the rapidity of lightning, to mine, and at once she perceived the whole truth. "That Letter was yours, then?" she asked of me eagerly; and, without hesitation, of course, I acknowledged the fact; when in the most earnest manner she entreated me never again to have any connexion with that paper; and, as every wish of hers was to me law, I readily pledged the solemn promise she required.

Though well aware how easily a sneer may be raised at the simple details of this domestic scene, I have yet ventured to put it on record, as affording an instance of the gentle and womanly watchfulness, -- the Providence, as it may be called, of the little world of home, -- by which, although placed almost in the very current of so headlong a movement, and living familiarly with some of the most daring of those who propelled it, I yet was guarded from any participation in their secret oaths, counsels, or plans, and thus escaped all share in that wild struggle to which so many far better men than myself fell victims.

In the mean while, this great conspiracy was hastening on, with fearful preciptancy, to its outbreak; and vague and shapeless as are now known to have been the views, even of those who were engaged practically in the plot, it is not any wonder that to the young and uninitiated like myself it should have opened prospects partaking far more of the wild dreams of poesy than of the plain and honest prose of real life. But a crisis was then fast approaching, when such self-delusions could no longer be indulged, and when the mystery which had hitherto hung over the plans of the conspirators was to be rent asunder by the stern hand of power.

Of the horrors that fore-ran and followed the frightful explosion of the year 1798, I have neither inclination, nor, luckily, occasion to speak. But among these introductory scenes, which had somewhat prepared the public mind for such a catastrophe, there was one, of a painful description, which, as having been myself an actor in it, I may be allowed briefly to notice.

It was not many weeks, I think, before this crisis, that, owing to information gained by the college authorities of the rapid spread, among the students, not only of the principles but the organisation of the Irish Union[7], a solemn Visitation was held by Lord Clare, the vice-chancellor of the University, with the view of inquiring into the extent of this branch of the plot, and dealing summarily with those engaged in it.

Imperious and harsh as then seemed the policy of thus setting up a sort of inquisitorial tribunal, armed with the power of examining witnesses on oath, and in a place devoted to the instruction of youth, I cannot but confess that the facts which came out in the course of the evidence went far towards justifying even this arbitrary proceeding; and to the many who, like myself, were acquainted only with the general views of the Union leaders, without ever knowing, even from conjecture, who those leaders were, or what their plans or objects, it was most startling to hear the disclosures which every succeeding witness brought forth. There were a few, -- and among the number, poor Robert Emmet, John Brown, and the two * * * * * *s [8] whose total absence from the whole scene, as well as the dead silence that, day after day, followed the calling out of their names, proclaimed how deep had been their share in the unlawful proceeding inquired into by this tribunal.

But there was one young friend of mine, * * * * * * *, whose appearance among the suspected and examined as much surprised as it deeply and painfully interested me. He and Emmet had long been intimate and attached friends; -- their congenial fondness for mathmatical studies having been, I think, a far more binding sympathy between them than any arising out of their political opinions. From his being called up, however, on this day, when, as it appeared afterwards, all the most important evidence was brought forward, there could be little doubt that, in addition to his intimacy with Emmet, the college authorities must have possessed some information which led them to suspect him of being an accomplice in the conspiracy. In the course of his examination, some questions were put to him which he refused to answer, -- most probably from their tendency to involve or inculpate others, and he was accordingly dismissed with the melancholy certainty that his future prospects in life were blasted; it being already known that the punishment for such contumacy was not merely expulsion from the University, but exclusion from all the learned professions.

The proceedings, indeed, of this whole day had been such as to send me to my home in the evening with no very agreeable feelings or prospects. I had heard evidence given affecting even the lives of some of those friends whom I had long regarded with admiration as well as affection; and what was still worse than even their danger, -- a danger ennobled, I thought, by the cause in which they suffered, -- was the shameful spectacle exhibited by those who had appeared in evidence against them. Of these witnesses, the greater number had been themselves involved in the plot, and now came forward either as voluntary informers, or else were driven by the fear of the consequences of refusal to secure their own safety at the expense of companions and friends.

I well remember the gloom, so unusual, that hung over our family circle on that evening, as, talking together of the events of the day, we discussed the likelihood of my being among those who would be called up for examination on the morrow. The deliberate conclusion to which my dear honest advisers came, was that, overwhelming as the consequences were to all their plans and hopes for me, yet, if the questions leading to criminate others, which had been put to almost all examined on that day, and which poor * * * * * * * alone had refused to answer, I must, in the same manner, and at all risks, return a similar refusal. I am not quite certain whether I received any intimation, on the following morning, that I was to be one of those examined in the course of the day; but I rather think some such notice had been conveyed to me; -- and, at last, my awful turn came, and I stood in presence of the formidable tribunal. There sate, with severe look, the vice-chancellor, and, by his side, the memorable Doctor Duigenan, -- memorable for his eternal pamphlets against Catholics.

The oath was proferred to me. "I have an objection, my Lord," said I, "to taking this oath." "What is your objection?" he asked sternly. "I have no fears, my Lord, that any thing I might say would criminate myself, but it might tend to involve others, and I despise the character of the person who could be led, under any such circumstances, to inform against his associates." This was aimed at some of the revelations of the preceding day; and, as I learned afterwards, was so understood. "How old are you, Sir?" he then asked. "Between seventeen and eighteen, my Lord." He then turned to his assessor, Duigenan, and exchanged a few words with him, in an under tone of voice. "We cannot," he resumed, again addressing me, "suffer any one to remain in our University, who refuses to take this oath." "I shall, then, my Lord," I replied, "take the oath, -- still reserving to myself the power of refusing to answer any such questions as I have just described." "We do not sit here to argue with you, Sir," he rejoined sharply; upon which I took the oath, and seated myself in the witnesses' chair.

The following are the questions and answers that then ensued. After adverting to the proved existence of the United Irish Societies in the University, he asked, "Have you ever belonged to any of these societies?" "No, my Lord." "Did you ever hear of a proposal at any of their meetings, for the purchase of arms and ammunition?" "Never, my Lord." "Did you ever hear a proposition made, in one of these societies, with respect to the expediency of assassination?" "Oh no, my Lord." He then turned again to Duigenan, and after a few words with him, said to me -- "When such are the answers you are able to give,[9] pray what was the cause of your great repugnance to taking the oath?" "I have already told your Lordship my chief reason; in addition to which, it was the first oath I ever took, and the hesitation was, I think, natural."[10]

I was now dismissed without any further questioning; and, however trying had been this short operation, was amply repaid for it by the kind zeal with which my young friends and companions flocked to congratulate me; not so much, I was inclinded to hope, on my acquittal by the court, as on the manner in which I had acquitted myself. Of my reception, on returning home, after the fears entertained of so very different a result, I will not attempt any description; -- it was all that such a home alone could furnish.

I have been induced thus to continue, down to the very verge of the warning ourbreak of 1798, the slight sketch of my early days which I ventured to commence in the Preface to the Odes of Anacreon: nor could I have furnished the Irish Melodies with any more pregnant illustration, as it was in those times, and among the events then stirring, that the feeling which afterwards found a voice in my country's music, was born and nurtured.

I shall now string together such detached notices and memoranda respecting this work, as I think may be likely to interest my readers.

Of the few songs written with a concealed political feeling, -- such as "When he who adores thee," and one or two more, -- the most successful, in its day, was "When first I met thee warm and young," which alluded, in its hidden sense, to the Prince Regent's desertion of his political friends. It was little less, I own, than profanation to disturb the sentiment of so beautiful an air by any connexion with such a subject. The great success of this song, soon after I wrote it, among a large party staying at Chatsworth, is thus alluded to in one of Lord Byron's letters to me: -- "I have heard from London that you have left Chatsworth and all there full of 'entusymusy' . . . . . . and, in particular, that 'When first I met thee' has been quite overwhelming in its effect. I told you it was one of the best things you ever wrote, though that dog * * * * wanted you to omit part of it."

It has been sometimes supposed that "Oh, breathe not his name," was meant to allude to Lord Edward Fitzgerald: but this is a mistake; the song having been suggested by the well-known passage in Robert Emmet's dying speech, "Let no man write my epitaph . . . . . let my tomb remain uninscribed, till other times and other men shall learn to do justice to my memory."

The feeble attempt to commemorate the glory of our great Duke -- "When History's Muse," etc. -- is in so far remarkable, that it made up amply for its want of poetic spirit, by an outpouring, rarely granted to bards in these days, of the spirit of prophecy. It was in the year 1815 that the following lines first made their appearance: --

About fourteen years after these lines were written, the Duke of Wellington recommended to the throne the great measure of Catholic Emancipation.

The fancy of the "origin of the Irish Harp" was (as I have elsewhere acknowledged[11]) suggested by a drawing made under peculiarly painful circumstances, by the friend so often mentioned in this sketch, Edward Hudson.

In connexion with another of these matchless airs -- one that defies all poetry to do it justice -- I find the following singular and touching statement in an article in the Quarterly Review. Speaking of a young and promising poetess, Lucretia Davidson, who died very early from nervous excitement, the Reviewer says, "She was particularly sensitive to music. There was one song (it was Moore's Farewell to his Harp) to which she took a special fancy. She wished to hear it only at twilight, -- thus (with that same perilous love of excitement which made her place the Æolian harp in the window when she was composing), seeking to increase the effect which the song produced on her nervous system, already diseasedly susceptible; for it is said that whenever she heard this song, she became quite cold, pale, and almost fainting; yet it was her favourite of all songs, and gave occasion to those verses addressed in her fifteenth year to her sister."[12]

With the Melody entitled "Love, Valour, and Wit," an incident is connected, which awakened feeling in me of proud but sad pleasure, to think that my songs had reached the hearts of some of the descendents of those great Irish families, who found themselves forced, in the dark days of persecution, to seek in other lands a refuge from the shame and ruin of their own; -- those, whose story I have thus associated with one of their country's most characteristic airs: --

From a foreign lady, of this ancient extraction, -- whose names, could I venture to mention then, would lend to the incident an additional Irish charm, -- I received, about two years since, through the hands of gentleman to whom it had been entrusted, a large portfolio, adorned inside with a beautiful drawing, representing Love, Wit, and Valour, as described in the song. In the border that surrounds the drawing are introduced the favourite emblems of Erin, the harp, the shamrock, the mitred head of St. Patrick, together, with scrolls containing each, incribed in letters of gold, the name of some favourite melody of the fair artist.

This present was accompanied by the following letter from the lady herself; and her Irish race, I fear, is but too discernable in the generous indiscretion with which, in this instance, she allows praise so much to strip desert: --

"Le 25 Août, 1836.
"Monsieur,

"Si les poëtes n'etoient en queique sorte une propriété intellectuelle dont chacun prend sa part à raison de la puissance qu'ils exercent, je ne saurois en vérité comment faire pour justifier mon courage! -- car il en falloit beaucoup pour avoir osé consacrer mon pauvre talent d'amateur à vos delicieuses poësies, et plus encore pour en renvoyer le pâle reflet à son véritable auteur.

Of the translations that have appeared of the Melodies in different languages, I shall here mention such as have come to my knowledge.

Latin. -- "Cantus Hiberniei," Nicolas Lee Torre, London, 1835.
Italian. -- G. Flechia, Torino, 1836. -- Adele Chsti, Milano, 1836.
French. Madame Belloc, Paris, 1823. -- Loeve Verimars, Paris, 1829.
Russian. Several detached Melodies, by the popular Russian poet Kozlof.
Polish. Selections, in the same manner, by Niemcewich, Kosmian, and others.

I have now exhausted, not so much my own recollections, as the patience, I fear, of my readers on this subject. We are told of painters calling those last touches of the pencil which they give to some favourite picture the "ultima basia;" and with the same sort of affectionate feeling do I now take leave of the Irish Melodies, -- the only work of my pen, as I very sincerely believe, whose fame (thanks to the sweet music in which it is embalmed) may boast a chance of prolonging its existence to a day much beyond our own.

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