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Regency Memoirs

The Journal of Thomas Moore 1818-1841

edited with an Introduction by Peter Quennell
Macmillan, 256 pp., $1.95 (paper)

The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow

edited with an Introduction by John Raymond
Viking, 384 pp., $7.95

Perhaps suspecting that eight volumes made too large a monument to Tom Moore, Lord John Russell prefaced his 1853 edition of Moore’s Journal with a prophetic reference to the academic critical industry in America. Among those unborn English-speaking millions across the sea there would arise, as Russell put it in a stunning metaphor, “communities holding aloft the literature of England through the ocean of time.” For them the most minute, the most lengthy autobiographical record of a poet of Moore’s stature would surely be “the subject of inquiry, of curiosity, and of affectionate concern.” A busy man (Prime Minister during the Irish potato famine of the 1840s), Lord John was not one to waste his time on nonentities: Moore he considered “of English lyrical poets…surely the first.”

When his contemporaries praised Moore’s gift as “lyrical,” they did not mean that his poetry made its own music through sound and rhythm, but that his Irish Melodies (verses he wrote to be sung to Irish tunes) sounded flat without the music. Today hardly a stanza by Moore remains in the anthologies, and his few remembered lyrics (“Believe me if all those endearing young charms,” “The Last Rose of Summer”) have come to pall: words, sentiment, and music. Moore’s poetic legacy perhaps matters now only to Americans, for our own Poe and Oliver Wendell Holmes owed many of their characteristic verses to their enthusiasm for the tinkling sonorities of Tom Moore.

As a writer of prose, however, and as a man standing at the boundary between a literary and a social world, Moore still delights. Peter Quennell, the editor of the present selection from Moore’s Journal, rightly remembers him as author of the Letters and Journals of Lord Byron with Notices of his life, which Macaulay praised as a classic of the age. The work lives as a repository of Byron’s magnificent prose, but Moore’s own mellifluous style, elegant yet manly, sober yet eloquent, dignified yet intimate, provides a cool antiphony to the warm palpitations of Byron’s speaking heart. No one was better placed than Moore to memorialize the Lord among poets. Byron’s closest friend among literary men, Moore was also the only poet of the Romantic age to stay on easy, familiar terms with the Regency “world”—that society whose notorious exclusivism justified the Romantics’ sense of rebellious alienation and prompted the Victorian reaction to follow. In the course of a discussion of Byron’s precarious social position, Lord Holland put the matter as bluntly as anyone. Turning to Moore, the Dublin grocer’s son, he said “you were the only literary person he formed an intimacy with…; the others he was rather inclined to insult.”

Moore’s Journal tells us what it was like to teeter precariously between two hostile worlds, to be, in short, “the immortal Thomas Moore, Esq.,” as someone once directed a note left at his hotel. (“Only think of an immortal esquire,” Moore commented—for he could see the humor of his special position—“expected to hear the chamber-maids cry out ‘Some hot water for the immortal gentleman in No. 18.’ “) The odd thing is that it felt very nice indeed. Unless we absolutely insist on genius, Moore seems to have had everything, done everything, been everything a poet should have, do, and be. He lived in a cottage with a garden and paid his own rent—even in Paris, where he found right on the Champs Elysées a duplicate of his English cottage. (“Quite the thing I want; as rural and secluded a workshop as I ever have had.”) He earned enough to live comfortably and relished what luxuries he could afford. (On a Paris dinner with Rogers: “Sat down (he and I) to a splendid dinner at fifteen francs a head, exclusive of wine. Poets did not feed so in the ‘olden time’.”) Yet he ran up enough debts to keep counting his pennies, and to keep working. (Moore always paid his debts—even the thousands of guineas lost during his one stretch of government employment, by a subordinate’s defalcation; even the thousands owed to Murray when Byron’s journals were put in the fire at the publisher’s, not Moore’s, insistence.) None of his productions was written merely to capture popular, or pander to fashionable, taste. Yet Moore enjoyed worldwide popularity almost his whole life.

Though he supported himself by turning out volume after volume of prose and verse (biographies, satires, oriental romances, songs, odes, histories), Moore had free access to all the exclusive frivolities that Regency society ordinarily barred to its drones. He was a member of the best clubs, used the best tailor, dropped in at Almack’s as often as he liked. He knew dandies like Brummell and Alvanley, wits like Luttrell and Sydney Smith; he also knew Wordsworth, Scott, Lamb, Jeffrey, Coleridge, Landor, Macaulay, Benjamin Constant, and Washington Irving. The Hollands and the Lansdownes and the Bedfords, Lady Cork and Lady Blessington, half the great hosts and hostesses of the day begged him to dine or spend the night or stay a week. (“If you are in ever such a hurry, you must sleep somewhere, so make this your inn,” said the Duchess of Bedford.) Bowood, Woburn, and Holland House, those palazzi of Great Britain, were worth the visit, for the Regency lavished its wealth and time on architecture, landscaping, and furniture, on dress and the preservation of youth and beauty, on sport and food and, that pleasure without which all else palled, good talk. Moore’s Journal provides as good a record as we have of the conversation at Regency houses. For the rest of the picture we must go elsewhere—to Captain Gronow’s Reminiscences, for instance, which supply much of the color and line of Regency high life, while Moore “curiously enough…starves our visual sense,” as J. B. Priestley, another editor of Moore’s Journal, commented. (There is nothing curious about it: Moore was evidently very nearsighted “The ball a most beautiful spectacle,” he will write, “but I had left my glasses at home.”

Captain Rees Howell Gronow’s Reminiscences and Recollections are once again in print, as if to remind us of the improbable silliness of the exclusive world Moore loved, and of the improbability of his being loved by it. Descendant of an old Welsh family related to the Tudors, Gronow lived a model fashionable life until, in old age, he lapsed sufficiently from graceful inactivity to record his anecdotal memories of the exclusives. After leaving Eaton (where he knew Shelley), Gronow had been commissioned Ensign in the First Guards in 1812. He saw action in the Peninsula, fought at Waterloo and entered Paris in 1815 with the conquering armies. Most of the rest of his life was spent in Paris, where, incidentally, Gronow, ran across Moore and noted, in addition to his charm, his gourmanderie. The first edition of Gronow’s memoirs served to convince the Victorians that Thackeray drew his “old Paris den” from the life, and that Major Pendennis was a realistic portrait of the dandy guardsman of Regency antiquity. The first collected edition, strikingly illustrated with Joseph Grego’s engravings from contemporary prints, appeared in 1889 in time to provide the Nineties with documentation for its nostalgic celebration of the Regency. (Beerbohm’s first essay in dandyphilia opened with a reference to this edition.) The present edition, though beautifully printed, adds nothing to Gronow: one third of the text and half the illustrations have been cut, and it is as senseless to cut Gronow as to cut the air from whipped cream. Why must we miss his vignette of a rainy day at war, when the Grenadier Guards raised their umbrellas in the face of enemy fire? Nothing evokes better the care that “gentlemen’s sons,” as officers were then called, bestowed on their clothes—before their person.

The cut of a dandy’s coat and the shape of a dancer’s legs, the paint on a tilbury and the diamonds at a ball: Gronow miraculously preserves the spectacle of Moore’s period, for his memory was such, as he said himself, that he could “distinctly recollect the face, walk and voice, as well as the dress and general manner, of every one whom I have known.” But Moore had the finer ear for good talk, to which we are indebted for the preservation of some of the best of Brummell’s snubs, Luttrell’s conceits, Smith’s witticisms, and Melbourne’s paradoxes. Moore himself got off a few witty things in his time, but it was not his social function to make people laugh. He was expected, on the contrary, to make them cry. That was why he was always asked to sing after dinner. When the ministers had finished with politics and the gossips with scandal, when the lions had roared and the wits run dry, when the lords had exhausted their ribaldries and the ladies rejoined their lords, then dapper Tommy Moore went to the pianoforte to sing of lost loves. old friendships, departing soldiers or dying Ireland. Everyone cried and the evening was over. Almost all of Moore’s diary entries could end with the phrase with which he concluded that of October 31st, 1821: “Dined, sung, and slept.”

Moore was not only pet poet to the Regency, but pet Romantic as well. When he first sang his songs to London society early in 1800 they struck the sensational “modern” note of folk art and gloom. “His singing ‘va dritto al cuore,’ ” as Greville put it, “for it produces an exceeding sadness, and brings to mind a thousand melancholy recollections and generates many melancholy anticipations.” Agreeable was the favorite word for Moore: Greville said it, Byron said it, the Duchess of Bedford said it to her son Lord John Russell, who was carrying Moore off with him on a trip to Paris. She and the Duke were bound instead for the Rhine, and “wished they had some one with them, like Mr. Moore, to be agreeable when they got to their inn in the evening.”

Moore’s serene and complacent temperament rested on financial probity, political independence, and manly industriousness—qualities the Regency lord treasured in any man popular enough to ask for patronage and preferment. (His powerful Whig friends did, in fact, nothing for Moore, until the grant of a modest pension late in his career.) The spectacle of his domestic bliss was equally reassuring—at a distance (his wife rarely accompanied Moore into society). Bessy Moore was a beauty when he took her from the stage at sixteen, and, to the day of his death, she made him a devoted, capable, and adored wife. Much of the charm of Moore’s diary lies in its revelation of domesticity so perfect that it has hardly a parallel in literary history, least of all in the marriage-worshipping Victorian age. Moore loved his five children; he worshipped his mother, to whom he wrote twice weekly; a good share of his earnings went to the support of his Irish relations. He kept loyal servants, to whom he was invariably considerate; he was a charitable neighbor and a staunch friend. Not a single vice could be laid at his door (yet he was the least censorious of men, as Byron appreciated); not a single liaison after marriage (though he had every opportunity); not a single act of meanness or cowardice, not a word of envy or malice. The catalogue of these extraordinary virtues is full when we add that Moore raised his children in the Church of England, but remained all his life a practicing, even proselytizing Roman Catholic.

The Journal reveals no guilt or doubt, solitary questionings of the inner Moore. There may, in fact, have been no inner Moore. Stephen Spender has commented that what is “peculiar and special” about the Romantic poets “is that outwardness so often takes the form of inwardness.” In Moore, inwardness regularly takes the form of outwardness: he was the very model of that anti-Romantic but well-adjusted fellow, the Man of Sensibility. His Journal provides an impressive, often funny account of the type.

All Moore’s sensibilities are on display: awe, grief, nostalgia, reverence, and so on, spread out, attested, and measured with a physiological rigor that would do credit to Pavlov. His first glimpse of Mont Blanc: “I ran like lightning down the steep road that led towards it, with my glass to my eye, and uttering exclamations of wonder at every step.” On the sights of Paris: “Saw a man go up in a balloon from Tivoli, which brought tears into my eyes, being the first I have seen since I was a little child. Saw [another], which did not affect me at all.” On singing after the death of his daughter: “just at the last line, when I had with difficulty restrained myself throughout, the violent burst came; and for near ten minutes (to the great alarm of the girls, who fled out of the room) I continued to sob as if my chest was coming asunder.”

Moore’s inclination to sensibility fits, which ruined his singing, was well known in his domestic circle. His mother and his wife both went to some trouble to keep him from such harrowing experiences as attendance at the deathbed of father or child. (“This is a great relief,” Moore noted, as the experience “would haunt me, I know, dreadfully through the remainder of my life.”) On the latter melancholy occasion, Moore did give way to one of his sobbing fits, in which he felt (again) “as if my chest was coming asunder.” The priceless Bessy ran from her daughter’s side to hand Moore a smelling-bottle, and give tongue to the innermost thoughts of the wife of the man of sensibility: “For God’s sake don’t you get ill.”

Only toward the end of his life did cracks appear in Moore’s accustomed complaisance. When, in the 1830s, Reform was proposed, with the end of Regency ways to follow, Moore began to express, to his Journal as to his friends in society, those doubts and regrets for which we look in vain in earlier volumes. His dread of the Reform Bill, on whose revolutionary consequences he implored his noble Whig friends to ponder (Lord John Russell himself brought in the Bill), gave rise to some of the most interesting passages in Moore’s Journal. None of these was included in Tom Moore’s Diary, the attractive volume put together in 1933 by J. B. Priestley, who simplified the problem of selection from Russell’s multi-volume Moore by eliminating all “political” discussions. Mr. Quennell is less ruthless towards politics. Considerably fuller, his volume provides a more satisfactory, though meanly printed, Introduction to Moore’s Journal. But the late years suffer most distortion from cuting Only in Russell’s last volumes can we fully savor the extraordinary spectacle of the parvenu poet arguing with the minister from a ducal house against the destruction of oligarchical England. Moore had his reasons, and his metaphor. “Not being young,” he explained, “and wishing the remainder of my course to continue on the same level as heretofore, I cannot bring myself to dance down these first steps of the precipice so gaily and sanguinely as I see others do.”

Though the Regency was his world, Moore nevertheless survived long enough into Victorian times to appreciate and leave a superb comment on the young Dickens. Since this entry in his Journal is inexplicably missing from the Quennell selections, it may be worth giving here:

April 5th, 1837:…Conversation turned on Boz, the new comic writer. Was sorry to hear Sydney Smith cry him down…Whereas, to me it appears one of the few proofs of good taste that “the masses,” as they are called, have given, there being some as nice humour and fun in the “Pickwick Papers” as in any work I have seen in our day.

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