An essay by Steve O’Connor . . .
My grandfather once told me, in definitive tones, that Thomas Moore was the greatest poet in the English language, and as a boy his word was good enough for me. Papa, as we called my grandfather, was a great lover of poetry. There was a tremendous thick tome on his shelf called The Poetry and Song of Ireland, edited by John Boyle O’Reilly, and it held within its sacred pages the poems of Thomas Moore. A frontispiece depicted Cathleen ni Houlihan, the beautiful woman who was the embodiment of Ireland. While her people were subjected to the yoke of foreign bondage, she was the sean van vocht, “the poor old woman,” but whenever the Irish took up arms and shed blood in the cause of freedom, she was transformed into the brightness of brightness, the queenly Cathleen. Under her radiant image were Moore’s evocative words: “Rich and rare were the gems she wore.” Papa gave me the book, which my father rebound for me as a Christmas gift years later. It sits on the table beside me as I write.
If Thomas Moore were the world’s greatest poet, then his greatest creation was Lalla Rookh, published in 1812. The Norton Anthology of English Literature states that the three thousand pounds that Moore was advanced by his publisher was the largest sum ever offered for a single poem, and this at a time when Byron and Shelley were household names. And so my grandfather, who was born in the late nineteenth century, would not have been alone in regarding the poem as the equal of any in English. Before Moore’s death in 1852, Lalla Rookh went through twenty editions. I was reminded of all this the other day as I was thumbing through a copy of Huck Finn. Huck mentions a couple of riverboats, one of which he says, is called the “Lally Rook.” The poem is also mentioned in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Schuman wrote music based on scenes from Moore’s poem. And I remember reading somewhere that Moore’s Lalla Rookh, along with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was one of the most popular pieces for soldiers to read around the campfire during the Civil War.
Since Papa said it was a masterpiece, and since the words “Lalla Rookh” had such a beautiful sound rolling off of his Irish tongue, I was eager to read it. I must have been about thirteen years old, so I hoped that it would recount the deeds of knights at arms or of Irish heroes, and was surprised to see the subtitle, “A Persian Tale.” It was a work of what is known today as “Romantic Orientalism.” Let me be honest with you, and hope that my grandfather is not listening from a perch in heaven. It was pretty heavy going. It was full of maidens beckoning the brave to their bowers, and crimson blossoms of the coral tree in the warm isles of India’s sunny sea. The footnotes alone would keep the prisoner of Zenda busy for months. On the first page of the poem, there are twelve explanatory footnotes drawn from atlases, treatises, mythology, Persian miscellanies, and ancient dictionaries.
Now I will not say that some of this is not interesting; in fact, to me the footnotes are in some cases more interesting than the poem. Who knew that a “bulbul” was a nightingale? But what is really interesting to me is the simple fact that throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this behemoth of a poem was enormously popular. It was not read by graduate students; it was read and admired by a lot of people like my grandfather, with a high school education or less. Melodrama is out of favor today, but beyond that, is there a publisher alive who would pay an extravagant advance for a book-length poem in any style, or on any subject?
I wonder if it’s something beyond literary fashion. People in the past, those who could read, seemed to have had a very high order of comprehension and expression relative to the modern reader and writer. In the grammar schools of our grandparents, and even some of our parents, American students still read and often memorized long poems such as “Evangaline,” “The Song of Hiawatha,” and “The Wreck of the Hesperus.”
Popular poetry no longer exists in America in the way that it did in an earlier time, and popular reading today is synonymous with light reading. It was not always so. While watching a documentary on the Mexican American War recently, I was surprised to hear that many of the American soldiers in that war carried Prescott’s 1843 Conquest of Mexico, which they read to pass the hours between marching and fighting. Now I happen to own a copy of Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico, or I should say copies, because to begin with, the work is two volumes. Opening volume two at random, I read “Cortes reflected on his own impotence to restrain the fury of the Mexicans, and resolved in spite of his late supercilious treatment of Montezuma, to employ his authority to allay the tumult, an authority so successfully exerted on behalf of Alvarado at an earlier stage of the insurrection.”
Whether we can appreciate their tastes or world view, whether their histories are objective, or their plots believable, their scenes sentimental, or their poetry ornate, the sheer literacy of our ancestors astonishes me. Look at the works that they read; a year before Prescott published his Conquest of Mexico, Charles Dickens visited Lowell, and was the toast of the town; the most popular novelist in history. Have you tried to read Bleak House lately? Who has that kind of patience these days? And the difference shows. Read the letters of Civil War soldiers, or of the rugged whalers out of Nantucket; read the prose that was written by the young women who tended the looms here in Lowell, women who were often sending their pay home to help educate their brothers. Yet their discussions and debates were carried on at an intellectual level one might expect of today’s college professors.
What happened to us? What happened to our schools? Was it TV? Video games? Was it the cult of self-esteem and lack of self-discipline? The proliferation of excuses and accommodations? The belief that education could be had without a price and it would all be just good fun – an extension of Sesame Street? The electronic entertainment that has sapped our attention span? I don’t know. But something has been lost, and I’m afraid that the thick book of poetry my grandfather gave me will never be a welcome and treasured heirloom to any of my grandchildren.