The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
There are poets who remain famous, poets whose names have vanished, and a few in between, half-remembered names of those who were once recognized and respected.
I was weeding one of the flower beds when my neighbour Charles Gillis dropped by on his way to the post office to tell me about an old book he owns. He lives just up the road in a frame houses built in the days when Eldon was a much bigger town than it is now—five stores, a bank, a public library.
The book he later showed me was found in a house owned by the Moore family. Years back, when they were clearing things out, they passed it on to him—a collection of the poems of Thomas Moore, a small thick book, with an embossed cover and the marbled endpapers that were common in books of the Victorian period.
The still-famous poets are mostly those studied in schools or universities. Moore is not one of them now, but he was illustrious in his day. Born in Dublin in 1779, the son of a grocer, he lived until 1852, though the final years of his life were lost to dementia. What’s been best known of his work is a group of poems called Irish Melodies, some of them set to existing tunes, some apparently to tunes of his own. Moore himself was a singer, and if you’re a fan of Irish tenors you might have heard some of them—The Minstrel Boy, The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Halls, The Last Rose of Summer, Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms—pretty, sentimental ballads.
But what is now best remembered about Moore is his involvement in the burning of Lord Byron’s autobiography. When the two met, Moore was probably the better known poet, but within a few years Byron was famous (and infamous) in England and through much of Europe, the archetypal romantic, the Leonard Cohen of his day, but more profligate and doomed. “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” one of his lovers said. He was surrounded by scandalous rumours about his sex life—the reasons for the break-up of his marriage, the possibility that he had committed incest with his half-sister. In the last years of his short life, Byron wrote a two volume narrative about what he’d been up to. He gave the manuscript of his memoir to his friend Thomas Moore, making it quite clear that Moore, who needed money, was free to sell it. Moore sold it to a publisher, but after the wicked Lord died, it was thought too dangerous to exist and was burnt. There’s some evidence that Moore argued against this, but the fire was lit and the memoir is gone forever: however, Moore, who had read it, wrote the first biography of Byron, published in 1830.
In the front of my neighbour’s book is an inscription: Mrs James Moore, December 25, 1876. It was a Christmas present, I assume, and it makes you speculate on whether the family was related to the poet, or hoped they were.
Increasingly Thomas Moore’s name is known as a footnote to the tale of the wicked Lord. But in Eastern Canada he’s not without local interest. Early in his life, Moore travelled through parts of North America, and the landscape of early nineteenth century Canada is documented in the poems he wrote on his travels.
One of the poems is about a phantom ship. It was written in the Gulf of St Lawrence, while passing Dead Man’s Island, which, according to the note in the old collection, was one of the Magdalens. I have to wonder if Mrs James Moore of Eldon read her Christmas book on a winter night in that house just up the road from ours and imagined seeing that same phantom ship off the coast of Prince Edward Island. Perhaps it was the same one which sometimes appears (or so I’m told) just off Tea Hill.
David Helwig, the author of many volumes of fiction and poetry, has lived in Eldon PEI since 1996. His book of memoirs, The Names of Things, has recently been published.