Essays & Reviews

Searching for Tom Moore” By Margo Stever, Connecticut Review, Spring, 2006.

For the second time in three years, I found myself on the way to Bermuda, billed in a TV tourist ad as “the height of civilization.” Last time, before the event now known as 9/11, before the corporate accounting corruption scandals, and before President George W. Bush’s War in Iraq, I paid my first visit to this small extinct volcanic island stuck in the middle of the Gulf Stream. Nominally part of the British Commonwealth (its Governor is appointed by the Queen), Bermuda, nonetheless, struck me as decidedly more “American” than British. But it was then that I discovered the existence of the elusive Tom Moore, who had written his poems in the early part of the nineteenth century. Heralded by Bermudians as the unofficial poet laureate, Moore is their only celebrated poet.

Like others who accompany their spouse on business, I found that the most obvious tourist activity was exploring Hamilton, a shopping haven with all sorts of clothing and luxury stores. But that bored me. After learning of the existence of the poet when we booked a dinner reservation at the Tom Moore Tavern, I decided to buy a book of poetry by Moore. It would take three years to find one. Upon arrival at the main bookstore in town, the cashier abruptly told me that they had no books by or about the poet, and that if I wanted to see his work, I should go to the Hamilton Library; my quest was born.

Since we planned to dine that evening at the Tom Moore Tavern just outside of Hamilton, I was eager to go to the library right away. Naively assuming that I would find relevant volumes to read, I discovered to my chagrin that Mr. Moore’s work could be found only in the rare book room which would not be open until the next day.

When we arrived at the quaint, secluded restaurant, surrounded by dense vegetation, I was charmed by the romantic setting. In the midst of a sudden thunderstorm, but after the restoration of electric power, I asked the waiter if the restaurant so aptly named for the great poet also contained any of his poetry that I might read while waiting for our meal. Here, I hoped to eliminate the trek to the rare book room. With my Dolphin Quest swim planned for the next day, followed by the cocktail party and dinner hosted by my spouse’s firm, I could already sense my stress level rising as I wondered how I would fit in my visit to the rare book room.

Surely, I thought, the Tom Moore Tavern would contain the satisfaction of my desires! No sooner were my hopes raised than they were dashed. However strongly I believed that Tom Moore’s legacy would be fully celebrated at the restaurant that bore his name, I was disappointed. Not only were there no traces of Moore’s work, but the poet never actually lived on the premises. My curiosity about Tom Moore and his life, however, exponentially increased with each failure to find a trace of his poetry. My date with the rare book room had to be kept.

Not having specialized in library research and envisioning the rare book room as musty and smelling of decayed paper, I was comforted to find a small, spare space. Most compelling was the discovery of a trove of volumes devoted to Tom Moore. Delving into the works, I read his famous, “Ode to Nea,” for which he gained the indelible reputation as a skirt chaser since few people then or, apparently, now, can understand that a romantic relationship could be fictitious or even, merely, wishful. I read his self-deprecating preface in which he stated that his poetry should be shown in the “dim light of privacy which is as favorable to poetical as to female beauty, and serves as a veil for faults, while it enhances every charm it displays.”

These lines moved me to tears as I imagined how Tom Moore would feel should he have realized that the inhabitants of the island took his words so literally that they managed to celebrate his existence over the last two hundred years, but totally forgot about reading his poetry, not even in the dimmest of light.

Increasingly, the life of Tom Moore became emblematic of what was wrong with poetry then and what is wrong with poetry now. Before me blossomed a man who was considered in his lifetime to be so small in stature that anyone smaller would have been a dwarf. Perhaps, this characteristic alone propelled him to develop his considerable verbal skills. Tom Moore was an Irishman who later lived in England. Recognized as a gifted poet, he was app ointed Poet Laureate of Ireland in 1801. There was not much to this position. Moore decided that an appointment to Bermuda, at that time a prosperous British trading colony, would be more fulfilling. His job: To tabulate the shipwrecks and boats privateered or captured by the Bermudians. He was titled Registrar to the Vice-Admiralty Court in Bermuda.

Before I could fully immerse myself in Moore’s biography, I was forced to quit the library for my next all important business-related social event. At cocktails that night, a brilliant, young, good- looking attorney assured me with gusto that he was my worst enemy. For instance, he would no sooner read any poetry including my then newly published chapbook, Reading the Night Sky, than fly to the moon. He maintained that he had not read poetry since high school, didn’t understand it then, and didn’t plan to begin to do so now.

With the suddenness of an epiphany, I felt not simply a kinship, but a steadfast bond with Tom Moore that I hadn’t previously articulated to myself. Even the poetry of a celebrated poet who is mentioned in guide books and whose name adorns a reputable restaurant is nowhere to be found except in the only dead book room of the state library. Did I delude myself in thinking that anyone would ever make an effort to read any of my own meager work? Did not people then or now realize that poetry represents the “height of civilization”? How many consider that poetry brings us together from the far corners of the world and unites us in an understanding of our differences?

My first trip to Bermuda ended upon my return to New York. Tom Moore quickly faded from my memory and surely would have receded into the long forgotten history of my transient life had I not found myself quite by chance and circumstance plopped down on Bermuda, that unimaginably beautiful island, three years later. Once again, I had little to do and no place in particular to go.

While only three years had transpired since our last visit, those three years were in many respects like a millennium. Many had seen their fortunes evaporate. Some friends and hordes of others had lost their jobs. The sense of unending abundance that accompanied the irrational dot-com investment bubble had burst with George W. Bush’s arrival on the political scene. Our sense of invincibility was shattered by eleven terrorists and four hijacked airlines, our trust in corporate accounting destroyed by revelations of unthinkable executive greed, and our nation was again at war.

Back to the tranquil Bermuda I went on the same sort of business trip with my husband, fast forward. A confirmation of what must be a common observation about the island centers on the harmony between the human-built environment and nature. I don’t think that I have ever traveled to a place where the breathtaking natural environment harmonizes so eloquently with human culture.

That having been said, the social environment of Bermuda seemed to have dramatically changed. For instance, the local paper reported on a number of violent murders. In one incident, two Rastafarians had gone into a Catholic church and murdered the priest, nuns, and several parishioners. In another, a young adult was murdered gangland style after he apparently testified in a trial against the perpetrator. The crime rate appeared to have increased mysteriously on this island so close to paradise, which has a solid economy and only around forty thousand inhabitants. When I asked a knowledgeable local about how to account for the unfortunate and possibly unprecedented shift in social reality, she blamed the recent island-wide introduction of cable TV.

During this second visit, the wind blew at near gale force for several days. When presented with an opportunity to choose between many equally interesting recreational activities, I chose the island tour. After questioning my guide about whether he had read Tom Moore’s poetry, he assured me that he had not, but regaled me with his knowledge of Moore’s reputation for sexual prowess and recounted as fact the legend that Moore had engaged in several affairs with young Bermudian women. The guide also sparked my curiosity when he told me that we would visit a bust of Tom Moore at St. George’s, our main destination point.

With these new bits of information, my zeal from three years ago to find out more about Tom Moore and his poetry returned with a vengeance. Surely, I thought, in a town where his very bust was enshrined, I would find a book about this sadly neglected literary figure. No sooner did we hit the pavement for our hour of exploration than I headed for the only bookstore, which was located along a side street in a darkly-lit basement. I noticed the usual tour guide books, but no books on Tom Moore. When I asked the shopkeeper my now habitual question, she told me that they had run out of such a book and, oddly enough, directed me to look at the town pharmacy.

At the nearby pharmacy, I was directed up the stairs and then referred back to the bookstore. Confused and filled with despair and longing to find some trace of the soul of Tom Moore, I was about to abandon my search. I ducked into the Civil War museum (the Bermudians were gun runners for the Confederates) and settled down to a portion of a film on the history of the island. The curator was kind enough to let me stay for only a segment since my ride was set to depart. When I assiduously returned to find others in my group had dallied beyond our agreed upon meeting time, I returned to take a look at the museum store. It was there that my search was finally fulfilled. The shopkeeper quickly produced, An Irishman Came Through, by David F. Raine, a biography on Moore published in 2000 between my last visit and this one. Never had such a slim volume met such an eager reader.

On the tour-directed taxi ride home, I devoured Raine’s biography in which the author asserts that my tour guide and many other gossips over the years were all wrong about Moore’s extra-marital affairs. While he had two married female friends, Hester Tucker, and Margaret Trott, her cousin, he seems to have combined both of them into one aesthetic model for romantic love in his famous, “Ode to Nea.” Poetic license had sullied his reputation for centuries.

What is perhaps most instructive about Moore’s life was his decision to depart Bermuda after only around five months. The most likely explanation is that he was bored with his job which involved tracking the contents of ships, captured or wrecked. After he returned to England, he found someone to replace him at his job in Bermuda while he continued to receive some kind of agreed-upon remuneration. While in England, Tom Moore married. Shortly after the death of his second child, he was accused of embezzling over six thousand pounds from his post in Bermuda which Raine asserts was possibly even stolen by one or more of the locally prominent Tucker family who took advantage of a sloppy accounting system after Moore had departed.

In order to avoid debtor’s prison, Moore fled England for France and Italy to live in exile. On at least one occasion, he returned to London in disguise. While in exile, Moore wrote prodigiously to earn the funds to pay off the debt to the Vice Admiralty, and through his efforts and a little anonymous help from a wealthy relative of one of the probable thieves which Moore finally accepted, he was able to liquidate most of his debt by 1823. After his temporary exile, he returned to England and lived happily with his wife, Bessy, and their two surviving sons until his death in 1852. He was a friend of George Gordon, Lord Byron, and he was Byron’s biographer. Moore also wrote a biography of the playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

Because I had within that year published my second collection of poetry, Frozen Spring, perhaps I identified with Tom Moore. As I eagerly attempted to garner some interest in my work, I quickly confirmed my previously held assessment that poetry isn’t even on the radar screen of much of the business community, or most other communities in America.

Deprived at least for significant periods of a satisfying life, Moore was forced to take a government job that could not have been in keeping with his poetic sensibilities, a job that he left to pursue his literary gifts, only to be victimized by wealthy opportunists and forced into exile. His most famous poem has been interpreted literally and no one remembers the actual text, which is almost impossible to find on the island. What people do say about it is based on an interpretation that amounts to little more than juicy gossip.

At the end of my second trip to Bermuda, I was privileged to take an evening “cocktail cruise” around Hamilton Harbor and up to the old ramparts where the dolphins swim with tourists, for a farewell dinner at the dockyards in the courtyard where the regiments once paraded before the Queen. Most of the people sitting at our assigned table were a generation younger than my husband and I. By dinner’s end, when the waiters passed around cigars, an attractive young woman, an apparent up-and-coming member of the firm, grabbed one and lit up.

While watching this, I remembered an event that had occurred some years past when another then-young woman of my acquaintance fired up a cigar in the “men’s grill” of a golf club on a Saturday afternoon to her husband’s chagrin and their later almost forced withdrawal from membership in the club. Some things change and some remain the same.