"Extempore" by Thomas Moore: Commentary
Thomas Moore's "Extempore"
Like the factual circumstances surrounding the portrait of the Duchess of Bedford (see Commentary on Georgiana, Duchess of Bedford), the text and the context of this poem are ironically related. The unnamed friend to whom this poem is dedicated is James Perry, an editor of the Morning Chronicle, who had helped Moore to negotiate with the publisher, Longman, for the publication of Lalla Rookh. John Murray had previously offered Moore 2,000 guineas for that poem, but Perry contacted Longman for a better offer, and in December 1814 Longman met with Perry and Moore. Perry suggested that Moore should be offered at least as much as the highest sum ever paid for any previous poem, which (Longman then said) was 3,000 pounds, which had been paid in 1811 for Sir Walter Scott's Rokeby (which appeared in 1813). As Moore tells the story,
It was then objected, and very reasonably, on the part of the firm, that they had never yet seen a single line of the poem, and that a perusal of the work ought to be allowed them before they embarked so large a sum in the purchase. But no; the romantic view my friend Perry took of the matter was, that this price should be given as a tribute to reputation already acquired, without any condition for a previous perusal of the new work. This high tone, I confess, not a little startled and alarmed me; but to the honour and glory of romance--as well on the publishers' as on the poet's side, this very generous view of the transaction was, without any difficulty, acceded to, and the firm agreed before we separated that I should receive three thousand guineas for my poem.1
"The golden shower thy spell brought down" is (obviously) the three thousand pounds that Perry obtained from Longman for Moore's poem.
The poem gathers far more interesting references than these, however: the first stanza ridicules the spending of a "fortune on a flower," treating the payment of large sums of money for "idle rhymes" as an odd fact about the contemporary (Regency) culture. But from its title (mentioning the "very liberal price") onward, the poem also unmasks the illusion that a poem is a flower; the poem makes the commodity status of a poem very clear, while (contradictorily) sustaining its confusion with a "flower." The theme of the 3,000-pound poem ("Liberty") is buried by the commercial discourse; the merely thematic preoccupations of Lalla Rookh are scarcely noticed in the poem that trumpets its financial meanings loudly. At this point the plot thickens again, because the appearance of "Extempore" in the Keepsake tells a different but clearly related story of conflict.
In his journal for 12-14 February 1828, Moore writes as follows:
. . . the Editor of the Keepsake had this year renewed his proposals for me to contribute something to that work--His first wish was that I should write a hundred lines of poetry for him at a guinea a line, and when I was in town in June he actually thrust a check for £100 into my pocket, (when it would have been exceedingly convenient to me) but I threw it back to him again & declined having any thing to do with the work. In a month or two after he came down to me at Sloperton with the following proposal--That I should write a hundred pages for the work in either prose or poetry (three or four of said pages to be for this year's Keepsake and the remainder for next) and receive for such contribution £500, half to be paid down immediately. This also I declined, and he then still farther proposed the sum of £600 for 120 pages. After taking some time to deliberate (as the offer was certainly a magnificent one) I declined this likewise, explaining to him all my reasons, or rather feelings, on the subject unreservedly.2
Moore reports, then, that (apparently in reprisal) Reynolds, the editor of the Keepsake,
having got hold of some lines which I wrote one day after dinner (about ten years since) in Perry's Copy of Lalla Rookh, he, without saying a single word to me, clips this doggrel [sic] into his book, and announced me brazenly on the List of his Contributors. Thus, not having been able to buy my name he tricks me out of it, and gets gratis what I refused six hundred pounds for.3
The poem, therefore, that places Moore on a public stage as a braggart about profit, and as a wry commentator on the commercialization of art, does so in a way that contradicts personal intention at a number of points. Moore consigned the poem to privacy in the pages of Perry's copy of the book, Lalla Rookh: it was crafted for an audience of one. And paradoxically it is by refusing to sell his work that Moore unwittingly arranges this publicity of himself as a commercial writer. The Keepsake makes of the poem a direct contradiction of what its poet (by his claim and by his behavior) intended.
Furthermore, it was the editor Reynolds (not Moore, not L.E.L.) who arranged the immediate juxtaposition of "Extempore" and L.E.L.'s "Verses." The juxtaposition itself suggests meanings that might not be apparent so readily otherwise: the commercial character of the portrait of the Duchess (Landseer's being overpaid for the portrait, as Ormond observes--see Commentary on Georgiana, Duchess of Bedford) is thematically related to the commercialism discussed in Moore's poem and also represented by the use of Moore's poem. And the commercial theme adds critical content and force to the contrast within the text of "Verses" between an imaginary beauty (as of the chivalric past) and the disillusioned actualities of the quotidian present. Again the collective and conflicted assembly of the book imparts meanings with or without individual (authorial or editorial) intent.
1. Moore, quoted in anon., Memoir of Thomas Moore, in The Poetical Works of Thomas Moore. With Life. Six Engravings on Steel (Edinburgh: Gall and Inglis, n.d.), viii. According to an inscription in pencil, a copy of this book was a new year's gift in 1880. For other accounts of this transaction, which agree in substance with Moore's as it is quoted here, see Stephen Gwynn, Thomas Moore (New York and London: Macmillan, 1905), 73; and Howard Mumford Jones, The Harp that Once--A Chronicle of the Life of Thomas Moore (New York: Henry Holt, 1937), 168-69. Return to Essay
2. The Journal of Thomas Moore, ed. Wilfred S. Dowden (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983), 3: 1161. Return to Essay