Thomas Moore in Canada and Canadian Poetry
It was during the editing of The Huron Chief with Chuck Steele that I first became aware of one of the most intriguing and under-appreciated events in this country's early literary history: the visit of Thomas Moore to Upper and Lower Canada and Nova Scotia in the summer and fall of 1804. Before the revelation of the extensive debts of The Huron Chief to the "Poems Relating to America" in Epistles, Odes, and Other Poems, which was published in 1806 after Moore's return to England from the United States by way of Canada, the Irish poet had been for me a shadowy, somewhat saucy, and very ill-defined presence in Canadian poetry. I was aware of Joseph Howe's approving reference to him in Acadia1 and of A.J.M. Smith's ribald treatment of him in "Thomas Moore and Sweet Annie,"2 and I had assumed that merely a common Irish heritage was the reason for Adam Kidd's fulsome dedication of The Huron Chief, and Other Poems "To Thomas Moore, the Most Popular, Most Powerful, and Most Patriotic Poet of the Nineteenth Century. . . ."3 A close and repeated examination of the "Poems Relating to America" and other works by Moore, together with some research into the poet's trip to Canada, has resulted in the conviction that his visit here was of considerable importance for Canadian poetry and deserves to be better-known and appreciated than it appears to be even among veteran students of Canada's early literary history.
To judge by the printed record, Moore's visit went largely unnoticed in the Canadian towns and cities that he visited in 1804. The newspapers in Montreal, Quebec, and elsewhere did not report his arrivals and departures, and no published diarist, memoirist, or letter-writer appears to have noticed his activities or recorded the impression that he made on those whom he met. There is no evidence of him meeting the literary communities of the colonies or of giving any readings of his poems. One is left, therefore, to follow Moore's journey through Upper and Lower Canada and Nova Scotia in his own letters and poems, and with the help of two later writers who have paid some attention to this portion of his North American odyssey, George Hutchinson Smith, whose "Tom Moore in Canada" appeared in The Canadian Magazine in 19094 and Hoover H. Jordan, who devotes half a dozen pages to the Canadian leg of the poet's trip in Bolt Upright: the Life of Thomas Moore.5
Moore arrived on British North American soil on July 21, 1804. He had come up from New York through "the Genessee country"6 to Buffalo on the shores of "Erie's stormy lake,"7 crossing to Fort Erie on the Canadian side of the border and travelling to Chippewa, a village within earshot of Niagara Falls (the eagerly anticipated goal of his journey), "in a waggon" (Letters, I, 75). He spent about two weeks in the vicinity of Niagara Falls, initially enjoying the breathtaking scenery of the area and subsequently waiting impatiently for a boat to take him along Lake Ontario on the next phase of his journey to Halifax and passage to England. The Commander of Fort George at this time was a "Colonel [Isaac] Brock," with whom Moore passed "many pleasant days," one of which included a memorable "visit to the Tuscarora Indians."8 But the most impressive feature of the Niagara area was, of course, the Falls themselves.
Moore's first visit to Niagara Falls was on July 22. His response was that of "any heart, born for sublimities": "agitated by the terrific effects of the scene. . .and receiv[ing] enough of its grandeur to set imagination on the wing," he "felt as if approaching the very residence of the Deity. . . ." After descending below the Falls, his feelings of "pious enthusiasm" intensified to the degree that, as he recorded in his diary, "My whole heart and soul ascended towards the Divinity in a swell of devout admiration, which I never before experienced. Oh! bring the atheist here, and he cannot return an atheist!" (Letters, I, 76-77). More significant than this fairly conventional response to a sublime spectacle is Moore's conviction that Niagara Falls defy description or depiction: "It is impossible by pen or pencil to convey even a faint idea of their magnificence. Painting is lifeless; and the most burning words of poetry have all been lavished upon inferior and ordinary subjects. We must have new combinations of language to describe the Falls of Niagara" (Letters, I, 77). Moore's two salient points in this passagehis sense that the exhausted language of English poetry is inadequate to describe Niagara Falls and his perception of the Falls as a stimulus to linguistic innovationecho backwards and forwards in time to numerous other observations by poets and painters on the subject of the relationship between their technical resources and "Canadian content." "How. . .toil for numbers to proclaim / The liquid grandeur of St. Lawrence' Stream?"9 was the question posed in 1797 by J. Mackay and again, mutatis mutandis, in 1930 by Emily Carr: "What about our side of Canadathe Great West. . .? If we dressed her in the art dresses of the older countries she would burst them. So we will have to make her a dress of her own."10 Moore's account of Niagara Falls also recalls specific instances of poets from Thomas Cary (who allows the Falls to "burst" his couplets in Abram's Plains) to Kevin Roberts who have attempted to convey something of the dynamics of Canada's waterfalls in their poems.11 Not surprisingly, Moore himself did not attempt an extended description in verse of "the Falls of Niagara," though he does refer briefly to the "inland waters hurl'd / In one vast volume down Niagara's steep" in his epistle "To the Lady Charlotte Rawdon from the Banks of the St. Lawrence" (PW, p. 125).
On his way from Niagara by boat to Montreal and Quebec, Mooreperhaps prompted by a passage in Isaac Weld's Travels (which he had earlier recommended for its "accurate" "account of the Falls" [Letters, I, 77])12transcribed some notes that he would later work up into his exquisite and famous "Canadian Boat Song" ("Faintly as tolls the evening chime. . ." [PW, pp. 124-125]). "Written on the River St. Lawrence" during the "five days" that his boat took in "descending the river from Kingston to Montreal" (PW, p. 124) in early August, "A Canadian Boat Song" was issued as sheet music by Moore's London publisher in 180513 and subsequently reprinted, like most of Moore's other Canadian pieces, in the Epistles, Odes and Other Poems of 1806. Thereafter "A Canadian Boat Song" was frequently reprinted in North American newspapers and periodicals, including Cary's Quebec Mercury, where it appeared as "The Rapids. A Canadian Boat Song" "Arranged by T. Moore, Esq." on May 11, 1807. Other "Poems Relating to America" from Epistles, Odes, and Other Poems that were quickly reprinted in The Quebec Mercury are "The Lake of the Dismal Swamp" (another poem partly inspired by Weld, this time "Written in Norfolk Virginia")14 and "Dead Man's Island," "Written on passing that Island, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, late in the evening, Sept. 1804."15 A version of the Flying Dutchman myth, "Deadman's Island" is more a reflection of Romantic interest in the supernatural than a detailed response to the Canadian landscape, though it does refer to "the dismal shore / Of cold and pitiless Labrador; / Where, under the moon, upon mounts of frost, / Full many a mariner's bones are tost" (PW, p. 129).
Of special interest to Canadian readers among the poems by Moore in The Quebec Mercury is an untitled piece on the "girls" of Quebec City that appeared on November 3, 1806. Although a conventional enough celebration of female beauty from a man in the process of becoming infamous for his amatory verses,16 "When the spires of Quebec first open'd to view. . ." reveals a certain sensitivity to the social environment of Lower Canada in its selection for praise of two women whose names"Annette" and "Nancy"suggest the two dominant racial groups in the Colony. Moreover, the poem is preceded in The Quebec Mercury by an intriguing note to "Mr. Cary": "SirI am lately arrived from England, and previous to my leaving that place, my friend, Mr. Moore, gave me the following verses, which I request you will have the goodness to insert in your paper, for the entertainment of his friends." Were Moore's "friends" in Quebec merely the women flattered in the poem, or did they include others in Lower CanadaCary, for example, and the government officials who, according to his own account, "begged" "the master of the vessel" that was taking him to Halifax to "defer sailing one day more, that. . .[the poet] might join a party at [the Governor's] house the next day" (Letters, I, 80). Did they perhaps include Cornwall Bayley, the young author of Canada and an evident admirer of Moore's work who arrived in Quebec in July, 1804,17 about a month before Moore himself?
Moore's letters reveal that, after a brief stop in Montreal in mid-August (where he wrote an "Impromptu" and perhaps, "To the Lady Charlotte Rawdon"),18 he arrived in Quebec City on or about August 20 and left around the end of the montha stay of less than two weeks but certainly long enough to acquire "friends" among the literary and administrative elite of Lower Canada. In any event, Moore was only selectively impressed by the scenery at Quebec. "I am at length upon the ground which made Wolfe immortal, and which looks more like the elysium of heroes than their death-place," he told his mother on August 20, adding a description of Quebec itself that is as unusual as it is vivid: "If anything can make the beauty of the country more striking, it is the deformity and oddity of the city which it surrounds, and which lies hemmed in by ramparts, amidst this delicious scenery, like a hog in armour upon a bed of roses" (Letters, I, 79).
While in Upper and Lower Canada, Moore was gratified to find himself a celebrity. As well as being flattered by the Governor of Quebec, he was given free service by a watchmaker at Niagara "as the only mark of respect he could pay to one he had heard of so much" and free passage along Lake Ontario by a captain who "begged. . .[him] to consider all [his] friends as included in the same compliment. . ." (Letters, I, 79). While in Nova Scotia for about a month between mid-September and mid-October (he arrived in Plymouth, England on or a little before November 12 after a twenty-eight day crossing [see Letters, I, 82]), Moore was again gratified to find himself being treated as a celebrity. With the Governor, Sir John Wentworth, he travelled from Halifax to Windsor to attend "the first examination" at King's College (Letters, I, 80). "This attention is, as you may suppose, very singular and flattering," he told his mother in a letter of September 16 from Windsor; "indeed, where have I failed to meet cordiality and kindness?" (Letters, I, 80). Despite his warm reception in Canada and his fond memories of the beauty of many parts of the country (see PW, p. 130 and Letters, I, 81), Moore was not unhappy to leave "chill Nova Scotia's unpromising strand" (PW, p. 130) when in mid-October the frigate Boston, captained by his friend John Erskine Douglas, weighed anchor on the voyage that took the poet "nearer the home where [his] heart [was] enshrined" (PW, p. 131).
Moore was in Canada for about three months in July-October, 1804, but his "Poems Relating to America" were to exercise an enduring influence on poets writing in Upper and Lower Canada especially in the nineteenth century. Although this influence springs to an extent from the Canadian poems in the group, it is by no means restricted to these (or, indeed, to the North American poems: among Moore's other works, the Irish Melodies were particularly influential in Canada. Even before its appearance in Epistles, Odes, and Other Poems, Moore's "Lines Written on Leaving Philadelphia," which his friend Joseph Dennie (see PW, p. 122 and Letters, I, 70-71 and 81) had published in The Port Folio (Philadelphia) on August 31, 1805, had spawned an imitation in the form of Bayley's "Lines Written on the banks of the Skullkill,"19 one of the pieces printed with Canada in Quebec in 1806. Moore's "Ballad Stanzas" (which may have been written on the Canadian side of the border) furnished Kidd with the mood and some of the imagery for the opening lines of The Huron Chief, though, as the following quotations indicate, Moore's poem itself derives in part from Weld's Travels:
Such echoes and transformations as are on view in these passages are common in early Canadian poetry and, in this instance, show Moore performing a mediating function between a prose travel account of what is in fact part of the United States and a later poet's rendition of part of Canada. It is a point worth making that Moore's political stance in the "Poems Relating to America"his hostility both to slavery and to plebian democracymade him attractive to poets at both ends of the political spectrumto liberals such as Kidd and to tories such as Bayley.
But perhaps the most widely and enduringly influential piece in the "Poems Relating to America" for nineteenth-century Canadian poetry was the lengthy epistle "To the Lady Charlotte Rawdon from the Banks of the St. Lawrence," particularly the "visionary lay" that Moore gives in the poem to a Puck-like "Indian Spirit" (PW, pp. 126-127). Based on a description of "one of the American lakes" (in fact, Lake Superior) in Jonathon Carver's Travels,20 of the Spirit's "flight"
obviously lies behind certain passages in The Huron Chief ("So pellucid are the waters of the great Lakes in Canada that. . .the broken clouds, as they float in air. . .are beautifully reflected" [l. 876n.]). Kidd's lines may in turn lie behind the "pellucid Lake" (the Lake of the Thousand Islands) of The St. Lawrence and the Saguenay, XIV, though the similarity between Moore's description of a wintry Niagara Falls ("Niagara's starry spray, / Frozen on the cliff, appears / Like a giant's starting tears") and Charles Sangster's description of Trinity Rock ("Like tears of Gladness o'er a giant's face, / The streams leap perpendicularly down. . .")21 suggests that the poet who certainly knew The Huron Chief22 may also have read "To the Lady Charlotte Rawdon." And is Moore's description of the "light canoe" on "Huron's lucid lake" also echoed in the first stanza of the song with which Isabella Valancy Crawford concludes Part I of Malcolm's Katie: "O, light canoe, where dost thou glide? / Below thee gleams no silver'd tide, / But concave Heaven's chiefest pride"?23 Did "the web of leaves, / Which the water-lily weaves" over "the bed of Erie's Lake" in "To the Lady Charlotte Rawdon" help to awaken Crawford to the flower that plays such an important symbolic role in her own work? And as a final example, did Howe change "grey" to "gay" in his notorious "the gay Moose in jocund gambol springs / Cropping the foliage Nature round him flings" (Acadia, ll.175-176)24 in order to avoid echoing "the gray moose [that] sheds his horns" in the "visionary lay" of Moore's Indian Spirit?
Such questions take us into the tangled thickets of an emerging continuity in Canadian poetry, a thicket that is "embellish[ed] by transplanting" (the phrase is Moore's in a letter to Joseph Dennie; Letters, I, 81), but fed alsoand increasingly so as the nineteenth century progresseson a soil that is no less Canadian for being partly composed of the fertilizing leaves of the transplants. It is a thicket that Chuck Steele very much enjoyed exploring, and I wish he were here today to help answer some of the questions that its exploration raises.