Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
When Tom Moore Sang
By Nathaniel Parker Willis (18061867)
[From Pencillings by the Way.Prose Works. 1850.]
MR. MOORE! cried the footman at the bottom of the staircase. Mr. Moore! cried the footman at the top. And with his glass at his eye, stumbling over an ottoman between his near-sightedness and the darkness of the room, enter the poet. Half a glance tells you that he is at home on a carpet. Sliding his little feet up to Lady Blessington (of whom he was a lover when she was sixteen, and to whom some of the sweetest of his songs were written), he made his compliments, with a gayety and an ease combined with a kind of worshipping deference that was worthy of a prime-minister at the court of love. With the gentlemen, all of whom he knew, he had the frank, merry manner of a confident favorite, and he was greeted like one. He went from one to the other, straining back his head to look up at them (for, singularly enough, every gentleman in the room was six feet high and upward), and to every one he said something which, from any one else, would have seemed peculiarly felicitous, but which fell from his lips as if his breath was not more spontaneous.
Dinner was announced, the Russian handed down miladi, and I found myself seated opposite Moore, with a blaze of light on his Bacchus head, and the mirrors with which the superb octagonal room is pannelled reflecting every motion. To see him only at table, you would think him not a small man. His principal length is in his body, and his head and shoulders are those of a much larger person. Consequently he sits tall, and with the peculiar erectness of head and neck, his diminutiveness disappears .
Nothing but a short-hand report could retain the delicacy and elegance of Moores language, and memory itself cannot embody again the kind of frost-work of imagery which was formed and melted on his lips. His voice is soft or firm as the subject requires, but perhaps the word gentlemanly describes it better than any other. It is upon a natural key, but, if I may so phrase it, it is fused with a high-bred affectation, expressing deference and courtesy at the same time that its pauses are constructed peculiarly to catch the ear. It would be difficult not to attend him while he is talking, though the subject were but the shape of a wine-glass.
Moores head is distinctly before me while I write, but I shall find it difficult to describe. His hair, which curled once all over it in long tendrils, unlike anybody elses in the world, and which probably suggested his sobriquet of Bacchus, is diminished now to a few curls sprinkled with gray, and scattered in a single ring above his ears. His forehead is wrinkled, with the exception of a most prominent development of the organ of gayety, which, singularly enough, shines with the lustre and smooth polish of a pearl, and is surrounded by a semicircle of lines drawn close about it, like entrenchments against Time. His eyes still sparkle like a champagne bubble, though the invader has drawn his pencillings about the corners; and there is a kind of wintry red, of the tinge of an October leaf, that seems enamelled on his cheek, the eloquent record of the claret his wit has brightened. His mouth is the most characteristic feature of all. The lips are delicately cut, slight and changeable as an aspen; but there is a set-up look about the lower lip, a determination of the muscle to a particular expression, and you fancy that you can almost see wit astride upon it. It is written legibly with the imprint of habitual success. It is arch confident, and half diffident, as if he were disguising his pleasure at applause while another bright gleam of fancy was breaking on him. The slightly-tossed nose confirms the fun of the expression, and altogether it is a face that sparkles, beams, radiates,everything but feels. Fascinating beyond all men as he is, Moore looks like a worldling.
This description may be supposed to have occupied the hour after Lady Blessington retired from the table; for with her vanished Moores excitement, and everybody else seemed to feel that light had gone out of the room. Her excessive beauty is less an inspiration than the wondrous talent with which she draws from every person around her his peculiar excellence. Talking better than anybody else, and narrating, particularly, with a graphic power that I never saw excelled, this distinguished woman seems striving only to make others unfold themselves; and never had diffidence a more apprehensive and encouraging listener. But this is a subject with which I should never be done.
We went up to coffee, and Moore brightened again over his chasse-café, and went glittering on with criticisms on Grisi, the delicious songstress now ravishing the world, whom he placed above all but Pasta; and whom he thought, with the exception that her legs were too short, an incomparable creature. This introduced music very naturally, and with a great deal of difficulty he was taken to the piano. My letter is getting long, and I have no time to describe his singing. It is well known, however, that its effect is only equalled by the beauty of his own words; and, for one, I could have taken him into my heart with my delight. He makes no attempt at music. It is a kind of admirable recitative, in which every shade of thought is syllabled and dwelt upon, and the sentiment of the song goes through your blood, warming you to the very eyelids, and starting your tears, if you have soul or sense in you. I have heard of womens fainting at a song of Moores; and if the burden of it answered, by chance, to a secret in the bosom of the listener, I should think, from its comparative effect upon so old a stager as myself, that the heart would break with it.
We all sat around the piano, and after two or three songs of Lady Blessingtons choice, he rambled over the keys awhile, and sang When first I met thee, with a pathos that beggars description. When the last word had faltered out, he rose and took Lady Blessingtons hand, said good-night, and was gone before a word was uttered. For a full minute after he had closed the door no one spoke. I could have wished, for myself, to drop silently asleep where I sat, with the tears in my eyes and the softness upon my heart.