Five Questions: Justin Tonra on Thomas Moore

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Justin Tonra is a Lecturer in English in the School of English & Creative Arts at the National University of Ireland Galway. His research publications include work on digital humanities, stylometry, network analysis, the poems of Ossian, Jeremy Bentham, book history and textual editing. He has a particular interest in Thomas Moore, who is the subject of his first monograph, Write My Name: Authorship in the Poetry of Thomas Moore, which was published in August 2020 by Routledge and which we discuss below.

1) How did you first become interested in Thomas Moore?

Lalla Rookh was the gateway. When I first learned about the poem I struggled to understand why it was so neglected in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Not because of its quality, necessarily—parts are good, other parts are bad—but because it was such a popular phenomenon when it was published in 1817 and for much of the nineteenth century. It also seemed to me to be such an interesting anomaly within Irish literature of that period—a lavish poetic epic set in western and central Asia—and that explains, in part, its absence from the Irish literary canon. But certain modish elements that disqualified it from canonical consideration were among those that appealed to me: it was calculated to satisfy the demands of a growing popular audience for Romantic Orientalist poetry and it pushed Moore outside of his authorial comfort zone. He deliberately tried to write in a more Byronic mode in order to emulate the success of Byron’s Oriental poetic tales, and this was his first attempt at writing a long verse narrative. Both caused him problems: the latter in particular. During my doctorate, I worked on Lalla Rookh from the perspective of textual criticism and manuscript studies, but my interest later broadened into book history and publishing history approaches to studying the work. I found these to be more fruitful and interesting, and they are the perspectives that are reflected in the Lalla Rookh chapter of Write My Name.

2) How did you come to select authorship as the main frame through which your book examines Moore’s poetry?

After that initial interest in Lalla Rookh, I began to encounter more and more of Moore’s writings and was struck by the sheer breadth and diversity of his oeuvre. He wrote in so many different forms and modes, even within the broad categories of poetry and prose. He is best known for writing lyrics to accompany music—the Irish Melodies and similar works—and for biographies of figures like Byron and Sheridan, but those two forms just scratch the surface of the formal and generic variety of his writing. He also wrote lyric, satiric, and epic poetry; history, travel, theology, and fictional prose; and even drama and operatic libretto. I always thought the task of approaching his oeuvre was a formidable challenge (though Ronan Kelly’s biography, Bard of Erin, does this with impressive style and insight) and, over time, I began to view the theme of authorship as one which represented a potential path through the thicket. In adopting those different modes of writing, Moore often assumes different authorial attitudes and personae: from the very literal use of pseudonyms to more nuanced modes of style, address, and paratextual framing. I examine some of these deliberate aesthetic strategies in the book alongside other authorial formulations that are influenced by external forces and agents: authorised and unauthorised printers, and legal constraints on blasphemous writing, for example. The unifying framework of authorship allowed me to use a number of critical lenses through which Moore is rarely viewed and to expand the range of questions that we pose to evaluate his importance as a literary and cultural figure.

3) Your book takes a wide range of approaches to Moore, bringing to bear toolkits including ‘digital humanities, book history, legal history, and textual theory.’  How has employing these perspectives allowed you to challenge or nuance existing impressions of Moore?

However they differ methodologically, these different approaches enabled me to maintain a consistent focus on the question of authorship across the range of different works that I examine in the book. That was the primary motivation for employing this diversity of perspectives. Authorship is an expansive phenomenon which has invited a host of different critical approaches: from the theoretical and the biographical to assessments of its broader material and cultural formulation. I analyse a number of different cases along a continuum that runs between the author and nonauthorial sources of agency and meaning in order to assess their contribution to different formulations of Moore’s authorial persona in their own time and as they have descended to us today. For example, my first chapter considers Moore’s strategic use of the Thomas Little pseudonym to position his early amorous poetry within distinct literary, historical, and generic contexts. A later chapter moves outwards from this close authorial focus to examine the influence of legal regulation of blasphemous literature on Moore’s decision to make radical revisions to the fifth edition of The Loves of the Angels (1823). Shifting between these different states of magnification helped me to understand the meaningful interaction of these different authorial forces and to build a more nuanced picture of Moore the poet. Many of the existing critical impressions of Moore are tied closely to questions of history and nation. I don’t set out to explicitly challenge those modes of approach but to argue for the appeal and importance of views of Moore that emerge when we set some of those recurrent questions aside or reorient their priority. Lots of critical work on Lalla Rookh has focused on its allegorical references to Ireland while neglecting its staggering commercial and popular success. I take the latter as my starting point for demonstrating how its publication across the nineteenth century reflects notable shifts in Moore’s authorial stock and status—and, in the process, hopefully enhance our understanding of the critical significance of the work.

4) While your book is both part of and attests to a major revival of scholarly interest in Moore, he’s still a fairly unfamiliar inclusion on syllabi.  Which Moore works do you think would bring the most to undergraduate and postgraduate courses, and how might instructors best approach them?

You are right to remark Moore’s absence from university syllabi. I remember my astonishment, some years ago, when Jim Mays told me that he had taught Lalla Rookh to undergrads—I thought I was the only one! I have used it in an Irish Literature survey course where it teaches well in the context of what I describe above: its allegorical echoes of prominent Irish issues of the nineteenth century such as independence and Catholic emancipation. I have also used Moore’s clandestine elegy for Robert Emmet, “Oh! Breathe Not His Name” to teach close reading of poetry, since it’s a very tightly controlled piece of writing—formally precise and thematically linked to its mode of expressive restraint. It’s a really wonderful lyric. I largely ignore its musical accompaniment in my classes, but that’s an obvious area where Moore supports interdisciplinary teaching: on the reciprocal influences of musical phrasing and prosody in his works. Coleridge spoke appreciatively about their union; Harry White has written perceptively about the phenomenon; and it offers scope for the teacher of Romantic music and literature—my tin ear, alas, prevents me from taking that approach.  It’s difficult to give a simple answer to your question, however. My initial response was, “it depends on what you’re teaching,” and that remains an important consideration, I think. It’s no great surprise that Moore rarely figures in standard literature survey modules of Romanticism, but if the module adopts a broader social or cultural perspective on the Romantic period then Moore becomes a more useful and interesting figure, as James Chandler argued in England in 1819. In such a module satirical works like Intercepted Letters; or, The Twopenny Post-Bag (1813)—which would struggle to hold the attention of a survey module—become wonderfully rich historical and cultural sources.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

In my research, one of the areas I’m interested in is the intersection of literature and technology. I take a methodological approach to this topic in the final chapter of Write My Name by using computational stylistic analysis of Moore’s writing to investigate the effects of the generic diversity of his poetry on his stylistic consistency. In this sense, computational methods are integral to the mode of inquiry, but I also study the ways in which different technologies form and influence authors’ writing. I have been working on an article about contemporary poets that write on Twitter and on the specific influence of the tweet on the poetic line. Twitter’s expansion of the size of the tweet a few years ago diluted the constraint which made 140 characters a fruitful space for writing lines of poetry, so my focus is largely on the platform’s prelapsarian period. Another ongoing project expands my interest in poetic constraint by exploring historic and present-day examples of machine-made poetry. The major nineteenth-century poetry machine was the Eureka, which generated lines of Latin hexameter, and computational examples—like Theo Lutz’s Stochastic Texts (1959)proliferate after the digital age of the mid-twentieth century. I am interested in how these machines and algorithmic systems were built in order to generate verse and in what those processes can teach us about writing and reading poetry. Many poetry machines are successful at implementing the formal prosodic requirements of verse but stumble at convincing expression, while more recent AI-based systems have the opposite problem. This tension between poetic formalism and authenticity goes right to the heart of Romanticism and it’s impossible to read a line of linguistically-garbled yet metrically-precise machine poetry without recalling Wordsworth’s complaints about “the gaudiness and inane phraseology” of Augustan poetic diction. The project is in its very early stages (with thanks to the Irish Research Council for their support) and I’m not yet sure where it will go, but the research to date has been enjoyable and enlightening.