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People & Events: Thomas Moore, 1779-1852

His influence on nineteenth century American popular music -- and on the work of Stephen Foster -- was incalculable, yet Thomas Moore was more than just a lyricist. Born in Dublin, Ireland, on May 28, 1779, Moore graduated from Trinity College before moving on to London to study law. He found fame and fortune, however, not as a lawyer, but as a poet, satirist, lyricist, musician, and composer. He was (and is) the official national poet of Ireland.

Thomas Moore published his first book, The Poetical Works of Thomas Little, in 1801. But it was his Irish Melodies, a group of ten songbooks published between 1808 and 1834, that made him famous. In the books, Moore wrote new lyrics for traditional Irish songs, occasionally altering the melodies to suit his lyrics. Moore collaborated on the books with two different composers, Sir John Stevenson and Sir Henry Bishop.

The popularity of the Irish melodies in England and in the United States during the nineteenth century cannot be overstated. The songbooks sold exceedingly well -- as did numerous pirated editions. One song, "Tis the Last Rose of Summer," was said to have sold 1.5 million copies of sheet music. As late as 1909, a major anthology of 400 American popular songs included 5 of Moore's Irish melodies.

Stephen Foster's musical influences included the poetry of Robert Burns, Italian opera, and the songs of blackface minstrel performers. But perhaps no one influenced Foster's work as much as Thomas Moore. Foster's older sister Charlotte was performing some of the Irish Melodies before Stephen was born. Stephen undoubtedly knew Moore's work, and it showed in his songs, which often aspired to the kind of nostalgia and sentimentality popularized by Moore. Nowhere is Moore's influence more evident than in Foster's "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," which features not only sentimental lyrics but a typically "Irish" melody.

If Thomas Moore was capable of sentimentality, he also wielded a rapier wit. His satires, published in collections with titles such as The Twopenny Postbag (1813) and Cash, Corn, and Catholic (1828) lacerated politicians, economics, and religion. His poetic cycle Lalla Rookh, a narrative subtitled "an Oriental romance," earned him a payment of 3,000 pounds, the most ever paid for poem in Britain at the time. Moore also authored Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, a biography of the poet, who was his close personal friend. Moore was rumored to have burned the memoir Byron wrote himself.

Although Moore lived most of his life in England, where he died on February 25, 1852, his Irish Melodies did a great deal to foster Irish pride and arouse sympathy for the Irish nationalist cause. He is Ireland's national poet, and a statue of him stands today in Dublin.

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