“Lalla Roohk” and the Great Slide
by Stephen O’Connor
My grandfather, John O’Connor, once told me, in definitive tones, that Thomas Moore was the greatest poet in the English language. I was a boy, and when my grandfather made declarations, I set them down in the book and volume of my mind as facts, as infallible to my young Catholic understanding as papal bulls, and I remember many of them to this day. Besides, if anyone knew poetry, it would have been “Papa,” as we called my grandfather, for he was a great lover of verse. He often boasted that he had won an oratorical contest as a lad back in Ireland for a recitation of “Bingen on the Rhine.” The sponsors of the contest were supposed to have sent him a prize—a major award, no doubt. “I’m still waiting,” he would say, leaning toward me as we sat in the wicker chairs on his porch, slapping my knee or pushing my shoulder and laughing.
There was a tremendous thick tome on his bookshelf called The Poetry and Song of Ireland, edited by John Boyle O’Reilly. It was a literary mainstay of Irish American households, and held within its sacred pages the complete poems of Thomas Moore. A frontispiece depicted Cathleen ni Houlihan, the beautiful woman who was the embodiment of Ireland. While her people bore the yoke of foreign bondage, she was the Sean Van Vocht, the poor old woman, but whenever the Irish took up arms and shed their blood in the cause of freedom, she was transformed into the Gile na Gile, the Brightness of Brightness, the lovely Cathleen. Under the depiction of this radiant queen was a line from Thomas Moore, “Rich and rare were the gems she wore.” Papa gave me the book, and it sits in front of me on the desk as I write, one of the granite blocks in the foundation of my identity.
Papa, who was born in Rathkeale, County Limerick, in the late nineteenth century, was not alone among his contemporaries in his estimation of Moore’s greatness, or in his certainty of the genius of his chef d’oeuvre, “Lalla Rookh,” published in 1817. The Norton Anthology of English Literature states that the three thousand pounds that Moore was advanced by his publisher was the largest sum ever offered a poet for a single poem, and this at a time when Byron and Shelley were household names. Before Moore’s death in 1852, “Lalla Roohk” had gone through twenty editions.
I was reminded of all this the other day as I was thumbing through a copy of Huckleberry Finn, and noticed that Huck mentions a Mississippi riverboat which he refers to as “Lally Rook.” The poem is also mentioned in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Schuman wrote music based on scenes from the work. Moore’s “Lalla Rookh,” it seems, along with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Les Miserables, was one of the most popular works for soldiers to read “by the bivouac’s fitful flame” during the Civil War.
Papa had declared “Lalla Rookh” a masterpiece, and since the verses he recited from memory had such a rich sound rolling off his Irish tongue, I was eager to read it. I must have been about thirteen, so I hoped that it would be a tale of mighty Irish heroes like Cúchulainn and Conall Cearnach, or The Fighting Prince of Donegal, whose exploits I had seen in the film of that name at the Strand Theater—still the only movie in my life that I sat through for a second showing. When I finally sat down in the rocking chair in my room with the heavy book opened in my lap to “Lalla Roohk,” I was immediately puzzled by the subtitle: “A Persian Tale.” It was a work of what is known today as Romantic Orientalism.
Let me be honest with you, and hope that my grandfather is not listening from a perch in heaven. I never did read the entire poem. In fact, I’ve never read most of the poem. The reason is that no one ever held a gun to my head and forced me to spend the hours that it would take to plough through all the maidens beckoning the brave to their bowers, or the descriptions of “the crimson blossoms of the coral tree in the warm isles of India’s sunny sea.” Three pages of this stuff would cure the most obdurate insomniac. The footnotes alone would keep the Prisoner of Zenda busy for months. On the first page of the poem, there are twelve explanatory footnotes drawn from atlases, treatises, mythologies, Persian miscellanies, and dictionaries.
Now I will not say that none of this is interesting; in fact, in some respects the footnotes are more interesting than the poem. Who knew that a “bulbul” was another name for a nightingale? But what I find truly interesting—fascinating, really, is the simple fact that throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such a dense and verbally ornate poem was enormously popular. It was not read by graduate students, (if graduate students even existed, they must have been rarer than a bulbul in February); it was read by a lot of people like my grandfather, who was a house painter with a grammar school education. Melodrama is out of favour, but beyond that, would anyone today have the attention span required to read a heavily footnoted, book-length poem? Most modern readers, including me, would not get beyond the first sentence of Moore’s introduction, which begins, “In the eleventh year of the reign of Aurungzebe, Abdalla, King of Lesser Bucharia, a lineal descendent from the great Zingis, having abdicated the throne in favor of his son, set out on a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Prophet, and, passing into India through the delightful valley of Cashmere…” Is your mind wandering yet?
My point here is not just that such works have gone out of fashion. What strikes me forcefully is that people in the past, those who could read, possessed an extremely high order of focus, comprehension and expression relative to the modern reader and writer. Even the illiterate groundlings relished Shakespeare’s elaborate word play. And we need not go back so far. In the grammar schools and high schools of our grandparents, or in my case even aunts and uncles, American students still committed great swaths of Longfellow to memory, verses from such epic poems as “Evangeline,” (which sold 36,000 copies in the decade after its publication), “The Song of Hiawatha,” (50,000 copies within two years of its publication), and the ever-popular ballad “The Wreck of the Hesperus.”
Memorization of poetry? I’ve been teaching high school for twenty-seven years; when other teachers find out that I’ve had my students memorize “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” they look at me as if I had required the youngsters to put away their pencils in favor of a quill and inkwell. The last professor I had who expected students to commit poems to memory was another Irishman, Augustus Martin at University College, Dublin, who seemed to have the complete poetical works of Yeats at his fingertips, and in 1980, his fingertips were not connected to a hand-held device.
“Mnemosyne—Memory, is the mother of all the Muses,” he would remind us in that sonorous Richard Burton voice of his. “Memorization” in the modern educational lexicon is often coupled with the culpatory adjective “rote.” Why would you want a head full of poetry when you can google whatever you need? But what if knowing things, rather than just knowing where to find things, is a formative experience? What we know, what we memorize, lives in us, becomes part of us. The words return to us as we witness the beauty and tragedy of the world around us; they lend depth to every scene and illuminate every experience. I found strength in the words in my head as I spent time with my terminally ill father. The lines that always came back to me, as his days dwindled, were from Sonnet 73:
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
There are no longer popular poems which most Americans can quote. As a child, I used to look at a framed needlepoint my great aunt had done, which hung in the parlour. It depicted a homey cottage above the lines: “Let me live in a house by the side of the road, and be a friend to man.” Many visitors recognized those lines from a poem by Sam Walter Foss, “The House by the Side of the Road.”
Such popular poetry no longer exists in America, and popular reading is synonymous with light reading. It was not always so. While watching a documentary on the Mexican American War recently, I was surprised to hear that many of the American soldiers in that conflict (or invasion) carried Prescott’s 1843 Conquest of Mexico, which they read to pass the tedious hours between marching and fighting. Now I happen to have inherited a copy of Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico, or I should say copies, since the work was published in two volumes. Opening volume two at random, I read, “Cortes reflected on his own impotence to restrain the fury of the Mexicans, and resolved in spite of his late supercilious treatment of Montezuma, to employ his authority to allay the tumult, an authority so successfully exerted on behalf of Alvarado at an earlier stage of the insurrection.”
Whether we can appreciate their tastes or their world view—whether we feel that their histories are slanted, their plots incredible, their scenes sentimental, or their poetry flowery—the sheer literacy of our ancestors astonishes me. Look at the works that they read; in 1842, a year before Prescott published his Conquest of Mexico, Charles Dickens visited my hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, (hardly the Oxford of America), and was the toast of the town as the most celebrated novelist in history. Fans crowded the docks of New York awaiting the next instalment of Martin Chuzzlewit or The Old Curiosity Shop. Yet I suspect that the average modern reader would be flatly incapable of getting through Bleak House, or even David Copperfield. And the difference shows. Read the letters of Civil War soldiers; visit the Nantucket Whaling Museum and read the letters sent home by those rugged men who thrust the cruel harpoon, (one letter I recall recounts that members of the ship’s company were performing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for the entertainment of the crew); read the prose that was written by young women mill workers here in Lowell, who were largely self-educated and often sent their pay home to put their brothers through school. Yet the discussions and debates conducted through their literary magazine, The Lowell Offering, were carried on at an intellectual level far beyond the capabilities of most of today’s college graduates. The magazine impressed Charles Dickens; in fact, Professor Natalie McKnight of Boston University, and grad student Chelsea Bray, have put forth a convincing theory that Dickens conceived of the idea for A Christmas Carol after reading stories in The Lowell Offering, stories written by “mill girls.”
The evidence of a general decline in literacy may be anecdotal, but it is persistent. New examples present themselves continually. A woman told me recently that she read War and Peace in its entirety with her English class at Lowell High School in the 1950’s. When is the last time you saw a high school student sitting in a coffee shop reading Tolstoy? And you never will. Am I nostalgic? Perhaps, but the incontrovertible fact remains that The Hunger Games is not Wuthering Heights, and that the preponderance of what high school students read today is much closer in style and level of complexity to the former than to the latter. Earlier I mentioned Jane Eyre—a retired librarian informs me that for many years, and again, we’re probably talking about the forties and fifties, and probably into the sixties, it was the most frequently borrowed book from our city library, principally by girls and young women. Try to read the novel with a typical high school class today—I speak from experience—and see how many pages are turned before students are yawning and peeking at their iPhones. A couple of years ago, I asked my daughter, then nineteen, what she and her friends were reading over the summer. She responded that most of them were rereading Fifty Shades of Grey because the film was coming out. In terms of the quality of the prose in that quarter, I can only repeat a question that was posed by a reviewer of the novel on Amazon, “Was this book written by a teenager?”
What happened to us? Shall we blame our schools? Was it TV? Was it the cult of self-esteem and lack of self discipline? The proliferation of excuses and accommodations? The belief that education could be had without a price and it would all be just good fun—a group project with crayons? Flannery O’Connor once responded to the assertion that students should be given what they want to read rather than what they should read. Her response was not ambiguous. “Their tastes should not be consulted,” she declared. “Their tastes are being formed.” Score one for Wuthering Heights. But the brave new world requires us all to change with it, they say, and so we continue, as Neil Postman argued decades ago, to “entertain ourselves to death.”
Politicians talk about the need to get the internet in every classroom across the globe, as if it is a given that this will, that it must improve education—a key component of “21st century learning” as they’ve dubbed it. But what if part of the problem is that we have all slipped into the world of the quick link—of “surfing” the web instead of deep-diving into a book. I know that many of the works I enjoyed easily as a young man strike me as dense and difficult when I reread them today. Maybe it’s true that the internet is changing our brains, as a recent book posits. What this will mean for our future, I don’t know, but I continue to swim against the tide, often repeating to my own high school students the simple admonition that John O’Connor, Papa, once used to chastise me for not having read a book of Irish history that he’d given me: “If you don’t read, you don’t know.” I’ve always remembered those words, but I’m quite sure my students have already forgotten them. For the very young, it is a world of distractions, a world of tweets and texts and sexts and posts and Instagrams and likes and downloaded videos, distractions with which even “high-interest” reading books cannot compete, let alone the interior life of Emily Dickinson’s “landscape of the spirit.”
Clearly, an ignorant populace is not a solid foundation on which to build a democracy. Beyond the political implications, I feel a sense of regret for what we’ve lost, for what people of all cultures are losing, for what we parted with all too easily, for what we are not handing down to our children. “It’s over,” an old book dealer said to me recently. She didn’t need to explain.
I’m sure there will always be a silent student somewhere reading Thoreau in the corner of the library—who knows, maybe even “Lalla Roohk,” but the general decline in the kind of deep literacy of a not so distant past is undeniable. We are approaching a time when, for many educated in American schools, our “native English,” will have become, in Shakespeare’s words, “like a cunning instrument cased up, or, being open, put into his hands that knows no touch to tune the harmony.” AQ