"Pagan Moore": Poetry, Painting, and Passive Masculinity in George Moore's Flowers of Passion (1877) and Pagan Poems (1881)

Article excerpt

Criticism and the public taste have, following George Moore's own lead, tended to neglect his poetic work. (1) At the publication of Flowers of Passion in autumn 1877, literary voices were united in their disgust toward Moore's blatant treatment of issues such as lesbianism, homosexuality, incest, necrophilia, and cunnilingus--to name just a few. An early reviewer, Edmund Yates, writing in the journal The World, declared that Moore's book of poems should "be burnt by the common hangman, while its writer was being whipped by the cart's tail," (2) and Truth's reviewer castigated the volume as "an insult to society." (3) Despite, or more likely because of, the furore surrounding this first foray into print, Moore went on to produce a second volume of verse, Pagan Poems, in 1881, in which he again used his material in such a provocative way as to guarantee his notoriety. Building upon, if not outrightly plagiarizing, the work of his French and English contemporaries such as Baudelaire and Mendes, Rossetti and Swinburne, these two poetry collections remain intriguing works in their own right because of the manner in which Moore deals with issues of the body, sexuality, gender, and, most particularly, masculinity.

This article is not intended to put forward a claim for George Moore as a great or even a particularly good poet. Arguments surrounding the value of Moore's poems were concluded in the pages of the journals that first reviewed them. Instead, I suggest we read the poems as important in two respects: first, as a means to advance the literary personality of "George Moore" with their deliberate sensationalism as part of the authorial construct of "Pagan Moore" (4) and, secondly, as texts which often diverge from their models in Swinburne or Rossetti in their portrayal of a crisis in turn of the century masculinity.

"Pagan Moore"

When he came to assemble the poems for his first collection, Flowers of Passion, Moore was a failure. He had left Ireland in 1873, aged twenty-one, determined to become a man of art in Paris. Attending both the Beaux-Arts (for a few weeks) and then the Academie Julian under Jules Lefebvre, Moore followed the route of many other men of the period: art was one's life and one's life should be an art. But without the necessary talent or diligence to succeed as a painter Moore turned to writing instead, under the guidance of the English-born French playwright, Bernard Lopez, who suggested that Moore might try and translate Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal to shock readers in England and simultaneously make a name for himself (Frazier, p. 34).

As the comments of early reviewers indicate, when published, Moore's poetry was not well received. In addition to being perceived as obscene, Moore was viewed as akin to a vaudeville artist, a performer trying to play the role of a poet. The Examiner's "Minor Notices" for January 26, 1878, recorded that Flowers of Passion was "a feeble imitation of all that is silly and vicious in contemporary verse" with "occasionally some little merit of versification, but nowhere any gleam of originality." (5) The poems thus became a symbol of Moore's failure in another art form, a failure that continued to be remarked upon long after their original publication. (6) Yet while, as Vincent Starret would comment in 1940, Moore may have been embarrassed by his failure in Flowers of Passion and Pagan Poems, "the very ferocity of his methods" in suppressing his own work-demanding that his publishers "suspend all sales and destroy all copies" of Pagan Poems and "raid[ing] the libraries of his friends" and tearing out the title page of the book--"called attention to the callow verses and made the volume an outstanding curiosity in the book world." (7)

The original construction of George Moore as a literary figure and avant-garde artist, however, involved not only his own efforts in producing the sensational poetry which would get him noticed. …