Roundabout Papers, by William Makepeace Thackeray

On A Joke I Once Heard From the Late Thomas Hood.

The good-natured reader who has perused some of these rambling papers has long since seen (if to see has been worth his trouble) that the writer belongs to the old-fashioned classes of this world, loves to remember very much more than to prophesy, and though he can’t help being carried onward, and downward, perhaps, on the hill of life, the swift milestones marking their forties, fifties — how many tens or lustres shall we say? — he sits under Time, the white-wigged charioteer, with his back to the horses, and his face to the past, looking at the receding landscape and the hills fading into the gray distance. Ah me! those gray, distant hills were green once, and HERE, and covered with smiling people! As we came UP the hill there was difficulty, and here and there a hard pull to be sure, but strength, and spirits, and all sorts of cheery incident and companionship on the road; there were the tough struggles (by heaven’s merciful will) overcome, the pauses, the faintings, the weakness, the lost way, perhaps, the bitter weather, the dreadful partings, the lonely night, the passionate grief — towards these I turn my thoughts as I sit and think in my hobby-coach under Time, the silver-wigged charioteer. The young folks in the same carriage meanwhile are looking forwards. Nothing escapes their keen eyes — not a flower at the side of a cottage garden, nor a bunch of rosy-faced children at the gate: the landscape is all bright, the air brisk and jolly, the town yonder looks beautiful, and do you think they have learned to be difficult about the dishes at the inn?

Now, suppose Paterfamilias on his journey with his wife and children in the sociable, and he passes an ordinary brick house on the road with an ordinary little garden in the front, we will say, and quite an ordinary knocker to the door, and as many sashed windows as you please, quite common and square, and tiles, windows, chimney-pots, quite like others; or suppose, in driving over such and such a common, he sees an ordinary tree, and an ordinary donkey browsing under it, if you like — wife and daughter look at these objects without the slightest particle of curiosity or interest. What is a brass knocker to them but a lion’s head, or what not? and a thorn-tree with pool beside it, but a pool in which a thorn and a jackass are reflected?

But you remember how once upon a time your heart used to beat, as you beat on that brass knocker, and whose eyes looked from the window above. You remember how by that thorn-tree and pool, where the geese were performing a prodigious evening concert, there might be seen, at a certain hour, somebody in a certain cloak and bonnet, who happened to be coming from a village yonder, and whose image has flickered in that pool. In that pool, near the thorn? Yes, in that goose-pool, never mind how long ago, when there were reflected the images of the geese — and two geese more. Here, at least, an oldster may have the advantage of his young fellow-travellers, and so Putney Heath or the New Road may be invested with a halo of brightness invisible to them, because it only beams out of his own soul.

I have been reading the “Memorials of Hood” by his children,11 and wonder whether the book will have the same interest for others and for younger people, as for persons of my own age and calling. Books of travel to any country become interesting to us who have been there. Men revisit the old school, though hateful to them, with ever so much kindliness and sentimental affection. There was the tree under which the bully licked you: here the ground where you had to fag out on holidays, and so forth. In a word, my dear sir, YOU are the most interesting subject to yourself, of any that can occupy your worship’s thoughts. I have no doubt, a Crimean soldier, reading a history of that siege, and how Jones and the gallant 99th were ordered to charge or what not, thinks, “Ah, yes, we of the 100th were placed so and so, I perfectly remember.” So with this memorial of poor Hood, it may have, no doubt, a greater interest for me than for others, for I was fighting, so to speak, in a different part of the field, and engaged, a young subaltern, in the Battle of Life, in which Hood fell, young still, and covered with glory. “The Bridge of Sighs” was his Corunna, his Heights of Abraham — sickly, weak, wounded, he fell in the full blaze and fame of that great victory.

11 Memorials of Thomas Hood. Moxon, 1860. 2 vols.

What manner of man was the genius who penned that famous song? What like was Wolfe, who climbed and conquered on those famous Heights of Abraham? We all want to know details regarding men who have achieved famous feats, whether of war, or wit, or eloquence, or endurance, or knowledge. His one or two happy and heroic actions take a man’s name and memory out of a crowd of names and memories. Henceforth he stands eminent. We scan him: we want to know all about him; we walk round and examine him, are curious, perhaps, and think are we not as strong and tall and capable as yonder champion; were we not bred as well, and could we not endure the winter’s cold as well as he? Or we look up with all our eyes of admiration; will find no fault in our hero: declare his beauty and proportions perfect; his critics envious detractors, and so forth. Yesterday, before he performed his feat, he was nobody. Who cared about his birthplace, his parentage, or the color of his hair? To-day, by some single achievement, or by a series of great actions to which his genius accustoms us, he is famous, and antiquarians are busy finding out under what schoolmaster’s ferule he was educated, where his grandmother was vaccinated, and so forth. If half a dozen washing-bills of Goldsmith’s were to be found tomorrow, would they not inspire a general interest, and be printed in a hundred papers? I lighted upon Oliver, not very long since, in an old Town and Country Magazine, at the Pantheon masquerade “in an old English habit.” Straightway my imagination ran out to meet him, to look at him, to follow him about. I forgot the names of scores of fine gentlemen of the past age, who were mentioned besides. We want to see this man who has amused and charmed us; who has been our friend, and given us hours of pleasant companionship and kindly thought. I protest when I came, in the midst of those names of people of fashion, and beaux, and demireps, upon those names “Sir J. R-yn-lds, in a domino; Mr. Cr-d-ck and Dr. G-ldsm-th, in two old English dresses,” I had, so to speak, my heart in my mouth. What, YOU here, my dear Sir Joshua? Ah, what an honor and privilege it is to see you! This is Mr. Goldsmith? And very much, sir, the ruff and the slashed doublet become you! O Doctor! what a pleasure I had and have in reading the Animated Nature. How DID you learn the secret of writing the decasyllable line, and whence that sweet wailing note of tenderness that accompanies your song? Was Beau Tibbs a real man, and will you do me the honor of allowing me to sit at your table at supper? Don’t you think you know how he would have talked? Would you not have liked to hear him prattle over the champagne?

Now, Hood is passed away — passed off the earth as much as Goldsmith or Horace. The times in which he lived, and in which very many of us lived and were young, are changing or changed. I saw Hood once as a young man, at a dinner which seems almost as ghostly now as that masquerade at the Pantheon (1772), of which we were speaking anon. It was at a dinner of the Literary Fund, in that vast apartment which is hung round with the portraits of very large Royal Freemasons, now unsubstantial ghosts. There at the end of the room was Hood. Some publishers, I think, were our companions. I quite remember his pale face; he was thin and deaf, and very silent; he scarcely opened his lips during the dinner, and he made one pun. Some gentleman missed his snuff-box, and Hood said — (the Freemasons’ Tavern was kept, you must remember, by Mr. CUFF in those days, not by its present proprietors). Well, the box being lost, and asked for, and CUFF (remember that name) being the name of the landlord, Hood opened his silent jaws and said * * * Shall I tell you what he said? It was not a very good pun, which the great punster then made. Choose your favorite pun out of “Whims and Oddities,” and fancy that was the joke which he contributed to the hilarity of our little table.

Where those asterisks are drawn on the page, you must know, a pause occurred, during which I was engaged with “Hood’s Own,” having been referred to the book by this life of the author which I have just been reading. I am not going to dissert on Hood’s humor; I am not a fair judge. Have I not said elsewhere that there are one or two wonderfully old gentlemen still alive who used to give me tips when I was a boy? I can’t be a fair critic about them. I always think of that sovereign, that rapture of raspberry-tarts, which made my young days happy. Those old sovereign-contributors may tell stories ever so old, and I shall laugh; they may commit murder, and I shall believe it was justifiable homicide. There is my friend Baggs, who goes about abusing me, and of course our dear mutual friends tell me. Abuse away, mon bon! You were so kind to me when I wanted kindness, that you may take the change out of that gold now, and say I am a cannibal and negro, if you will. Ha, Baggs! Dost thou wince as thou readest this line? Does guilty conscience throbbing at thy breast tell thee of whom the fable is narrated? Puff out thy wrath, and, when it has ceased to blow, my Baggs shall be to me as the Baggs of old — the generous, the gentle, the friendly.

No, on second thoughts, I am determined I will not repeat that joke which I heard Hood make. He says he wrote these jokes with such ease that he sent manuscripts to the publishers faster than they could acknowledge the receipt thereof. I won’t say that they were all good jokes, or that to read a great book full of them is a work at present altogether jocular. Writing to a friend respecting some memoir of him which had been published, Hood says, “You will judge how well the author knows me, when he says my mind is rather serious than comic.” At the time when he wrote these words, he evidently undervalued his own serious power, and thought that in punning and broad-grinning lay his chief strength. Is not there something touching in that simplicity and humility of faith? “To make laugh is my calling,” says he; “I must jump, I must grin, I must tumble, I must turn language head over heels, and leap through grammar;” and he goes to his work humbly and courageously, and what he has to do that does he with all his might, through sickness, through sorrow, through exile, poverty, fever, depression — there he is, always ready to his work, and with a jewel of genius in his pocket! Why, when he laid down his puns and pranks, put the motley off, and spoke out of his heart, all England and America listened with tears and wonder! Other men have delusions of conceit, and fancy themselves greater than they are, and that the world slights them. Have we not heard how Liston always thought he ought to play Hamlet? Here is a man with a power to touch the heart almost unequalled, and he passes days and years in writing, “Young Ben he was a nice young man,” and so forth. To say truth, I have been reading in a book of “Hood’s Own” until I am perfectly angry. “You great man, you good man, you true genius and poet,” I cry out, as I turn page after page. “Do, do, make no more of these jokes, but be yourself, and take your station.”

When Hood was on his death-bed, Sir Robert Peel, who only knew of his illness, not of his imminent danger, wrote to him a noble and touching letter, announcing that a pension was conferred on him:

“I am more than repaid,” writes Peel, “by the personal satisfaction which I have had in doing that for which you return me warm and characteristic acknowledgments.

“You perhaps think that you are known to one with such multifarious occupations as myself, merely by general reputation as an author; but I assure you that there can be little, which you have written and acknowledged, which I have not read; and that there are few who can appreciate and admire more than myself, the good sense and good feeling which have taught you to infuse so much fun and merriment into writings correcting folly and exposing absurdities, and yet never trespassing beyond those limits within which wit and facetiousness are not very often confined. You may write on with the consciousness of independence, as free and unfettered, as if no communication had ever passed between us. I am not conferring a private obligation upon you, but am fulfilling the intentions of the legislature, which has placed at the disposal of the Crown a certain sum (miserable, indeed, in amount) to be applied to the recognition of public claims on the bounty of the Crown. If you will review the names of those whose claims have been admitted on account of their literary or scientific eminence, you will find an ample confirmation of the truth of my statement.

“One return, indeed, I shall ask of you — that you will give me the opportunity of making your personal acquaintance.”

And Hood, writing to a friend, enclosing a copy of Peel’s letter, says, “Sir R. Peel came from Burleigh on Tuesday night, and went down to Brighton on Saturday. If he had written by post, I should not have it till today. So he sent his servant with the enclosed on SATURDAY NIGHT; another mark of considerate attention.” He is frightfully unwell, he continues: his wife says he looks QUITE GREEN; but ill as he is, poor fellow, “his well is not dry. He has pumped out a sheet of Christmas fun, is drawing some cuts, and shall write a sheet more of his novel.”

Oh, sad, marvellous picture of courage, of honesty, of patient endurance, of duty struggling against pain! How noble Peel’s figure is standing by that sick-bed! how generous his words, how dignified and sincere his compassion! And the poor dying man, with a heart full of natural gratitude towards his noble benefactor, must turn to him and say —“If it be well to be remembered by a Minister, it is better still not to be forgotten by him in a ‘hurly Burleigh!’” Can you laugh? Is not the joke horribly pathetic from the poor dying lips? As dying Robin Hood must fire a last shot with his bow — as one reads of Catholics on their death-beds putting on a Capuchin dress to go out of the world — here is poor Hood at his last hour putting on his ghastly motley, and uttering one joke more.

He dies, however, in dearest love and peace with his children, wife, friends; to the former especially his whole life had been devoted, and every day showed his fidelity, simplicity, and affection. In going through the record of his most pure, modest, honorable life, and living along with him, you come to trust him thoroughly, and feel that here is a most loyal, affectionate, and upright soul, with whom you have been brought into communion. Can we say as much of the lives of all men of letters? Here is one at least without guile, without pretension, without scheming, of a pure life, to his family and little modest circle of friends tenderly devoted.

And what a hard work, and what a slender reward! In the little domestic details with which the book abounds, what a simple life is shown to us! The most simple little pleasures and amusements delight and occupy him. You have revels on shrimps; the good wife making the pie; details about the maid, and criticisms on her conduct; wonderful tricks played with the plum-pudding — all the pleasures centring round the little humble home. One of the first men of his time, he is appointed editor of a Magazine at a salary of 300L. per annum, signs himself exultingly “Ed. N. M. M.,” and the family rejoice over the income as over a fortune. He goes to a Greenwich dinner — what a feast and a rejoicing afterwards! —

“Well, we drank ‘the Boz’ with a delectable clatter, which drew from him a good warm-hearted speech. . . . He looked very well, and had a younger brother along with him. . . . Then we had songs. Barham chanted a Robin Hood ballad, and Cruikshank sang a burlesque ballad of Lord H——; and somebody, unknown to me, gave a capital imitation of a French showman. Then we toasted Mrs. Boz, and the Chairman, and Vice, and the Traditional Priest sang the ‘Deep deep sea,’ in his deep deep voice; and then we drank to Procter, who wrote the said song; also Sir J. Wilson’s good health, and Cruikshank’s, and Ainsworth’s: and a Manchester friend of the latter sang a Manchester ditty, so full of trading stuff, that it really seemed to have been not composed, but manufactured. Jerdan, as Jerdanish as usual on such occasions — you know how paradoxically he is QUITE AT HOME in DINING OUT. As to myself, I had to make my SECOND MAIDEN SPEECH, for Mr. Monckton Milnes proposed my health in terms my modesty might allow me to repeat to YOU, but my memory won’t. However, I ascribed the toast to my notoriously bad health, and assured them that their wishes had already improved it — that I felt a brisker circulation — a more genial warmth about the heart, and explained that a certain trembling of my hand was not from palsy, or my old ague, but an inclination in my hand to shake itself with every one present. Whereupon I had to go through the friendly ceremony with as many of the company as were within reach, besides a few more who came express from the other end of the table. VERY gratifying, wasn’t it? Though I cannot go quite so far as Jane, who wants me to have that hand chopped off, bottled, and preserved in spirits. She was sitting up for me, very anxiously, as usual when I go out, because I am so domestic and steady, and was down at the door before I could ring at the gate, to which Boz kindly sent me in his own carriage. Poor girl! what WOULD she do if she had a wild husband instead of a tame one?”

And the poor anxious wife is sitting up, and fondles the hand which has been shaken by so many illustrious men! The little feast dates back only eighteen years, and yet somehow it seems as distant as a dinner at Mr. Thrale’s, or a meeting at Will’s.

Poor little gleam of sunshine! very little good cheer enlivens that sad simple life. We have the triumph of the Magazine: then a new Magazine projected and produced: then illness and the last scene, and the kind Peel by the dying man’s bedside speaking noble words of respect and sympathy, and soothing the last throbs of the tender honest heart.

I like, I say, Hood’s life even better than his books, and I wish, with all my heart, Monsieur et cher confrere, the same could be said for both of us, when the inkstream of our life hath ceased to run. Yes: if I drop first, dear Baggs, I trust you may find reason to modify some of the unfavorable views of my character, which you are freely imparting to our mutual friends. What ought to be the literary man’s point of honor now-a-days? Suppose, friendly reader, you are one of the craft, what legacy would you like to leave to your children? First of all (and by heaven’s gracious help) you would pray and strive to give them such an endowment of love, as should last certainly for all their lives, and perhaps be transmitted to their children. You would (by the same aid and blessing) keep your honor pure, and transmit a name unstained to those who have a right to bear it. You would — though this faculty of giving is one of the easiest of the literary man’s qualities — you would, out of your earnings, small or great, be able to help a poor brother in need, to dress his wounds, and, if it were but twopence, to give him succor. Is the money which the noble Macaulay gave to the poor lost to his family? God forbid. To the loving hearts of his kindred is it not rather the most precious part of their inheritance? It was invested in love and righteous doing, and it bears interest in heaven. You will, if letters be your vocation, find saving harder than giving and spending. To save be your endeavor, too, against the night’s coming when no man may work; when the arm is weary with the long day’s labor; when the brain perhaps grows dark; when the old, who can labor no more, want warmth and rest, and the young ones call for supper.

I copied the little galley-slave who is made to figure in the initial letter of this paper, from a quaint old silver spoon which we purchased in a curiosity-shop at the Hague.12 It is one of the gift spoons so common in Holland, and which have multiplied so astonishingly of late years at our dealers’ in old silverware. Along the stem of the spoon are written the words: “Anno 1609, Bin ick aldus ghekledt gheghaen”—“In the year 1609 I went thus clad.” The good Dutchman was released from his Algerine captivity (I imagine his figure looks like that of a slave amongst the Moors), and in his thank-offering to some godchild at home, he thus piously records his escape.

12 This refers to an illustrated edition of the work.

Was not poor Cervantes also a captive amongst the Moors? Did not Fielding, and Goldsmith, and Smollett, too, die at the chain as well as poor Hood? Think of Fielding going on board his wretched ship in the Thames, with scarce a hand to bid him farewell; of brave Tobias Smollett, and his life, how hard, and how poorly rewarded; of Goldsmith, and the physician whispering, “Have you something on your mind?” and the wild dying eyes answering, “Yes.” Notice how Boswell speaks of Goldsmith, and the splendid contempt with which he regards him. Read Hawkins on Fielding, and the scorn with which Dandy Walpole and Bishop Hurd speak of him. Galley-slaves doomed to tug the oar and wear the chain, whilst my lords and dandies take their pleasure, and hear fine music and disport with fine ladies in the cabin!

But stay. Was there any cause for this scorn? Had some of these great men weaknesses which gave inferiors advantage over them? Men of letters cannot lay their hands on their hearts, and say, “No, the fault was fortune’s, and the indifferent world’s, not Goldsmith’s nor Fielding’s.” There was no reason why Oliver should always be thriftless; why Fielding and Steele should sponge upon their friends; why Sterne should make love to his neighbors’ wives. Swift, for a long time, was as poor as any wag that ever laughed: but he owed no penny to his neighbors: Addison, when he wore his most threadbare coat, could hold his head up, and maintain his dignity: and, I dare vouch, neither of those gentlemen, when they were ever so poor, asked any man alive to pity their condition, and have a regard to the weaknesses incidental to the literary profession. Galley-slave, forsooth! If you are sent to prison for some error for which the law awards that sort of laborious seclusion, so much the more shame for you. If you are chained to the oar a prisoner of war, like Cervantes, you have the pain, but not the shame, and the friendly compassion of mankind to reward you. Galley-slaves, indeed! What man has not his oar to pull? There is that wonderful old stroke-oar in the Queen’s galley. How many years has he pulled? Day and night, in rough water or smooth, with what invincible vigor and surprising gayety he plies his arms. There is in the same Galere Capitaine, that well-known, trim figure, the bow-oar; how he tugs, and with what a will! How both of them have been abused in their time! Take the Lawyer’s galley, and that dauntless octogenarian in command; when has HE ever complained or repined about his slavery? There is the Priest’s galley — black and lawn sails — do any mariners out of Thames work harder? When lawyer, and statesman, and divine, and writer are snug in bed, there is a ring at the poor Doctor’s bell. Forth he must go, in rheumatism or snow; a galley-slave bearing his galley-pots to quench the flames of fever, to succor mothers and young children in their hour of peril, and, as gently and soothingly as may be, to carry the hopeless patient over to the silent shore. And have we not just read of the actions of the Queen’s galleys and their brave crews in the Chinese waters? Men not more worthy of human renown and honor today in their victory, than last year in their glorious hour of disaster. So with stout hearts may we ply the oar, messmates all, till the voyage is over, and the Harbor of Rest is found.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07