There were scarcely any events in the life of Thomas Hood. One condition there was of too potent determining importance — life-long ill health; and one circumstance of moment — a commercial failure, and consequent expatriation. Beyond this, little presents itself for record in the outward facts of this upright and beneficial career, bright with genius and coruscating with wit, dark with the lengthening and deepening shadow of death.
The father of Thomas Hood was engaged in business as a publisher and bookseller in the Poultry, in the city of London — a member of the firm of Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe. He was a Scotchman, and had come up to the capital early in life, to make his way. His interest in books was not solely confined to their saleable quality. He reprinted various old works with success; published Bloomfield’s poems, and dealt handsomely with him; and was himself the author of two novels, which are stated to have had some success in their day. For the sake of the son rather than the father, one would like to see some account, with adequate specimens, of these long-forgotten tales; for the queries which Thomas Hood asks concerning the piteous woman of his Bridge of Sighs interest us all concerning a man of genius, and interest us moreover with regard to the question of intellectual as well as natural affinity:—
“Who was his father,
Who was his mother?
Had he a sister,
Had he a brother?”
Another line of work in which the elder Hood is recorded to have been active was the opening of the English book-trade with America. He married a sister of the engraver Mr. Sands, and had by her a large family; two sons and four daughters survived the period of childhood. The elder brother, James, who died early of consumption, drew well, as did also one or two of the sisters. It would seem therefore, when we recall Thomas Hood’s aptitudes and frequent miscellaneous practice in the same line, that a certain tendency towards fine art, as well as towards literature, ran in the family. The consumption which killed James appears to have been inherited from his mother; she, and two of her daughters, died of the same disease; and a pulmonary affection of a somewhat different kind became, as we shall see, one of the poet’s most inveterate persecutors. The death of the father, which was sudden and unexpected, preceded that of the mother, but not of James, and left the survivors in rather straitened circumstances.
Thomas, the second of the two sons, was born in the Poultry, on or about the 23d of May, 1799. He is stated to have been a retired child, with much quiet humor; chuckling, we may guess, over his own quaint imaginings, which must have come in crowds, and of all conceivable or inconceivable sorts, to judge from the products of his after years; keeping most of these fancies and surprises to himself, but every now and then letting some of them out, and giving homely or stolid bystanders an inkling of insight into the many-peopled crannies of his boyish brain. He received his education at Dr. Wanostrocht’s school at Clapham. It is not very clear how far this education extended:† I should infer that it was just about enough, and not more than enough, to enable Hood to shift for himself in the career of authorship, without serious disadvantage from inadequate early training, and also without much aid thence derived — without, at any rate, any such rousing and refining of the literary sense as would warrant us in attributing to educational influences either the inclination to become an author, or the manipulative power over language and style which Hood displayed in his serious poems, not to speak of those of a lighter kind. We seem to see him sliding, as it were, into the profession of letters, simply through capacity and liking, and the course of events — not because he had resolutely made up his mind to be an author, nor because his natural faculty had been steadily or studiously cultivated. As to details, it may be remarked that his schooling included some amount — perhaps a fair average amount — of Latin. We find it stated that he had a Latin prize at school, but was not apt at the language in later years. He had however one kind of aptitude at it — being addicted to the use of familiar Latin quotations or phrases, cited with humorous verbal perversions.
In all the relations of family life, and the forms of family affection, Hood was simply exemplary. The deaths of his elder brother and of his father left him the principal reliance of his mother, herself destined soon to follow them to the tomb: he was an excellent and devoted son. His affection for one of his sisters, Anne, who also died shortly afterwards, is attested in the beautiful lines named The Deathbed —
“We watched her breathing through the night.”
At a later date, the loves of a husband and a father seem to have absorbed by far the greater part of his nature and his thoughts: his letters to friends are steeped and drenched In “Jane,” “Fanny,” and “Tom junior.” These letters are mostly divided between perpetual family details and perennial jocularity: a succession of witticisms, or at lowest of puns and whimsicalities, mounts up like so many squibs and crackers, fizzing through, sparkling amid, or ultimately extinguished by, the inevitable shower — the steady rush and downpour — of the home-affections. It may easily be inferred from this account that there are letters which one is inclined to read more thoroughly, and in greater number consecutively, than Hood’s.
The vocation first selected for Hood, towards the age of fifteen, was one which he did not follow up for long — that of an engraver. He was apprenticed to his uncle Mr. Sands, and afterwards to one of the Le Keux family. The occupation was ill-suited to his constantly ailing health, and this eventually conduced to his abandoning it. He then went to Scotland to recruit, remaining there among his relatives about five years.† According to a statement made by himself, he was in a merchant’s office within this interval; it is uncertain, however, whether this assertion is to be accepted as genuine, or as made for some purpose of fun. His first published writing appeared in the Dundee Advertiser in 1814 — his age being then, at the utmost, fifteen and a half; this was succeeded by some contribution to a local magazine. But as yet he had no idea of authorship as a profession.
Towards the middle of the year 1820, Hood was re-settled in London, improved in health, and just come of age. At first he continued practising as an engraver; but in 1821 he began to act as a sort of sub-editor for the London Magazine after the death of the editor, Mr. Scott, in a duel. He concocted fictitious and humorous answers to correspondents — a humble yet appropriate introduction to the insatiable habit and faculty for out-of-the-way verbal jocosity which marked-off his after career from that of all other excellent poets.
His first regular contribution to the magazine, in July, 1821, was a little poem To Hope: even before this, as early at any rate as 1815, he was in the frequent practice of writing correctly and at some length in verse, as witnessed by selections, now in print, from what he had composed for the amusement of his relatives. Soon afterwards, a private literary society was the recipient of other verses of the same order. The lines To Hope were followed, in the London Magazine, by the Ode to Dr. Kitchener and some further poems, including the important work, Lycus the Centaur— after the publication of which, there could not be much doubt of the genuine and uncommon powers of the new writer. The last contribution of Hood to this magazine was the Lines to a Cold Beauty. Another early work of his, and one which, like the verses To the Moon, affords marked evidence of the impression which he had received from Keats’s poetry, is the unfinished drama (or, as he termed it, “romance”) of Lamia: I do not find its precise date recorded. Its verse is lax, and its tone somewhat immature; yet it shows a great deal of sparkling and diversified talent. Hood certainly takes a rather more rational view than Keats did of his subject as a moral invention, or a myth having some sort of meaning at its root. A serpent transformed into a woman, who beguiles a youth of the highest hopes into amorous languid self-abandonment, is clearly not, in morals, the sort of person that ought to be left uncontrolled to her own devices. Keats ostentatiously resents the action of the unimpassioned philosopher Appollonius in revealing the true nature of the woman-serpent, and dissolving her spell. An elderly pedant to interfere with the pretty whims of a viper when she wears the outer semblance of a fine woman! Intolerable!
(Such is the sentiment of Keats; but such plainly is not altogether the conviction of Hood, although his story remains but partially developed.)
By this time it may have become pretty clear to himself and others that his proper vocation and destined profession was literature. Through the London Magazine, he got to know John Hamilton Reynolds (author of the Garden of Florence and other poems, and a contributor to this serial under the pseudonym of Edward Herbert), Charles Lamb, Allan Cunningham, De Quincey, and other writers of reputation. To Hood the most directly important of all these acquaintances was Mr. Reynolds; this gentleman having a sister, Jane, to whom Hood was introduced. An attachment ensued, and shortly terminated in marriage, the wedding taking place on the 5th of May, 1824. The father of Miss Reynolds was the head writing-master at Christ Hospital. She is stated to have had good manners, a cultivated mind, and literary tastes, though a high educational standard is not always traceable in her letters. At any rate the marriage was a happy one; Mrs. Hood being a tender and attentive wife, unwearied in the cares which her husband’s precarious health demanded, and he being (as I have said) a mirror of marital constancy and devotion, distinguishable from a lover rather by his intense delight in all domestic relations and details than by any cooling-down in his fondness. It would appear that, in the later years of Hood’s life, he was not on entirely good terms with some members of his wife’s family, including his old friend John Hamilton Reynolds. What may have caused this I do not find specified: all that we know of the character of Hood justifies us in thinking that he was little or not at all to blame, for he appears throughout a man of just, honorable, and loving nature, and free besides from that sort of self-assertion which invites a collision. Every one, however, has his blemishes; and we may perhaps discern in Hood a certain over-readiness to think himself imposed upon, and the fellow-creatures with whom he had immediately to do a generation of vipers — a state of feeling not characteristic of a mind exalted and magnanimous by habit, or “gentle” in the older and more significant meaning of the term.
The time was now come for Hood to venture a volume upon the world. Conjointly with Reynolds, he wrote, and published in 1825, his Odes and Addresses to Great People. The title-page bore no author’s name; but the extraordinary talent and point of the work could hardly fail to be noticed, even apart from its appeal to immediate popularity, dealing as it did so continually with the uppermost topics of the day. It had what it deserved, a great success. This volume was followed, in 1826, by the first series of Whims and Oddities, which also met with a good sale; the second series appeared in 1827. Next came two volumes of National Tales, somewhat after the manner of Boccaccio (but how far different from his spirit may easily be surmised), which are now little known. The volume containing the Plea of the Midsummer Fairies, Hero and Leander, and some other of Hood’s most finished and noticeable poems, came out in 1827. The Midsummer Fairies itself was one of the authors own favorite works, and certainly deserved to be so, as far as dainty elegance of motive and of execution is concerned: but the conception was a little too ingeniously remote for the public to ratify the author’s predilection. The Hero and Leander will be at once recognized as modelled on the style of Elizabethan narrative poems: indeed Marlow treated the very same subject, and his poem, left uncompleted, was finished by Chapman. Hood’s is a most astonishing example of revivalist poetry: it is reproductive and spontaneous at the same time. It resembles its models closely, not servilely — significantly, not mechanically; and has the great merit of resembling them with comparative moderation. Elizabethan here both in spirit and in letter, Hood is nevertheless a little less extreme than his prototypes. Where they loaded, he does not find it needful to overload, which is the ready and almost the inevitable resource of revivalists, all but the fewest: on the contrary, he alleviates a little — but only a little.
In 1829 appeared the most famous of all his poems of a narrative character —The Dream of Eugene Aram; it was published in the Gem, an annual which the poet was then editing. Besides this amount of literary activity, Hood continued writing in periodicals, sometimes under the signature of “Theodore M.”
His excessive and immeasurable addiction to rollicking fun, to the perpetual “cracking of jokes” (for it amounts to that more definitely than to anything else in the domain of the Comic Muse), is a somewhat curious problem, taken in connection with his remarkable genius and accomplishment as a poet, and his personal character as a solid housekeeping citizen, bent chiefly upon rearing his family in respectability, and paying his way, or, as the Church Catechism has neatly and unimprovably expressed it, upon “doing his duty in that state of life to which it had pleased God to call him.” His almost constant ill-health, and, in a minor degree, the troubles which beset him in money-matters, make the problem all the more noticeable. The influence of Charles Lamb may have had something to do with it — probably not very much. Perhaps there was something in the literary atmosphere or the national tone of the time which gave comicality a turn of predominance after the subsiding of the great poetic wave which filled the last years of the eighteenth and the first quarter of the nineteenth century in our country, in Blake, Burns, Wordsworth, Scott, Coleridge, Landor, Byron, Keats, and, supreme among all, Shelley. Something of the same transition may be noticed in the art of design; the multifarious illustrator in the prior generation is Stothard — in the later, Cruikshank. At any rate, in literature, Lamb, Hood, and then Dickens in his earliest works, the Sketches by Boz and Pickwick, are uncommonly characteristic and leading minds, and bent, with singular inveteracy, upon being “funny,”— though not funny and nothing else at all. But we should not force this consideration too far: Hood is a central figure in the group and the period, and the tendency of the time may be almost as much due to him as he to the tendency. Mainly, we have to fall back upon his own idiosyncrasy: he was born with a boundlessly whimsical perception, which he trained into an inimitable sleight-of-hand in the twisting of notions and of words; circumstances favored his writing for fugitive publications and skimming readers, rather than under conditions of greater permanency; and the result is as we find it in his works. His son expresses the opinion that part of Hood’s success in comic writing arose from his early reading of Humphrey Clinker, Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones, and other works of that period, and imbuing himself with their style: a remark, however, which applies to his prose rather than his poetical works. Certain it is that the appetite for all kinds of fun, verbal and other was a part of Hood’s nature. We see it in the practical jokes he was continually playing on his good-humored wife — such as altering into grotesque absurdity many of the words contained in her letters to friends: we see it — the mere animal love of jocularity, as it might be termed — in such a small point as his frequently addressing his friend Philip de Franck, in letters, by the words, “Tim, says he,” instead of any human appellative† Hood reminds us very much of one of Shakespeare’s Fools (to use the word in no invidious sense) transported into the nineteenth century — the Fool in King Lear, or Touchstone. For the occasional sallies of coarseness or ribaldry, the spirit of the time has substituted a bourgeois good-humor which respects the family circle, and haunts the kitchen-stairs; for the biting jeer, intended to make some victim uncomfortable, it gives the sarcastic or sprightly banter, not unconscious of an effort at moral amelioration; for the sententious sagacity, and humorous enjoyment of the nature of man, it gives bright thoughts and a humanitarian sympathy. But, on the whole, the intellectual personality is nearly the same: seeking by natural affinity, and enjoying to the uttermost, whatever tends to lightness of heart and to ridicule — thus dwelling indeed in the region of the commonplace and the gross, but constantly informing it with some suggestion of poetry, somewise side-meaning, or some form of sweetness and grace. These observations relate of course to Hood’s humorous poems: into his grave and pathetic poems he can import qualities still loftier than these — though even here it is not often that he utterly forswears quaintness and oddity. The risible, the fantastic, was his beacon-light; sometimes as delicate as a dell of glow-worms; sometimes as uproarious as a bonfire; sometimes, it must be said (for he had to be perpetually writing whether the inspiration came or not, or his inspiration was too liable to come from the very platitudes and pettinesses of everyday life), not much more brilliant than a rush-light, and hardly more aromatic than the snuff of a tallow candle.
We must now glance again at Hood’s domestic affairs. His first child had no mundane existence worth calling such; but has nevertheless lived longer than most human beings in the lines which Lamb wrote for the occasion, On an Infant dying as soon as born. A daughter followed, and in 1830 was born his son, the Tom Hood who became editor of the comic journal Fun, and died in 1874. At the time of his birth, the family was living at Winchmore Hill: thence they removed about 1832, to the Lake House, Wanstead, a highly picturesque dwelling, but scanty in domestic comforts. The first of the Comic Annual series was brought out at Christmas, 1830. In the following couple of years, Hood did some theatrical work; writing the libretto for an English opera which (it is believed) was performed at the Surrey Theatre. Its name is now unknown, but it had a good run in its day; a similar fate has befallen an entertainment which he wrote for Mathews. He also composed a pantomime for the Adelphi; and, along with Reynolds, dramatized Gil Blas. This play is understood to have been acted at Drury Lane. The novel of Tylney Hall, and the poem of the Epping Hunt, were written at Wanstead.
Born in comfortable mediocrity, and early inured to narrow fortunes, Hood had no doubt entered upon the literary calling without expecting or caring to become rich. Hitherto, however, he seems to have prospered progressively, and to have had no reason to regret, even in a wordly sense, his choice of a profession. But towards the end of 1834 a disaster overtook him; and thenceforth, to the end of his days, he had nothing but tedious struggling and uphill work. To a man of his buoyant temperament, and happy in his home, this might have been of no extreme consequence, if only sound health had blessed him: unfortunately, the very reverse was the case. Sickly hitherto, he was soon to become miserably and hopelessly diseased: he worked on through everything bravely and uncomplainingly, but no doubt with keen throbs of discomfort, and not without detriment at times to the quality of his writings. The disaster adverted to was the failure of a firm with which Hood was connected, entailing severe loss upon him. With his accustomed probity, he refused to avail himself of any legal immunities, and resolved to meet his engagements in full eventually; but it became requisite that he should withdraw from England. He proposed to settle down in some one of the towns on the Rhine, and circumstances fixed his choice on Coblentz. A great storm which overtook him during the passage to Rotterdam told damagingly on his already feeble health. Coblentz, which he reached in March, 1835, pleased him at first; though it was not long before he found himself a good deal of an Englishman, and his surroundings vexatiously German. After a while he came to consider a German Jew and a Jew German nearly convertible terms; and indulged at times in considerable acrimony of comment, such as a reader of cosmopolitan temper is not inclined to approve. He had, however, at least one very agreeable acquaintance at Coblentz — Lieutenant Philip de Franck, an officer in the Prussian service, of partly English parentage: the good-fellowship which he kept up with this amiable gentleman, both in personal intercourse and by letter, was (as we have seen) even boyishly vivacious and exuberant. In the first instance Hood lived at No. 372 Castor Hof, where his family joined him in the Spring of 1835: about a year later, they removed to No. 752 Alten Graben.
Spasms in the chest now began to be a trying and alarming symptom of his ill-health, which, towards the end of 1836, took a turn for the worse; he never afterwards rallied very effectually, though the fluctuations were numerous —(in November, 1838, for instance, he fancied that a radical improvement had suddenly taken place)— and at times the danger was imminent. The unfavorable change in question was nearly simultaneous with a visit which he made to Berlin, accompanying Lieutenant de Franck and his regiment, on their transfer to Bromberg: the rate of travelling was from fifteen to twenty English miles per diem, for three days consecutively, and then one day of rest. Hood liked the simple unextortionate Saxon folk whom he encountered on the route, and contrasted them with the Coblentzers, much to the disadvantage of the latter. By the beginning of December he was back in his Rhineland home; but finally quitted it towards May, 1837. Several attacks of blood-spitting occurred in the interval; at one time Hood proposed for himself the deadly-lively epitaph, “Here lies one who spat more blood and made more puns than any other man.”
About this time he was engaged in writing Up the Rhine; performing, as was his wont, the greater part of the work during the night-hours. The sojourn at Coblentz was succeeded by a sojourn at Ostend; in which city — besides the sea, which Hood always supremely delighted in — he found at first more comfort in the ordinary mode of living, including the general readiness at speaking or understanding English. Gradually, however, the climate, extremely damp and often cold, proved highly unsuitable to him; and, when he quitted Ostend in the Spring of 1840, at the close of nearly three years’ residence there, it was apparent that his stay had already lasted too long. Within this period the publication of Hood’s Own had occurred, and put to a severe trial even his unrivalled fertility in jest: one of his letters speaks of the difficulty of being perfectly original in the jocose vein, more especially with reference to the concurrent demands of Hood’s Own, and of the Comic Annual of the year. At the beginning of 1839 he paid a visit of about three weeks to his often-regretted England, staying with one of his oldest and most intimate friends, Mr. Dilke, then editor of the Athenæum. Another of his best friends — one indeed who continued to the end roost unwearied and affectionate in his professional and other attentions, Dr. Elliot — now made a medical examination of Hood’s condition. He pronounced the lungs to be organically sound; the chief seat of disease being the liver, and the heart, which was placed lower down than usual. At a later stage of the disease, enlargement of the heart is mentioned, along with hæmorrhage from the lungs consequent on that malady, and recurring with terrible frequency: to these dropsy, arising from extreme weakness, was eventually superadded. Indeed, the catalogue of the illnesses of the unconquerably hilarious Hood, and the details of his sufferings, are painful to read. They have at least the merit of giving a touch of adventitious but intimate pathos even to some of his wildest extravagances of verbal fence — and of enhancing our sympathy and admiration for the force and beauty of his personal character, which could produce work such as this out of a torture of body and spirit such as that. During this visit to London, Hood scrutinized his publishing and other accounts, and found them sufficiently encouraging. The first edition of Up the Rhine, consisting of 1500 copies, sold off In a fortnight. Soon, however, some vexations with publishers ensued: Hood felt it requisite to take legal proceedings, and the action lingered on throughout and beyond the brief remainder of his life. Thus his prospects were again blighted, and his means crippled when most they needed to be unembarrassed.
The poet was back in England from Ostend in April 1840; and, under medical advice, he determined to prolong his visit into a permanent re-settlement in his native London. Here therefore he remained and returned, no more to the Continent. He took a house, with his family, in Camberwell, not far from the Green; removing afterwards to St. John’s Wood, and finally to another house in the same district, Devonshire Lodge, Finchley Road. He wrote in the New Monthly Magazine, then edited by Theodore Hook: his Rhymes for the Times, the celebrated Miss Kilmansegg, and other compositions, first appeared here. Hook dying in August 1841, Hood was invited to succeed him as editor, and closed with the offer: this gave him an annual salary of £300, besides the separate payments for any articles that he wrote. The Song of the Shirt, which it would be futile to praise or even to characterize, came out, anonymously of course, in the Christmas number of Punch for 1843: it ran like wildfire, and rang like a tocsin, through the land. Immediately afterwards, in January 1844, Hood’s connection with the New Monthly closed, and he started a publication of his own, Hood’s Magazine, which was a considerable success: more than half the first number was the actual handiwork of the editor. Many troubles and cross-purposes, however, beset the new periodical; difficulties with which Hood was ill fitted, by his now rapidly and fatally worsening health, to cope. They pestered him when he was most in need of rest; and he was in need of rest when most he was wanted to control the enterprise. The Haunted House, and various other excellent poems by Hood, were published in this magazine.
His last days and final agonies were a little cheered by the granting of a Government pension of £100, dating from June 1844, which, with kindly but ominous foresight, was conferred upon Mrs. Hood, as likely to prove the survivor. This was during the ministry of Sir Robert Peel, whose courteous communications to the poet, and expressions of direct personal interest in his writings, made the boon all the more acceptable. Hood, indeed, had not been directly concerned in soliciting it. At a somewhat earlier date, January 1841, the Literary Society had, similarly unasked, voted him a sum of £50; but this he returned, although his circumstances were such as might have made it by no means unwelcome. From Christmas 1844 he was compelled to take to his bed, and was fated never to leave his room again. The ensuing Spring, throughout which the poet lay seemingly almost at the last gasp day by day, was a lovely one. At times he was delirious; but mostly quite clear in mind, and full of gentleness and resignation. “Dying, dying,” were his last words; and shortly before, “Lord, say ‘Arise, take up thy cross, and follow me.’” On the 3d of May 1845 he lay dead.
Hood’s funeral took place in Kensal Green Cemetery: it was a quiet one, but many friends attended. His faithful and loving wife would not be long divided from him. Eighteen months later she was laid beside him, dying of an illness first contracted from her constant tendance on his sick-bed. In the closing period of his life, Hood could hardly bear her being out of his sight, or even write when she was away. Some years afterwards, a public subscription was got up, and a monument erected to mark the grave of the good man and true poet who “sang the Song of the Shirt.”
The face of Hood is best known by two busts and an oil-portrait which have both been engraved from. It is a sort of face to which apparently a bust does more than justice, yet less than right. The features, being mostly by no means bad ones, look better, when thus reduced to the mere simple and abstract contour, than they probably showed in reality, for no one supposed Hood to be a fine-looking man; on the other hand, the value of the face must have been in its shifting expression — keen, playful, or subtle — and this can be but barely suggested by the sculptor. The poet’s visage was pallid, his figure slight, his voice feeble; he always dressed in black, and is spoken of as presenting a generally clerical aspect. He was remarkably deficient in ear for music — not certainly for the true chime and varied resources of verse. His aptitude for the art of design was probably greater than might be inferred from the many comic woodcut-drawings which he has left. These are irresistibly ludicrous —(who would not laugh over “The Spoiled Child”—“What next? as the Frog said when his tail fell off”— and a host of others?)— and all the more ludicrous and effective for being drawn more childishly and less artistically than was within Hood’s compass. One may occasionally see some water-color landscape-bit or the like from his hands pleasantly done; and during his final residence in England he acted upon an idea he had long entertained, and produced some little in the way of oil-painting. He was also ingenious in any sort of light fancy-work — such, for instance, as carving the scenery for a child’s theatre which formed the delight of his little son and daughter. His religious faith was, according to the writers of the Memorials, deep and sincere, though his opposition to sectarian narrowness and spite of all sorts was vigorous, and caused him sometimes to be regarded as anti-religious. A letter of his to a tract-giving and piously censorious lady who had troubled him (published in the same book) is absolutely fierce, and indeed hardly to be reconciled with the courtesy due to a woman, as a mere question of sex. It would be convenient, I may observe, to know more plainly what the biographers mean by such expressions as “religious faith,” “Christian gentleman,” and the like. They are not explained, for instance, by adding that Hood honored the Bible too much to make it a task-book for his children. “Religious faith” covers many very serious differences of sentiment and conviction, between natural theology and historical Christianity; and, on hearing that a man possessed religious faith, one would like to learn which of the two extremes this faith was more nearly conversant with. In respect of political or social opinion, Hood appears to have been rather humane and philanthropic than democratic, or “liberal” in the distinct technical sense. His favorite theory of government, as he said in a letter to Peel, was “an angel from heaven, and a despotism.” He loved neither whigs nor tories, but was on the side of a national policy: war was his abhorrence, and so were the wicked corn-laws — an oligarchical device which survived him, but not for long. His private generosity, not the less true or hearty for the limits which a precarious and very moderate income necessarily imposed on it, was in accordance with the general sentiments of kindness which he was wont to express both in public and private: if he preached, he did not forget to practise.
It has been well said† that “the predominant characteristics of his genius are humorous fancies grafted upon melancholy impressions.” Yet the term “grafted” seems hardly strong enough. Hood appears, by natural bent and permanent habit of mind, to have seen and sought for ludicrousness under all conditions — it was the first thing that struck him as a matter of intellectual perception or choice. On the other hand, his nature being poetic, his sympathies acute, and the condition of his life morbid, he very frequently wrote in a tone of deep and indeed melancholy feeling, and was a master both of his own art and of the reader’s emotion; but, even in work of this sort, the intellectual execration, when it takes precedence of the general feeling, is continually fantastic, grotesque, or positively mirthful. And so again with those of his works — including rude designs along with finished or off-hand writing — which are professedly comical: the funny twist of thought is the essential thing, and the most gloomy or horrible subject-matter is often selected as the occasion for the horse-laugh. In some of his works indeed (we might cite the poems named The Dead Robbery, The Forge, and The Supper Superstition) the horse-laugh almost passes into a nightmare laugh. A ghoul might seem to have set it going, and laughing hyenas to be chorusing it. A man of such a faculty and such a habit of work could scarcely, in all instances, keep himself within the bounds of good taste — a term which people are far too ready to introduce into serious discussions, for the purpose of casting disparagement upon some work which transcends the ordinary standards of appreciation, but a term nevertheless which has its important meaning and its true place. Hood is too often like a man grinning awry, or interlarding serious and beautiful discourse with a nod, a wink, or a leer, neither requisite nor convenient as auxiliaries to his speech: and to do either of these things is to fail in perfect taste. Sometimes, not very often, we are allowed to reach the close of a poem of his without having our attention jogged and called off by a single interpolation of this kind; and then we feel unalloyed — what we constantly feel also even under the contrary conditions — how exquisite a poetic sense and how choice a cunning of hand were his. On the whole, we can pronounce Hood the finest English poet between the generation of Shelley and the generation of Tennyson.
† The authority — I might almost say, the one authority — for the life of Hood, is the Memorials published by his son and daughter. Any point which is not clearly brought out in that affectionate and interesting record will naturally be equally or more indefinite in my brief summary, founded as it is on the Memorials.
† “Two years,” according to the Memorials; but the dates for this portion of Hood’s life are not accurately given in that work. Hood completed the fifteenth year of his age in May, 1814. It is certain, from the dates of his letters, that his sojourn in Scotland began not later than September, 1815; and the writer of the Memorials himself affirms that Hood “returned to London about 1820,” in or before July. If so, he was in Scotland about five years; and, from the fact that he had written in a Dundee newspaper in 1814, one might even surmise that the term of six years was nearer the mark. At any rate, as he had reached Scotland by September, 1815, he was there soon after completing his sixteenth year: yet Mr. Hessey (Memorials, p. 23) says that he was articled to the engraving business “at the age of fifteen or sixteen,” and his apprenticeship, according to Mr. Hood, junior, lasted “some years” even before his transfer from Mr. Sands to Mr. Le Keux. The apprenticeship did not begin until after the father’s death; but the year of that death is left unspecified, though the day and month are given. These dates, as the reader will readily perceive, are sometimes vague, and sometimes contradictory. In the text of my notice, I have endeavored to pick my way through their discrepancies.
† This “Tim, says he,” is a perfect gag in many of Hood’s letters. It is curious to learn what was the kind of joke which could assume so powerful an ascendant over the mind and associations of this great humorist. Here it is, as given in the Hood Memorials from Sir Jonah Barrington’s Memoirs:—
“‘Tim,’ says he —
‘Sir,’ says he —
‘Fetch me my hat, says he;
‘That I may go,’ says he,
‘To Timahoe,’ says he,
‘And go to the fair,’ says he,
‘And see all that’s there,’ says he. —
‘First pay what you owe,’ says he;
‘And then you may go,’ says he,
‘To Timahoe,’ says he,
‘And go to the fair,’ says he,
‘And see all that’s there,’ says he. —
‘Now by this and by that,’ says he,
‘Tim, hang up my hat,’ says he.”
† Horne’s New Spirit of the Age.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55