1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas Hood

Thomas Hood
English humorist and poet

THOMAS HOOD, (1799-1845), humorist and poet, born 23d May 1799, was the son of Mr Hood, bookseller, of the firm of Vernor & Hood, a man of intelligence, and the author of two novels. " Next to being a citizen of the world," writes Thomas Hood in his Literary Reminiscences, " it must be the best thing to be born a citizen of the world's greatest city." The best incident of his boyhood was his instruction by a schoolmaster who appreciated his talents, and, as he says, " made him feel it impossible not to take an interest in learning while he seemed so interested in teaching." Under the care of this " decayed dominie," whom he has so affectionately recorded, he earned a few guineas—his first literary fee—by revising for the press a new edition of Paul and Virginia. Admitted soon after into the counting-house of a friend of his family, he " turned his stool into a Pegasus on three legs, every foot, of course, being a dactyl or a spondee ;" but the uncongenial profession affected his health, which was never strong, and he was transferred to the care of a relation at Dundee. He has graphically described his unconditional rejection by this inhospitable personage, and the circumstances under which lie found himself in a strange town without an acquain-tance, wdth the most sympathetic nature, anxious for intel-lectual and moral culture, but without guidance, instruction, or control. This self-dependence, however, suited the originality of his character : he became a large and indis-criminate reader, and before long contributed humorous and poetical articles to the provincial newspapers and magazines. As a proof of the seriousness with which he regarded the literary vocation, it may be mentioned that he used to write out his poems in printed characters, believing that that pro-cess best enabled him to understand his own peculiarities and faults, and probably unconscious that Coleridge had recommended some such method of criticism when he said he thought " print settles it."

His modest judgment of his own abilities, however, deterred him from literature as a profession, and on his return to London he applied himself assiduously to the art of engraving, in which he acquired a skill that in after years became a most valuable assistant to his literary labours, and enabled him to illustrate his various humours and fancies by a profusion of quaint devices, which not only repeated to the eye the impressions of the text, but, by suggesting amusing analogies and contrasts, added con-siderably to the sense and effect of the work.

In 1821 Mr John Scott, the editor of. the London Magazine, was killed in a duel, and that periodical passed i uto the hands of some friends of Hood, who proposed to him to take a part in its publication. His installation into this congenial post at once introduced him to the best literary society of the time ; and in becoming the associate of such men as Charles Lamb, Cary, De Quincey, Allan Cunningham, Proctor, Talfourd, Hartley Coleridge, the peasant-poet Clare, and other contributors to that remark-able miscellany, he gradually developed his own intellectual powers, and enjoyed that happy intercourse with superior minds for which his cordial and genial character was so well adapted, and which he has described in his best manner in several chapters of Hood's Own. Odes and Addresses—his first work—were written about this time, in conjunction with his brother-in-law Mr J. H. Reynolds, the friend of Keats ; and it is agreeable to find Sir Walter Scott acknowledging the gift of the work with no formal expressions of gratification, but " wishing the unknown author good health, good fortune, and whatever other good things can best support and encourage his lively vein of inoffensive and humorous satire." Whims and Oddities, National Tales, Tytney Hall, a novel, and The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies followed. In these works the humorous faculty not only predominated, but expressed itself with a freshness, originality, and power which the poetical element could not claim. There was much true poetry in the verse, and much sound sense and keen observation in the prose of these works ; but the poetical feeling and lyrical facility of the one, and the more solid qualities of the other, seemed best employed when they were subservient to his rapid wit, and to the ingenious coruscations of his fancy. This im-pression was confirmed by the series of the Comic Annual, a kind of publication at that time popular, which Hood undertook and continued, almost unassisted, for several years. Under that somewhat frivolous title he treated all the leading events of the day in a fine spirit of caricature, entirely free from grossness and vulgarity, without a trait of personal malice, and with an under-current of true sympathy and honest purpose that will preserve these papers, like the sketches of Hogarth, long after the events and manners they illustrate have passed from the minds of men. But just as the agreeable jester rose into the earnest satirist, one of the most striking peculiarities of his style became a more manifest defect. The attention of the reader was distracted, and his good taste annoyed, by the incessant play upon words, of which Hood had written in his own vindication—

"However critics may take offence, A double meaning has double sense."

Now it is true that the critic must be unconscious of some of the subtlest charms and nicest delicacies of language who would exclude from humorous writing all those impressions and surprises which depend on the use of the diverse sense of words. The history, indeed, of many a word lies hid in its equivocal uses; and it in no way dero-gates from the dignity of the highest poetry to gain strength and variety from the ingenious application of the same sounds to different senses, any more than from the contriv-ances of rhythm or the accompaniment of imitative sounds. But when this habit becomes the characteristic of any wit, it is impossible to prevent it from degenerating into occa-sional buffoonery, and from supplying a cheap and ready resource, whenever the true vein of humour becomes thin or rare. Artists have been known to have used the left hand in the hope of checking the fatal facility which practice had conferred on the right; and if Hood had been able to place under some restraint the curious and complex machinery of words and syllables which his fancy was incessantly producing, his style would have been a great gainer, and much real earnestness of object, which now lies confused by the brilliant kaleidoscope of language, would have remained definite and clear. He was probably not unconscious of this danger ; for, as he gained experience as a writer, his diction became more simple, and his ludicrous illustrations less frequent. In another annual called the Gem appeared the poem on the story of " Eugene Aram," which first manifested the full extent of that poetical vigour which seemed to advance just in proportion as his physical health declined, He started a magazine in his own name, for which he secured the assistance of many literary men of reputation and authority, but which was mainly sustained by his own intellectual activity. From a sick-bed, from which he never rose, he conducted this work with surprising energy, and there composed those poems, too few in number, but immortal in the English language, such as the " Song of the Shirt," the " Bridge of Sighs," and the " Song of the Labourer," which seized the deep human interests of the time, and transported them from the ground of social philosophy into the loftier domain of the imagination. They are no clamorous expressions of anger at the discrepancies and contrasts of humanity, but plain, solemn pictures of conditions of life, which neither the politician nor the moralist can deny to exist, and which they are imperatively called upon to remedy. Woman, in her wasted life, in her hurried death, here stands appealing to the society that degrades her, with a combination of eloquence and poetry, of forms of art at once instantaneous and permanent, and with a metrical energy and variety of which perhaps our language alone is capable. Prolonged illness brought on straitened circumstances; and application was made to Sir Robert Peel to place Hood's name on the pension list with which the British state so moderately rewards the national services of literary men. This was done readily
and without delay, and the pension was continued to his wife and family after his death, which occurred on the 3d of May 1845. Nine years after, a monument, raised by public subscription, in the cemetery of Kensal Green, was inaugurated by Mr Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton) with a concourse of spectators that showed how well the memory of the poet stood the test of time. Artisans came from a great distance to view and honour the image of the popular writer whose best efforts had been dedicated to the cause and the sufferings of the workers of the world ; and literary men of all opinions gathered round the grave of one of their brethren whose writings were at once the delight of every boy and the instruction of every man who read them. Happy the humorist whose works and life are an illustration of the great moral truth that the sense of humour is the just balance of all the faculties of man, the best security against the pride of knowledge and the conceits of the imagination, the strongest inducement to submit with a wise and pious patience to the vicissitudes of human existence. This was the lesson that Thomas Hood left behind him, and which his countrymen will not easily forget. (H.)

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