IT depends greatly on a man's physical health and animal spirits whether he shall be of a large, calm, outward-looking nature and objective mind, or shall be a brooding subjective being, whose vision is introverted, and whose temperament is too irritable to allow full time for maturing the larger births of literature.
The great Humorists, as a rule, were men of overflowing animal spirits.
They have, as the term suggests, more moisture of the bodily temperament; the unction of mirth, and the wine of gladness.
Such are the Chaucers, Ben Jonsons, and Fieldings, the Molières and Rabelais.
But the small, thin men, with little flesh and blood, the Popes, Voltaires, and Hoods, rarely reach this perfect joyousness of feeling.
On the contrary, they feel naked to the least breath of the world, as though they were one live sensitive nerve of self, and the slightest touch erects their pens like porcupines' quills.
That a man with a powerful frame and robust health may, even in a time like ours, reach the corpulent Brobdignagian humour of the older writers, we have had ample proof in John Wilson, whose life was so opulent, and laugh so hearty, that he could shake off all the
cobwebs of our miserable self-consciousness. That which would pierce the little men to the vitals he took as a mere tickling of his cuticle. Those things which are as the mighty blows of Thor's hammer to others only seemed to make him look up and say with Skrymir, 'there must be sparrows roosting in this tree, I think; what is that they have dropped?'
It is a very noticeable feature in Hood's character that, with even worse health than Pope's, he was of a most sweet temper; and no amount of pain and buffeting could turn him into one of the wasps of wit.
But to read his nature and appreciate his works, we must turn to his Life.
Thomas Hood by birth was a genuine Cockney. He was born May 23rd, 1799, in the Poultry, London; therefore within the sound of Bow bells.
His father was a native of Scotland; but in this instance the old saying, that one Scotsman will be sure to introduce another, was not verified, Thomas Hood being as unlike a Scotsman as possible.
His grandmother was an Armstrong; and he used to say in joke that he was descended from two notorious thieves, Robin Hood and Johnnie Armstrong.
The genius of Cockneydom, however, was the ruling power in mixing the elements of his nature.
He would have been all the richer for a little of the ruddy health of Robin, and the hardihood of the renowned Borderer.
But Cockney he was doomed to be; and we cannot help thinking that the 'Song of the
Shirt' could only have been written by one who entered deeply into London life, so as to feel instinctively how it went with the poorest poor who dwell high up the dark and rickety staircases, seeing the stars through the rents of the roof; to whom spring only comes in the plant or flower on the window-sill; the gleam of sunshine on the wing of the swallow darting by, or the warble of an imprisoned skylark.
Only a dweller in London who knows how the poor live, could fathom the indescribable yearning of the fevered body and pent-up soul for one breath of the country air and boundless space; to cool the feet in the sweet green grass, and the fingers among its wild flowers; to freshen the poor worn eves with a look at the glad green world of pleasant leaves, waving woods, and blue heaven bending over all.
Hood took cheerfully enough to his birthplace, and thought if local prejudices were worth anything the
balance ought to be in favour of the capital. He would as lief have been a native of London as of Stoke Pogis, and considered the Dragon of Bow Church or Gresham's Grasshopper as good a terrestrial sign to he born under as the dunghill cock on the village steeple.
He thought a literary man might exult that he first saw the light,—or perhaps the
fog,—in the same metropolis as Milton, Gray, De Foe, Pope, Byron, Lamb, and other town-born authors, 'whose fame was nevertheless triumphed over the Bills of Mortality.'
So in their goodly company he cheerfully took up his livery, especially as Cockneyism, properly so called, appeared to him to be limited to no particular locality or station in life.
It is likewise worth to remark, that Hood owes a whole class of humorous character to the streets of London.
The 'Lost Child ' is a type of what we mean. In this the nature and language are strictly Cockney.
The cooped-up maternal agony grows garrulous beyond measure; and so all rules of verse are violated in order that ample expression may be given to the grief.
The result is a long lugubrious patter; tragedy and farce blending in a burlesque such as Mr. Robson alone could do justice to.
Hood's father was a man of literary taste; had written a couple of novels, and was one of the firm of Vernon and
Hood which published the poems of Bloomfield and Kirke White.
James, the eldest boy, likewise had literary predilections. His mother, we are told, was somewhat startled to find a note-book which appeared to contain some secret confession of hopeless love; the good lady not knowing that her son had been translating Petrarch.
Thus Thomas Hood had, as he said, a dash of ink in his blood, which soon became manifest in an inkling for authorship.
He was a shy, quiet child, exceedingly sensitive, and delicate in health; fond of making his little observations with continual humour as he sat silently watching, with noticing eyes, the main stream of life passing by.
One of his earliest artistic efforts was a great success, although not exactly in the way he had anticipated.
He smoked a terrific-looking demon on the bedroom ceiling with a candle, intending to frighten his brother on going to bed; but forgetting all about it, he was himself the victim, and found it no joke.
Disease and death were early and frequent visitors to the Hood family.
James, the elder brother, was soon carried off.
The father died suddenly, leaving the widow with her little ones but poorly provided for.
The wife soon followed her husband. Hood's sister Anne did not survive the mother very long, both dying of consumption.
It was on the death of this sister that Hood wrote his tender and touching little poem called the
The mother whilst living had given her son what education she could command.
He acquired French, and became a pretty good classical scholar. In his 'attempt on his own life ' he speaks of winning a prize for Latin without knowing the Latin for
prize. But he had a capable teacher after he left the school at which this happened, and his witty renderings from Latin authors were well known to his friends in after life.
We do not make out the precise date at which Thomas Hood was articled to his uncle, Mr. Sands, the engraver, nor how
long he laboured at the art which first taught him how to etch his own funny fancies.
He speaks of having sat at a desk in some commercial office, but he was not destined to become a winner of the 'Ledger,' his race being cut short at starting; this he communicates in strictly business language.
His appetite failed, and its principal creditor, the stomach, received only an ounce in the pound.
In the phraseology of the 'Price Current,' it was expected that he must 'submit to a decline.'
The doctors declared that by sitting so much on the counting-house stool he was hatching a whole brood of complaints.
So he was ordered to abstain from 'ashes, bristles, and Petersburg yellow candle, and to indulge in a more generous diet.'
Change of air, too, was imperatively prescribed. Accordingly Hood was shipped off to visit some relatives in Dundee.
As soon as they set eyes on him they did what they could to send him back again.
He had come to the wrong people in search of health.
Hood, however, determined on stopping in Dundee. The air of Scotland did him so much good.
One of its results was a belief, that although Scotland might not produce the first man in the world, it would undoubtedly be a Scotsman who would live on as the Last Man.
To estimate his position at this time, alone in a strange place, hanging on his own hook, he tells us to imagine a boy of fifteen at the Nore as it were of life, thus left dependent on his own pilotage for a safe voyage to the Isle of Man!
How he was occupied in Dundee we are not clearly informed; but his first appearance in print was in the 'Dundee Advertiser;' his next in the in 'Dundee Magazine;' and he tells us with modest triumph and pardonable pride, that the respective editors published his writings without charging anything for insertion.
This he considered success enough to make him sell himself body and soul, after the German fashion, to that minor Mephistophiles the Printer's Devil.
Not but what he served some years' apprenticeship before the Imp in question became really his Familiar.
As with all literary naturals, he drifted rather than plunged into authorship.
In the year 1821 Hood returned to London, and was engaged to assist the editor of the 'London Magazine,' leaving the engraver's business for that purpose.
Here was a legitimate opening, and he 'jumped at it, à la Grimaldi, head foremost, and was speedily behind the scenes.'
So delighted was he, that he would receive a revise from the foreman of the printers as a 'proof of his regard; forgave him all his slips,' and really thought that printers' devils were not so black as they are painted.
But, he tells us, his 'topgallant-glory' was in 'Our Contributors.'
How he used to look forward to Elia and backward for Hazlitt, and all round for Edward Herbert; and 'how I used to
look up to Allan Cunningham,' who was formed by Nature tall enough to 'snatch a grace
beyond the reach of Art.' Hood has given us a pleasant life-like sketch of Charles Lamb, with his fine head on a small spare body; his intellectual face full of wiry lines, and lurking quips and cranks of physiognomy; brown bright eyes quick in
turning as those of birds,—looking sharp enough to pick up pins and needles.
The hesitation in his speech continually relieved by some happy turn of thought which seemed to have been thus naturally waited for.
Shy with strangers, but instantly alight with a welcome smile of womanly sweetness for his friends.
At Lamb's he met with Coleridge, the 'full-bodied poet with his waving white hair and his benign face, round, ruddy, and unfurrowed as a holy friar's'. Hood heard the glorious talker at times when he was in the key which Lamb called 'C in alt.,' far above the line of the listener's comprehension.
He made marvellous music nevertheless; and Hood felt as though he were carried 'spiralling up to heaven by a whirlwind intertwisted with sunbeams, giddy and dazzled, and had then been rained down again with a shower of mundane stocks and stows that
battered out of me all recollection of what I had heard and what I had seen.
Here too was poor Clare, in his bright grasscoloured coat and yellow waistcoat, 'shining verdantly from out
the grave-coloured suits like a patch of turnips amidst stubble and fallow.'
Lamb sometimes bantering him on certain 'Clare-obscurities' in his
verses, and anon talking so gravely towards midnight, that Clare would cry ' Dal!' (a
clarified d——n) 'if it
isn't like a dead man preaching out of his coffin!' De Quincey was also was one of the the writers for the 'London;' and Hood often often saw the small calm philosopher
'at home, quite at home, in the midst of a German Ocean of literature in a
storm—flooding all floor, table, and chairs—billows of books tossing, tumbling, surging open.
On such occasions I have willingly listened by the hour whilst the philosopher, standing with his eyes fixed on one side of the room, seemed to be less speaking than reading from a "hand-writing on the wall!" '
The 'Lion's Head' of the 'London Magazine' was the first mask of Momus put on by Thomas Hood.
His punning propensity breaks out in humorous Answers to Correspondents.
'W. is informed that his "Night" is too long, for the moon rises twice in it.
The "Essay on Agricultural Distress" would only increase it.
B. is surely humming. H. B.'s "Sonnet to the "Rising Sun" is suspected of being
written for a Lark. W.'s "Tears of Sensibility" had better be dropped. The "Echo" will not answer.
T., who says his tales are out of his own head, is asked if he is a tadpole?
M's "Ode on the Martyrs who were burnt in the rain of Queen Mary" is original, but
Amongst Hood's early contributions to the 'London' we find the lovely ballad of 'Fair
Inez' and the poem of 'Lycus the
Centaur.' This latter poem was a favourite with Hartley Coleridge, who thought it absolutely unique in its line, and such as no man except Hood could have written.
The measure, which us a gallop appropriate to the subject, is a difficult one to tell a story in.
Yet, the poem contains some powerful descriptions, and has not had justice done to it. Here, for example, as a striking picture of the bestialised victims of Circe's horrible charms as
another human being, newly doomed, comes amongst them with the likeness
they have lost:—
were mournfully gentle, and grouped for relief,
All foes in their skin, but all friends in their grief;
The Leopard was there—baby-mild in its feature
And the Tiger, black-barred, with the gaze of a creature
That knew gentle pity; the bristled-backed Boar,
His innocent tusks stained with mulberry gore;
And the laughing Hyena—but laughing no more:
And the Snake, not with magical orbs to devise
Strange Death, but with woman’s attraction of eyes
The tall ugly Ape, that still bore a dim shine
Thro’ his hairy eclipse of a manhood divine:
There were Woes of all shapes, wretched forms, when I came,
That hung down their heads with a human-like shame;
The Elephant hid in the boughs, and the Bear
Shed over his eyes the dark veil of his hair;
And the Womanly soul, turning sick with disgust,
Tried to vomit herself from her serpentine crust:
While all groaned their groans into one at their lot,
As I brought them the Image of what they were not.”
with the 'London' brought Thomas Hood many friends in the pleasant
spring-time of his literary career; amongst others John Hamilton
Reynolds, the 'Edward Herbert’ of the Magazine. Unfortunately
this friendship did not end well. We only mention the subject,
because we think that most likely it woo in Hood’s last thoughts, and
pointed with more significance his latest words: 'Remember, I forgive
all—all!' One result of the break-up of this intimacy is, that
a large number of Hood’s letters arc still locked up from the public,
and all access to them refused.
Conjointly with Reynolds, Hood wrote and published
his 'Odes and Addresses to Great People.' The book had a large
sale. Coleridge, to whom a copy was sent, ascribed it to Charles
Lamb in a letter which pays a just tribute to the good-nature of the
humorist who did write it. 'My dear Charles, it was certainly
written by you. You are found in the manner, as the lawyers
say. The puns are nine in ten good; many excellent. The Newgatory
transcendent! And then the exemplum sine exemplo of a volume of
personalities and contemporancities without a single line that could
inflict the infinitesimal of an unpleasance on any man in his
senses.' The pun specially alluded to occurs in the Address to
Mrs. Fry. Hood says he likes her and the Quakers, with many of their
works and ways; but he don’t like her 'Newgatory teaching.' We quote
one stanza of this ode for its admirable good sense, and to show how wit
and wisdom are blended in the use of a rough-and-ready illustration
save the vulgar soul before it’s spoiled!
Set up your mounted sign without the
And there inform the mind before ‘tis soiled!
‘Tis sorry writing on a greasy slate!
Nay, if you would not have your labours foiled,
Take it inclining towards a virtuous
Not prostrate and laid flat; else, woman meek,
The upright pencil will but hop and shriek.'
characterisation of Hood’s humour reminds us of the words of Lord
Dudley to Sydney Smith: 'You have been laughing at me constantly,
Sydney, for the last seven years; and yet in all that time you never
said a single thing to me that I wished unsaid!' Hood was in the
habit of poking the Quakers in the ribs, and never lost an opportunity
of giving them a quite dig. Yet, we believe, wherever wit is
tolerated amongst them, hood is a chief favourite.
Our author had now tried the reading public as a
punster and poet. He found that puns sold better than poetry.
Henceforth his literary life ran in parallel lines of poetry and puns,
except where those lines crossed and recrossed, or ran into one—making
that peculiar mixture of incongruous elements, puns and pathos, laughter
and tears—sweetness exquisitely sad, and sadness exquisitely sweet,
known as 'Hood’s own.' The public in general will pay the
highest price for being amused. So Hood became its Merriman that
he might secure the means of living. Nevertheless, he kept true to
the higher life, and wrote his poetry in shy ways and secret
places. He piped and piped on his sylvan reed, although the public
would not dance to country tunes, however sweetly they might breathe of
the pastoral age, however rich they might be in delicate imagery; it
left him sitting at the gate of his fairy-world, and passed him by for
the lure of louder voices, and the glare of coarser colour. He
secretly committed several beautiful poems to it, which secret—as
Coleridge said of one of his own publications—the public very faithfully
kept. It was quite willing to listen if Hood would only make it
The acquaintanceship with Reynolds was at least so
far happy that it introduced Hood to his future wife, Reynolds’s
sister—a true woman, pre-eminent for all qualities of fitness, who
made the sunshine of years in a life which had much more than the
ordinary share of shadow.
Hood has left a very tender testimonial to his wife
in one of his letters :—
'I never was
anything, dearest, till I knew you; and I have been a better, happier,
and more prosperous man ever since. Lay by that truth in lavender,
sweetest, and remind me of it when I fail. I am writing warmly and fondly, but not without good
cause. First, your own affectionate letter, lately received;
next, the remembrances of our dear children; then a delicious impulse
to pour out the overflowings of my heart into yours; and last, not
least, the knowledge that your dear eyes will read what my hand is now
In another letter, written just after his wife has
left him to go on a journey, there is an exceedingly natural touch,
showing how deep was his affection for her—how restless for her return: ' I went and retraced our walk in the Park, and sat down in the
same seat, and felt happier and better.'
Mrs. Hood was a
woman of cultivated mind; her letters are full of good sense, with
frequent overflows of humour. She devotedly gave her own life to
eke out his. It was not merely a witty allusion when, speaking of
getting out the 'Comic' on one occasion, he said it had half killed
Jane, and half killed himself, which he considered equal to one
murder. And she must have had one of the sweetest tempers in the
world. How else could she have put up with the freaks of this
veritable Puck of the Household, who was for ever playing off his
tricks, and taking advantage of her innocence? We are told that
it was a custom with the Libyans for the young man to marry the girl who
laughed at his jokes. Hood was lucky in securing such a charming
wife. She appears to have been able to join in the laugh, even
though the joke went against herself. She must have proved a
capital subject for his fun, seeing that she was always ready to believe
whatever the rogue told her, and each time, when taken in, was never
going to be caught again! 'Above all things, Jane,' says he,
warning her against being deceived by the fishwomen, 'as they will
endeavour to impose upon your inexperience, let nothing induce you to
buy a plaice that has any appearance of red or orange spots, as they are
sure signs of an advanced stage of decomposition.' Full of
this novel information, armed on one point at least, Mrs. Hood was quite
ready for the fishwoman next time, being rather anxious to show off her
knowledge. The very first plaice that came had the ominous spots,
and Mrs. Hood hinted her fears lest the fish were not fresh. The
woman insisted that they were only just out of the water. But Mrs.
Hood, in the innocence of her heart and all the pride of conscious
knowledge, was ready with her finishing-stroke: ' My good woman, it may
be as you say; but I could not think of buying any plaice with those
very unpleasant spots!' The woman’s answer, with a suppressed
giggle on the stairs, told the young housekeeper all the tale. On
another occasion Mrs. Hood had made a plum-pudding for their foreign
friend, De Franck, to show him what English plum-pudding was like.
There happened to he some white wooden skewers at hand. Hood saw
them as they lay pointing, as it were, to the pudding. He poked
them into it across and across in all directions, taking care to leave
no sign outside. The pudding was packed up and sent. When De
Franck came, Hood asked him if he did not think it was well
trussed. De Franek, surmising this was the English way of building
the pudding, gravely replied, “Yes,” and complimented the other
victim on the ingenuity of her woodwork!
Hood was married on the 5th of May, 1824. In
spite of all the sickness and sorrow, his children tell us the union was
a happy one. The early years of his married life were undoubtedly
the happiest that Hood spent in this world. Good fortune
appeared to smile from out a bit of unclouded blue heaven above, and all
that was wifely and womanly strove to make one spot of earth green and
pleasant below. The love of a wife like this was a blessing
indeed to the man who had to pass through such fires of affliction and
waters of tribulation. Her devotion, willing at all times to
transfuse her life into his, must have often heartened him for a fresh
effort in the weary struggle. Many a time she must have inspired
him to face the outer difficulties by helping to keep the spirit warm
and bright and hopeful within. When the book shall be written
which might be written, on the 'Wives of Men of Genius,' one of the
noblest chapters should be given to Mrs. Hood.
Hood had need of all the sunshine and sweetness that
could be gathered from these years of happiness to hoard up a little
honey in the hive of home for the sad seasons coming!
A living writer has remarked that perhaps there are
not more than a thousand persons in the long roll of illustrious names
who have done anything very remarkable for mankind. We think
nations should have kept guard at their doors that they might work on
undisturbed. But, instead of that, we find the world hindered them all it possibly could.
Domestic misery, poverty, errors of all kinds, and afflictions, no doubt disturbed and distressed them.
This was singularly the case with Thomas Hood. It makes us feel all the greater interest in that life, and possibly set a higher value on the work done in spite of the suffering, because of the moral worth of such an example.
Hood’s troubles, which he turned into perplexing oddities of merriment and
pathos; his heavy trials, which he strove to make light of; his 'moving accidents by flood and
field;' his illnesses and continual dodgings of death, soon began, and followed each other with increasing frequence.
Shortly after his marriage he was seized with rheumatic fever.
After this, he nearly lost his life while bathing in the sea. Gradually
the organic disease of his heart-enlargement and thickening was
developed; hemorrhage of the lungs followed; these were aggravated and increased by compulsory work, ever-recurring anxieties, and the ignorance of foreign doctors, until even his rebounding spirit could bear or bend no farther, and he broke down at the early age of forty-six years.
But we anticipate. It was in the year 1826 that the first series of “ Whims and Oddities” appeared.
In the year following, a second series was dedicated to Sir Walter Scott.
Both were well received by the public. The 'Plea of the Midsummer
Fairies' was produced at this time, but did not sell.
Hood brought up the remainder of an addition from the publisher’s shelves, to save the work, as he said, from the butter-shops.
In 1829 he left London to live in the country—first at Winchmore Hill, and next at Lake House; the latter place noticeable because he wrote
'Tylney Hall' there, and evidently got his suggestion for the 'Haunted
House' from its ruined beauty, its signs of past splendour, and present desolation; its pictured panels, from under which the rats would peep out at twilight; its weedy wilderness of a flower-garden, where the
rabbits would come to skip:—
'A jolly place, said he, in days of old,
But something ails it now; the place is curst.'
The first number of Hood’s Comic Annual was published for the Christmas of 1830.
On the cover was the picture of a boy blowing bubbles; these ultimately increased to eleven, numbering the years of the publication.
The fun of the Comic, palpable and plentiful, secured to the writer much friendship from children of every age.
Amongst the other delighted admirers came his Grace the late Duke of Devonshire, with a curious request that Hood would supply a set of titles for the Dummy Books of a Library Staircase.
Some of these titles are amusing: for instance, 'On Cutting off heirs with a Shilling, by Barber Beaumont;' 'On the Affinity of the Death-Watch and the Sheep-Tick;' 'Rules for Punctuation, by a thorough-bred Pointer;' 'Percy Vere, in forty Volumes;' 'Cursory Remarks on Swearing;' 'Barrow on the Common Weal;' 'Haughty-cultural Remarks on London Pride.'
By the year 1834 Hood had become pretty well known.
His work was abundant. His health, too, had benefited by country air and visits to the sea—for which he had the true national feeling.
At this time a heavy misfortune fell on him—the failure of a firm involved him in pecuniary difficulties.
His sense of honour prevented his passing through the Bankruptcy Court.
He determined, like Sir Walter Scott, to write out every penny, instead of having his debts whitewashed over.
'He had fair reason,' he said, 'to expect that by redoubled diligence, economizing, and escaping costs at law, he would soon be able to retrieve his
affairs.' With these views, leaving every shilling behind him, derived from the sale of his effects, he voluntarily expatriated himself, and bade his
'native land good-night.'
With his indomitable spirit of fun, and his lively way of making the best of the worst that could happen,
Hood met his alien lot, smiling the usual bright, cheery smile that would put a little reflected light into the saddest face of things.
It was his belief at times that he was only alive through his habit of never giving up!
His spirit was so elastic, that whatever circumstance might make it bend for a moment, it would spring back into the old shape, with the old flash, ready to fight on to the last.
He fixed on Coblenz as the place most suitable for his new residence, and, dear lover of his country as he was—for he thought there was no land like England,—he went manfully to eat the bread of sorrow in a strange land, determined to eat that bread
honourably, and equally determined to get all the fun he could out of his lot, and the people amongst whom his lot was cast.
He remarks at Ostend, "I am werry content with my wittles in this here
place," as the Apprentices say.' Hood was always content with his “wittles” in any place.
He passed over in a storm, which wrecked eleven vessels off the coast of Holland. He nearly blew his last
bubble; it was, as he says, a 'squeak for the Comic' on this occasion. On landing he looks on the bright side of his prospect.
' We are not transported even for seven years, and the Rhine is a deal better than the Swan
River,' he writes to his wife. 'There are three little rooms, one backward, my study that is to be, with such a lovely view over the Moselle. My heart jumped when I saw it, and I thought,
"There I shall write volumes." I want but you and my dear boy and girl to be very happy and very
loving.' Hood was soon at work, with his humour in full flow for the
'Comic;' making rare fun of the Germans, and playing off practical jokes on his wife and
friends; a very spirit of mischief, longing and listening with both ears for news from home, like any
' Exile of Hearin,' his swallow often inclined to migrate England-ward when he thought of beef and
porter; supplying curious pictures of his foreign friends, and painting fancy likenesses of those at home with fun in every feature for their special amusement-seeing that
it ' were ungracious to write merrily for the public, and vent the blue devils on my private
letters.' Hood’s account of their difficulties with the German language, and how they got on with the aid of Dictionary and
contradictionary, is richly ludicrous.
Our author appears to have soon found that living in Germany was not so cheap as he had fancied, nor was the climate so suitable as he had fondly imagined. Then the doctors were leeches indeed in those
days; they bled unmercifully. Nature kept him thin and spare, so that he might always be in fighting condition, but the doctors did their best to reduce him still further.
' I heard the other day,' he writes, ' of a man who had fifty-five leeches on his thigh. The man who bled me, and there are several bleeders here, told me he had attended eighty that
month! One of their blisters would draw a wagon.'
Under the most disheartening circumstances Hood wrote on and on, doing a great deal of work, and feeling that he only wanted health to do
all! The scratch of his pen was heard day by day in his little apartment. With his dear ones at his side, he said, his pen would gambol through the Comic like the monkey who had seen the world. And when they were in bed and the house was still, the pen went on far into the night. Many a time must he have realized his own description of the swimming brain, heavy eyes, and aching head of the poor seamstress of
his 'Song,' looking, as he said, more like the rueful knight than a professor of the Comic. And each season the
Comic came out with its broad grins and laughter from year to year, delighting young and
old; few even suspecting the private tragedy that preceded the merry farce in public. When he could find nothing in persons or places round about him to tickle his fancy,
Hood seems to have had the extraordinary power of taking up his pen and tickling himself until he laughed so heartily that he set all the world laughing too, and so he kept up the comedy with immense success, his coughs and fits of blood-spitting only looking like the results of excessive laughter.
Hood soon discovered how much he had lost in leaving English air. The summer and winter at Coblenz were killing him between them, so he left the Rhine without regret, his chief memories being of illness, suffering, and vexation of spirit. He now removed to Ostend, which seemed so much nearer home;
he did not mind the sea between; that he could look upon as a
part of England. Here we find him again busy at his old work of
spinning new illusions, fast as time could destroy the old ones.
He was delighted with the place, as he always tried to be with every
place and everybody and everything. Yet for him it was one of the
worst in the world; miasmatic and full of
fever; the earth in a continual cold sweat; and what with its
'carillons and canals' the country was 'wringing wet.' We are almost annoyed with his contentedness. He really learned to like Ostend, which was killing him by inches. Hood’s kind friend, Dr. Elliot, was very urgent for his return to England, and eventually he came home, the doctor undoubtedly being the means of preserving Hood’s life for a few more years. In 1840 the letters are dated
'Camberwell,' and we find the wit making fun of his very low condition, which followed a more than usually severe attack of
illness. He is thankful for a filter, as he feels
too thin to drink thick water. He has become a Pythagorean, not only in his diet but his
feelings, and wonders how any one can eat meat! He is a teetotaller,
too; but, 'for all my temperance, nobody gives me a medal! One hot evening in the summer, as I walked
home, I could have murdered an old fishwoman who stood drinking a pot of porter
out of the cool pewter. Why couldn’t she drink it in the taproom,
out of my sight?”
On the death of Theodore Hook, in 1841, Hood was offered the editorship of the
'New Monthly Magazine,' which he accepted, at a salary of £300 per year, independently of the
remuneration for his own articles. This gleam of sunshine, with its promise of settled
prosperity, had a radiant effect for the time on poor hood’s health and
spirits. He removed to a more pleasant house at St. John’s Wood, where he had his
cosy little parties of literary friends, and was better than he had been for many years.
We meet him at a dinner given to Mr. Dickens, the latter hinting at the great advantage of going to America
for the pleasure of coming back again. Hood
was deaf; he could scarcely call himself stone deaf, and he found Tom Landseer 'two stone deafer.' Upon his own health being drunk, Hood explained that a certain trembling of
his hand was not from palsy or ague, but an inclination in his hand to shake itself with
every one present. At this time he was working for the 'New Monthly' merrily as a bee,
making honey while the sun shone; his lightheartedness and improvement of health culminating in a second visit to Scotland.
In the Christmas number of Punch for 1843 * appeared the
'Song of the Shirt.' For the first time Hood really caught the ear
of the world as a singer. He was astonished at its popularity, and touched by hearing the
song sung by poor creatures in the streets to a rude air of their own adaptation.
Mrs. Hood, when folding up the packet for the press, had said, 'Now, mind,
Hood, mark my words; this will tell wonderfully; it is one of the best things you ever
did.' Hood’s connection with the 'New Monthly' soon ceased, and he determined to start a magazine of his
own. It was to be a sort of monthly instead of yearly comic, with more serious literary
aims. The prospectus promised that it should try to be merry and wise, instead of being
merry and otherwise. There was to be good news for the teetotallers in a
'total abstinence from stimulatina topics and fermented questions.'
As for politics, the editor professed not to know 'whether a Finality Man
meant Campbell’s Last Man or an undertaker; whether Queen isabella’s majority
was or was not equal to Sir Robert's; or if the shelling the Barcelonese was done with
bombs and mortars, or the nut-crackers.'
Hood’s Magazine appeared on the 1st of January, 1844, supported by many friends,
and met with a warm welcome from the public. Unfortunately, there seems to have been
a flaw in most of Hood’s business arrangements; and in this instance the proprietor,
who had been speculating on the strength of the name, had not capital to carry on the
magazine to success. This was the first blow for Hood and his new venture.
It was followed by various others. his health now began to fail more decidedly than ever, and
the shadows grew darker and darker as this year passed on to its close.
Yet the poor fellow never wrote nobler poetry than at this time.
His contributions to the magazine include the 'Haunted
House,' the 'Lady’s
Dream,' and the 'Bridge of
Sighs.' He made his most passionate appeals on behalf
of the needy and oppressed. He never wrote more brightly than in his witty, genial
letters to the little Elliots, when at his best he was suffering acutely all day, and all night
his head, 'instead of a shady chamber, was like a hall with a lamp burning in it.' Towards the end of the year Sir Robert Peel
proposed to her majesty that a pension of £100 a year should be conferred on Thomas
Hood. This was granted, but too late to be of much use in restoring him
to health. He had silently pleaded for rest from labour for many a
month past, and touchingly as ever he pleaded the cause of the poor; but he had to work on
from one break-down to another, until the last break-down was fast drawing near.
More than once had he been so close to 'Death’s door, he could almost fancy he heard the
creaking of the hinges;' and now it stood wide open into the darkness
straight in front of him!
The last Christmas he spent in this world was memorable to his children chiefly from
the fact that, while the merry season came round smiling and happy as usual, the once sprightly soul was
saddened at last; the brilliant wit could not get up the accustomed
little pyrotechnics of flashing mirth to illuminate the family
rejoicings. The cheerful spirit that had borne up so long and
struggled so bravely was beaten and broken now. Tears
came into all eyes to see that he 'scarcely attempted to appear
cheerful.' His work was done; he had taken to his bed for the
last time. He was resigned and serene, as old and loving friends
gathered round for a parting pressure of the hand, and smiled as the
many tributes of affection were sent to him by strangers; amongst other
tender tokens of kindness were some violets from the country, sent by a
lady who had heard that he loved the perfume of these little
flowers. One night his mind was wandering somewhat, and in a voice
ineffably pathetic, he repeated some lines of the Baroness Nairn’s
(not Burns’s, as the editors of the 'Memorials' seem to think) 'Land
o’ the Leal,' beginning, "I'm warin' awa', Jean." But,
generally, he was remarkably calm, and on his features lay a solemn
beauty of repose.
Spring came with her balm and beauty, and he longed
for the soft, warm air and the pleasant sunshine, turning often and
eagerly toward the window. He said once, 'It’s a beautiful
world, and since I have been lying here I have thought of it more and
more. It is not so bad, even humanly speaking, as people would
make out. I have had some very happy days while I lived in it, and
I could have wished to stay a little longer. But it is all for the
best, and we shall all meet in another world.' As the last hour
came, he fondly and tenderly blessed his children, and, clasping the
hand of his wife, said, 'Remember, Jane, that I forgive all—all,
as I hope to be forgiven.' They heard him whisper faintly, 'O Lord! say, Arise, take up thy cross, and follow me.' His last words
were, 'Dying! dying!' as if glad to realize the rest that was
implied in them. On Saturday, at noon, May 3rd, 1845, the headache
and the heartache were over; the throbbing brow was quiet for the long
rest under the sod of Kensall Green Cemetery. Thomas Hood,
the man of many sufferings and most patient spirit, had passed on his
way through the valley of the dark shadow, lighted by the sunshine of a
heart at peace. His faithful wife, who clung so to him in life,
was not long divided from him in death. In the language of an old
poet, there were but eighteen months of wooing, and the grave became
their second marriage-bed:—
could not sever man and wife,
Because they both lived but one life.
Peace! good reader, do not weep
Peace! the lovers are asleep.
They, sweet spirits, folded lie
In the last knot that Love could tie.'
struggling with the storms, and many tossings amongst the billows of
life’s sea, poor Hood went down. Many a wild wave had burst over
him and his frail bark; still they rose and righted from each shock,
bearing right gallantly on. And, just as he seemed about to touch
land mentally, and win a firm foothold whereon to stand, and do yet
higher work; just when the harbour was in sight, and a multitude of
friends stood on shore ready and eager to welcome the brave sailor, down
he went in sight of them and home! We see by his letter to Sir
Robert Peel, and by the earnest way in which he poured out his latest
life, that a new purpose was dawning and growing in his soul. This
purpose would undoubtedly have gathered up the sparkling particles of
wit and fancy into singleness of mental movement and oneness of result,
as the magnet gathers up the scattered filings of steel. We see
likewise that his taste was chastening to the last. In the
'Memorials' are some lines, in another measure, containing an image
which was not wrought into the 'Bridge of Sighs:'—
moon in the river shone,
And the stars some six or seven—
Poor child of sin, to throw it therein
Seemed sending it to heaven.'
The conceit of getting to heaven in
that reflected way, which may be found in an early English minor poet,
was too pretty for his maturer taste. All he asked was a little
time. As Mozart, when dying, began to see what might be done in
music, so Hood caught a glimpse of the glorious possibilities which he
had not the strength left to grasp. What he gave us was the fruit
of haste and hurry. Time was not allowed for him to bring forth
the 'ripened fruits of wise delay.’ He had also to eat so much
of his corn in the blade, he could not garner up for us the full harvest
there might have been. Yet he did good work for the world:—
'He gave the people of his best;
His worst he kept, his best he gave.'
Whilst sitting himself in darkness,
he turned the sunniest side of his nature towards his fellow-man.
He suffered much, and suffering added its 'precious seeing' to his
eye. His own sorrows only made him all the more sensitive and
tender to those of others.
The life of this man is a touching story; all the
sadder at times for the uncomplaining meekness of spirit with which the
burden was borne; and saddest of all by reason of the chirping
cheeriness, the flashes of humour, that play with their heat lightning
about the gloom of the gathering night. Yet it would he unbearably
ghastly in many of its physical details of the sick-room and the sweat
of agony, the weary toil and slow torture, but for the luminous smile of
his humour, which gives a spiritualised expression to the racked
features of a worn, tormented life. We are thus made aware of the
presence of a potent spirit, that conquers when the poor, thin,
diaphanous body fails; of an immortal triumphing over the ills of
mortality, and transfiguring them till they become the veriest passing
appearances, whilst IT remains the fixed and
enduring reality. The pages that read like a doctor’s diary all
pass away, and there lives only the image of a beautiful patience
smiling from out the pain. We meet with many a touch of nature
which, as Coleridge said of Shakspeare, will make those who love the man
lay down the book, and love him over again.
In closing the 'Memorials' of Thomas Hood’s life,
his children, who have performed a filial duty gracefully, are anxious
to defend his memory against those foolish persons who mistook his wit
for wickedness, his genial philosophy for irreligion; but there is no
need. Hood’s religion was of the practical kind, that stays one
in life, and serves one in death. He was one, of those who
are so shy on the subject that they find it an insurmountable difficulty
to get their feelings in this vital matter published through the
customary forms. His religion breathed through all his life,
work-days as well as Sundays. It ascended like incense in his own
household, sweetening the sick chamber, enriching the young life of his
little ones, hallowing his love, and passing with the force of tenderest
pity into his poetry. It enlarged his heart spiritually, until his
charity could embrace those whom the world had cast out, and those for
whom the sects were too narrow.
Sydney Smith was a tolerant man, yet he confessed to
one little weakness—a secret desire to roast a Quaker. Hood also
was tolerant, but he, too, had his weakness; he would roast the Pharisces and the 'unco guid' in their own conceit. But he held
sacred all that was high and holy. He was none the less religious
because he hated cant and warred against it; because he had no sympathy
with that Scottish clergyman who was horrified at seeing people walking
the streets of Edinburgh on a Sunday, smiling and looking perfectly
happy. There was no blasphemy, no unbelief, no wanton wile
in the wit of Thomas hood. The last lines he ever wrote show us an
aspect of the man facing eternity, and lead us to believe that he had
found his exaltation on the cross of suffering, knowing that of all this
world’s highest places it could lift the spirit nighest heaven; and
that when he felt the hand of 'one standing in shade' was upon him, be
likewise felt the transfiguring touch of One standing in light.
Life! My senses swim,
And the world is growing dim
Thronging shadows cloud the light,
Like the advent of the night.
Colder, colder, colder still
Upward steals a vapour chill—
Strong the earthy odour grows—
I smell the mould above the rose.
'Welcome Life! The spirit strives!
Strength returns, and hope revives
Cloudy fears and shapes forlorn
Fly like shadows at the morn,—
O’er the earth there comes a bloom—
Sunny light for sullen gloom,
Warm perfume for vapour cold—
I smell the rose above the mould.'
To make a portrait of Thomas Hood
were scarcely less difficult than the painter found it to catch the
expression and fix the features of Garrick’s face. He can laugh
on one side and cry on the other, and it is not easy to tell his
laughter from his crying. Are those tears in his eyes, or only the
dews of mirth? Is that a furrow of pain, or a pucker of suppressed fun? We set them down for one thing, and they are instantly changed
into the other. 'A man of great heart and bright humours, my
masters, and a sorrow that sits with its head under one
wing.' A mind of many features, with as continual changes of
expression as the ripples of a breeze-tinted summer sea. A spirit
of earnestness hard at work; a spirit of quaint pleasantry as
assiduously at play. A gentle, genial nature, in which the most
opposite elements were kindly mixed; many-sided, and curiously
felicitous at most points. He somewhere speaks of the Nine Muses
dwelling together in one house for the sake of cheapness. His was
the one house, where but poor entertainment they got for the rare
entertainment they gave. Wit never before assumed such numerous shapes,
to spring so many sudden surprises,—more especially in the way it
passes into pathos. His gayest laughter somehow touches the
underlying melancholy of life, and leaves a sad chord thrilling long
after the laughter is done ringing. In the midst of the mirth all
is changed in the twinkling of an eye, and you are hoodwinked into
tears. The pungency of much of Hood’s humour is pathos. If
we consider the state of health and the outward environment in which the
wit flashed and humour flowed, it is inexpressibly touching, as the Fool’s
labouring to out-jest the crying sorrows of poor old Lear. Some of
his richest jewels of wit are his own tears set glittering in fictitious
sunshine; the world preferred them thus pleasantly lighted up.
And how splendidly they twinkled and shone when relieved by the sombre
background of such a life! His grotesque gaiety is often the
result of his endeavours to hide the suffering—the piquant wry faces he
showed in making fun of his own troubles. Pain will supply puns,
and cramp becomes comic if Hood has it. Then, how delightful it is
if Mr. Merriman will but really cry! What fun to see the big
drops come hopping down the painted puckered cheek! What a merry
twinkle there is in the tears, and how pointed! What a glorious
grin in the grief! Who thinks that it may be real? Who cares
whether a dead child may be lying behind the curtain? Who, while
his own sides are shaking with laughter, surmises that the clown’s may
be trembling with weakness? Who knows how much of the irresistible
antic and grimace is owing to a peculiar way he has of silencing the
kennel of cares that is all full cry in his heart?
Hood had, as he himself said, to be a Lively Hood for
a livelihood. He lived under the stern taskmaster Necessity, who
made him laugh for his living, and only the ear of the thoughtful will
understand that this laughter is often the humorist’s way of
crying. 'Who,' he asks, 'would think of such a creaking, croaking
blood-spitting wretch being the Comic?' Yet, with the
blitheness of a grasshopper he goes on trying to turn the creaking into
what sounds to us like the cheeriest chirping. Give him but the
slightest gleam of sunshine and his spirits will be dancing, even though
the bit of vantage-ground be small as the point of Thomas Aquinas’s
needle. His life ebbed and ebbed day by day in producing a few
pretty shells and pebbles for the curious in such matters.
Nevertheless, he picked them up and presented them gaily; breathing no
word of complaint about the cost. He lived and laughed with Death
in sight for years. Indeed, some of his grim jokes look as though
he had poked the bony skeleton in the lean ribs with them, when it came
nearer than usual, and they were grotesquely ticklesome enough to delay
the uplifted dart, and make Death pass him by with a broader grin than
In the midst of illness he could thus give us his laughing philosophy:—
'You will not be prepared to learn that some of the merriest effusions
in the forthcoming numbers have been the relaxation of a gentleman
literally enjoying bad health—the carnival, so to speak, of a
personified jour maigre. My coats have become great-coats,
and by a bargain worse than Peter Schlemihl’s, I seem to have retained
my shadow and sold my substance. In short, as happens to
prematurely old port wine, I am of a bad colour, with very little
body. But what then? That emaciated hand still lends a hand
to embody in words and sketches the creations or recreations of a Merry
Fancy: these gaunt sides yet shake as heartily as ever at the
grotesques and Arabesques and droll picturesques that my good genius (a
Pantagruelian familiar) charitably conjures up to divert me from more
sombre realities. How else could I have converted a serious
illness into a comic wellness? By what other agency could I have
transported myself, as a Cockney would say, from Dullage to Grinmage? It was far from a practical joke to be up in a foreign land,
under the care of physicians quite as much abroad as myself with the
case: indeed, the shades of the gloaming were stealing over my
prospects; but I resolved that, like the sun, so long as my day lasted,
I would look on the bright side of everything. The raven croaked,
but I persuaded myself it was the nightingale; there was the smell of
the mould, but I remembered that it nourished the violets. How ever my
body might cry craven, my mind luckily had no mind to give in. So,
instead of mounting on the black long-tailed coach-horse, she vaulted on
her old hobby that had capered in the morris-dance, and began to exhort
from its back. "To be sure," said she, "matters
look darkly enough; but the more need for the lights. Remember
how the smugglers trim the sails of the lugger to escape the notice of
the cutter. Turn your edge to the old enemy, and mayhap he
wont see you." The doctor declares that, anatomically, my
heart is hung lower than usual— the more need to keep it up! Never
meet trouble half-way, but let him have the whole walk for his
pains. I have even known him to give up his visit in sight of the
house. Besides, the best fence against care is a Ha! Ha!'
of Hood’s life has, we repeat, two aspects. He makes merry with
a mournful lot, but the sadness will peer out at unexpected times, and
in unlooked-for ways. The secret hidden in his heart turns on him
unawares. He sighs unconsciously. Thus his pathos is produced as
unexpectedly and with the same sudden turns as his wit, and it comes
with all the more force, because not forced. For example:—
remember, I remember,
The fir-trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky.
It was a childish ignorance,
But now ‘tis little joy
To know I’m farther off from heaven
Than when I was a boy.'
saw thee, lovely Inez,
Descend along the shore,
With bands of noble gentlemen,
And banners waved before!
And gentle youth and maidens gay,
And snowy plumes they wore;
It would have been a beauteous dream,
If it had been no more.’
It is remarkable
that, whereas the wit and humour of Hood are not the unconscious
overflows of health and happiness, he almost succeeds in making the
reader believe they are. The fun and frolic look so like the
playful extravagances of high animal spirits that we cannot help taking
an interest in their aimless rompings, like that which we take in the
gambols and sport of domestic animals. Only since his death do we
see, as on the stage of a theatre, both sides of the thin partition
which divided his sorrows from our mirth; how carefully he kept his
miseries from the public gaze, and laughed his sufferings down with his
merry make-believe. It must have been a spirit of rare quality
that in the grip of bodily anguish and mental torture, ever when almost
sick unto death, could forget all that pertains to self and turn the
very pains of its own life into pleasures of literature for
others. Dr. Johnson has said, in his absolute way, that all
mankind are rascals when they are sick. We all know, and our wives
appreciate, the peevish tendency which the Doctor dealt with too
sweepingly from the sick-nurse point of view. But Hood’s
sweetness of nature and serenity of temper were enough to upset the
dictum, as they would have upset the Doctor, who would have had no
patience with such patience under the circumstances.
When Thor and his companions arrive at Utgard they
are told that no one is permitted to remain there unless he understand
some art and excel all other men in it. Thomas Hood, in his lowest
range, has a claim to his place in the literary Valhalla. He
excelled all other men in the art of twisting words, of bringing into
sudden contact two opposite ideas which at a touch should explode in
laughter, and of making those droll 'Picturesques' which we may call
pun-pictures. Here he was unapproachable. It is no great
triumph, and we only point it out to remark that whereas the word-wit of
Hood’s followers and imitators is most flat, stale, wearisome, and
unprofitable, that of the master keeps its freshness still. It
does not sicken or fade. It is not gaslight gold that turns to
daylight tinsel. The professed despiser of puns, the 'verbal
unitarian,' will own that whereas the others have discovered a trick,
Hood alone works the genuine miracle. The reason of this will be
found in the depth of nature that lay beneath the sparkling surface of
the man, breathing an aroma of sweetness through his poetry, purifying
and exalting his humour, and spiritualising that kind of wit which
others are apt to make so vulgar. Indeed, his wit is the merest
wild flower that waves in the flowing stream, swaying this way and that,
to breeze and ripple, with the most 'tricksy' tendencies, only it is
perfect in kind, and serves to draw us near enough to see the deeper
nature wherein lies the richer wealth. He had to take the eye of
the world with his wit before he could succeed in touching its heart
with his poetry.
Many are the temptations for Wit and Humorist to win
the laugh on forbidden grounds, it is so easy to make merry in low
life. But Thomas Hood is never coarse, he never penetrates the
sanctuaries of human feeling with the grin of irreverence. He sets
up no loud horse-laugh at humanity’s mishaps and backslidings.
Whatever mocking mask he may wear for the time, we know there is a
kindly face and a gentle heart behind it. He has but little of the
bitterness of satire; none of its burning bitterness. Nor can he
mock at humanity by pointing with the finger of scorn to the ghastly
skeleton which underlies the bloom of rosiest flesh; nor does he
torture it by thrusting that finger into the old incurable sores.
He has no cynical smile for our ever-recurring difficulties in this old
battle-field of Good and Evil, but always a word of cheer for the
Right. He punctures no new wounds with caustic in his quill.
Nor does he ever try to take payment for his own sufferings out of the
miseries of others, having nothing of that feeling which induced the
satirist Swift to keep his own birthday as a day of mourning. He
has no scoffs for his inferiors; no rage against superiors; owes the
world no grudge. The state of his health, no doubt, gave him his
tendency to mirthful moralizing in the graveyard. He lived with
death in sight for years, and grew familiar with his imagery. He
sees that 'Death himself cuts a caper in mockery, and the very skull of
man wears a grin commemorative of the farcical passages in the serio-comic
entertainment' of the life that is over.
Hood accomplished the most marvellous series of
changes ever rung on the bells of the jester’s cap. The most
astonishing puns, quips, and cranks, and sudden turns and endless
surprises, follow in bewildering succession, or rather they come
crowding in all at once in the most natural way. He used to say
that he thought all ideas entered his head upside down. Yet with
him this seems to have been their right way of going, and these dancing
figures when inverted made all the more fun. His mind continually
caught the light at the oddest possible angle, and its reflections and
refractions made a ludicrous change in the most familiar features of
things, and shed a sparry play of light and colour upon the
dullest common place. Like his own Puck in the 'Plea of the
Midsummer Fairies,' 'blithely jesting with calamity,' and strangely
'reflecting their grief aside,' he turns their 'solemn looks to half a
a straight stick shown crooked in the tide.'
It is said that his own long
serious face and quiet demeanour formed an excellent foil to his
fun. In like manner he has the way of introducing the most
startlingly innocent-looking puns, and other ticklish twins, with great
apparent artlessness and absence of effort. He is always playing
off his tricks on the most knowing and acute reader, as he did with that
piece of sweet simplicity his wife; the success being all the greater
because you were determined to be up to him this time. With the
utmost seeming single-mindedness of purpose does he carry on his
double-dealing. For example—
Christians love in the turf to lie,
Not in watery graves to be
Nay, the very fishes would sooner die
On the land than in the sea.'
Who would look for any droll
duality in a simple straightforward statement like that? Or, in
another instance, who would suspect his plausible way of characterizing
an Eastern city,—
woman goes to mart the same as mangoes,'
which needs the second-sight to see
it? In his lament for the decline of chivalry, how demure is the
look of that double entendre—
none engage at turneys now
But those that go to law.'
unexpectedness is so perfect, and the odd turn so queer, you are
completely left in the lurch, as when, in speaking of a storm at sea, he
says 'The vessel occasionally gave such an awful lurch, that I thought
we should have been left in it.' And once the twist of the thought
is so puzzling, it is like turning the head round suddenly to see
something, and getting fixed by a crick or cramp in the neck. It
occurs in the ballad of ‘Sally Brown, and Ben the
then he tried to sing "All’s well,"
But could not, though he tried;
His head was turned, and so he chewed
His pigtail till he died.'