The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 06, No. 37, November, 1860 online

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Thomas Hood was originally intended for business, and entered a
mercantile house; but the failure of his health, at fifteen years of
age, compelled him to leave it, and go to Scotland, where he remained
two years, with much gain to his body and his mind. On his return to
London, he applied himself to learn the art of engraving; but his
constitution would not allow him to pursue it. Yet what he did acquire
of this art, with his genius for comic observation, must have been of
excellent service to him in his subsequent career. This, at first, was
simply literary, in a subordinate connection with "The London Magazine."
His relation to this periodical gave him opportunities, which he did not
neglect, of knowing many of its brilliant contributors. Among these was
Charles Lamb, who took a strong liking to the youthful sub-editor, and,
doubtless, discovered a talent that in some points had resemblance to
his own. The influence of his conversation and companionship may have
brought Hood's natural qualities of mind into early growth, and helped
them into early ripeness. Striking as the difference was, in some
respects, between them, in other respects the likeness was quite as
striking. Both were playful in manner, but melancholy by constitution,
and in each there lurked an unsuspected sadness; both had tenderness in
their mirth, and mirth in their tenderness; and both were born punsters,
with more meaning in their puns than met the ear, and constantly
bringing into sudden and surprising revelation the wonderful mysteries
of words.

With a genius of so singular a cast, Hood was not destined to continue
long a subordinate. Almost with manhood he began to be an independent
workman of letters; and as such, through ever-varying gravities and
gayeties, tears and laughter, grimsicalities and whimsicalities, prose
and verse, he labored incessantly till his too early death. The whole
was truly and entirely "Hood's Own." In mind he owed no man anything.
Unfortunately, he did in money. That he might economize, and be free to
toil in order to pay, he went abroad, residing between four and five
years out of England, part of the time at Coblentz, in Rhenish Prussia,
and part at Ostend, in Belgium. The climate of Rhenish Prussia was bad
for his health, and the people were disagreeable to his feelings. The
change to Belgium was at first pleasant and an improvement; but complete
recovery soon seemed as far away as ever; nay, it was absolutely away
forever. But in the midst of his family - his wife, his little boy and
girl, most loving and most loved - bravely he toiled, with pen and
pencil, with head and heart; and while men held both their sides from
laughter, he who shook them held both his sides from pain; while tears,
kindly or comical, came at the touch of his genius into thousands of
eyes, eyes were watching and weeping in secret by his bed-side in the
lonely night, which, gazing through the cloud of sorrow on his thin
features and his uneasy sleep, took note that the instrument was fast
decaying which gave forth the enchantment and the charm of all this
mirthful and melancholy music. Thus, in bodily pain, in bodily weakness
even worse than pain, in pecuniary embarrassment worse than either,
worst of all, often distressed in mind as to means of support for his
family, he still persevered; his genius did not forsake him, nor did his
goodness; the milk of human kindness did not grow sour, nor the sweet
charities of human life turn into bitter irritations. But what a tragedy
the whole suggests, in its combination of gayety with grief, and in
the thought of laughter that must be created at the cost of sighs, of
merriment in which every grin has been purchased by a groan!

An anecdote which we once read, always, when we recall it, deeply
affects us. A favorite comic actor, on a certain evening, was hissed by
the audience, who had always before applauded him. He burst into tears.
He had been watching his dying wife, and had left her dead, as be came
upon the stage. This was his apology for imperfection in his part. Poor
Hood had also to unite comedy with tragedy, - not for a night, or a day,
or a week, but for months and years. He had to give the comedy to the
public, and keep the tragedy to himself; nor could he, if comedy failed
him, plead with the public the tragedy of his circumstances. _That_ was
nothing to the public. He must give pleasure to the public, and not
explanations and excuses. But genius, goodness, many friends, no enemy,
the consciousness of imparting enjoyment to multitudes, and to no man
wretchedness, a heart alive with all that is tender and gentle, and
strong to manful and noble purpose and achievement, - these are grand
compensations, - compensations for even more ills than Hood was heir to;
and with such compensations Hood was largely blessed. Though his funds
were nothing to the bounty of his spirit, yet he did not refuse to
himself the blessedness of giving. Want, to his eye of charity, was
neither native nor foreign, but _human_; and as _human_ he pitied it
always, and, as far as he could, relieved it. While abroad, he was
constantly doing acts of beneficence; and the burlesque style with
which, in his correspondence, he tries to disguise his own goodness,
while using the incidents as items to write about, is one of the most
delightful peculiarities in his delightful letters. The inimitable
combination of humanity and humor in these passages renders them equal
to the best things that Hood has anywhere written. To crown all, Hood
had happiness unalloyed in his children and his wife. Mrs. Hood seems
to have deserved to the utmost the abounding love which her husband
lavished on her. She was not only, as a devoted wife, a cheerer of
his heart, but, as a woman of accomplishment and ability, she was a
companion for his mind. Her judgment was as clear and sure as her
affection was warm and strong. Her letters have often a grave tenderness
and an insinuated humor hardly inferior to her husband's. But as she
must write from fact and not from fancy, what she writes naturally bears
the impression of her cares. Here is a passage from one of her latest
letters, which, half sadly, half amusingly, reminds us of Mrs. Primrose
and her "I'll-warrant" and "Between-ourselves" manner.

"Hood dines to-day," she writes, "with Doctor Bowring, in Queen Square.
He knew him well years ago in 'The London Magazine'; and he wrote, a few
days ago, to ask Hood to meet Bright and Cobden on business, - _I_ think,
to write songs for the League. I augur good from it. This comes of 'The
Song of the Shirt,' of which we hear something continually."

As an instance of her judgment, we may mention that she prophesied at
once all the success which followed this same "Song of the Shirt." When
read to her in manuscript, - "Now mind, Hood," said she, "mark my words,
this will tell wonderfully! It is one of the best things you ever
did." Her reference to "The Song" in her letter has a sort of pathetic
_naïveté_ in it; it shows that the thought with which she was concerned
was practical, not poetical, - not her husband's fame, but her household
cares. She was thinking of songs that would turn into substance, - of
"notes" that could be exchanged for cash, - of evanescent flame that
might be condensed into solid coal, which would, in turn, make the pot
boil, - and of music that could be converted into mutton. O ye entranced
bards, drunk with the god, seeing visions and dreaming dreams in the
third heaven, that is, the third story! O ye voluminous historians, who
live in the guilt and glory of the past, and are proud in making the
biggest and thickest books for the dust, cobwebs, and moths of the
future! O ye commentators, who delight to render obscurity more obscure,
and who assume that in a multitude of words, as in a multitude of
counsellors, there is wisdom! O ye critics, who vote yourselves the
Areopagites of Intellect, whose decrees confer immortality in the
Universe of Letters! O all ye that write or scribble, - all ye tribes,
both great and small, of pen-drivers and paper-scrapers! - know ye,
that, while ye are listening in your imaginative ambition to the praise
of the elect or the applause of nations, your wives are often counting
the coppers that are to buy the coming meal, alarmed at the approaching
rent-day, or trembling in apprehension of the baker's bill.

Hood, in 1840, returned to reside in England during the small remainder
of his life. For a few months he edited the "New Monthly," and then, for
a few months more, a magazine of his own. But the whole of this period
was filled with bodily and mental trials, of which it is painful to
read. Yet within this period it was that he wrote some of his finest
things, both laughable and serious. It is, however, to be remarked, it
was now he reached down to that well of tears which lay in the depth of
his nature. Always before, there had been misty exhalations from it,
that oozed up into the sunshine of his fancy, and that took all the
shapes of glisten or of gloom which his Protean genius gave them. In the
rapid eccentricities of cloud and coruscation, the source which supplied
to the varying forms so much of their substance was hidden or unminded.
But now the fountain of thought and tragedy had been readied, whence the
waters of sin and suffering spring forth clear and unalloyed in their
own deep loneliness, and we hear the gush and the murmur of their stream
in such monodies as "The Song of the Shirt," "The Lay of the Laborer,"
and "The Bridge of Sighs."

Hood died in 1845, and was then only forty-six or forty-seven years old.
Alike esteemed by the poor and the rich, both united to consecrate a
monument to his memory. Kindly should we ever think of those who make
our hearts and our tempers bright; who, without pomp of wisdom, help us
to a cheerfulness which no proud philosophy can give; who, in the motley
of checkered mirth and wit, sparkle on the resting-spots of life. Such
men are rare, and as valuable as they are rare. The world wants them
more than it wants heroes and victors: for mirth is better than
massacre; and it is surely better to hear laughter sounding aloud the
jubilee of the heart, than the shout of battle and yell of conquest.
Precious, then, are those whose genius brings pleasure to the bosom
and sunshine to the face; who not only call our thoughts into festive
action, but brighten our affections into generous feeling. Though we may
not loudly celebrate such men, we greatly miss them; and not on marble
monuments, but in our warmest memories, their names continue fresh. But
laugh and make laugh as they may, they, too, have the destiny of grief;
and unto them, as unto all men, come their passages of tragedy, - the
days of evil, the nights of waking, and the need of pity.

When Hood was near his death a pension of a hundred pounds a year was
settled on his wife, at the instance of Sir Robert Peel. The wife, so
soon to become a widow, did not long survive her husband; then, in 1847,
the pension was continued to their two orphan children, at the instance
of Lord John Russell. Politics and parties were forgotten, in gratitude
to an earnest lover of his kind; and the people, as well as the
government, in helping to provide for those whom he left behind, showed
that they had not forgotten one whose desire it was to improve even more
than to amuse them. And still we cannot but feel sad that there should
ever have been this need. Nor would there have been, had Hood had the
strength to carry him into the vast reading public which has arisen
since his death, and which it was not his fate to know. "The income,"
says his daughter, "which his works now produce to his children, might
then have prolonged his life for many years."

We have written more on the personal relations of Hood than we had
intended; but we have been carried on unwitttingly, while reading the
"Memorials" of him recently published and edited by his children. The
loving worth of the man, as therein revealed, made us slow to quit the
companionship of his character to discuss the qualities of his genius.
We trust that our time has not been misspent, morally or critically;
for, besides the moral good which we gain from the contemplation of an
excellent man, we enjoy also the critical satisfaction of learning that
whatever is best in literature comes out of that which is best in life.
We therefore close this section of our article with a bit of prose and a
bit of poetry, among Hood's "last things," - personally and pathetically
characteristic of his nature and his genius.

"Dear Moir,[A]

"God bless you and yours, and goodbye! I drop these few lines, as in a
bottle from a ship water-logged and on the brink of foundering, being
in the last stage of dropsical debility; but, though suffering in body,
serene in mind. So, without reversing my union-jack, I await my last
lurch. Till which, believe me, dear Moir,

"Yours most truly,


[Footnote A: The _Delta_ of Blackwood]


"Farewell, 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 vapor chill;
Strong the earthly odor 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 vapors cold, -
I smell the Rose above the Mould!"

Nothing at first appears more easy than to define and to describe the
genius of Hood. It is strictly singular, and entirely his own. That
which is his is completely his, and no man can cry halves with him, or
quarters, - hardly the smallest fraction. The estimate of his genius,
therefore, puts the critic to no trouble of elaborate discrimination or
comparison. When we think of Hood as a humorist, there is no need
that we should at the same time think of Aristophanes, or Lucian, or
Rabelais, or Swift, or Sterne, or Fielding, or Dickens, or Thackeray.
When we think of him as a poet, - except in a few of his early
compositions, - we are not driven to examine what he shares with
Chaucer, or Spenser, or Shakspeare, or Milton, or Byron, or Coleridge,
or Wordsworth, or any of the poetic masters of literature. Whether as
humorist or as poet, he is in English literature what Richter is in
German literature, "the only one." Then the characteristics of his
genius are outwardly so evident, that, in merely a glance, we fancy we
comprehend them. But the more we think, the more we reflect, the more
the difficulty opens on us of doing full justice to the mind of Hood. We
soon discover that we are dealing, not with a mere punster or jester,
not with a mere master of grimace or manufacturer of broad grins, not
with an eccentric oddity in prose or verse, not with a merry-andrew who
tickles to senseless laughter, not with a spasmodic melodramatist who
writhes in fictitious pain, but that we are dealing with a sincere,
truthful, and most gifted nature, - many-sided, many-colored, harmonious
as a whole, and having a real unity as the centre of its power. To enter
into a complete exposition of such a nature is not our purpose: we must
content ourselves with noting some of its most striking literary and
moral peculiarities. We do not claim for Hood, that he was a man of
profound, wide, or philosophic intellect, or that for grandeur of
imagination he could be numbered among the godlike; we do not claim that
he opened up the deeps of passion, or brought down transcendent truths
from the higher spheres of mind; we claim for him no praise for science
or for scholarship: we merely maintain, that he was a man of rare
humanity, of close, subtile, and various observation, of good sense and
common sense, of intuitive insight into character, of catholic
sympathy with his kind that towards the lowest was the most loving, of
extraordinary social and miscellaneous knowledge that was always at his
command, a thinker to the fullest measure of his needs, and, as humorist
and poet, an originality and a novelty in the world of genius. This is
our general estimate of Hood. What further we have to say shall be in
accordance with it; and such has been the impressive influence of Hood's
writings upon us, that our thoughts, whether we will or not, are more
intent on their serious than on their comic import.

In all the writings of Hood that are not absolutely serious the
_grotesque_ is a present and pervading element. Often it shows itself,
as if from an irresistible instinct of fantastic extravagance, in the
wild and reckless sport of oddity. Combinations, mental, verbal, and
pictorial, to ordinary mortals the strangest and the most remote, were
to Hood innate and spontaneous. They came not from the outward, - they
were born of the inward. They were purely subjective, the sportive
pranks of Hood's own ME, when that ME was in its queerest moods. How
naturally the impossible or the absurd took the semblance of consistency
in the mental associations of Hood, we observe even in his private
correspondence. "Jane," (Mrs. Hood,) he writes, "is now drinking
porter, - at which I look half savage.....I must even _sip_, when I long
to _swig_. I shall turn a fish soon, and have the pleasure of angling
for myself." This, if without intention, would be a blunder or a bull.
If it were written unwittingly, the result would be simply ludicrous,
and consign it to the category of humor; but knowingly written, as we
are aware it was, we must ascribe it to the category of wit.

This presence or absence of _intention_ often decides whether a saying
or an image is within the sphere of humor or of wit. But wit and humor
constantly run into each other; and though the absence of intention
at once shows that a ludicrous surprise belongs to the humorous, the
presence of it will not so clearly define it as belonging to the witty.
Nor will laughter quite settle this question; for there is wit which
makes us laugh, and there is humor which does not. On the whole, it is
as to what is purely wit that we are ever the most at fault. Certain
phases of humor we cannot mistake, - especially those which are broadly
comic or farcical. But sometimes we meet with incidents or scenes which
have more in them of the pathetic than the comic, that we must still
rank with the humorous. Here is a case in point. A time was when it
was a penal offence in Ireland for a priest to say Mass, and under
particular circumstances a capital felony. A priest was malignantly
prosecuted; but the judge, being humane, and better than the law,
determined to confound the informer.

"Pray, Sir," said the judge, "how do you know he said Mass?"

"Because I heard him say it, my Lord."

"Did he say it in Latin?" asked the judge.

"Yes, my Lord."

"Then you understand Latin?"

"A little."

"What words did you hear him say?"

"_Ave Maria_."

"That is the Lord's Prayer, is it not?" asked the judge.

"Yes, my Lord."

"Here is a pretty witness to convict the prisoner!" cried the judge; "he
swears _Ave Maria_ is Latin for the Lord's Prayer!"

Now, surely, this scene is hardly laughable, and yet it is thoroughly
humorous. But take an instance which is entirely comic: - "All ye
blackguards as isn't lawyers," exclaimed a crier, "quit the Coort." Or
this: - "Och, Counsellor, darling," said a peasant once to O'Connell,
"I've no way _here_ to show your Honor my gratitude! but _I wish I
saw you knocked down in my own parish_, and may be I wouldn't bring a
faction to the rescue." A similar instance occurred in this country. An
enthusiastic Irishwoman, listening once to a lecturer praising Ireland,
exclaimed, - "I wish to God I saw that man in poverty, that I might do
something to relieve him."

We shall now cite an example of pure wit.

"How can you defend this item, Mr. Curran," said Lord Chancellor
Clare, - "'To writing innumerable letters, £100'?"

"Why, my Lord," said Curran, "nothing can be more reasonable. _It is not
a penny a letter_."

But we might fill the whole space of our article, ay, or of twenty
articles, with such illustrations; we will content ourselves with two
others. The idea is the same in both; but in the first it seems to have
a mixture of the witty and the humorous; in the second, it belongs
entirely to the humorous.

A lady at a dinner-party passing near where Talleyrand was standing,
he looked up and significantly exclaimed, "Ah!" In the course of the
dinner, the lady having asked him across the table, why on her entrance
he said "Oh!" Talleyrand, with a grave, self-vindicatory look,
answered, - "_Madame, je n'ai pas dit_ 'Oh!' _J'ai dit_ 'Ah!'"

Here is the second. - The Reverend Alonzo Fizzle had preached his
farewell-sermon to his disconsolate people in Drowsytown. The next
morning, Monday, he was strolling musingly along a silent road among the
melancholy woods. The pastor of a neighboring flock, the Reverend Darius
Dizzle, was driving by in his modest one-horse chaise.

"Take a seat, Fizzle?" said he. "Don't care if I do," said Fizzle, - and
took it.

"Why, the mischief, Fizzle," said Dizzle, "did you say in your
farewell-sermon, that it was just as well to preach to the dead buried
six feet under the earth as to the people of Drowsytown?"

_"I? - I? - I?"_ gasped the astonished Fizzle. "A more alive and wakeful
people are not upon the earth than the citizens of Drowsytown. What
calumniator has thus outraged them and _me_? Who told you this? _Who_
dared to say it?"

"Brother Ichabod Muzzle," calmly answered Dizzle.

Fizzle leaped out, hurried to his home, and was soon seen whipping his
unfortunate horse in a certain direction. He was on his way to the
residence of the Reverend Ichabod Muzzle, who lived five or six miles
off. He reached the home of the Reverend Ichabod. The friends greeted
each other. Fizzle, though pregnant with indignation, assumed the
benignant air of the Beloved Disciple. Muzzle looked Platonically the
incarnate idea of the Christian Parson.

"Fine day," said Fizzle.

"Lovely," said Muzzle.

"Glorious view from this window," observed Fizzle.

"Superb," replied Muzzle.

"The beauties of Nature are calming and consolatory," murmured Fizzle.

"And so are the doctrines of grace," whispered Muzzle.

Fizzle could hold out no longer. Still he tried to look the placid, and
to speak with meekness.

"Pray, how did it come, Brother Muzzle," said Fizzle, "that you reported
I declared in my farewell-sermon it was as easy to preach to the dead
buried six feet under the earth as to the people of Drowsytown?"

"You have been grossly misinformed, my brother," replied Muzzle. "I
didn't say _six feet_. I said _four feet_."

In Hood we have all varieties of wit and humor, both separate and

As we have already observed, the grotesque is that which is most
obviously distinctive in Hood's writings. But in different degrees it
is combined with other elements, and in each combination altered and
modified. The combination which more immediately arrests attention is
that with the ludicrous. In this the genius of Hood seemed to hold a
very festival of antics, oddity, and mirth; all his faculties seemed
to rant and riot in the Saturnalia of comic incongruity. And it is
difficult to say whether, in provoking laughter, his pen or his pencil
is the more effective instrument. The mere illustrations of the
subject-matter are in themselves irresistible. They reach at once and
directly the instinctive sense of the ludicrous, and over them youth and
age cachinnate together. We have seen a little girl, eight years old,
laugh as if her heart would break, in merely looking at the pictures in
a volume of Hood. The printed page she did not read or care to read;
what the prints illustrated she knew nothing about; but her eyes danced
with joy and overran with tears of childish merriment. But in all this
luxury of fun, whether by pen or pencil, no word, idea, image, or
delineation obscures the transparency of innocence, or leaves the shadow
of a stain upon the purest mind. To be at the same time so comic and so
chaste is not only a moral beauty, but a literary wonder. It is hard to
deal with the oddities of humor, however carefully, without casual slips
that may offend or shame the reverential or the sensitive. Noble, on the

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Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 06, No. 37, November, 1860 → online text (page 1 of 21)