THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.
A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.
VOL. VI. — NOVEMBER, 1860.—NO. XXXVII.
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 tast 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 he 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 " Betweon-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 wo 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 reached, 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 Lhe 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 unwittingly, 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,<FNREF>*</FNREF>
“ Yours most truly,
“ THOMAS HOOD.”
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 !
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 merryandrew who tick*.:s 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 tor 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 ot 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 halt 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 beard 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 oue-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 Drowsytowu ? ”
“ 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 Iehabod 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 Iehabod 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 Platonieally 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 intermingled.
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 it 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 whole, as Shakspcare was, we would not in a mixed company, until after cautious rehearsal, venture to read his comic passages aloud. We may apply the statement, also, to the comic portions of Burns,
&emdahs; and, indeed, to comic literature in general. But who has fear to read most openly anything that Hood ever wrote ? or who has a memory of wounded modesty for anything that he ever read secretly of Hood’s ? Dr. Johnson says that dirty images were as natural to Swift as sublime ones were to Milton; — we may say that images at once lambent and laughable were those which were natural to Hood. Even when his mirth is broadest, it is decent; and while the merest recollection of his drollery will often convulse the face in defiance of the best-bred muscles, no thought arises which the dying need regret. Who can ever forget “ The Lost Heir,” or remember it but to laugh at its rich breadth of natural, yet farcical, absurdity ? The very opening begins the giggle: —
“ One day, as I was going by
That part of Holborn christened High,” etc. Then there is that broadest of broad, but morally inoffensive stories, in which the laundress, in trying to cure a smoking chimney, blows herself to death, having merely power to speak a few words to Betty, — who gaspingly explains to her mistress “ The Report from Below ”: —
But it’s gospel fact arid true,
But these words is all she whispered,—
’ Why, where is the powder blew ?' ”
For other examples refer to “ The Ode to Malthas ” and “ The Blow-up,” which pain the sides while they cheer the heart.
Again, we find the grotesque through Hood’s writings in union with the fantastic and the fanciful. His fertility in the most unexpected, analogies becomes to the reader of his works a matter of continual wonder. Strange and curious contrasts and likenesses, both mental and verbal, which might never once occur even to a mind of more than common eccentricity and invention, seem to have been in his mind with the ordinary flow of thinking. Plenteous and sustained, therefore, as his wit is, it never fails to startle. We have no doubt of his endless resources, and yet each new instance becomes a new marvel. His wit, too, is usually pregnant and vital with force and meaning. This constitutes the singular and peculiar worth of his verbal wit in general, and of his puns in particular. In verbal wit he has had but few equals, and in puns he has had none. He made the pun an instrument of power; and had his wit been malignant, he could have pointed the pun to a sharpness that would have left wounds as deep as thought, and could have added a poison to it that would have kept them rankling as long as memory lasted. The secret of his power in the pun is, that he does not rest in the analogy of sound alone, but seeks also for analogy of significance. Generally there is a subtile coincidence between his meaning and what the sound of the pun signifies, and thus the pun becomes an amusing or illustrative image, or a most emphatic and striking condensation of his thought. “ Take care of your cough,” he writes to his engraver, “ lest you go to coughy-pot, as I said before; but I did not say before, that nobody is so likely as a wood-engraver to cut his stick.” Speaking of his wife, he says, — “ To be sure, she still sticks to her old fault of going to sleep while I am dictating, till I vow to change my Womanuensis for a Manuensis.” How keenly and well the pun serves him in burlesque, in his comic imitations of the great moralist! He hits off with inimitable ridicule the great moralist’s dislike to Scotland. Boswell inquired the Doctor’s opinion on illicit distillation, and how the great moralist would act in an affray between the smugglers and the excise. “ If I went by the letter of the law, I should assist the customs; but according to the spirit, I should stand by the contrabandists.” The Doctor was always very satirical on the want of timber in the North. “ Sir,” said he to the young Lord of Ieombally, who was going to join his regiment, “ may Providence preserve you in battle, and especially your nether limbs ! You may grow a walking-stick here, but you must import a wooden leg.” At Dunsinnane the old prejudice broke out.
“ Sir,” said he to Boswell, “ Macbeth was an idiot; he ought to have known that every wood in Scotland might be carried in a man’s hand. The Scotch, Sir, are like the frogs in the fable : if they had a log, they would make a king of it.” We will quote here a stanza which contains quite a serious application of the pun; and for Hood’s purpose no other word could so happily or so pungently express his meaning. The poem is an “ Address to Mrs. Fry”; and the doctrine of it is, that it is better and wiser to teach the young and uncorrupted that are yet outside the prison than the vicious and the hardened who have got inside it. Thus he goes on : —
I like your cookery in every way;
I like your Shrove-tide service and supply;
I like to hear your sweet Pandeans play;
1 like the pity in your full-brimmed eye;
I like your carriage and your silken gray,
Your dove-like habits, and your silent preaching;
But I don’t like your Newgatory teaching.”
Hood had not only an unexampled facility in the discovery of analogies in a multitude of separate resemblances and relations, but he had an equal facility of tracing with untiring persistency a single idea through all its possible variations. Take, for example, the idea of gold, in the poem of “Miss Kilmansegg,” and there is hardly a conceivable reference to gold which imagination or human life can suggest, that is not presented to us.
But this play of words and thought would, after all, be in itself little more than serious trilling, a mere exhibition of mental and verbal ingenuity. It would be a kind of intellectual and linguistical dexterity, which would give the author a singularity and supremacy above the world. It would make him the greatest of mental acrobats or jugglers, and he might almost deserve as eminent a reputation as a similar class of artists in bodily achievements; possibly he might claim to be ranked with the man who cooked his dinner and ate it on a tight rope over the Niagara Rapids, or with the man who placed a pea-nut under a dish-cover and turned it into the American eagle. Such, however, is not Hood’s case. In all feats of mental and verbal oddity, he does, indeed, rank the highest, — but that is the very lowest of his attainments. His pranks do verily cause us to laugh and wonder; but there is also that ever in his pranks which causes us to think, and even sometimes to weep. In much ot his that seems burlesque, the most audacious, there are hidden springs of thought and tears. Often, when most he seems as the grimed and grinning clown in a circus girded by gaping spectators, he stops to pour out satire as passionate as that of Juvenal, or morality as eloquent and as pure as that of Pascal. And this he does without lengthening his face or taking olf his paint. Sometimes, when he most absurdly scampers in his thoughts, when he kicks up the heels of his fancy in the most outrageous fashion, he is playing as it most doth please him on our human sympathy, and the human heart becomes an instrument to his using, out of which he discourseth eloquent music according to his moods. The interest oue finds in reading Hood is often the sudden pleasure which comes upon him. When in the midst of what appears a wilful torrent of absurdity, there bursts out a rush of earnest and instinctive nature. We could quote enough in confirmation of this assertion to make a moderate volume. And then the large and charitable wisdom, which in Hood’s genius makes the teacher humble in order to win the learner, we value all the more that it conceals authority in the guise of mirth, and under the coat of motley or the mantle of extravagance insinuates effective and salutary lessons.
No writer has ever so successfully as Hood combined the grotesque with the terrible. He has the art, as no man but himself ever had, of sustaining the illusion of an awful or solemn narrative through a long poem, to be closed in a catastrophe that is at once unexpected and ludicrous. The mystification is complete; the secret of the issue is never betrayed ; suspense is maintained with Spartan reticence; curiosity is excited progressively to its utmost tension ; and the surprise at the end is oftentimes electric. “ A Storm at Hastings ” and “ The Demon Ship” are of this class. But sometimes the terrible so prevails as to overpower the ludicrous, or rather, it becomes more terrible by the very presence of the ludicrous. We have evidence of this in the poem called “ The Last Man.” Sometimes we find the idea of the supernatural added to the ludicrous with great moral and imaginative effect. Observe with what pathetic tenderness this is done in the “ Ode to the Printer’s Devil,”— with what solemn moral power in “ The Tale of a Trumpet,”—and with what historical satire and social insight in “ The Knight and the Dragon.” Sometimes the ludicrous element entirely disappears, and we have the purely terrible, — the terrible in itself, as in “ The Tower of Lahneck,”— the terrible in pathos, as in “The Work-House Clock,”—the terrible in penitence and remorse, as in “ The Lady’s Dream,”—the terrible in temptation and despair, as in “ The Dream of Eugene Aram.”
Hood, as we have seen, is a perfect master equally of the grotesque and the terrible. Some writers, it may be, were as powerful as he in the grotesque. Rabelais had a certain hugeness in it, which Hood did not have and did not need. Other writers transcended Hood in the region of the terrible. It is almost useless to name such sublime masters of it as Dante, Shakspeare, and Milton. But in the intermingling of the grotesque and terrible, and in the infinite diversification of them as thus united, not only has Hood no equal, but no rival. In some few marked and outward directions of his genius he may have imitators; but in this magical alchemy of sentiment, thought, passion, fancy, and imagination, the secret of his laboratory was his alone; no other man has discovered it, and no other man, as he did, could use it. But he worked in the purely ideal also;—if he did not work supremely, he worked well, as we have proof in many of his serious poems, and particularly in his “ Plea for the Midsummer Fairies.” And when aroused,— but that was rarely,— he could wield a burningly satiric pen, and with manly indignation and impassioned scorn wield it to chastise the hypocritical and the arrogant, as his letter to a certain pious lady and his “ Ode to Rae Wilson ” bear sufficient witness.
Along with the grotesque and terrible in Hood’s writings we also often observe a wizard-like command over the elements of the desolate, the weird, the sad, the forlorn, and the dreary. We may trace it in many of the poems to which we have already alluded. But it appears with all its lonely gloom of power in “ The Haunted House.” This poem is surely the work of a fancy that must have often gone into the desert of the soul to meditate, and that must have made itself acquainted with all that is dismal in imagery and feeling. Pictures, in succession or combination, it would be impossible to conceive, which more dolefully impress the mind with a sense of doom, dread, and mystery; yet every picture is in itself natural, and, while each adds to the intensity of the impression, each is in itself complete.
Now, having gone over some of the most noticeable qualities in the writings of Hood, we come to the crowning quality of his genius, the simply pathetic. We could, if space remained, adduce many psychological and other reasons why we apply this phrase to the pathos of Hood. One reason is, that Hood’s pathos involves none of the complications of higher passion, nor any of the pomp which belongs, in mood, situation, or utterance, to the loftier phases of human suffering. The sorrow of those who most attracted his sympathy was not theatrical or imposing. It has been well said of him, that his “bias was towards all that was poor and unregarded.” And thus, while those who painfully moved the charity and compassion of his genius were considered by him the victims of artificial civilization, his own feeling for them was natural and instinctive; yet never did natural and instinctive feeling receive expression more artistic, but with that admirable art in which elaboration attains the utmost perfection of simplicity. It excites our wonder to observe how in pathos Hood’s genius divests itself of attributes which had seemed essential to its existence. All that is grotesque, whimsical, or odd disappears, and we have only the soul of pity in the sound of song,— in song “ most musical, most melancholy.” In pathos, Hood’s is not what we should call a transformed genius so much as a genius becoming divested of its coarser life, and then breathing purely the inner spirit of goodness and beauty. The result is what one might almost term the “absolute” in pathos. Nothing is excluded that is necessary to impression; nothing is admitted that could vulgarize or weaken it. We have thus pathos at once practical and poetic,—pathos at once the most affecting and the most ideal, — coming from a heart rich with all human charities, and gaining worthy and immortal form by means of a subtile, deep, cultivated imagination. The pathetic, therefore, no less than the comic, in Hood’s writings has all the author’s peculiar originality, but has it in a higher order. Pathos was the product of the author’s mind when it was most matured by experience, and when suffering, without impairing its strength, had refined its characteristic benevolence to the utmost tenderness.
Hood’s pathos culminates in “ The Song of the Shirt,” “ The Lay of the Laborer,” and “The Bridge of Sighs.”
These are marvellous lyrics. In spirit and in form they are singular and remarkable. We cannot think of any poems which more show the mystic enchantment of genius. How else was a ragged sempstress in a squalid garret made immortal, nay, made universal, made to stand for an entire sisterhood of wretchedness? Here is the direst poverty, blear-eyed sorrow, dim and dismal suffering, —nothing of the romantic. A stern picture it is, which even the softer touches render sterner; still there is nought in it that revolts or shocks; it is deeply poetic, calls into passionate action the feelings of reverence and pity, and has all the dignity of tragedy. Even more wonderful is the transformation that a rustic hind undergoes in “ The Lay of the Laborer,” in which a peasant out of work personifies, with eloquent impressiveness, the claims and calamities of toiling manhood. But an element of the sublime is added in “ The Bridge of Sighs.” In that we have the truly tragic; for we have in it the union of guilt, grief, despair, and death. An angel from heaven, we think, could not sing a more gentle dirge, or one more pure; yet the ordinary associations suggested by the corpse of the poor, ruined, self-murdered girl are such as to the prudish and fastidious would not allow her to be mentioned, much less bring her into song. But in the pity almost divine with which Hood sings her fate there is not only a spotless delicacy, there is also a morality as elevated as the heavenly mercy which the lyrist breathes. The pure can afford to be pitiful; and the life of Hood was so exemplary, that he had no fear to hinder him from being charitable. The cowardice of conscience is one of the saddest penalties of sin ; and to avert suspicion from one's self by severity to others is, indeed, the most miserable expediency of self-condemnation. The temper of charity and compassion seems natural to men of letters and of art. They are emotional and sensitive, and by the necessity of their vocation have to hold much communion with the inmost consciousness of our nature; they thus learn the weakness of man, and the allowances that he needs; they are conversant with a broad and diversified humanity, and thence they are seldom narrow, intolerant, or self-righteous; feeling, too, their full share of moral and mortal imperfection, they refuse to be inquisitors of the unfortunate, but rather choose to be their advocates and helpers. No man ever had more of this temper than Hood; and out of it came these immortal lyrics upon which we have been commenting. For such a temper the writing of these lyrics was exceeding great reward; not only because they made the author an everlasting benefactor to the poor, but also because they became an interpretation of his own deeper genius, and revealed a nobler meaning in his works than had ever before been discerned. Henceforth, he was more thought of as a profound poet than as the greatest of mimes, jesters, and punsters. The lyrics of the poor saved him from imminent injustice. —All that we have further to say of these lyrics is to express our admiration as to the classical finish of their diction, and as to the wild, sweet, and strange music in their sadly sounding measures.
Hood is a writer to whom, in his degree, we may apply the epithet Shakspearian. We do not, indeed, compare him with Shakspeare in bulk or force of genius, but only in quality and kind. He had, as the great dramatist, the same disregard of the temporary and discernment of the essential; the same wonderful wealth of vocabulary, and the same bold dexterity in the use of it; the same caprices of jestings and conceits; the same comminglings of mirth and melancholy ; the same many-sided conception of existence ; the same embracing catholicity of tastes and tendencies; the same indifference to sects and factions ; the same freedom from jealousies, asperities, and spites; and in the lower scale of his genius, he resembled the mighty dramatist in subtile perception of life and Nature, in his mental and moral independence, and in his intuitive divinations of abstract truth and individual character.
As a poet of the poor, Crabbe is the only poet with whom he can be critically compared. The comparison would be a contrast; and in order to handle it to any purpose, a long essay would be required. Hood wrote but a few short lyrics on the poor; Crabbe wrote volumes. Crabbe was literal; Hood ideal. Crabbe was concrete ; Hood was abstract. Crabbe lived among the rural poor; Hood among the city poor. Crabbe saw the poor constantly, and went minutely and practically into the interior of their life ; if Hood ever directly saw them at all, it was merely with casual glimpses, and he must have learned of them only by occasional report. Crabbe was a man of vigorous constitution, he lived a hardy life, and he lived it long; Hood was a man of feeble health, he lived a life of pain, and he closed it early. Crabbe had a hard youth, but after that a certain and settled competence; Hood’s was also a youth of struggle, but struggle was his destiny to the end. These radical and circumstantial differences between the men will account for their different modes in thinking and writing of the poor. But both were men of genius, of genial humanity, and of singular originality. No one who reads Crabbe’s writings will deny him genius; no one who reads them with adequate sympathy and attention will deny that his genius is vital with passion and imagination. Only the latent heat of passion and imagination could save these seemingly bald and monotonous narratives from being as dull as a dictionary. But they are not so; they have an interest which holds the reader with a fixedness of grasp which he cannot loosen Crabbe’s poetry of the poor is slow and epic ; Hood’s is rapid and lyrical. Crabbe’s characters are only actual and intensified individuals; Hood’s characters are idealized and representative persons. Hood gives you only the pathetic or tragical essentials; but, along with these, Crabbe gives you the complexity and detail of life which surrounded them. Hood presents you with the picture of a lonely woman at midnight toiling and starving in the slavery of sewing; but Crabbe would trace her from her quiet country-home, through the follies which led her to a London garret. Hood, in his “ Lay of the Laborer,” makes you listen to the wail of a strong man imploring leave to toil; Crabbe would find him drunk in the beerhouse or the gin-shop, and then carry you on to the catastrophe in his ruined home or in his penal death. Hood, in his “ Bridge of Sighs,” brings you into the presence of death, and you gaze, weeping, over the lifeless form of beauty that had once been innocent and blooming girlhood, but from which the spirit, early soiled and saddened, took violent flight in its despair; Crabbe would give us the record of her sins, and connect her end retributively with her conduct. Much is in Crabbe that is repulsive and austere; but he is, notwithstanding, an earnest moral teacher and a deep tragic poet. Let us be content with both Crabbe and Hood: we need to look at the aspect which each of them gives us of life,— the stern poetry of fact in Crabbe, and the lyrical poetry of feeling in Hood. Crabbe bas dealt with groups and masses ; Hood has immortalized single figures, which, by their isolation and intensity, take full and forcible possession of the mind, and can never be driven out from memory.
This is a rather serious conclusion of an article on a comic genius. As the hu morist is for the most part on the play-side of literature, he should, we are apt to suppose, be entirely on the play-side of life. He ought to laugh and grow tat,— and he ought to have an easy-ehair to laugh in. Why should he who makes so many joyous not have the largest mess of gladness to his share? He ought to be a favored Benjamin at the banquet of existence,— and have, above the most favored of his brethren, a double portion. He ought, like the wind, to be “ a chartered libertine,”—to blow where he listeth, and have no one to question whence he cometh or whither he goeth. He ought to be the citizen of a comfortable world, and he ought to have an ungrudged freedom in it. What debt is he should not be allowed to learn or to know,—and the idea of a dun it should not be possible for him even to conceive. Give him good cheer; enrich the juices of his blood, nourish generously the functions of his brain; give him delicate viands and rosy wine ; give him smiles and laughter, music and flowers; let him inherit every region of creation, and be at home in air and water as well as on the earth; at last, in an Anacreontic bloom of age, let him in a song breathe away his life. Such is the lot, we believe, that many imagine as the condition of a humorist; but which the humorist, less than most men, has ever enjoyed. All great humorists have been men grave at heart, and often men of more than ordinary trials. None but the superficial can fail to recognize the severity of Rabelais’s genius. The best portion of poor Molière’s manhood was steeped in sorrow. The life of Swift was a hidden tragedy. The immortal wit of “ Hudibras” did not save Butler from the straits and struggles of narrow means. Cervantes spent much of his time in a prison, and much of his grandest humor had there its birthplace. Farqnliar died young, and in terrible distress of mind at the desolate prospect that he saw before his orphan children. How Sheridan died is familiar to us all. The very conditions of temperament which gave Sterne genius gave him also torment. Fielding and Smollett battled all their lives with adversity; and Goldsmith died in his prime, embittered m his last hours by distress and debt. Banim, the great Irish novelist, withered early out of life upon a government pittance of a pension; Griffin gave up literature, became a monk, and found in youth a grave ; Carleton, one of the most gifted humorists that ever painted the manycolored pictures of Irish character, is now struggling against the pressure of a small income in his advancing years. Not to carry this melancholy list farther,—which might be indefinitely prolonged,—we close it with the name of Thomas Hood.
But not by contest with realities of life alone have humorists been saved from temptations to any dangerous levity; great humorists, as we have said, have generally been earnest men, very grave at heart, and much that they have written has been tragedy in the guise of irony. All readers cannot find this out. They cannot see the grief of life beneath its grin ; they cannot detect the scorn or the pity that is hidden in joke or banter ; neither can they always find out the joke or banter that is covered by a solemn face; and many a sincere believer has been deemed an atheist because he burlesqued hypocrites with their own gravity. Numbers judge only by the outside, and never reach the spirit of writing or of man. They laugh at the contortions of grimace, but of the mysteries of mind or the pains of heart which underlie the contortions they know nothing. They snatch their rapid pleasure, and leave unvalued the worth of him who gives it; they care not for the cost of genius or labor at which it has been procured; and when they have had their transient indulgence, they have had all they sought and all that they could enjoy.
The relation of many to the humorist is illustrated by that of the doctor, on a certain occasion, to Liston, the celebrated comedian. Liston was subject to constitutional melancholy, and in a severe attack of it he consulted a famous physician.
“ Go and see Liston,” said the doctor.
“ I am Liston,” said the actor.
And thus the inner soul of a great humorist is often as unrecognized by those who read him as was the natural personality of Liston by the doctor.
- “ 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,↩
- The Delta of Black wood.↩