1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Hood

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:464.



THOMAS HOOD (1798-1845) appeared before the public chiefly as a comic poet and humorist, but several of his compositions, of a different nature, show that he was also capable of excelling in the grave, pathetic, and sentimental. He had thoughts "too deep for tears," and rich imaginative dreams and fancies, which were at times embodied in continuous strains of pure and exquisite poetry, but more frequently thrown in, like momentary shadows, among his light and fantastic effusions. His wit and sarcasm were always genial and well applied. This ingenious and gifted man was a native of London, son of one of the partners in the bookselling firm of Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe. He was educated for the counting-house, and at an early age was placed under the charge of a city merchant. His health, however, was found unequal to the close confinement and application required at the merchant's desk, and he was sent to reside with some relatives in Dundee, of which town his father was a native. While resident there, Mr. Hood evinced his taste for literature. He contributed to the local newspapers, and also to the Dundee Magazine, a periodical of considerable merit. On the re-establishment of his health, he returned to London, and was put apprentice to a relation, an engraver. At this employment he remained just long enough to acquire a taste for drawing, which was afterwards of essential service to him in illustrating his poetical productions. About the year 1821 he had adopted literature as a profession, and was installed as regular assistant to the London Magazine, which at that time was left without its founder and ornament, Mr. John Scott, who was unhappily killed in a duel. On the cessation of this work, Mr. Hood wrote for various periodicals. He was some time editor of the New Monthly Magazine, and also of a magazine which bore his own name. His life was one of incessant exertion, embittered by ill health and all the disquiets and uncertainties incidental to authorship. When almost prostrated by disease, the government stept in to relieve him with a small pension; and after his premature death in May 1845, his literary friends contributed liberally towards the support of his widow and family.

Mr. Hood's productions are in various styles and forms. His first work, Whims and Oddities, attained to great popularity. Their most original feature was the use which the author made of puns — a figure generally too contemptible for literature, but which in Hood's hands, became the basis of genuine humour, and often of the purest pathos. He afterwards (1827) tried a series of National Tales, but his prose was less attractive than his verse. A regular novel, Tylney Hall, was a more decided failure. In poetry he made a great advance. The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies is a rich imaginative work, superior to his other productions. As editor of the Comic Annual, and also of some of the literary annuals, Mr. Hood increased his reputation for sportive humour and poetical fancy; and he continued the same vein in his Up the Rhine — a satire on the absurdities of English travellers. In 1843 he issued two volumes of Whimsicalities, a Periodical Gathering, collected chiefly from the New Monthly Magazine. His last production of any importance was the Song of the Shirt, which first appeared in Punch, and was as admirable in spirit as in composition. This striking picture of the miseries of the poor London sempstresses struck home to the heart, and aroused the benevolent feelings of the public. In most of Hood's works, even in his puns and levities, there is a "spirit of good" directed to some kindly or philanthropic object. He had serious and mournful jests, which were the more effective from their strange and unexpected combinations. Those who came to laugh at folly, remained to sympathise with want and suffering.