1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Hood

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 250-58.



With some resemblance to Hunt and Keats, Thomas Hood had a manner and style racy, original, and peculiarly his own: but it was long ere he discovered this, and he only attained excellence in it in his latter pieces. He erroneously thought, through many years, that his forte lay between the classical and the imaginative, and so wasted his fine powers on The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies, on Lycus the Centaur, Hero and Leander, and similar efforts, which are vague, diffuse, passionless, and ineffective. He was thus like an itinerant street performer, who through half his lifetime has been blowing away his lungs on the Pan's-pipes, or cramping his wrist with the hurdy-gurdy, suddenly finding, to his own particular amazement, that he is fit for the concert-room, on the flageolet or the French horn; and certainly not quite in the position of the witty Harry Erskine's Fife Laird, who, when asked if he could play the violin, made answer, that "he was not very sure, as he had never tried." Hood made sure by trying; and the result was very different from what must have been predicated of the Laird's first attempt, although it was towards the termination of his career when he felt, for the first time, that his real strength lay in "the homely tragic," of which he soon gave an immortal proof in his Dream of Eugene Aram, which thus delightfully opens—

'Twas in the prime of summer time,
An evening calm and cool,
And four-and-twenty happy boys
Came bounding out of school;
There were some that ran, and some that leapt,
Like troutlets in a pool.

Away they sped with gamesome minds,
And souls untouched by sin;
To a level mead they came, and there
They drave the wickets in;
Pleasantly shone the setting sun
Over the town of Lynn.

Nor less successful in a similar style, although with a commixture of wilder and more imaginative elements, were The Haunted House and The Elm Tree, in both of which the effects resulted from a succession of fine and minute touches. Hood possessed also much of the genial humour of Addison, Goldsmith, and Charles Lamb; but his main triumph, as I have just said, lay in the simple pathetic, — and he has established for himself a name that poetry "may not willingly let die," in The Song of the Shirt, The Bridge of Sighs, The Workhouse Clock, and several other lyrics of exquisite natural beauty and feeling. What heart does not respond to the touching associations of the following voluntary:—

I remember, I remember
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn:
He never came a wink too soon,
Nor brought too long a day,
But now I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away!

I remember, I remember
The roses red and white,
The violets and the lily-cups,
Those flowers made of light!
The lilacs where the robin built,
And where my brother set
The laburnum on his birth-day,—
The tree is growing yet!...

I 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!

For a long time Hood seemed content to take his place as a mere clever rhyming punster: he then showed the "seria mista jocis," and finally came out the high and deep-souled poet. In the transition state, his volubility in rhyming was even more alarmingly wonderful than that of Thomas Ingoldsby or Theodore Hook. The flights of Daedalian learns, or Ariosto's Hippogriff, or Chaucer's steed of brass, or Burger's Leonora, or Lunardi's balloon, or Hogg's Witch of Fife, or Byron's Mazeppa, or Cowper's John Gilpin, were scarcely more perilous than that of Miss Kilmansegg through the streets of London, on Banker, "her rich bay," as witness this narrative of it:—

Away, like the bolt of a rabbit,
Away went the horse in the madness of fright,
And away went the horsewoman, mocking the sight—
Was yonder blue flash a flash of blue light,
Or only the skirt of her habit?

Away she flies, with the groom behind,
It looks like a race of the Calmuck kind,
When Hymen himself is the starter:
And the maid rides first in the four-footed strife,
Riding, striding, as if for her life,
While the lover rides after to catch him a wife,
Although it's catching a Tartar.

Still flies the heiress through stones and dust,
Oh! for a fall, if fall she must,
On the gentle lap of Flora!
But still, thank heaven, she clings to her seat,
Away! away! she could ride a dead heat
With the dead who ride so fast and fleet
In the ballad of Leonora!

Away she gallops! It's awful work,
It's faster than Turpin's ride to York
On Bess, that notable clipper!
She has circled the ring! she crosses the park!
Mazeppa, although he was stripped so stark,
Mazeppa couldn't outstrip her!

The fields seem running away with the folks!
The elms are having a race for the Oaks,
At a pace that all jockeys disparages!
All, all is racing! The Serpentine
Seems running past like "the arrowy Rhine,"
The houses have got on a railway line,
And are off with the first-class carriages!

She'll lose her life! She's losing her breath!
A cruel chase — she is chasing death,
As female shriekings forewarn her;
And now — as gratis as blood of Guelph—
She clean the gate, which has cleared itself
Since then, at Hyde Park Corner!

Alas! for the hope of the Kilmanseggs!
For her head, her brains, her body and legs,
Her life's not worth a copper!
Willy-nilly — in Piccadilly
A hundred hearts turn sick and chilly;
A hundred voices cry, "Stop her!"
And one old gentleman stares and stands,
Shakes his head, and lifts his hands,
And says, "How very improper!"

On and on! — what a perilous run!
The iron rails seem all mingling in one,
To shut out the Green Park scenery;
And now the Cellar its dangers reveals—
She shudders — she shrieks — she's doomed, she feels,
To be torn by powers of horses and wheels,
Like a spinner by steam machinery!

Sick with horror, she shuts her eyes—
The very stones seem uttering cries....

"Batter her! shatter her!
Throw and scatter her!"
Shouts each stony-hearted chatterer.
"Dash at the heavy Dover!
Spill her! kill her! tear and tatter her!
Smash her! crash her! (the stones didn't flatter her!)
Kick her brains out! let her blood spatter her!
Roll on her over and over!"
For so she gathered her awful sense
Of the street in its past unmacadamised tense,
As the wild horse overran it—
His four heels making the clatter of six,
Like a devil's tatoo played with iron sticks
On a kettle-drum of granite.

On! still on! she's dazzled with hints
Of oranges, ribbons, and coloured prints,
A kaleidoscope jumble of shapes and tints,
And human faces all flashing,
Bright and brief as the sparks from the flints,
That the desperate hoofs keep dashing!

On and on! still frightfully fast!
Dover Street, Bond Street, all are past!
But yes — no — yes! they are down at last!
The Furies and Fates have found them!
Down they go with a sparkle and crash,
Like a bark that's struck by a lightning flash—
There's a shriek and a sob — and the dense, dark mob
Like a billow closes around them!

Hood's verse, whether serious or comic — whether serene like a cloudless autumn evening, or sparkling with puns like a frosty January midnight with stars — was ever pregnant with materials for thought. In his Elm Tree we have a piece of secluded forest scenery, touched with a strange and gloomy power — creating that state of mind in Scotland termed eeriness, and for which I am ignorant of any English synonyme. This poem has the same reference to Tennyson's Talking Oak that a Rembrandt picture, with its deep masses and dark shadows, has to a sunbright Hobbima. Its power, as well as that in The Haunted House, is effected, as I have said, not by a few bold master-strokes, but by a succession of minute cumulative touches, which make seclusion deepen into awe, and awe to darken into the mysterious gloom of earthquake and eclipse and the shadow of death. The Song of the Shirt and The Workhouse Clock are only strains preclusive to The Bridge of Sighs. Throughout these and other lyrics, we have utterances alike deep and high of Hood's genius — a genius resembling that of Charles Lamb, in being at once pleasant and peculiar.

His comic vein was equally remarkable, and was almost the only one that he worked through a succession of years. It is only necessary to mention the Irish Schoolmaster, The Last Man, the Ode on a distant view of Clapham Academy, Faithless Sally Brown, and Miss Kilmansegg with her Golden Leg, to awaken pleasant remembrances in many a mind. Yet, like every author distinguished for true comic humour, there was a deep vein of melancholy pathos running through his mirth; and even when his sun shone brightly, its light seemed often reflected as if only over the rim of a cloud. Well may we say in the words of Tennyson, "Would he could have stayed with us!" for never could it be more truly recorded of any one — in the words of Hamlet characterising Yorick — that "he was a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy."

I cannot part from Thomas Hood without exhibiting him in one of his most characteristic ballads, wherein we have puns "as plenty as blackberries," — "linen on every hedge."

Young Ben he was a nice young man,
A carpenter by trade;
And he fell in love with Sally Brown,
Who was a lady's maid.

But as they fetched a walk one day,
They met a press-gang crew;
And Sally she did faint away,
Whilst Ben he was brought to.

The boatswain swore with wicked words,
Enough to shock a saint,
That, though she did seem in a fit,
'Twas nothing but a feint.

"Come, girl," said he, "hold up your head,
He'll be as good as me;
For when your swain is in our boat,
A boatswain be will be."

So when they'd made their game of her,
And taken off her elf,
She roused, and found she only was
A-coming to herself.

"And is he gone, and is he gone?"
She cried, and wept outright:
"Then I will to the water-side,
And see him out of sight."

A waterman came up to her,
"Now, young woman," said he,
"If you weep on so, you will make
Eye-water in the sea."

"Alas! they've taken my beau Ben,
To sail with old Ben-bow;"
And her woe begun to run afresh,
As if she had said "Gee woe!"

Says he, "They've only taken him
To the tender-ship you see;"
"The tender-ship!" cried Sally Brown,
"What a hard-ship that must be!

"Oh! would I were a mermaid now,
For then I'd follow him;
But oh! I'm not a fish-woman,
And so I cannot swim.

"Alas! I was not born beneath
The Virgin and the Scales,
So I must curse my cruel stars
And walk about in Wales."

Now Ben had sailed to many a place
That's underneath the world;
But in two years the ship came home
And all her sails were furled.

But when he called on Sally Brown,
To see how she got on,
He found she'd got another Ben,
Whose Christian name was John.

"Oh Sally Brown, oh Sally Brown,
How could you serve me so!
I've met with many a breeze before,
But never such a blow!"

Then, reading on his 'bacco-box,
He heaved a heavy sigh,
And then began to eye his pipe,
And then to pipe his eye.

And 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.

His death, which happened in his birth,
At forty odd befell:
They went and told the Sexton, and
The Sexton tolled the bell!

O rare Tom Hood!