1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Hood

R. H. Horne, "Thomas Hood and the late Theodore Hook" New Spirit of the Age (1844; 2d edition) 2:53-62.



There are some writers, whose popularity has been so long established, is so well deserved, and about the character of whose genius there is so correct a general impression in the mind of the public, that very little more need be said about them. But these are few in number. For, although it is not uncommon for the majority to be tolerably unanimous in its opinion of a favourite, it certainly very rarely occurs that such opinion is so perfectly satisfactory as to leave no opportunity and no wish to offer any further comment upon the individual or his works. Such, however, is the case with regard to Thomas Hood; and, almost in an equal degree, to the late Theodore Hook, though the men are very different. We shall do little more, therefore, than endeavour to arrange and illustrate in a compact form, what we believe to be the popular impressions of both.

Mr. Hood possesses an original wealth of humour, invention, and an odd sort of wit that should rather be called whimsicality, or a faculty of the "high fantastic." Among comic writers he is one of those who also possess genuine pathos; it is often deep, and of much tenderness, occasional sweetness of expression, and full of melancholy memories. The predominating characteristics of his genius are humorous fancies grafted upon melancholy impressions. It is a curious circumstance, that in his Whims and Oddities, of bygone years, the majority of them, by far, turned upon some painful physicality. A boy roaring under the rod — a luckless individual being thrown over a horse's head — an old man with his night-cap on fire — a clergyman with his wig accidently caught off his head by a pitch-fork — a man pursued by a bull, — skeletons, death, duels — cats with mice, dogs with kettles — &c. These are the kind of things (we do not recollect if all these are actually in his books) in which his annual presents abounded. Nobody who takes a second look at any of these can feel them in a very jocular sense. If at all considered, they cease to be pleasurable. In the very first article of his "Magazine" recently published, there is a morbid energy of desolation and misery for the love of those things, and there is no story to relieve the feelings. A ghost or goblin of any kind would have been a real comfort. The Haunted House is a wonderful production for its prolonged inspiration of wretchedness and squalid catalogue of ruin. Such are Hood's latent characteristics, at all events; but the more obvious features are those of humour, and a most ingenious eccentricity. His fancies often bear an appearance of being studied, and seem to have arisen from the mind of a thoughtful humourist. Still, they are unaffected, and like himself. The fertility of his wit has chiefly been displayed in the application of his most erratic fancies to the current topics of the day, its men and manners, its sayings and doings, its ignorances and illiberalities. Mr. Hood is almost exclusively known as a comic writer, and his Plea of the Midsummer Fairies is little read in comparison; nevertheless, his songs and lyrical compositions have much sweetness, refinement, and tender melancholy, and he has written several ballads of deep, heart-probing pathos, — such as the Song of a Shirt, and the Bridge of Sighs. His prose and his verse equally illustrate his tendency to serious and pathetic writing. Though the touches of sadness are generally brief, and at unexpected seasons, Mr. Hood has still shown himself capable of writing a long narrative of serious interest and sustained purpose carried on clear through the very thick of the crossfire of puns, jokes, and extravaganzas — and convinced us that had he pleased (or had he possessed less versatility) he would have taken a permanent position among the highest class of English novelists, — if his Tylney Hall does not already entitle him to this rank. It will be recognized as a work of genius, when hundreds of novels which have been popular since its publication, have lined trunks, and the trunks been burnt for fire-wood.

Theodore Hook possessed both wit and humour, and told a story well. Though not without passion, the tendency was rather towards the evil passions than the ennobling, He could make a forcible appeal to the feelings, but it involved no fine principle. He had great graphic powers in the ridiculous, and a surprising readiness of invention, or novel application. But his wit was generally malicious, and his humour satirical. If he made a sharp hit at an individual peculiarity, the point generally went through into human nature. You could not help laughing, but were generally ashamed of yourself for having laughed. The objects of his satire were seldom the vices or follies of mankind; but generally their misfortunes, or manners, or unavoidable disadvantages, whether of a physical or intellectual kind. A poor man with his mutton bone, was a rich meal for his comic muse; and he was convulsed at the absurdity of high principles in rags, or at all needy. He never made fun of a lord. He would as soon have taken the King or Terrors pickaback, as made fun of a lord. He was at the head of that unfortunately large class, who think that a brilliant sally of wit, or fancy, at any cost of truth or feeling, is not only the best thing in society, but the best proof of sterling genius; and that one of the finest tests of a dashing fellow of spirit is to steal clothes, i.e. not pay a tailor's bill; — nor any other bill that can be helped, it might be added. Mr. Hook was a wit about town, and a philosopher while recovering from "the effects of last night." His writings tended to give an unfavourable view of human nature, to make one suspicious and scornful. On the whole, though you had been amused and interested as you went on, you were left uncomfortable, and wished you could forget what you had read.

Both these writers possess very great mastery of comic expression, and characteristic felicity of versification and of rhyming. In addition to this, there was a novel feature introduced by Hood in his annuals, which often had an extremely ludicrous effect — viz. that of drawings in illustration, made by one who had "the idea," but no knowledge or ability in drawing. Since Hood really could draw, his performances in this way must be regarded as all the more ingenious. The most extraordinary attitudes and intentions, and the most difficult foreshortenings, were boldly attempted after the fashion of a child on a slate, but with a determined, unmisgiving, mind's eye, and apparently the most self-complaisant result. They were often quite irresistible. It is not, at the same time, to be denied that they continually gave you a very uncomfortable sensation.

We could not, perhaps, convey a much better notion of Mr. Hook's style of writing, and of his actual habits of life, than in the following quotation from the Second Series of Sayings and Doings:—

"What's the hour?" said George.

"Past six," answered his friend; "so go: sleep off your sorrow, and I and Wilson will settle the order of the day."

"By the way," said George, "we have something particular for to-day."

"Particular!" answered Dyson; "indeed have we — there's the Fives Court at one — at four the dear Countess — gad how she did eat, this last past night of her joyous life."

"And drink too," interrupted George.

"She never refuses Roman punch," observed Dyson, "I never saw a freer creature in that line in my life: to be sure she is dreadfully under-rated; her cousin they say is a tallowchandler; and, upon my life, I never sit near her but I fancy I smell the moulds."

"Hang the moulds!" said George: "she is good-natured, and I like her."

"The good nature arises from her good set of teeth," said Dyson: "if ever you want laughers, George, to make up a party, study the ivory. Be sure your guests have good teeth and they'll laugh at the worst story of a dinner-going wit, rather than not show the 'white and even.' Never mind; at four we go to the Countess, at six we try, a new off-leader, at seven I have a short call to make in the New Road, and at eight we all dine here. After that, trust to chance: by the way, George, before you go to bed, I'll trouble you to lend me a couple of hundred pounds."

"To be sure," said George, turning to his prime minister, who was waiting; "Wilson, let Mr. Dyson have what he wants."

"Sir!" exclaimed Wilson.

"Don't scold me, Mr. Wilson," said his master: "my friend Dyson must not be refused; so good night, most worthy Arthur." Saying which the master of the house retired to rest, escorted by his body-servant, Monsieur Bevel.

"Now, Wilson," said Mr. Dyson, "the money if you please, at your earliest convenience."

"Money, Sir?" said Wilson.

"Yes, money, Mr. Wilson," repeated the young worthy; "why, you stare as if I asked you to pay the national debt; I only want you to give me two hundreds of pounds."

"I could do the one as easily as the other," answered the man.

"Why, you keep your master's purse, Mr. Wilson?"

The Man of Many Friends.

So much for the knowledge and experience of fashionable life, its follies, extravagancies, and "principles" of conduct. Let us turn to something more kindly from the pages of Hood. We can hardly do better than turn to the First Series of Whims and Oddities, and the first thing that meets our eye is Moral Reflections on the Cross of St. Paul's:—

And what is life! and all its ages—
There's seven stages!
Turnham Green Chelsea! Putney! Fulham!
Brentford! and Kew!
And Tooting, too!
And oh! what very little nags to pull 'em.
Yet each would seem a horse indeed,
If here at Paul's tip-top we'd got 'em;
Although, like Cinderella's breed,
They're mice at bottom.
Then let me not despise a horse,
Though he looks small from Paul's high cross!
Since he would be, — as near the sky,
—Fourteen hands high.

What is this world with London in its lap?
Mogg's Map.
The Thames, that ebbs and flows in its broad channel?
A tidy kennel.
The bridge stretching from its banks?
Stone planks.
Oh me! hence could I read an admonition
To mad Ambition!
But that he would not listen to my call,
Though I should stand upon the cross, and ball!

Mr. Hood's sympathies are with humanity; they are not often genial, because of a certain grotesque sadness that pervades them, but they are always kindly. He is liberal-minded, and of an independent spirit. His inner life is clearly displayed by his various writings. Mr. Hook had no sympathies with humanity for its own sake, but only as developed and modified by aristocratic circumstances and fashionable tastes. He was devoted to splendid externals. He may be said to have had no inner life — except that the lofty image of a powdered footman, with golden aiguillettes and large white calves, walked with a great air up and down the silent avenues of his soul. But the life of animal spirits, Hook possessed in an eminent degree. They appeared inexhaustible, and being applied as a sort of "steam" or laughing gas to set in motion his invention and all its fancies, and his surprising faculty of extemporaneous song-making, — it is no wonder that his company was so much in request, and that he was regarded as such a delightful time-killer and incentive to wine by the "high bloods of the upper circles." He made them laugh at good things, and forget themselves. He also made them drink. Thus are red herrings and anchovies used. Sad vision of a man of genius, as Hook certainly was, assiduously pickling his prerogative, and selling his birth-right for the hard and thankless servitude of pleasing idle hours and pampered vanities. The expenses, the debts, the secret drudgery, the splitting head-aches and heart's misery he incurred, in order to maintain his false position in these circles, are well known; and furnish one more warning to men of genius and wit, of how dearly, how ruinously they have to pay for an invitation to a great dinner, and a smile from his Grace. The man of moderate means who usually dines at home, saves money besides his independence; but the man who is always "dining out" let him look to his pocket, as well as his soul.

Mr. Hood, in private, offers a marked contrast to all that has been said of Theodore Hook. In nothing, perhaps, more than in this — that Hook was "audible, and full of vent," and Hood is habitually retiring and silent. Mr. Hood was originally intended for an engraver; but abandoned the profession, probably because a "graver" could not be found.

Mr. Hook displayed a dashing physique; Mr. Hood rather resembles a gentleman of a serious turn of mind, who is out of health. Within this unpromising outside and melancholic atmosphere, lie hidden, and on the watch, — a genius of quaint humour, a heart of strong emotions, and a spirit of kindliness towards all the world.