Thomas Hood

Austin Dobson, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 4:531-33.

Since the issue in 1860 of the delightful Memorials of Thomas Hood by his son and daughter, both of whom are now dead, it has not been easy to dissociate the poet from the touching picture of him which those pages present. Nor indeed does literature often afford the spectacle of a heroism so smiling as that of the indefatigable manufacturer of Whims and Oddities, Comic Annuals, and the like, — pumping up ceaseless fun for a subsistence, — faultless in his relations of husband and father, — patient under sickness and "lack of pence" — and concluding, at last, that the life which to him, as to Pope, had been "a long disease," was still worth living, and the world he was leaving a beautiful one, "and not so bad, humanly speaking, even as people would make it out." Whether, under favourable circumstances, he would have produced more work of a high character is a question that it is scarcely profitable to discuss; but it is manifest that during his life-time the somewhat coarse-palated public welcomed most keenly not so much his best as his second-best. The "Tom Hood" they cared for was not the delicate and fanciful author of the Plea of the Midsummer Fairies, but the Hood of Miss Kilmansegg and her Precious Leg, — the master of broad-grin and equivoque, the delightful parodist, the irrepressible and irresistible joker and Merry-Andrew. It is not to be denied that much of his work in this way is excellent of its kind, admirable for its genuine drollery and whim, having often at its core, moreover, that subtle sense of the "lacrima rerum," which lends a piquancy of sadness and almost a quality of permanence to much of our modern jesting. But the rest! — the larger part! Nothing except the record of his over-strained, over-burdened life can enable us to understand how the author of the Ode to Rat Wilson, the Lament for Chivalry, and the lines On a distant Prospect of Clapham Academy could ever have produced such mechanical and melancholy mirth as much of that which has been preserved appears to be. Yet his worst work is seldom without some point; it is better than the best of many others; and, with all its drawbacks, it is at least always pure. It should be remembered too that the fashions of fun pass away like other fashions.

It was fortunate, however, for his good fame that the public of his day could not wholly detain him in the jester's domain. He was from the first, and remained throughout his life, a poet of distinct individuality and delicacy of note. Side by side with the fugitive puns and work-a-day witticisms, he found leisure to produce a number of pieces worthy of something more than mere ephemeral life. Such are Hero and Leander, the galloping anapaests of Lycus the Centaur, and the beautiful petition to "all-devouring Time" for Titania and her fragile following. In these his earlier works, we may trace the influence of the Elizabethans, or perhaps we should say of Lamb and Keats. But in 1829 he struck a note more intimately his own in the Dream of Eugene Aram, a poem of strange fascination, and exhibiting an extraordinary faculty for "moving a horror skilfully" and laying bare the tortured human heart. Many of his sonnets are beautiful, and not a few of his detached songs and ballads (e.g. Fair Inez, I remember, It was the time of Roses) have that rare merit of tunefulness which is as much in the matter as in the metre. Here and there, too, as in the Death-Bed, he touches the keenest chord of pathos. But what is most noteworthy is that this purely poetical faculty does not seem to have declined in the popularity of his lesser labours, but rather to have increased in spite of it. His best pieces in this way were written in the last years of his life, when he may almost be said to have entered the Valley of the Shadow. In Punch for Christmas, 1843, appeared the Song of the Shirt a poem with which his name is usually associated. It was the sharp and exceeding bitter cry of the hitherto inarticulate, — the sudden wail, not of the poor seamstress alone, but of the whole body of the under-paid and over-worked, fighting out their grim duel with Hunger. It rang through the length and breadth of the land, arousing and quickening a compassion which to this day has not wholly faded out. Such a production it is waste of time to criticism: it reaches its mark so surely and swiftly that mere questions of detail and technique seem to be impertinent superfluities. But the Bridge of Sighs, which appeared a few months after in Hood's Magazine, is, in our opinion, superior as a work of art. The Lady's Dream, and the Lay of the Labourer, which belong to the same periodical, have less merit. The Haunted House, with which its pages opened in January, 1844, is a masterpiece of a different order. It is an extraordinarily minute study of disuse and decay, — of the ghostliness and horror that broods and gathers about neglect:—

With shatter'd panes the grassy court was starr'd;
The time-worn coping-stone had tumbled after;
And through the ragged roof the sky shone, barr'd
With naked beam and rafter.

O'er all there hung a shadow and a fear;
A sense of mystery the spirit daunted,
And said, as plain as whisper in the ear,
The place is Haunted!

The latter verse recurs throughout the poem with singular effect. The length of the piece places it beyond the limits of quotation; but the selection given will show sufficiently how simple and sincere, — how strong in the abiding elements of song were the more serious efforts of this gentlest and most patient of poets.