"Frequently since his recent death," says the American editor of Hood, "he has been called a great author — a phrase used not inconsiderately or in vain." Yet, if we adopt the conventional idea of "a great author," there has lived, perhaps, no writer of the last half century who, with equal notoriety, was less entitled than Hood to be so called. In fact, he was a literary merchant, whose main stock in trade was littleness; for, during the larger portion of his life, he seemed to breathe only for the purpose of perpetrating puns — things of so despicable a platitude that the man who is capable of habitually committing them, is seldom found capable of anything else. Whatever merit may be discovered in a pun, arises altogether from unexpectedness. This is the pun's element and is two-fold. First, we demand that the combination of the pun be unexpected; and, secondly, we require the most entire unexpectedness in the pun per se. A rare pun, rarely appearing, is, to a certain extent, a pleasurable effect; but to no mind, however debased in taste, is a continuous effort at punning otherwise than unendurable. The man who maintains that he derives gratification from any such chapters of punnage as Hood was in the daily practice of committing to paper, should not be credited upon oath.
The puns of the author of "Fair Inez," however, are to be regarded as the weak points of the man. Independently of their ill effect, in a literary view, as mere puns, they leave upon us a painful impression; for too evidently they are the hypochondriac's struggles at mirth — the grinnings of the death's head. No one can read his "Literary Reminiscences" without being convinced of his habitual despondency: — and the species of false wit in question is precisely of that character which would be adopted by an author of Hood's temperament and cast of intellect, when compelled to write at an emergency. That his heart had no interest in these "niaiseries," is clear. I allude, of course, to his mere puns for the pun's sake — a class of letters by which he attained his widest renown. That he did more in this way than in any other, is but a corollary from what I have already said, for, generally, he was unhappy, and almost continually he wrote "invita Minerva." But his true province was a very rare and ethereal humor, in which the mere pun was left out of sight, or took the character of the richest grotesquerie; impressing the imaginative reader with remarkable force, as if by a new phase of the ideal. It is in this species of brilliant, or, rather, glowing grotesquerie, uttered with a rushing abandon vastly heightening its effect, that Hood's marked originality mainly consisted: — and it is this which entitles him, at times, to the epithet "great:" — for that undeniably may be considered great (of whatever seeming littleness in itself) which is capable of inducing intense emotion in the minds or hearts of those who are themselves undeniably great.
The field in which Hood is distinctive is a border-land between Fancy and Fantasy. In this region he reigns supreme. Nevertheless, he has made successful and frequent incursions, although vacillatingly, into the domain of the true Imagination. I mean to say that he is never truly or purely imaginative for more than a paragraph at a time. In a word, his peculiar genius was the result of vivid Fancy impelled by Hypochondriasis.