1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hood, Thomas
HOOD, THOMAS (1799–1845), British humorist and poet, the son of Thomas Hood, bookseller, was born in London on the 23rd of May 1799. “Next to being a citizen of the world,” writes Thomas Hood in his Literary Reminiscences, “it must be the best thing to be born a citizen of the world’s greatest city.” On the death of her husband in 1811 Mrs Hood removed to Islington, where Thomas Hood had a schoolmaster who appreciated his talents, and, as he says, “made him feel it impossible not to take an interest in learning while he seemed so interested in teaching.” Under the care of this “decayed dominie,” whom he has so affectionately recorded, he earned a few guineas—his first literary fee—by revising for the press a new edition of Paul and Virginia. Admitted soon after into the counting-house of a friend of his family, he “turned his stool into a Pegasus on three legs, every foot, of course, being a dactyl or a spondee”; but the uncongenial profession affected his health, which was never strong, and he was transferred to the care of his father’s relations at Dundee. There he led a healthy outdoor life, and also became a large and indiscriminate reader, and before long contributed humorous and poetical articles to the provincial newspapers and magazines. As a proof of the seriousness with which he regarded the literary vocation, it may be mentioned that he used to write out his poems in printed characters, believing that that process best enabled him to understand his own peculiarities and faults, and probably unconscious that Coleridge had recommended some such method of criticism when he said he thought “print settles it.” On his return to London in 1818 he applied himself assiduously to the art of engraving, in which he acquired a skill that in after years became a most valuable assistant to his literary labours, and enabled him to illustrate his various humours and fancies by a profusion of quaint devices, which not only repeated to the eye the impressions of the text, but, by suggesting amusing analogies and contrasts, added considerably to the sense and effect of the work.
In 1821 Mr John Scott, the editor of the London Magazine, was killed in a duel, and that periodical passed into the hands of some friends of Hood, who proposed to make him sub-editor. His installation into this congenial post at once introduced him to the best literary society of the time; and in becoming the associate of Charles Lamb, Cary, de Quincey, Allan Cunningham, Proctor, Talfourd, Hartley Coleridge, the peasant-poet Clare and other contributors to the magazine, he gradually developed his own intellectual powers, and enjoyed that happy intercourse with superior minds for which his cordial and genial character was so well adapted, and which he has described in his best manner in several chapters of Hood’s Own. He had married in 1825, and Odes and Addresses—his first work—was written in conjunction with his brother-in-law Mr J. H. Reynolds, the friend of Keats. S. T. Coleridge wrote to Charles Lamb averring that the book must be his work. The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies (1827) and a dramatic romance, Lamia, published later, belong to this time. The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies was a volume of serious verse, in which Hood showed himself a by no means despicable follower of Keats. But he was known as a humorist, and the public, which had learned to expect jokes from him, rejected this little book almost entirely. There was much true poetry in the verse, and much sound sense and keen observation in the prose of these works; but the poetical feeling and lyrical facility of the one, and the more solid qualities of the other, seemed best employed when they were subservient to his rapid wit, and to the ingenious coruscations of his fancy. This impression was confirmed by the series of the Comic Annual, dating from 1830, a kind of publication at that time popular, which Hood undertook and continued, almost unassisted, for several years. Under that somewhat frivolous title he treated all the leading events of the day in a fine spirit of caricature, entirely free from grossness and vulgarity, without a trait of personal malice, and with an under-current of true sympathy and honest purpose that will preserve these papers, like the sketches of Hogarth, long after the events and manners they illustrate have passed from the minds of men. But just as the agreeable jester rose into the earnest satirist, one of the most striking peculiarities of his style became a more manifest defect. The attention of the reader was distracted, and his good taste annoyed, by the incessant use of puns, of which Hood had written in his own vindication:—
A double meaning has double sense.”
Now it is true that the critic must be unconscious of some of the subtlest charms and nicest delicacies of language who would exclude from humorous writing all those impressions and surprises which depend on the use of the diverse sense of words. The history, indeed, of many a word lies hid in its equivocal uses; and it in no way derogates from the dignity of the highest poetry to gain strength and variety from the ingenious application of the same sounds to different senses, any more than from the contrivances of rhythm or the accompaniment of imitative sounds. But when this habit becomes the characteristic of any wit, it is impossible to prevent it from degenerating into occasional buffoonery, and from supplying a cheap and ready resource, whenever the true vein of humour becomes thin or rare. Artists have been known to use the left hand in the hope of checking the fatal facility which practice had conferred on the right; and if Hood had been able to place under some restraint the curious and complex machinery of words and syllables which his fancy was incessantly producing, his style would have been a great gainer, and much real earnestness of object, which now lies confused by the brilliant kaleidoscope of language, would have remained definite and clear. He was probably not unconscious of this danger; for, as he gained experience as a writer, his diction became more simple, and his ludicrous illustrations less frequent. In another annual called the Gem appeared the poem on the story of “Eugene Aram,” which first manifested the full extent of that poetical vigour which seemed to advance just in proportion as his physical health declined. He started a magazine in his own name, for which he secured the assistance of many literary men of reputation and authority, but which was mainly sustained by his own intellectual activity. From a sick-bed, from which he never rose, he conducted this work with surprising energy, and there composed those poems, too few in number, but immortal in the English language, such as the “Song of the Shirt” (which appeared anonymously in the Christmas number of Punch, 1843), the “Bridge of Sighs” and the “Song of the Labourer,” which seized the deep human interests of the time, and transported them from the ground of social philosophy into the loftier domain of the imagination. They are no clamorous expressions of anger at the discrepancies and contrasts of humanity, but plain, solemn pictures of conditions of life, which neither the politician nor the moralist can deny to exist, and which they are imperatively called upon to remedy. Woman, in her wasted life, in her hurried death, here stands appealing to the society that degrades her, with a combination of eloquence and poetry, of forms of art at once instantaneous and permanent, and with great metrical energy and variety.
Hood was associated with the Athenaeum, started in 1828 by J. Silk Buckingham, and he was a regular contributor for the rest of his life. Prolonged illness brought on straitened circumstances; and application was made to Sir Robert Peel to place Hood’s name on the pension list with which the British state so moderately rewards the national services of literary men. This was done without delay, and the pension was continued to his wife and family after his death, which occurred on the 3rd of May 1845. Nine years after a monument, raised by public subscription, in the cemetery of Kensal Green, was inaugurated by Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton) with a concourse of spectators that showed how well the memory of the poet stood the test of time. Artisans came from a great distance to view and honour the image of the popular writer whose best efforts had been dedicated to the cause and the sufferings of the workers of the world; and literary men of all opinions gathered round the grave of one of their brethren whose writings were at once the delight of every boy and the instruction of every man who read them. Happy the humorist whose works and life are an illustration of the great moral truth that the sense of humour is the just balance of all the faculties of man, the best security against the pride of knowledge and the conceits of the imagination, the strongest inducement to submit with a wise and pious patience to the vicissitudes of human existence. This was the lesson that Thomas Hood left behind him. (H.)
Bibliography.—The list of Hood’s separately published works is as follows: Odes and Addresses to Great People (1825); Whims and Oddities (two series, 1826 and 1827); The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies, Hero and Leander, Lycus the Centaur and other Poems (1827), his only collection of serious verse; The Dream of Eugene Aram, the Murderer (1831); Tylney Hall, a novel (3 vols., 1834); The Comic Annual (1830–1842); Hood’s Own; or, Laughter from Year to Year (1838, second series, 1861); Up the Rhine (1840); Hood’s Magazine and Comic Miscellany (1844–1848); National Tales (2 vols., 1837), a collection of short novelettes; Whimsicalities (1844), with illustrations from Leech’s designs; and many contributions to contemporary periodicals.
The chief sources of his biography are: Memorials of Thomas Hood, collected, arranged and edited by his daughter (1860); his “Literary Reminiscences” in Hood’s Own; Alexander Elliot, Hood in Scotland (1885). See also the memoir of Hood’s friend C. W. Dilke, by his grandson Sir Charles Dilke, prefixed to Papers of a Critic; and M. H. Spielmann’s History of Punch. There is an excellent edition of the Poems of Thomas Hood (2 vols., 1897), with a biographical introduction of great interest by Canon Alfred Ainger.