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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Thomas Hood (1799–1845)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Lucia Gilbert Runkle (1844–1923)
 
TO Thomas Hood, more truly than to any other English poet, belongs the epithet that the Germans love to bestow on Richter, “the only one.” As a humorist, as a master of grimace and extravagance, as a thinker, and as a poet, he was no man’s imitator; and the title which he gave his comic miscellany, “Hood’s Own,” might have stood as a sort of trade-mark for the unforced production of his fine genius. Far too little of this astonishing production was unforced, however; for Hood, in wretched health, had wife and weans to feed and clothe. All his life he drove the pen as his immortal seamstress her needle. Yet even his perfunctory jests found prosperity in the ear of the public, while his least spontaneous poems showed care and conscience.  1
  This patient, hopeful, undiscouraged poet of democracy was born in London in the last year of the eighteenth century. His father was an engraver, who, determined that the boy should have a stable and reputable lot, apprenticed him to a mercantile house. What sort of contented, inconspicuous citizen a thrifty, shopkeeping Hood might have turned out, was not to be known; for he broke down in health, was sent off to Scotland for a couple of years, and when he came back to London at the age of eighteen, tried his hand first at engraving, to which his strength was unequal, and then, almost accidentally, at writing. He soon became sub-editor of the London Magazine; a position poor in pay, but rich in experience and friendships. Charles Lamb, among other men, took a strong liking to him; discovering a mental kinship, perhaps, in the delicate, fun-loving, melancholy humor of this whimsical new-comer into journalistic literature.  2
  From the London Magazine Hood went to the New Monthly; and one after another he edited the Comic Annual, Hood’s Own, and lastly Hood’s Magazine, established not many months before his early death in 1845. Thus, for twenty-four years he was never out of harness; the four years that he spent on the Continent, to economize, being crowded with work for various periodicals. He had begun to write in the vein of the Elizabethans, with his ‘Hero and Leander’ after the manner of ‘Venus and Adonis,’ and his ‘Plea of the Midsummer Fairies’ after the ‘Fairy Queen.’ Before 1830 he had written also what Dobson calls “the galloping anapæsts” of ‘Lycus the Centaur,’ the perfect ballad of ‘Fair Ines,’ the ‘Dream of Eugene Aram’ with its ghastly fascination, many fine sonnets, and not a few of the most beloved of his lyrics, as ‘I remember, I remember,’ ‘Farewell, Life,’ ‘Ruth,’ and ‘The Death-Bed.’  3
  These poems, therefore, and others like them, may be taken as the expression of his true genius. But in the very beginning he had lavished his extraordinary and original comicalities on the London public, and these things that public would have, and no other,—or at least it would pay for no other. The fountain of his fun was really inexhaustible, since he drew from it without ceasing for a quarter of a century. But at intervals in later years the waters ran thin and flat, without sparkle or effervescence. Yet no humorist ever wrote so much with so large a remainder of excellence. His puns are not mere verbal sleight of hand, but brilliant verbal wit. Not even Charles Lamb has so mastered the subtlety and the imagery of the pun. Hood goes beyond the analogy of sound and catches the analogy of meaning. But leaving out of the question this inimitable control of words, his drollery is still unrivaled, because it is the whimsical expression, not of the trifler but of the thinker, even of the moralist, and always of the imaginative poet. In the whirl of his absurdities suddenly appears a glimpse of everlasting truth. The merry-andrew rattles his hoop and grins, but in his jests there is a hint of wholesome tears. Our most authoritative critic speaks of the “imaginative mirth” with which, for example, the poem of ‘Miss Kilmansegg’ is charged from beginning to end, making it, as a sustained piece of metrical humor, absolutely unique. The Moral, like the whole history indeed, is not more an example of the “curious felicity” which Horace himself might have found in Hood’s workmanship, than of the moralist’s turn for preaching:—
    “Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!
  Bright and yellow, hard and cold,
  Molten, graven, hammered, and rolled;
  Heavy to get, and light to hold;
  Hoarded, bartered, bought, and sold,
  Stolen, borrowed, squandered, doled:
  Spurned by the young, but hugged by the old
  To the very verge of the church-yard mold;
      Price of many a crime untold:
      Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!
      Good or bad a thousandfold!
      How widely its agencies vary:
To save—to ruin—to curse—to bless—
      As even its minted coins express,
Now stamped with the image of Good Queen Bess
        And now of a Bloody Mary.”
  4
  ‘The Tale of the Trumpet,’ also, another marvel of verbal wit, is filled with a solemn moral power; while even a poem like the ‘Address to Mrs. Fry,’ which is pure fun, has an admirable ethical conclusion.  5
  So much was it a matter of course, however, to consider Hood a comic writer, that Thackeray, when he deplored the waste of that rare genius on joke-cracking, and declared his passion to be a quality much higher than his humor, found nobody to agree with him. But the world is gradually conceding that pathos is the crowning gift of the author of the ‘Lay of the Laborer,’ the ‘Song of the Shirt,’ and above all, of the ‘Bridge of Sighs.’ That achievement, said Thackeray, “was his Corunna, his Heights of Abraham: sickly, weak, wounded, he fell in the full blaze and fame of that great victory.” The ‘Song of the Shirt’ appeared anonymously in Punch for Christmas 1843. No poem ever written was so instantly “learned by heart” by a whole people. In palaces, princesses dropped over it ineffectual tears, and street singers chanted the bitter chorus in the darkest slums of East London. It has the dignity of tragedy, and it makes a single, commonplace, unheroic figure stand for the universal. The ‘Bridge of Sighs’ was written for Hood’s Magazine but a little while before the poet’s death. It is because to the tragedy of this is added an element of the sublime that it becomes the greater work.  6
  Always ill, suffering, poor, in debt, anxious for those dependent on him, Hood was always cheerful, courageous, and manfully independent. In his family life he was happy, in friendships he was rich, and he treated sickness and poverty as mere accidents of time. There never lived a sweeter nature. Over his grave in Kensal Green Cemetery stands a monument raised by the eager contributions of his countrymen,—princes, gentlemen, scholars, statesmen, millionaires, artisans, laborers, seamstresses, dressmakers, shop-girls; and on it is inscribed the epitaph he himself chose—“He sang the Song of the Shirt.”  7
 
 
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