Thomas Hood 1798-1845

“It is not with a hope my feeble praise
Can add one moment’s honor to thy own,
That with thy mighty name I grace these lays;
I seek to glorify myself alone:
For that some pre4cious favor thou hast shown
To my endeavor in a bygone time,
And by this token I would have it known
Thou art my friend, and friendly to my rhyme!
It is my dear ambition now to climb
Still higher in thy thought, if my bold pen
May thrust on contemplations more sublime.
But I am thirsty for thy praise, for when
We gain applauses from the great in name,
We seem to be partakers of their fame.” To Samuel Coleridge

Thomas Hood, a minor romantic poet, was the son of a London book publisher. Hood was twelve when his father and only older brother died. Not really attune to scholarship a family friend found him employment in the field of commerce which today might be referred to as a “bean-counter.” But in his words: “There is nothing like early sickness and sorrow for taking the conceit out of one.” Thus Hood earned his first pay “planted on a counting-house stool”. He memorialized the experience with this sonnet:

“Time was, I sat upon a lofty stool,
At lofty desk, and with a clerkly pen
Began each morning, at the stroke of ten,
To write in Bell and Co’s commercial school;
In Warnford Court, a shady nook and cool.
The favorite retreat of merchant men;
Yet would my pen turn vagrant even then,
And take stray dips in the Castalian pool.
Now double–entry now a flowery trope
Mingling poetic honey with trade Wax
Blogg, Brothers – Milton – Grote and Prescott – Pope
Bristles and Hogg – Glyn Mills and Halifzs
Rogers – and Towgood – Hemp – the Bard of Hope
Barilla – Byron – Tallow - Burns and Flax.”

Weak in health, he was sent to relatives in Dundee for improvement. While there he made friends with a legal antiquarian from London Magazine who was searching to authenticate old record claims for publication. The field of print piqued his interest and he submitted an article to the Dundee Magazine. To his surprise it was published, thus he felt personally the words of Lord Byron: “’Tis pleasant sure to see oneself in print” and began to offer articles regularly. Hood, like William Blake, was also gifted drawer so when his uncle, Robert Sands, offered him an opportunity to learn the art of engraving he accepted the apprenticeship and was off to London. Once again Hood takes a position by default for in reality he spoke of engraving as “unwholesome as wearisome to sit copper-fastened to a board, with a cantle scooped out to accommodate your stomach, if you have one, painfully ruling, ruling, and still ruling lines straight or crooked…”
While in London, a sudden turn of events, a duel over some written words and the death of the then editor, John Scott, Hood found himself as “a sort of sub-editor” and verse contributor of the London Magazine (1821). This was an opportunity to meet and develop friendships with an elite group of young writers, notably William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, and Tennyson . Hood used this opportunity to produce a collection of selections under Whims and Oddities with forty original designs. Hood wrote: “I have said my vanity did not rashly plunge me into authorship; but no sooner was there a legitimate opening than I jumped at it” This opportunity work had both positive and negative consequences for Hood and laid the foundation for the dualistic nature of his life. For the next few years he became editor of another magazine, Gem. However, after numerous misjudgments he declared insolvency, paid off his numerous creditors and left for Germany, where living was cheaper. For the next five years he continued to contribute articles to the magazine and as a result of this frugal life coupled by severe weather he was stricken with tuberculosis. He returned to London in 1840 to become editor of New Monthly Magazine. He resigned in 1844 to begin his own Hood’s Magazine. This publication proved a success: it drew such popular writers as the English lyricist Barry Cornwall:

The sea! The sea! The open sea!
The blue, the fresh, the ever free!”

Charles Dickens:

“Though a pledge I had to shiver,
And the longest ever was!
Ere his vessel leaves our river,
I would drink a health to Boz!

and Robert Browning. He fell ill with consumption and for the next four years he was unable to leave his bed. When in Christmas of 1843 a new weekly, Punch, published Hood’s Song of the Shirt, he was famous once again . Unfortunately he lived only year after that. Fame eluded him most of his life but we recall the words of Pope from Essay on Man:

”What’s fame? The Meanest have their Day
The Greatest can but blaze, and pass away.”

To the public he was the English humorist: humor became the general note of his literary work which he describes as “jesting for livelihood,” eclipsing the true pathos and melancholy of his heart. His best puns came when the humor and pathos were blended together as in this written while close to death:

“I am dying to please the undertaker, who wishes to earn (urn) a lively Hood (livelihood).”

Even the epitaph “Here lies one who spat more blood; and made more puns than any man living” which is in contrast to the actual one which read simply “He sang the Song of the Shirt.”

In literary encyclopedias Hood is given a few lines describing him as a poet- humorist. Professor Clark gave Hood as an assignment after his own analysis. To me Hood’s work suggests a more to his character than mere wit. The purpose of poetry is to present “by means of the imagination noble grounds for noble emotions.” The allegory The Workhouse Clock is such an example:

“There’s a murmer in the air,
A noise in every street’
The noise of numerous feet
While round the workhouse door
The laboring classes flock.,
For why? The overseer of the poor
Is setting the workhouse clock…

Some of hardly human form,
Stunted, crooked, and crippled by toil;
Dingy with smoke and dust and oil,
And smirched besides with visious soil,
Clustering, mustering all in a swarm.

Every soul child, woman, or man,
Who lives or dies by labor….

At last, before that door
That bears so many a knock
Ere ever it opens to sick or poor,
Like sheep they huddle and flock
And would that all the good and wise
Could see the million of hollow eyes,
With a gleam derived from hope and the skies,
Upturned to the workhouse clock.”

Five volumes of poetry dominate the world of Thomas Hood. Serious poems, odes, sonnets, addresses, and humor. Most were written to provide an income, meager as it was, to sustain the needs of wife and children. There is little other recourse for writers who have no endowment, no title, no inheritance, and no land as in his famous pun “be a lively Hood in order to gain a livelihood.”

But there are serious extraordinary works such as his ode Autumn which can stand next to with those of Keats:

“I saw old Autumn in the misty morn
Stand shadowless like silence, listening
To silence, for no lonely bird would sing
Into his hollow ear from woods forlorn,
No lowly hedge nor solitary thorn;
Shaking his languid locks all dewy bright
With tangled gossamer that fell by night,
Pearling his coronet of golden corn.

But here the Autumn melancholy dwells
And sighs her tearful spells
Amongst the sunless shadows of the plain.
Alone, alone,
Upon a mossy stone.

Enough of bitter fruits the earth doth bear,
Enough of chilly droppings for her bowl;
Enough of fear and shadowy despair,
To frame her cloudy prison for the soul!”

Another tragic poem was The Last Man, filled with such grim reality that makes it is almost too morose, too hideous to finish:

“So there he hung, and there I stood,
The LAST MAN left alive,
To have my own will of all the earth
Quoth I, now I shall thrive!
But when was ever honey made
With one bee in a hive?

My conscience began to gnaw my heart,
Before the day was done,
For other men’s lives had all gone out,
Like candles in the sun!
But it seem’d as if I had broke, at last,
A thousand necks in one!

And the beggar man’s ghost besets my dream
At night to make me madder,
And my wretched conscience within my breast,
Is like a stinging adder;
I sigh when I pass the gallows’ foot,
And look at the rope and ladder!”

Another remarkable example of extreme pathos would be The Bridge of Sighs . There is such a bridge located in Venice. However, Hood’s site was the Waterloo Bridge over the river Thames, often used for suicide by the depressed, desperate, and homeless.

“One more Unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!

Ere her limbs frigidly
Stiffen too rigidly,
Decently, kindly,
Smoothe and compose them:
And her eyes, close them,
Staring so blindly!”

Edgar Allan Poe wrote “…remarkable for its pathos. The versification, although carrying the fanciful to the very verge of the fantastic, is nevertheless admirably adapted to the wild insanity which is the thesis of the poem.”

In 1827 Hood published his narrative poem The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies with a dedicatory letter to Charles Lamb which read “to celebrate, by an allegory, that immortality which Shakespeare has conferred on the Fairy mythology by his ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ But for him, those pretty children of our childhood would leave barely their names to our mature years; they belong, as the mites upon the plum, to the bloom of fancy…It would have been a pity for such a race to go extinct, even though they were but as the butterflies that hover about the leaves and blossoms of the visible world.” Then came Fair Ines where Hood took a stab at reviving medieval pageantry with lines like:

“I saw thee, lovely Ines,
Descend along the shore,
With bands of noble gentlemen,
And banners waved before”

Hood died in May, 1845 leaving his family poor and destitute. For all his talent and fame he never understood how to generate that talent and fame into gold. We close with these words of Thomas Hood:

“Farewell we did not know thy worth;
But thou art gone , and now ’t is prized.
So angels walked unknown on earth,
But when they flew were recognized.”

Our first characteristic: arch punster.

“Ben Battle was a soldier bold,
And used to war’s alarms;
But a cannon-ball took off his legs,
So he laid down his arms!” Faithless Nelly Gray

“Amongst professors of astronomy,
Adepts in the celestial economy,
The name of Herschel’s very often cited:
And justly so, for he is hand and glove
With ev’ry bright intelligence above;
Indeed, it as his custom to stop,
Watching the stars upon the house’s top,
That once upon a time he go be-knighted.” The Comet

“Never go to France,
Unless you know the lingo;
If you do, like me,
You will repent, by jingo;
Staring like a fool,
And silent as a mummy,
There I stood alone,
A nation with a dummy!” French and English

“Of wedded bliss
Bards sing amiss,
I cannot make a song of it;
For I am small,
My wife is tall,
And that’s the short and long of it!” Paired not Matched

“Mr. Malthus, I agree
In everything I read with thee!
The world’s too full, there is no doubt,
And wants a deal of thinning out…
There are too many of all trades,
Too many bakers,
Too many everything makers,
But not too many undertakers…
Capital punishment to abolish;…
New hospitals contrive,
For keeping life alive…” Ode to Mr. Malthus

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself:

“for upwards of twenty years, (he) entertained the public with a constant succession of comic and humoristic works.” Punch

“The gift of humor is, as it were, the balance of all the faculties. It enables a man to see the strong contrasts of life around him; it prevents him being too much devoted to his own knowledge and too proud of his own imagination…it disposes him to submit, with wise and pious patience to the vicissitudes of his daily existence…It is thus that humorists, such as Hood, are great benefactors of our species, not only on account of the amusement which they give us, but because they are great moral teachers.” Epes Sargent

Hood was “better known to the world as a dexterous punster than as a true poet.” Allan Cunningham

“Hood’s jokes have proved to be younger with each generation…Faithless Sally Brown and Faithless Nelly Gray are the perfection of a kind that Hood invented; they are survivors of a hundred…No one else could do the thing well at all. The infallibly recurring pun…rank them high.” Oliver Elton

“…the poem bristles with puns that are “absolute models in their kind…Punning is out of date now, Hudson admits, but he believes that the reader of understanding and feeling must respond to the cleverness of Hood’s puns even if he no longer believes in the fashion.” Alan Cunningham on Faithless Sally Brown:

“It is in feats…characterized by an almost boundless prodigality in quibble and equivocation and at best, as in the marvelous last stanza”

And then he tried to sing “All’s Well,”
But could not, though he tried;
His head was turn’d and so he chew’d
His pigtail till he died.

His death, which happen’d in his berth,
At forty-odd befell:
They went and told the sexton, and
The sexton toll’d the bell.” W. H. Hudson

“Hood was famous for his punning, which appears at times to be almost a reflex action, serving as a defense against painful emotion.” Encyclopedia of Literature

Our second characteristic is humanitarian, social reformer.

“Evil is wrought by want of thought
As well as want of heart” Hood

“At last, before the door
That bears so many a knock
Ere ever it opens to sick or poor,
Like sheep they huddle and flock
And would that all the good and wise
Could see the million of hollow eyes,
With a gleam derived from hope and the skies,
Upturned to the workhouse clock!” The Workhouse Clock

“Ay, only give me work,
And then you need not fear
That I shall snare his worship’s hare,
Or kill his grace’s deer;
Break into his lordship’s house,
To steal the plate so rich;
Or leave the yeoman that had a purse
To welter in the ditch.

Wherever Nature needs
Wherever labor calls,
No job I’ll shirk of the hardest work,
To shun the workhouse walls;
Where savage laws begrudge
The pauper babe its breath,
And doom a wife to a widow’s life,
Before her partner’s death.” The Lay of the Laborer

“O, men, with sisters dear!
O, men with mothers and wives!
It is not linen you’re weating out,
But human creatures’ lives!
Stich- stitch- stich
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a douyble thred,
A shroud as well as a shirt

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rages,
Plying her needle and thread
dIn poverty, hunber, and dirt,
Anfd still with a voice of dolorous pith,
Would that its tone could reach the rich!
She sang this “song of the shirt!” The Song of the Shirt

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“alluded to the tendency of tendency of his writings ever being on the side of humanity and order, and not of the modern school, to separate society into two classes, the rich and poor, and to inflame hatred on the one side, and fear on the other.” Letter to Sir Robert Peel

“These beautiful poems (Song of the Shirt, Bridge of Sighs) have had a deep moral effect on different classes of society. Epes Sargent

“Hood’s quick, deep, and vehement humanity…” Elton

“The poet of the heart…earth’s common children…the sweep, the laborer, the sailor, the tradesman” Stedman

To heed “the sharp and exceeding bitter cry of the inarticulate, the sudden wail…of the whole body of underpaid and overworked, fighting out their grim duel with hunger.” Austin Dobson

“English poet whose humanitarian verses served as models for a whole school of social-protest poets.” Encyclopedia of Literature

Our third characteristic is humor, wit and good-natured ridicule.

“Now, Ben he loved a pretty aid,
Her name was Nelly Gray;
So he went to pay her his devours,
When he devoured his pay.

But when he called on Nelly Gary,
She made him quite a scoff;
And when she saw his wooden legs,
Began to take them off!

Said she, I loved a soldier once
For he was blithe and brave;
But I will never have a man
With both legs in the grave!” Faithless Nelly Gray

“Never, from folly or urbanity,
Praise people thus profusely to their faces,
Till, quite in love with their own graces,
They’re eaten up by vanity.” Moral

“Why leave a serious, moral pious home,
Scotland, renowned for sanctity of old,
Far distant Catholics to rate and scold
For doing as the Romans do at Rome?
With such a bristling spirit wherefore quit
The Land of Cakes for any land of wafers,
About the graceless images to flit,
And buzz and chafe importunate as chafer…
People who hold such absolute opinions
Should stay at home in Protestant dominions.” Ode to Rae Wilson, Esq.

“Your daughters, too, what loves of girls
What heads for painters’ easels!
Come here and kiss the infant, dears,
(And give it p’rhaps the measles!)” Domestic Asides

Comments from critics, colleagues , and himself.

“…a certain kind of humorous poetry ranging from the terrific grotesque to the simple, humorously tender study of characters.” Saintsbury
“As a humorist he was exuberant and endowed with a perfectly exceptional faculty of playing upon words…the tragic necessity laid upon him of jesting for a livelihood…” Stephens

“Little of this humorous verse, readable as it is, has much enduring value; but it sold well, which explains why it was written.” Frederick Pierce

“Hood, partly influenced by the need of caring for the public, partly by his pupilship to Lamb, perhaps went to further extremes both in mere fun and in mere sentiment.” Saintsbury
“His education as an engraver has given him an eye of singular keenness, his genius a fancy ever ready, and a wit rarely blunt, rarely indebted to others for its weapon.” Epes Sargent
“My mental constitution however weak , was proof against that type-us fever which parches most scribblers till they are set up, done up, and maybe cut up, in print and boards.” Hood
Our fourth characteristic is lyrical pathos.

“I remember, I remember
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon,
Nor brought too long a day,
But now I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away.” I Remember, I Remember

“The swallow with summer
Will wing o’er the seas,
The wind that I sigh to
Will visit thy trees,
The ship that it hastens
Thy ports will contain,
But me – I must never
See England again! The Exile

“The autumn is old,
The sere leaves are flying;
He that gathered up gold,
And now he is dying;
Old age, begin sighing!

The rivers run chill,
The red sun is sinking,
And I am grown old,
And life is fast shrinking;
Here’s enow for sad thinking!” Autumn

“There is silence where hath been no sound
There is a silence where no sound may be,
In the cold grave under the deep, deep sea
Or in wide desert where no life is found,
Which hath been mute, and stilil must sleep profound,
No voice is hushed no life treads silently,
But blouds and bludy shadows wander free,
That never spoke, over the idle groan:…”
Shriek to the echo, and the low winds moan,
There the true Silence is, self-conscious and alone.” Silence

“As silent as its fellows be,
For all is mute with them
The branch that climgs the leafy roof
The rough and mossy stem
The crooked root,
And tender shoot,
Where hangs the dewy gum

One mystic tree alone there is,
Of sad and solemn sound
That sometimes murmurs overhead,
And sometimes underground
In all that shady avenue,
Where lofty elms abound. The Elm Tree

Comments from critics, colleagues and himself.

The iteration, clanging, double rhyme “not to diminish the pathos in the lyric.”
“In all these works we recognize not only the lyrical facilities which enable many a youth to throw out good poetry, but the refined taste and cultivated mind of mature years.” Epes Sargent

“For he was a man who ever retire from the crowd, and who loved, as he has said in his own classical and beautiful language:

‘to kneel remote upon the simple sod,
And sue, in forma pauperis, to God.’

“In his serious work …there is observable to a degree never surpassed by any of the minor poets, and more sustained and human…a strain of the true, the real, the ineffable tone of poetry proper.” Saintsbury
“In Hood’s art lyrics, his pathos is still evident.”

We close with these words:

“Farewell! We did not know thy worth;
But thou art gone, and now ‘tis prized.
So angels walked unknown on earth,
But when they flew were recognized.”