Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Prose and Verse of Thomas Hood,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XII: Literary Criticism - part 04 (1902), pp. 213-222


∞∞∞∞∞∞∞


[page 213:]

WILEY AND PUTNAMS LIBRARY OF CHOICE READING. NO. XVI. PROSE AND VERSE. BY THOMAS HOOD. PART I. NEW YORK: WILEY AND PUTNAM.

[Broadway Journal, Aug. 9, 1845.]

OF this number of the Library we said a few words last week — but Hood was far too remarkable a man to be passed over in so cursory a manner.

“Frequently since his recent death,” says the American editor, “he has been called a great author, a phrase used not inconsiderately or in vain.” Yet, if we adopt file 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 the term. In fact, he was a literary merchant whose principal 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 such despicable platitude, that the man who is capable of habitually committing them, is very seldom capable of any thing else. In especial, whatever merit may accidentally be discovered in a pun, arises altogether from unexpectedness. This is its element, and is twofold. First, we demand that the combination of the pun be unexpected and secondly, we demand 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 habit of putting to paper, has no claim to [page 214:] be believed upon his oath. What, for example, is any rational being to make of such jargon as this, which we copy from the very first page of the volume before us?

COURTEOUS READER!

Presuming that you have known something of the Comic Annual from its Child-Hood, when it was first put into halt binding and began to run alone, I make bold to consider you as art old friend of the faintly, and shall accordingly treat you with all the freedom and confidence that pertain to such ripe connexions.

How many years is it, think you, “since we were first acquent?”

“By the deep nine!” sings out the old bald Count Fathom with the lead-line: no great lapse in the world’s chronology, but a space of in finite importance in individual history. For instance, it has wrought a serious change on the body, if not on the mind, of your very humble servant; — it is not, however, to bespeak your sympathy, or to indulge in what Lord Byron calls “the gloomy vanity of drawing from self,” that I allude to my personal experience. The Scot and lot character of the dispensation forbids trip. to think that the world in general can be particularly interested in the state of my Household Sufferage, or that the public ear will be as open to my Maladies as to my Melodies.

Here is something better from page five — but still we tool. upon the whole thing as a nuisance:

A rope is a bad Cordon Sanitaire. Let not anxiety have thee on the hyp. Consider your health as your best friend, and think as well of it, in spite of all its foibles as you can. For instance, never dream, though you may have a “clever back,” of galloping consumption, or indulge in the Meltonian belief that yon are going the pace. Never fancy every time you cough, [page 215:] that you are going to coughypot. Hold up, as the shooter says, over the heaviest ground. Despondency is a nice case is the over-weight that may make you kick the beam and the bucket bout at once. In short, as with other cases, never meet trouble hall-way, but let him have the whole walk for his pains; though it should be a Scotch mile and a bittock. I have even known him to give up his visit in sight of the house. Resides, the best fence against care is a ha! ha! — wherefore take care to have one all around you where-ever you can. Let your lungs crow like Chanticleer,” and as like a Game cock as possible. It expands the chest, enlarges the heart, quickens the circulation, and “like a trumpet makes the spirit dance.”

The continuous and premeditated puns of Hood, 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 — they are the grinning — of the death’s-head. No one can read his Literary Reminiscences without being convinced of his habitual despondency — and the species of pseudo 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. We allude, of course, to his mere puns for the pun’s sake — a class of letters by which he attained his most extensive renown. That he did more in this way than in any other, would follow as a corollary from what we have already said — for, generally, he was unhappy, and, almost continually, he was obliged to write, invitá Minervâ. But his true element was a [page 216:] very rare and ethereal class of humor, in which the mere pun was left altogether out of sight, or took the character of the richest grotesquerie, impressing the imaginative reader with very remarkable force, as if by a new phase of the ideal. It is in this species of brilliant grotesquerie, uttered with a rush in abandon which wonderfully aided its effect, that Hood’s marked originality of manner consisted; and it is this which fairly entitles him, at times, to the epithet “great;” — we say fairly so entitles him; for that undeniably may be considered great — (of whatever seeming littleness in itself) which has the capability of producing intense emotion in the minds of those who are themselves undeniably great.

When we said, however, that Hood wrought profound impressions upon imaginative men, we spoke only of what is imagination in the popular acceptance of the term. His true province — that is to say the field in which he is distinctive — is a kind of border land between the Fancy and the Fantasy — but in this region he reigns supreme. That we may be the more clearly understood on this head, we will venture to quote a few passages of definition which were used by ourselves on a former occasion — while commenting on the prose style of Mr. Willis: — it is indeed too much the custom to employ at absolute random such words as Wit, Humor, Fantasy, the Fancy, and the Imagination.(1)

  · · · · · · · ·  

[[quotation]]

These, we grant, are entirely new views, but we do not consider them as the less surely deduced. At all events their admission for the present will enable us to be lucid on the topic of Hood. When we speak [page 217:] of his province as a border ground between Fantasy and Fancy, of course we do not mean rigorously to confine him to this province. He has made very successful and frequent incursions into the dominions of Humor (in general he has been too benevolent to be witty), and there have been one or two occasions — (those, for instance, of his “Eugene Aram” and “Bridge of Sighs,”) in which he has stepped boldly, yet vacillatingly, into the realm of Imagination herself. We mean to say, however, that he is never truly imaginative for more than a paragraph at a time.

In a word, the genius of Hood is the result of vivid Fancy impelled, or controlled, — certainly tinctured, at all points, by hypochondriasis. In his wild “Ode to Melancholy,” which forms the closing poem of the volume now reviewed, we perceive this result in the very clearest of manifestations. Few things have ever more deeply affected us than the passages which follow:

“O clasp me, sweet, whilst thou art mine,

And do not take my tears amiss;

For tears must flow to wash away

A thought that shows so stern as this:

Forgive, if somewhile I forget,

In wo to come, the present bliss.

As frighted Proserpine let fall

Her flowers at the sight of Dis,

Ev‘n so the dark and bright will kiss.

The sunniest things throw sternest shade,

And there is ev‘n a happiness

That makes the heart afraid!

 

All things are touched with Melancholy,

Born of the secret soul’s mistrust,

To feel her fair ethereal wings

Weigh‘d down with vile degraded dust; [page 218:]

Even the bright extremes of joy

Bring on conclusions of disgust,

Like the sweet blossoms of the May,

Whose fragrance ends in must.

Oh give her, then, her tribute just,

Her sighs and tears, and musings holy!

There is no music in the life

That sounds with idiot laughter solely;

There’s not a string attuned to mirth,

But has its chords of Melancholy.

In “The Pugsley Papers,” with which the volume opens, we have the correspondence of a Cockney family of shoemakers, who, receiving a rich legacy, retire at once to the otium cum dignitate of a country mansion. The mishaps and mismanagements of the party are told in the broadest extravaganza admissible or conceivable — very much in the Ramsbottom way — although the tone of Hood’s jeu d’esprit is the better of the two. It is not so much humorous in it self, as productive of the usual humorous effect. We laugh not altogether at the incongruities of the narrative, but at the incongruity of Hood’s supposing that we will laugh at any thing so absurd; — and it must be confessed, that it all amounts to pretty much the same thing in the end.

“Black, White and Brown,” is an Abolition tale — or rather a squib against Abolition. Its finale has some point — but, on the whole, the story has the air of an effort, and is quite unworthy of Hood.

“The Portrait,” “The Apology,” and “The Literary Reminiscences” (which form one subject,) have, we think, exceedingly little interest. The author himself acknowledges that he has no capacity for Boswellism — and we agree with him altogether. [page 219:]

“An Undertaker” is a mere string of puns — giving no idea of the true spirit of the author.

The rest of the book is verse — and much of it very remarkable verse indeed.

“The Dream of Eugene Aram,” is too well known in America to need comment from us. It has (as we observed just now,) more of true imagination than any composition of its author; — but even when engaged on so serious a subject, he found great difficulty in keeping aloof from the grotesque — the result (we say) of warm Fancy impelled by Hypochondriasis. The opening stanza affords an example:

“ ’Twas in the prime of summer time,

An evening calm and cool,

When four-and-twenty happy boys

Came bounding out of school;

There were sonic that ran, and some that leapt,

Like troutlets in a pool.

Stanza the twenty-fourth approaches more nearly the imaginative spirit than any passage in the poem — but the taint of the fantastical is over it still:

And peace went with them one and all,

And each calm pillow spread;

But Guilt was my grim chamberlain

That lighted me to bed.

And drew my midnight curtains round,

With fingers bloody red!”

“The Lost Heir” is possibly aimed at a well-known novel of the same title. The effect depends upon the principle to which we referred when speaking of “The Pusley Papers.” We laugh chiefly (although not [page 220:] altogether) at the author’s absurdity. The lines belong to the class helter-skelter — that is to say, they are the flattest of all possible prose — intentionally so, of course. The story (if story it can be called) embodies the lamentations of a poor Irish woman who has lost her son.

“Autumn” and “A Song,” (occupying each one page) have nothing about them especially remarkable. “Fair Ines” is so beautiful’ that we shall purloin it in full — although we have no doubt that it is familiar to our readers:

I.

O saw ye not fair Ines?

She’s gone into the West,

To dazzle when the sun is down,

And rob the world of rest;

She took our daylight with her,

The smiles that we love best,

With morning blushes on her cheek,

And pearls upon her breast.

II.

O turn again, fair Ines,

Before the fall of night,

For fear the moon should shine alone,

And stars unrivalled bright;

And blessed will the lover be

That walks beneath their light,

And breathes the love against thy cheek

I dare not even write!

III.

Would I had been, fair Ines,

That gallant cavalier, [page 221:]

Who rode so gaily by thy side,

And whispered thee so near!

Were there no bonny dames at home,

Or no true lovers here,

That he should cross the seas to win

The dearest of the dear?

IV.

I saw thee, lovely Ines,

Descend along the shore,

With bands of noble gentlemen,

And banners waved before;

And gentle youth and maidens gay,

And snowy plumes they wore;

It would have been a beauteous dream,

— If it had been no more!

V.

Alas, alas, fair fines,

She went away with song,

With Music waiting on her steps,

And shootings of the throng;

But some were sad and fell no mirth,

But Only Music’s wrong,

In sounds that sans; Farewell, Farewell,

To her you‘ve loved so long.

VI.

Farewell, farewell, fair Ines,

That vessel never bore

So fair a lady on its deck,

Nor danced so light before,

Alas, for pleasure on the sea,

And sorrow on the shore!

The smile that blest one lover’s heart

Has broken many more! [page 222:]

The only article which remains to be noticed, is “Miss Killmansegg and Her Precious Leg” — and it is, perhaps, more thoroughly characteristic of Hood’s genius than any single thing which he has written. It is quite a long poem — comprising nearly 3000 lines — and its author has evidently laboured it much. Its chief defect is in its versification; and for this Hood had no ear — of its principles he knew nothing at all. Not that his verses, individually, are very lame, but they have no capacity for running together. The reader is continually — getting baulked — not because the lines are unreadable, but because the lapse from one rhythm to another is so inartistically managed.

The story concerns a very rich heiress who is excessively pampered by her parents, and who at length gets thrown from a horse and so injures a leg as to render amputation inevitable. To supply the place of the true limb, she insists upon a leg of solid gold — a leg of the exact proportions of the original. She puts up with its inconvenience for the sake of the admiration it excites. Its attractions, however, excite the cupidity of a chevalier d‘industrie, who cajoles her into wedlock, dissipates her fortune, and, finally, purloining her golden leg, dashes out her brains with it, elopes, and puts an end to the story.

It is wonderfully well told, and abounds in the most brilliant points — embracing something of each of the elementary faculties which we have been discussing — but most especially rich in that which we have termed Fantasy. We quote at random some brief passages, which will serve to exemplify our meaning:

  · · · · · · · ·  

[[quotation]]

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 216:]

1.  Here Poe quotes his former article on N. P. Willis, which may be found in full on page 36. — ED.


∞∞∞∞∞∞∞


Notes:

None.


∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

[S:0 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of Prose and Verse of Thomas Hood)