Last Update: April 24, 2000         Navigation:   Main Menu     Poe's Criticisms
[Text: Edgar Allan Poe, review of Hood's Prose and Verse, from Broadway Journal, August 9, 1845.]

Wiley and Putnam's Library of Choice Reading. No. XVI. Prose and Verse. By Thomas Hood. Part I. New-York: Wiley and Putnam.

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 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 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 anything 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 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 half binding and began to run alone, I make bold to consider you as an old friend of the family, 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 infinite 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 me 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 look 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 hack," of galloping consumption, or indulge in the Meltonian belief that you are going the pace. Never fancy every time you cough, that you are going to coughypot. Hold up, as the shooter says, over the heaviest ground. Despondency in a nice case is the over-weight that may make you kick the beam and the bucket both at once. In short, as with other cases, never meet trouble half-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. Besides, the best fence against care is a ha! ha! -- where-fore take care to have one all around you wherever 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 grinnings 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, invita Minerva. But his true element was a 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 rushing - 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.

In the style of Mr. Willis we easily detect this idiosyncrasy. We have no trouble in tracing it home -- and when we reach it and look it fairly in the face, we recognize it on the instant. -- It is Fancy.

To be sure there is quite a tribe of Fancies -- although one half of them never suspected themselves to be such until so told by the metaphysicians -- but the one of which we speak has never yet been accredited among men, and we beg pardon of Mr. Willis for the liberty we take in employing the topic of his - style, as the best possible vehicle and opportunity for the introduction of this, our protege, to the consideration of the literary world.

"Fancy," says the author of "Aids to Reflection" (who aided Reflection to much better purpose in his "Genevieve") -- "Fancy combines -- Imagination creates." This was intended, and has been received, as a distinction; but it is a distinction without a difference -- without even a difference of degree. The Fancy as nearly creates as the imagination, and neither at all. Novel conceptions are merely unusual combinations. The mind of man can imagine nothing which does not exist: -- if it could, it would create not only ideally, but substantially -- as do the thoughts of God. It may be said -- "We imagine a griffin, yet a griffin does not exist." Not the griffin certainly, but its component parts. It is no more than a collation of known limbs -- features -- qualities. Thus with all which claims to be new -- which appears to be a - creation of the intellect: -- it is re-soluble into the old. The wild-est effort of the mind cannot stand the test of the analysis.

We might make a distinction of - degree between the fancy and the imagination, in calling the latter the former loftily employed. But experience would prove this distinction to be unsatisfactory. What we - feel to be fancy, will be found still fanciful, whatever be the theme which engages it. No - subject exalts it into imagination. When Moore is termed a fanciful poet, the epithet is precisely applied; he - is. He is fanciful in "Lalla Rookh," and had he written the "Inferno," there he would have been fanciful still: for not only is he essentially fanciful, but he has no ability to be any thing more, unless at rare intervals -- by snatches -- and with effort. What we say of him at this point, moreover, is equally true of all little frisky men, personally considered.

The fact seems to be that Imagination, Fancy, Fantasy, and Humor, have in common the elements, Combination, and Novelty. The Imagination is the artist of the four. From novel arrangements of old forms which present themselves to it, it selects only such as are harmonious: -- the result, of course, is - beauty itself -- using the term in its most extended sense, and as inclusive of the sublime. The pure imagination chooses, - from either beauty or deformity, only the most combinable things hitherto uncombined; -- the compound, as a general rule, partaking (in character) of sublimity or beauty, in the ratio of the respective sublimity or beauty of the things combined -- which are themselves still to be considered as atomic -- that is to say, as previous combinations. But, as often analogously happens in physical chemistry, so not unfrequently does it occur in this chemistry of the intellect, that the admixture of two elements will result in a something that shall have nothing of the quality of one of them -- or even nothing of the qualities of either. The range of Imagination is therefore, unlimited. Its materials extend throughout the Universe. Even out of deformities it fabricates that - beauty which is at once its sole object and its inevitable test. But, in general, the richness or force of the matters combined -- the facility of discovering combinable novelties worth combining -- and the absolute "chemical combination" and proportion of the completed mass -- are the particulars to be regarded in our estimate of Imagination. It is this thorough harmony of an imaginative work which so often causes it to be under-valued by the undiscriminating, through the character of - obviousness which is super-induced. We are apt to find ourselves asking "- why is it that these combinations have never been imagined before?"

Now, when this question - does not occur -- when the harmony of the combination is comparatively neglected, and when in addition to the element of novelty, there is introduced the sub-element of - unexpectedness -- when, for example, matters are brought into combination which not only have never been combined but whose combination strikes us as a difficulty happily overcome -- the result then appertains to the Fancy -- and is, to the majority of mankind more grate-ful than the purely harmonious one -- although, absolutely, it is less beautiful (or grand) for the reason that - it is less harmonious.

Carrying its errors into excess -- for, however enticing, they - are errors still, or Nature lies, -- Fancy is at length found impinging upon the province of - Fantasy. The votaries of this latter delight not only in novelty and unexpectedness of combination, but in the - avoidance of proportion. The result is therefore abnormal, and to a healthy mind affords less of pleasure through its novelty, than of pain through its incoherence. When, proceeding a step farther, however, Fantasy seeks not merely disproportionate but incongruous or antagonistical elements, the effect is rendered more pleasurable from its greater positiveness; -- there is a merry effort of Truth to shake from her that which is no property of hers; -- and we laugh outright in recognizing - Humor. The four faculties in question appear to me all of their class; -- but when either Fancy or Humor is expressed to gain an end -- is pointed at a purpose -- whenever either becomes objective in place of subjective -- then it becomes, also, pure Wit or Sarcasm, just as the purpose is well-intentioned or

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 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 awayA thought that shows so stern as this:Forgive, if somewhile I forget,In wo to come, the present bliss.As frighted Proserpine let fallHer 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 happinessThat makes the heart afraid!

All things are touched with Melancholy,Born of the secret soul's mistrust,To feel her fair ethereal wingsWeigh'd down with vile degraded dust;Even the bright extremes of joyBring 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 lifeThat 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 itself, 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 anything 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.

"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 boysCame bounding out of school;There were some 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 chamberlainThat 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 ofthe same title. The effect depends upon the principle to which we referred when speaking of "The Pugsley Papers." We laugh chiefly (although not 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 beThat walks beneath their light,And breathes the love against thy cheekI dare not even write!

III.

Would I had been, fair Ines,That gallant cavalier,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 winThe 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 Ines,She went away with song,With Music waiting on her steps,And shoutings of the throng;But some were sad and felt no mirth,But only Music's wrong,In sounds that sang Farewell, Farewell,To her you've loved so long.

VI.

Farewell, farewell, fair Ines,That vessel never boreSo 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 heartHas broken many more!

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 fac-ulties which we have been discussing -- but most especially rich in that which we have termed - Fantasy. We quote at ran-dom some brief passages, which will serve to exemplify our meaning:

A Lord of Land, on his own estate,He lived at a lively rate,But his income would bear carousing;Such acres he had of pasture and heath,With herbage so rich from the ore beneath, - The very ewe's and lambkin's teeth

He gave, without any extra thrift,A flock of sheep for a birthday giftTo each son of his loins, or daughter:And his debts -- if debts he had -- at will - He liquidated by giving each bill

'Twas said that even - his pigs of lead, - By crossing with some by Midas bred, - Made a perfect mine of his piggery.And as for cattle, one yearling bullWas worth all Smithfield-market full

The high-bred horses within his stud,Like human creatures of birth and blood,Had their Golden Cups and flagons:And as for the common husbandry nags, - Their noses were tied in money-bags,

Into this world we come like ships,Launched from the docks and stocks and slips,For fortune fair or fatal;And one little craft - is cast away - In its very first trip to Babbicome Bay,

Whilst Margaret, charm'd by the Bulbul rare,In a garden of Gul reposes -- Poor Peggy hawks nosegays from street to street,Till -- think of that, who find life so sweet! --

To paint the maternal KilmanseggThe pen of an Eastern Poet would beg,And need an elaborate sonnet;How she sparkled with gems whenever she stirred, - And her head niddle-nodded at every word, - And seem'd so happy, a Paradise bird

And Sir Jacob the Father strutted and bow'd,And smiled to himself, and laugh'd aloud,To think of his heiress and daughter -- And then in his pockets he made a grope,And then in the fulness of joy and hope, - Seem'd washing himself with invisible soap,

Gold! and gold! and besides the goldThe very robe of the infant toldA tale of wealth in every fold,It lapp'd her like a vapor!So fine! so thin! the mind at a lossCould compare it to nothing - except a cross

They praised -- how they praised -- her very small talk,As if it fell from a Solon; - Or the girl who at each pretty phrase let dropA ruby comma, or a pearl full stop,

Plays she perused -- but she liked the bestThese comedy gentlefolks always possess'dOf fortunes so truly romantic -- Of money so ready that right or wrongIt is always ready to go for a song,Throwing it, going it, pitching it strong -- They ought to have - purses as green and long

A load of treasure? -- alas! alas!Had her horse been fed upon English grass,And sheltered in Yorkshire Spinneys,Had he scour'd the sand with the Desert Ass,Or where the American whinnies -- But a hunter from Erin's Turf and gorse,A regular thorough bred - Irish horse, - Why, he ran away, as a matter of course,

"Batter her! shatter her!Throw her and scatter her!"Shouts each stony-hearted clatterer -- "Dash at the heavy Dover!Spill her! kill her! tear her and tatter her!"Kick her brains out! let her blood spatter her!Roll on her over and over!"For so she gather'd - the awful senseOf the street in its past unmacadamised tense,As the wild horse overran it, -- - His four heels making the clatter of six, - Like a Devil's tattoo, played with iron sticks

A Breakfast -- no unsubstantial mess,But one in the style of good Queen Bess,Who, -- - hearty as hippocampus, -- Broke her fast with ale and beef,Instead of toast and the Chinese leaf,

In they went, and hunted about,Open-mouth'd, like chub and trout,And some with the upper lip thrust out,Like that fish for routing, a barbel -- While Sir Jacob stood to welcome the crowd, - And rubb'd his hands, and smiled aloud,And bow'd, and bow'd, and bow'd, and bow'd,Like a man who is sawing marble.

But a child -- that bids the world good nightIn downright earnest and cuts it quite -- A Cherub no art can copy, -- ' - Tis a perfect picture to see him lieAs if he had supped on dormouse pie,(An ancient classical dish by the by)

So still without, -- so still within; -- It had been a sinTo drop a pin -- So intense is silence after a din,It seem'd like Death's rehearsal!To stir the air no eddy came; - And the taper burnt with as still a flame, - As to flicker had been a burning shame,

And oh! when the blessed diurnal lightIs quench'd by the providential night,To render our slumber more certain, - Pity, pity the wretches that weep, - For they must be wretched that cannot sleepWhen God himself draws the Curtain!

[Poe's comments on imagination and fancy are heavily quoted from his earlier notice of N. P. Willis, the Broadway Journal, January 18, 1845.]

~~~ End of Text ~~~

[S:0 - BGM, 1845]