Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. John H. Ingram), “Thomas Hood,” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, vol. IV, 1875, pp. 147-152


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[page 147, continued:]

THOMAS HOOD.

“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 be believed upon his oath.

The continuous and premeditated puns of Hood, however, are to be regarded as the weak points of the man. Independently [page 148:] 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 Minerva. But his true element was a very- rare and ethereal class of humour, 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. But 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 [page 149:] humour (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;

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.”

“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 [page 150:] 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.”

The twenty-fourth stanza 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!”

“Fair Ines” is so beautiful’ that we shall purloin it in full — although we have no doubt that it is familiar to our readers.* “Miss Killmansegg and Her Precious Leg,” 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 [page 151:] 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.

Of these the most remarkable are those which we have italicized. They convey, too, most distinctly the genius of the author — nor can any one thoughtfully read them without a conviction that hitherto that genius has been greatly misconceived — without perceiving that even the wit of Hood had its birth in a taint of melancholy — perhaps hereditary — and nearly amounting to monomania.

“The Song of the Shirt” is such a composition as only Hood could have conceived, or written. Its popularity has been unbounded. Its effect arises from that grotesquerie which, in our previous article, we referred to the vivid Fancy of the author, impelled by hypochondriasis: — but “The Song of the Shirt” has scarcely a claim to the title of poem. This, however, is a mere question of words, and can by no means affect the high merit of the composition — to whatever appellation it may be considered entitled.

“The Bridge of Sighs,” on the contrary, is a poem of the loftiest order, and in our opinion the finest written by Hood — being very far superior to “The Dream of Eugene Aram.” Not its least merit is the effective rush and whirl of its singular versification — so thoroughly in accordance with the wild insanity which is the thesis of the whole.

“The Haunted House” we prefer to any composition of its author. It is a masterpiece of its kind — and that kind belongs to a very lofty — if not to the very loftiest order of poetical literature. Had we seen this piece before penning our first notice of Hood* we should have had [page 152:] much hesitation in speaking of Fancy and Fantasy as his predominant features. At all events we should have given him credit for much more of true Imagination than we did.

Not the least merit of the work is its rigorous simplicity. There is no narrative, and no doggrel philosophy. The whole subject is the description of a deserted house, which the popular superstition considers haunted. The thesis is one of the truest in all poetry. As a mere thesis it is really difficult to conceive anything better. The strength of the poet is put forth in the invention of traits in keeping with the ideas of crime, abandonment, and ghostly visitation. Every legitimate art is brought in to aid in conveying the intended effects; and (what is quite remarkable in the case of Hood) nothing discordant is at any point introduced. He has here very little of what we have designated as the phantastic — little which is not strictly harmonious. The metre and rhythm are not only, in themselves, admirably adapted to the whole design, but, with a true artistic feeling, the poet has preserved a thorough monotone throughout, and renders its effect more impressive by the repetition (gradually increasing in frequency towards the finale) of one of the most pregnant and effective of the stanzas:

“O’er all there hung a shadow and a fear;

A sense of mystery the spirit daunted,

And said, as plain as whisper in the ear,

The place is haunted!”

Had Hood only written “The Haunted House” it would have sufficed to render him immortal.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 150:]

*And for this reason it is now omitted. — Ed.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 151:]

*This Review of Hodd’s Poems appeared in two parts. [[— Ed.]]


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Notes:

Ingram created this review by cobbling together parts of three reviews of Hood’s Prose and Verse, all printed in issues of the Broadway Journal, August 9, 23 and 30, 1845. In doing so, he omitted a good deal, primarily in terms of quotations.

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[S:0 - JHI, 1875] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Thomas Hood (J. H. Ingram, 1875)