Now almost the last light has gone out of the galaxy that made the first thirty years of this age so bright. Wordsworth and Moore alone remain. And the dynasty that now reigns over the world of wit and poetry is poor and pale, indeed, in comparison. We are anxious to pour due libations to the departed; we need not economize our wine; it will not be so often needed now.
Hood has closed the most fatiguing career in the world, that of a professed wit; and we may say with deeper feeling than of others who shuffle off the load of care, may he rest in peace! The fatigues of a conqueror, a missionary preacher, even of an active philanthropist, like Howard, are nothing to those of a professed wit. Bad enough when he is only a man of society, by whom everyone expects to be enlivened and relieved, who can never talk gravely in a corner without those around observing that he must have heard some bad news to be so out of spirits—who can never make a simple remark while eating a peaceful dinner without the table being set in a roar of laughter, as when Sheridan, on such an occasion, opened his lips for the first time to say that “he liked currant jelly.” For these unhappy men there are no intervals of social repose, no long silences fed by the mere feeling of sympathy or gently entertained by observation, no warm quietude in the mild liveries of green or brown, for the world has made up its mind that motley is their only wear and teases them to jingle their bells forever.
But far worse is it when the professed wit is also by profession a writer, and finds himself obliged to coin for bread those jokes, which in the frolic exuberance of youth, he so easily coined for fun. We can conceive of no existence more cruel, so tormenting, and, at the same time, so dull. We hear that Hood was forever behind hand with his promises to publishers; no wonder! But when we hear that he, in consequence, lost great part of the gains of his hard life; and was, in consequence, harassed by other cares, we cannot mourn to lose him if
or if, as our deeper knowledge leads us to hope, he is now engaged in a better life, where his fancies shall take their natural place and flicker like light on the surface of a profound and full stream flowing betwixt rich and peaceful shores, such as, no less than the drawbacks upon his earthly existence, are indicated in the following
The curse of Adam, the old curse of all
Though I inherit in this feverish life
Of worldly toil, vain wishes, and hard strife,
And fruitless thought in care’s eternal thrall,
Yet more sweet honey than of bitter gall
I taste through thee, my Eva, my sweet wife.
Then what was Man’s lost Paradise? how rife
Of bliss, since love is with him in his fall?
Such as our own pure passion still might frame
Of this fair earth and its delightful bowers,
If no fell sorrow, like the serpent, came
To trail its venom o’er the sweetest flowers;
But oh! as many and such tears are ours
As only should be shed for guilt and shame!
In Hood, as in all true wits, the smile lightens on the verge of a tear. True wit and humor show that exquisite sensibility to the relations of life, that fine perception as to slight tokens of its fearful, hopeful mysteries, which imply pathos to a still higher degree than mirth. Hood knew and welcomed the dower which nature gave him at his birth when he wrote thus:
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.
O 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 chord in melancholy.”
Hood was true to this vow of acceptance. He vowed to accept willingly the pains as well as joys of life for what they could teach. Therefore years expanded and enlarged his sympathies, and gave to his lightest jokes an obvious harmony with a great moral design. Not obtrusively obvious, but enough so to give a sweetness and permanent complacency to our laughter. Indeed, what is written in his gayer mood has affected us more, as spontaneous productions always do, than what he has written of late with grave design, and which has been so much lauded by men too obtuse to discern a latent meaning, or to believe in a good purpose unless they are formally told that it exists.
The later serious poems of Hood are well known; so are his jest-books and novel. We have now in view to speak rather of a little volume of poems published by him some years since, republished here, but never widely circulated.
When a book or a person comes to us in the best possible circumstances, we judge—not too favorably, for all that the book or person can suggest is a part of its fate, and what is not seen under the most favorable circumstances is never quite truly seen, either as to promise or performance—but we form a judgment above what can be the average sense of the world in general as to its merits, which may be esteemed, after time enough has elapsed, a tolerably fair estimate of performance, though not of promise or suggestion.
We became acquainted with these poems in one of those country towns which would be called, abroad, the most provincial of the province. The inhabitants had lost the simplicity of farmers’ habits, without gaining in its place the refinement, the variety, the enlargement of civic life. Their industry had received little impulse from thought; their amusement was gossip. All men find amusement in gossip—literary, artistic, or social; but the degrees in it are almost infinite. They were at the bottom of the scale; they scrutinized their neighbors’ characters and affairs incessantly, impertinently, and with minds unpurified by higher knowledge; consequently the bitter fruits of envy and calumny abounded.
In this atmosphere I was detained two months, and among people very uncongenial both to my tastes and notions of right. But I had a retreat of great beauty. The town lay on the bank of a noble river; behind it towered a high and rocky hill. Thither every afternoon went the lonely stranger, to await the fall of the sunset on the opposite bank of the full and rapid stream. It fell like a smile of heavenly joy; the white sails on the stream glided along like angel thoughts; the town itself looked like a fair nest, whence virtue and happiness might soar with sweetest song. So looked the scene from above; and that hill was the scene of many an aspiration and many an effort to attain as high a point of view for the mental prospect, in the hope that little discrepancies, or what seemed so when on a level with them, might also, from above, be softened into beauty and found subservient to a noble design in the whole.
The town boasted few books, and the accident which threw Hood’s poems in the way of the watcher from the hill, was a very fortunate one. They afforded a true companionship to hours which knew no other, and, perhaps, have since been overrated from association with what they answered to or suggested.
Yet there are surely passages in them which ought to be generally known and highly prized. And if their highest value be for a few individuals with whom they are especially in concord, unlike the really great poems which bring something to all, yet those whom they please will be very much pleased.
These few remarks we will add, and then to the poems.
Hood never became corrupted into a hack writer. This shows great strength under his circumstances. Dickens has fallen and Sue is falling, for few men can sell themselves by inches without losing a cubit from their stature. But Hood resisted the danger. He never wrote when he had nothing to say, he stopped when he had done, and never hashed for a second meal old thoughts which had been drained of their choicest juices. His heart is truly human, tender and brave. From the absurdities of human nature he argues the possibility of its perfection. His black is admirably contrasted with his white, but his love has no converse of hate. His descriptions of nature, if not accurately or profoundly evidencing insight, are unstudied, fond, and reverential. They are fine reveries about nature.
He has tried his powers on themes where he had great rivals—In ‘The plea of the Midsummer Fairies’ and “Hero and Leander.” The latter is one of the finest subjects in the world, and one, too, which can never wear out as long as each mind shall have its separate ideal of what a meeting would be between two perfect lovers, in the full bloom of beauty and youth, under circumstances the most exalting to passion, because the most trying, and with the most romantic accompaniments of scenery. There is room here for the finest expression of love and grief, for the wildest remonstrance against fate. Why are they made so lovely and so beloved—why was a flower brought to such perfection, and then culled for no use? One of the older English writers has written an exquisite poem on this subject, painting a youthful pair, fitted to be not only a heaven but a world to one another. Hood had not power to paint or to conceive such fullness of character; but, in a lesser style, he has written a fine poem. The best part of it, however, is the innocent cruelty and grief of the Sea Syren.
“Lycus and Centaur” is also a poem once read never to be forgotten. The hasty trot of the versification, unfit for any other theme, on this betokens well the frightened horse. Its mazy and bewildered imagery, with its countless glancings and glimpses, expresses powerfully the working of the Circean spell, while the note of human sadness, a yearning and condemned human love, thrills through the whole and gives it unity.
This is a passage from Lycus’s wanderings after the witch had transformed him form man to Centaur:
Daily sat in the shade with her child, and would smother
Its eyelids in kisses, and then in its sleep
Sang dreams in its ear of its manhood, while deep
In a thicket of willows I gazed o’er the brooks,
That murmured between us and kissed them with looks;
But the willows unbosomed their secret, and never
I returned to a spot I had startled forever.
Though I oft longed to know, but could ask it of none,
Was the mother still fair, and how big was her son?
For the haunters of fields they all shunned me by flight,
The men in their horror, the women in fright;
None ever remained save a child once that sported
Among the wild bluebells, and playfully courted
The breeze; and beside him a speckled snake lay
Tight strangled, because it had hissed him away
From the flower at his finger; he rose and drew near,
Like a son of Immortals, one born to know fear,
But with the strength of black locks and with eyes azure bright,
To grow to large manhood of merciful might.
He came with his face of bold wonder, to feel
The hair of my side and to life up my heel,
And questioned my face with wide eyes; but when under
My eyes he saw tears,—for I wept at his wonder,
He stroked me, and uttered such kindliness then,
That the once love of women, the friendship of men
In past sorrow, no kindness o’er came like a kiss
On my heart in its desolate day such as this!
And I yearned at his cheeks in my love, and down bent,
And lifted him up in my arms with intent
To kiss him,—but he, cruel kindly,—alas!
Held out to my lips a plucked handful of grass!
Then I dropt him in horror, but felt as I fled
The stone he indignantly hurled at my head,
That dissevered my ear, but I felt not, whose fate
Was to meet more distress in his love than his hate.
Is it not fine the portrait of the child born,
to grow to large manhood of merciful might,
and the Centaur holding him up while he offers the handful of grass? Ancient sculptors might have gloried in such a theme as the contrast betwixt the two forms presents. “Fair Ines,” “The Ballad,” “She’s up and gone, the graceless Girl,” and “I remember,” more widely known than most of those from having been set to music, are all of equal originality and beauty.
We must quote three poems, different in style from one another and equally distinguished, the first as picture, the second for its lyric tenderness and elevation of sentiment, the last as the finest of those reveries upon nature we have spoken of.
SHE stood breast high amid the corn,
Clasped by the golden light of morn.
Like the sweetheart of the Sun,
Who many a glowing kiss had won.
On her cheek an autumn flush
Deeply ripened;—such a blush
In the midst of brown was born,
Like red poppies grown with corn.
Round her eyes her tresses fell;
Which were blackest none could tell;
But long lashes veiled a light
That had else been all too bright.
And her hat, with shady brim,
Made her tressy forehead dim;—
Thus she stood amid the stooks,
Praising God with sweetest looks:—
Sure, I said, heaven did not mean,
Where I reap thou shouldst but glean,
Lay thy sheaf adown and come,
Share my harvest and my home.
SIGH on, sad heart, for Love’s eclipse
And Beauty’s fairest queen.
Though ’t is not for my peasant lips
To soil her name between:
A king might lay his sceptre down,
But I am poor and nought;
The brow should wear a golden crown
That wears her in its thought.
The diamonds glancing in her hair,
Whose sudden beams surprise,
Might bid such humble hopes beware
The glancing of her eyes;
Yet looking once, I looked too long,
And if my love is sin,
Death follows on the heels of wrong,
And kills the crime within.
Her dress seemed wove of lily leaves,
It was so pure and fine;
O lofty wears and lowly weaves,
But hodden grey is mine;
And homely hose must step apart,
Where gartered princes stand;
But may he wear my love at heart
That wins her lily hand!
Alas! there’s far from russet frieze
To silks and satin gowns,
But I doubt if God made like degrees
In courtly hearts and clowns
My father wronged a maiden’s mirth,
And brought her cheeks to blame,
And all that’s lordly of my birth
Is my reproach and shame!
’T is vain to weep—’t is vain to sigh;
’T is vain this idle speech:
For where her happy pearls do lie,
My tears may never reach;
Yet when I’m gone, e’en lofty pride
May say what of what has been.
His love was nobly born and died,
Though all the rest was mean!
My speech is rude—but speech is weak
Such love as mine to tell;
Yet had I words, I dare not speak—
So, Lady, fare thee well!
I will not wish thy better state
Was one of low degree,
But I must weep that partial Fate
Made such a churl of me.
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,
Nor 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.
Where are the songs of Summer?—With the sun,
Op’ning the dusky eyelids of the South,
Till shade and silence waken up as one,
And Morning sings with a warm odorous mouth.
Where are the merry birds!—Away, away,
On panting wings through the inclement skies,
Lest owls should prey
Undazzled at noon-day,
And tear with horny beak their lustrous eyes.
Where are the blooms of summer?—In the West,
Blushing their last to the last sunny hours,
When the mild Eve by sudden Night is prest
Like tearful Proserpine, snatched from her flowers
To a most gloomy breast.
Where is the pride of Summer—the green prime—
The many, many leaves all twinkling?—Three
On the mossed elm; three on the naked lime
Trembling—and one upon the old oak tree!
Where is the Dryad’s immortality?—
Gone into the dark cypress and dark yew,
Or wearing the long gloomy winter through
In the smooth holly’s green eternity.
The squirrel gloats on his accomplished hoard,
The ants have brimmed their garners with ripe grain,
And honey-bees have stored
The sweets of Summer in their luscious cells;
The swallows all have winged across the main;
But here the Autumn melancholy dwells,
And sighs her tearful spells
Amongst the sunless shadows of the plain.
Upon a mossy stone,
She sits and reckons up the dead and gone
With the last leaves for a love-rosary,
Whilst all the withered world looks drearily,
Like a dim picture of the drowned past
In the hushed mind’s mysterious far away,
Doubtful what ghostly thing will steal the last
Into that distance, grey upon the grey.
O go and sit with her, and be o’ershaded
Under the languid downfall of her hair:
She wears a coronal of flowers faded
Upon her forehead and a face of care;—
There is enough of withered every where
To make her bower—and enough of gloom;
There is enough of sadness to invite,
If only for the rose that died—whose doom
Is Beauty’s—she that with the living bloom
Of conscious cheeks most beautifies the light;—
There is enough of sorrowing, and quite
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!
The Sonnets, “It is not death,” &c. and that on Silence are equally admirable. Whoever reads these poems will give Hood nearly as high a rank as a poet as that he holds as a wit.
This was our present aim, and therefore we shall leave to others, or another time, the retrospect of his comic writings. But having, on the late promptings of love for the departed, looked over these we have been especially amused with ‘the Schoolmistress Abroad,’ which was new to us. Miss Crane, a “she Mentor, stiff as starch, formal as a Dutch hedge, sensitive as a Daguerreotype, and so tall, thin and upright, that supposing the Tree of Knowledge to have been a poplar, she was the very Dryad to have fitted it,” was left, with a sister little better endowed with the pliancy and power of adaptation that the exigencies of this varied world-scene demand, in attendance upon a sick father in a foreign inn where she cannot make herself understood because her French is not ‘French French, but English French,’ and no two things in nature or art can be more unlike. Now look at the position of the Sisters.
“The younger, Miss Ruth, was somewhat less disconcerted. She had by her position the share in the active duties of Lebanon House; and under ordinary circumstances, would not have been utterly at a loss what to do for the comfort or relief of her parent. But in every direction in which her instinct and habits would have prompted her to look, the materials she sought were deficient. There was no easy chair—no fire to wheel it to—no cushion to shake up—no cupboard to go to—no female friend to consult—no Miss Parfitt—no Cook—no John to send for the Doctor—no English—no French—nothing but that dreadful “Gefullig” or “Ja Wohl” and the equally incomprehensible “Gnadige Frau!”
“Der herr,” said the German coachman, “ist sehr krank;” (the gentleman is very sick.)
The last word had occurred so frequently on the organ of the Schoolmistress, that it had acquired in her mind some important significance.
“Ruth, what is krank?”
“How should I know?” retorted Ruth, with an asperity apt to accompany intense excitement and perplexity. “In English, it’s a thing that helps to pull the bell. But look at papa—do help to support him—you’re good for nothing.”
“I am, indeed,” murmured poor Miss Priscilla, with a gentle shake of her head, and a low, slow sigh of acquiescence. Alas! as she ran over the catalogue of her accomplishments, the more she remembered what she could do for her sick parent, the more helpless and useless she appeared. For instance, she could have embroidered him a night-cap—or knitted him a silk purse—or plaited him a guard-chain—or cut him out a watch paper—or ornamented his braces with bead-work—or embroidered his waistcoat—or worked him a pair of slippers—or open-worked his pocket handkerchief. She could even—if such an operation would have been comforting or salutary—have rough-casted him with shellwork—or coated him with red or black seals—or encrusted him with blue alum—or stuck him all over with colored wafers—or festooned him.
But alas! alas! what would it have availed her poor dear papa in the spasmodics, if she had even festooned him, from top to toe, with little rice-paper roses?”
The comments of the female chorus as the author reads aloud the sorrows of Miss Crane are droll as Hood’s drollest; who can say more?
So farewell, gentle, generous, inventive, genial and most amusing friend. We thank thee for both tears and laughter; tears which were not heart-breaking, laughter which was never frivolous or unkind. In thy satire was no gall, in the sting of thy winged wit no venom, in the pathos of thy sorrow no enfeebling touch! Thou hadst faults as a writer, we know not whether as a man; but who cares to name or even to note them? Surely, there is enough on the sunny side of the peach to feed us and make us bless the tree from which it fell.*
“Thomas Hood.” New-York Daily Tribune, 18 July 1845, p. 1.