Massey on Hood (3)

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The Works of Thomas Hood, Comic and Serious, in Prose and Verse, Edited, with Notes, by his Son. (Moxon & Co.)

A new generation of renders has arisen to welcome the collected works of Thomas Hood.  Some of us remember the pleasant hum and glow of expectancy with which we waited for the advent of one of his books.  Far off its coming shone in the faces of young and old.  Its presence was greeted with eyes that danced, and lungs that crowed, and sides that shook.  Its merry memory was a joy for ever.  And there are the same human hearts to be set beating; the, same eager faces of youth, to be set dimpling; the same wrinkles on the face of age to be turned into ripples of laughter now as of old.

    There is no fear that these works will ever fail of their old effect. Thomas Hood's poems and pun-pictures, whims and oddities, have taken their place in our affections.  They now ask a little more room on our shelves, and that we can promise for them.

    Their author has established his right, as a favourite of the English heart, to have all his writings carefully gathered and garnered up.  We like to know all we can of him, and have all that we can of his.   Whilst an author is living we only ask for his best—the nuggets of his gold.  But when he is dead and gone, we are glad to get the "washings," and like to see careful hands seeking diligently for the golden grains.  We judge the writer by his "lumps," but do not despise the gold-dust.  Thousands of faces will bend and brighten over these pages for more years than we can count, merry eyes will twinkle with the light from these books so funnily reflected, young faces will grow glorious, and young voices uproarious.  A  Will-o’­the-Wisp light will flit about the family circle.  There will be sly ticklings at the very heart-roots by a tricksy spirit, and these will out suddenly in inextinguishable mirth.   There will be leaning heads of lovers that bend together with one heart over the book, and two hands clasped beneath the table; quiet chuckles of old hearts, that laugh helplessly within.  There will be still higher reward for the writer.  The world will pay for its smiles in gold, but keep its pearls of heart for those that make it weep.  This success is Hood's, and in shy ways and shady places a tear will be the still more eloquent witness of his moving power—the noblest payment for the pleasure.
    We find the wit untarnished by time; the fun has lost none of its freshness.  Enjoyable as ever are the old perfectest of puns; whether in picture or verse.  Hood's puns flash every time they go off, —being for all, not one, time.  As, for example—

His death, which happened in his birth, 
    At forty-odd befell;
They went and told the sexton, 
    And the sexton tolled the bell. 

Or, speaking of Orient nations, 

Where woman goes to mart the same as Mangoes.

    Or let us look at what we call his pun-pictures of the 'Whims and Oddities.'  It is noticeable that the wit kept some of his best wine "in the wood," and dealt it out fresh "on draught."   Who ever tires of that scene where the heads of two Quakers are visible just above the ice on a bitter winter's day, and there they hang surveying each other in what he would call an ice fix, or state of suspended animation?   This he entitles a "coolness between Friends."—Or the view of a particularly bald old gentleman who has just upset a beehive, and how doth the little busy bee improve each shining second on the bald, shining head?   This he calls an "Unfortunate Bee-ing."  —Or the "Spoilt Child," wherein the servant is sitting with the infant under her care, she quietly reading her paper and comfortably killing the child?   Then there is that unforgetable "last in bed to put out the light;" wherein the worthy couple, in all haste, dash at the bedclothes, making ends meet and heads clash at the same moment—and it's not a laughing matter; but who's to put out the light?   We might refer to an infinite variety of merry thoughts that will bear an endless picking out.  But in going over, or even mentioning, the works of Hood we are, as Leigh Hunt has said of wit and humour, under a St.Anthony's temptation reversed—a laughable instead of a frightful one.  For "thousands of merry devils pour in on all sides, —doubles of similes, buffooneries of burlesques, stings in the tails of epigrams, glances of innuendoes, dry looks of ironies, corpulences of exaggerations, ticklings of mad fancies, claps on the back of horseplays, complacencies of unawarenesses, flounderings of absurdities, irresistibilities of iterations, significancies of jargons, wailings of pretended woes, roarings of laughters, and hubbubs of animal spirits."   The wit is showered down with all the opulence of a rain-cloud shedding its brightest, most bountiful drops.  This not only represents his works, but his way of working.  No sooner does a witty thought enter his head, but his mind is all mirrors, with a hundred reflections, forthwith.  It is like that scene, mentioned by Sydney Smith, at the French Embassy, where he mistook the reflections of himself in the looking-glasses for a meeting of the clergy.  And, not only does his mind reflect in this numerous way, but it also refracts in a myriad forms that range from Lilliput to Brobdingnag, and in every tint that can be conceived on any colourable pretext.  It is the moment of transformation in a mental pantomime.  Hey, presto!  and they are all at it—change on change, and jest on jest come tripping on, and tripping up, and tripping over one another in as bright and bustling a bit of business as ever included the sparkle of harlequin, the trick of clown, the wise wag of pantaloon's beard, and the beauty of columbine.  Every drop of ink from his pen, every line from his pencil swarms into life with the most fantastic shapes ever assumed by the merriest imps of mirth and mischief that play bo-peep with face and mask.  His puns are often unanswerably absurd or unutterably wise.  They are the sort to suit Charles Lamb, who, next to a good pun, loved a good bad one.  They either shut you up, or you must laugh.  There is nothing else for it.  If you are wise, you will laugh!   They are also the sort to obviate what Charles Lamb thought would be the greatest inconvenience of being in—utter darkness, viz., if you made a pun you would have to feel all over your friend's face before you knew whether he was enjoying it.  In fact, it would have to be a broad grin for you to perceive it.  With Hood's, the laugh would be too ready and ringing.  He makes instant appeal to another kind of feeling.  He looked upon a pun, he says, as a horse—with him it was Pegasus—having a pillion for an extra sense to ride behind.  It is warranted to carry either single or double.  And so perfectly does it carry that many a grave reader will enjoy the single sober sense, and never see the second rider that sits grinning behind.  Or, to change the illustration, much of his wit was the mere flashes struck out by the hoofs of the winged horse of the Muses.

    Amongst the fresh features that peep out from betwixt the old faces in these new volumes, we are caught and tickled by a few of his answers to correspondents in the London Magazine, marking his early punning propensity.  He kept the sign of the "Lion's Head" in those days.  People only saw the head, but there was also the most appropriate wag to the tail.  One writer is informed that his "Night" is too long, for the moon 'rises twice' in it.  We do not know whether the author retorted that it must have been at least luminous.  The "Essay on Agricultural Distress would only increase it."   The "Tears of Sensibility had better be dropped."   "B is surely humming."   The "Echo will not answer."   Whilst it is suggested the "Sonnet to the Rising Sun must have been written for a Lark."

    Hood's higher humour is also alone and unparagoned; there is nothing like it; nothing we can place near it to say what it is like, amongst those that have gone before.  It is "Hood's own."   It never tastes bitter in the mouth after the enjoyment.  It is not cynical, or destructive, or gross.  He never laughs with Rabelais in his easy chair to roll down into the mud.  To us the brightest gems of his humour seem trembling into tears.  Surely they are tears set glittering in the sunshine.  There is nothing hard and dry and merely, shiny.  The lustre is moist like that of the buttercup.  Above all, there is the clearness of a good conscience, the pureness of a high heart, the aroma of a most sweet nature.  The cause of an indescribable duality of Hood's wit is, that this is only his other way of crying.  The smile is that of a sad heart's sunshine.  The look is ineffably pathetic, as that of some dear ailing child who laughs up in the mother's face to hide its suffering, and ease her heart a little.  The jewels we spoke of are indeed tears, live from the heart.  They have not been polished for future use, like Sheridan's, and set to most advantage, "each other's beams to share."   In the midst of the merriest mood the quick ear detects a strange arresting tone, in the voice, like that note of the nightingale's which pierces through all her ecstasy, and brings the dew into our eyes.  You look round; the smile is still on the face, but you know well enough that he has just dropped a tear within.  It's all very funny, of course, but he is only making mouths at his own troubles, and light of his own heavy cares.  He was compelled, as he said, to make broad grins under narrow circumstances, and be a lively-Hood for a livelihood.  So he laughed for his living because puns sold better than poetry.  The public were too much delighted with Mr. Merryman on the stage to care for sadder shows behind. Only those to whose eyes had been added the "precious seeing" of sympathy, and who listened, with the heart at the ear, could tell what a world of sorrow there was in the voice.

    Thomas Hood made many attempts to convince the world that there lay something in his nature deeper than the wit that sparkled on the surface; that there was the true Hippocrene under all this effervescence and dance of frolic fun—the body of the wine, so to speak, as well as this light spirit or soul of whim, that bubbled up and beaded the surface.  This was only a kind of laughing-gas which would escape first, and the world inhaled it so readily and liked it so light-headedly, that it would not wait for or believe in the real wine.   Hood himself pleaded his cause go humorously in his Prefaces, who could believe that he was sadly, seriously in earnest?   Why, the very seriousness was only all the more provocative of laughter: a more cunning way of making merriment.  It was like Liston insisting on playing tragedy, and tickling all foregone comic conclusions into irresistible laughter.  So the world would not have Hood's best wine.  It would not let him dive down into the tragic gloom of his nature for the most precious jewels that lurked there.  It would not hear him in his earnest mood.  It insisted, like Elizabeth with her portrait, on having his presentment without shadow.  He must continue to case his heartache by laughing, or by making others laugh.  He refers to this, humorously of course, in his Introduction to 'Tylney Hall,' wherein two of his proof-readers turn tormentors and insist on it that he was laughing when he thought he had been crying:

"The Morons began; and, I confess, to my astonishment, his main objection to my novel insinuated a dearth of the pathetic.  'Not,' he said, 'but there is abundance of bloodshed and shedding of tears; if I recollect rightly, the second volume alone contains a divorce, argon, burglary and suicide.  But what of that?   Excuse me, sir, for saying so, but we know your tricks.  We are not such fools as to snivel when all the while you are grinning at us in your sleeve.'  'Well, you amaze me, sir,' said I, involuntarily lifting up my hands; 'it was my own impression that, on the whole, my novel was too sombre.'—'Excuse me,' answered the Droll, 'you were never more mistaken.  There are things that might be pathetic from other pens, but we know you of old.  Even your horrors don't take us in.  Show us a clot of coagulated blood, and we tip one another the wink, and say, "currant jelly."   For instance, there is the murder of Belmour; Higgs tittered all the time he was setting it up; and for my own part, when the proof came before me at dinnertime, I confess I fairly choked in my pint of stout.'—'And I wish you had!' I exclaimed testily, nettled beyond patience at such a reception of my pet catastrophe."

    So he breathed his comic vein, and let the most of his life out in that way.  Hood was within himself the one great antithesis out of which sprang the antithetic character of his writings.  With the roots of his life deeply grasping grave realities, he was bidden to bear only flowers and fruit of merry fancy.  This antithesis—the contact and explosion of—two opposites—will be found one of the chief means on which he relies for obtaining his ends—or, rather, it was so natural as to act unconsciously—both in his puns and his pathos.  In his witty rhymes his mind is continually catching the light at the oddest possible angle.  And this angle, so to speak, is a corner round which the two meeting extremes rush into each other's arms in a collision which shocks them with surprise and the lookers-on with laughter.  In the serious poetry the finest effect is often antithetical.  In the 'Song of the Shirt' he tells us, the singer sat

Sewing at once with a double thread
A shroud as well as a shirt.

And she exclaims

Oh, God, that bread should be so dear,
And flesh and blood so cheap.

    In the 'Dream of Eugene Aram' he makes the murderer say of himself, and his victim

A dozen times I groaned; the dead
Had never groaned but twice.

This tendency to antithesis, we say, was the natural outcome and expression of his life and literary conditions.  It is only work of Fancy rather than of Imagination; comparison rather than creation.  But then this was a fellow of "excellent fancy" as well as "infinite jest."   We are sometimes apt to forget how rare was the fancy of this Poet; how genuine was the feeling:  The world is still beguiled by the dazzling brilliance of the Punster.  Could a more graceful fancy have been embodied in an apology to one whose birthday was in November than we find in these lines?

I have brought no roses, sweetest,
I could find no flowers, dear; 
It was when all sweets were over 
Thou wert born to bless the year.

And compensation enough, say we, for this was the woman who made sunshine in the shady places all through the saddest parts of the year of Hood's life.  A prettier fancy was never exquisitely wrought than the 'Plea of the Mid-summer Fairies,' in which the mighty magician Shakspeare rescues the small people of elfin world from Old Time and mortal doom to confer on them immortality.  The whole poem has the freshness and fragrance and rathe bloom of fancy.  Take, for illustration, this picture of a weeping child:

His pretty, pouting mouth, witless of speech,
Lay half-way open, like a rose-lipped shell;
And his young cheek was softer than a peach,
Wherein his tears for roundness could not dwell,
But quickly rolled themselves to pearls, and tell
Some on the grass, and some against his hand,
Or haply wandered to the dimpled well
Which Love beside his month had sweetly planned,
Yet not for tears but mirth and smilings bland.

'The Two Swans,' another fairy-tale and worthy companion, is full of a delicate loveliness, the most evanescent graces being caught and reflected in its crystal clearness.  It is a wave of the true wand that calls up this lustrous white vision

A solitary swan her breast of snow
Launches against the wave that seems to freeze 
Into a chaste reflection, still below
Twin shadow of herself wherever she may go. 

And forth she paddles in the very noon 
Of solemn midnight, like an elfin thing 
Charmed into being by the arqent moon-
Whose silver light for love of her fair wing
Goes with her in the shade, still worshipping 
Her dainty plumage; -all around her grew
A radiant circlet, like a fairy ring; 
And all behind a tiny little clue
Of light, to guide her back across the waters blue.

    This swan is, of course, a princess in disguise to do some mighty work of love, and thus the chill white vision is made warm with a beating human heart.

    We are inclined to prize these, and other poems of pure fancy, all the more because of the circumstances under which they were written.  Their author had to do figuratively what the shipwrecked Camoens did literally, that is, bring his poetry on shore in his teeth, having to strike out for his life with hands and, feet.  It is a pity that he could not have been writing immortal poetry often when he had to make the accustomed pyrotechnic display, of puns, —a pity that he had to grind down so much of his mental seed-corn into daily bread.  Speaking of the poor poet whose ambrosia may be sure, but whose bread is very uncertain, he says, "Pure fame is a glorious draught enough, and the striving for it a noble ambition; but, alas!  few can afford to drink it neat.  Across the loftiest visions of the poet earthly faces will flit; and even while he is gazing on Castaly little familiar voices will murmur in his ear inquiring if there are no fishes that can be eaten to be caught in its waters."   And, there being no fish in Castaly, he had to angle in other streams; and so he laughed and coughed, laughed and spit blood, laughed and made the public laugh, as we say, till the tears ran down its face at last; for it, learned at length that this was "a fellow who could play the fool" to a higher purpose than it had thought.

    He will touch the heart yet, as well as tickle the ear.  There's a barb to his arrow, and, when he has driven it well home, you will scarcely feel inclined to play with the feather at the other end, which winged it to the heart.  You invited him to a banquet of mirth, and it went on merrily, as though the feast would never end.  You asked for a jester to jingle the bells on Folly's cap, and he did your bidding bonnily.   But he will also show you that motley is not the only wear.  He is no longer Puck or Clown or Jester.  You look up and see a quiet man in black, with a face gradually whitening and waning in the death-shadow.  There is a set sternness about his mouth, a grim earnestness lights up the eye.  He has another story to tell now; another song to, sing.  He has risen to his highest stature —lengthening in death —and in his grandest character, to plead the cause of the poor.  No longer the funny favourite of the drawing-room, he is out in the street singing a song that will thrill through the heart of England.  There is something singularly touching in the sound, as of a voice almost choked with tears.  There is something doggedly stern in the march of the measure, as though it must be uttered thus to get it out at all.  He sings —the 'Song of the Shirt,' and you must listen.  Ladies who move so high above the world of the poor, and sit in their beauty like pictures of life in the boudoir's frame of gold, or lie down to sleep in a fairy land of rest, will be compelled to come out on the balcony to hear more of the song, and see more of the sights the poet has to show them. Kind-hearted old gentlemen will lay down their paper with a "Bless me!" and begin fumbling in their breeches-pocket.

    Many young men got a new glimpse of life and its duties from the moment that Hood unveiled his two acts of one great tragedy of Poverty, and showed the grim facts naked in their sternness as shroudless corpses.  It is now twenty years since Hood sang, with a heart aching for humanity, his famous 'Song of the Shirt' and 'The Bridge of Sighs,' but they left echoes in the heart of his country which can never die.  The rich and poor have in many ways, and through many doors, looked more closely into the face of each other than they had ever done before.  And not only did those songs set many to work in all worthy ways; inspiring many schemes for the alleviation of suffering, and for the, benefit of the toiling poor; they likewise left a subtler sense, a readier ear, a quicker sympathy on the part of the rich, so that when the cry of want and distress runs like the fiery cross through the land there is an instantaneous response, as in the case of our present great national calamity.



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