“However critics may take offence,
A double meaning has double sense.”
—Thomas Hood (1799-1845)
William Michael Rossetti once wrote,* “There were scarcely any events in the life of Thomas Hood.”
I assume he means those great tragedies that are supposed to add depth and purpose to a writer’s art and make it far more interesting to, say, the critical biographer.
And unless you count Thomas Hood’s chronic illnesses and far too early death,** Mr. Rossetti is right. While Thomas Hood didn’t have the easiest life—better health and more money would have helped—he experienced no thunderbolts from above or catastrophes from below, which is better than a poet of his caliber might expect.
Or if he did, he kept ’em to himself, which is odd behavior for a humor writer of any time period.
But that’s exactly what interests me about Thomas Hood’s life—the lack of drama, the quiet, everyday events that molded him into a poet who could hold forth on a variety of topics with authority, skill, wry wit, and wordplay.
Hear me out:
His father was a London bookseller.
Appreciation of the value of the written word? Check.
After his father’s death,*** he was fortunate enough to have a schoolmaster whose enthusiasm for teaching gave his students an interest in learning. With this teacher’s encouragement, Thomas Hood revised a novel— Paul and Virginia by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre— for which he was paid by the printers.
Early encouragement and a taste of success? Check.
Later, after falling ill—supposedly from the pressures of banking and engraving, though he was never strong—he went to recuperate with relatives in Dundee, Scotland, where he read anything he could find and started to write poetry in earnest.
Nothing helps writing like reading . . . and writing.
Around 1821, after his return to London, friends of his offered him the job of sub-editor for London Magazine, which brought him into the company of Charles Lamb, Henry Cary, John Clare, Allan Cunningham, Hartley Coleridge, and many other influential writers of the time.
Support group? Check!
And there you have it—though there’s also no denying the influence his children had on his choice of subject matter:^
Though he was well-known as a humorist who often wrote scathingly funny bits on current news,^^ Thomas Hood did write more serious poetry, and it’s a shame that the public didn’t bother to appreciate most of it at the time.
He wrote several poems on social wrongs—readers did pay attention to “Song of the Shirt” which condemned the criminally unfair labor practices of London—but others are more traditional.
And some are so incredibly long, I had to scare up a Roman numeral chart to figure out what CCCXLVIII meant.^^^
Regardless, the man has a gorgeous way with words, as in the second verse of the beautiful ballad, “Sigh on, sad heart,” which touches, as one might expect, upon that perennial favorite, unrequited love—though it has a touch of socio-economic cynicism that is all the poet’s own:
I keep going back to those last four lines . . .
And I’m not ashamed to say that this one hits me square in the tear ducts:
To an Absentee
O’er hill, and dale, and distant sea,
Through all the miles that stretch between,
My thought must fly to rest on thee,
And would, though worlds should intervene.
Nay, thou art now so dear, methinks
The farther we are forced apart,
Affection’s firm elastic links
But bind the closer round the heart.
For now we sever each from each,
I learned what I have lost in thee;
Alas, that nothing else could teach
How great indeed my love should be!
Farewell! I did not know thy worth;
But thou art gone, and now ’tis prized:
So angels walk’d unknown on earth,
But when they flew were recognized!
But mostly, Thomas Hood wrote poems so full of tongue-in-cheek switchback punning and word-juggling that I can’t help snickering—and groaning—even when the topic is pretty grim. In fact, the amount of clever funny seems to be in direct proportion to how pathetic he claims a ballad to be:
You’ll be delighted to know that he has dozens more of these. No need to thank me.
Not all of them are perfect, not all of them are this exuberant with the portmanteaus, as Humpty Dumpty might say, but Thomas Hood is worth reading. Go to it—and let me know your favorite!
*He said this in his introduction to one of the many, many collections titled, appropriately enough, The Poetical Works of Thomas Hood. This one was published by George Routledge & Sons in 1874. I’m not holding out on you guys—the library has a reprint.
**Which, admittedly, did have a certain negative impact on anything he was planning to write.
***Sounds like a tragedy to me . . .
^Try his ode to sleep deprivation, too—it’s the last of his Domestic Poems and it’s a hoot.
^^On an epidemic of grave robberies:
Don’t go to weep upon my grave,
And think that there I be.
They haven’t left an atom there
Of my anatomie.
^^^It means you don’t copy that poem in a blog post, is what it means.