Primarily because he lived to write and wrote to live, Thomas Hood managed to publish a staggering amount of poetry in a relatively short time. Unfortunately, the pressure to keep the creditors at bay and the bacon on his table rendered much of his poetry unworthy of regard; he often failed to edit poems for which he could hardly afford enough time to write. He was seldom more than a hack writer, churning out journalistic doggerel and meanwhile maintaining an apparently voluminous correspondence, editing his annuals and magazines, executing his engravings, and trying to establish a reputation as a novelist. The mystery of his life is that he accomplished all this as a frequently bedridden invalid.
As a consequence of his need to offer original and entertaining poetry to the public on a regular basis, Hood wandered widely through the realm of possibilities to produce a profusion of experiments in form and content, in theme, rhythm, and rhyme—perhaps covering a wider range than any other English poet. In Hood, one can find examples of such peculiarities as initial rhyme, various metrical arrangements of anapests and dactyls, all the major English stanza forms, and imitations of numerous styles—from those of Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Alexander Pope, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Keats, and Shakespeare, to a host of lesser lights. Hood’s imitations are often well-executed; his originals are even better. Omitting what is merely topical, trivial, childish, or deplorable, one finds that the remainder of Hood’s canon contains a considerable quantity of poetry, some of it brilliant.
Hood began writing poetry as a pastime about 1814, during the period when he supplemented the family income by working as a clerk. In “Literary Reminiscences” (1833), Hood recalls how he stole moments from his employer, uninformatively identified as “Bell & Co.,” to “take stray dips in the Castalian pool.” A year later, after removing to Dundee, Scotland, to improve his health, Hood started writing a satirical Dundee Guide, the manuscript of which was unfortunately lost by 1820, although enough lines survived in a letter to show that it was nothing brilliant. As early as 1816, however, Hood began making anonymous contributions to Dundee periodicals, and thus first began to see his work in print. This fired him with a thirst to sell himself to “that minor Mephistopheles, the Printer’s Devil.” Hood was at this time being influenced by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley; to a lesser extent by Lamb, George Crabbe, Robert Southey, and Leigh Hunt; and most of all by Sir Walter Scott, “The Great Unknown.” The narrative manner of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818, 1819), The Giaour (1813), The Bride of Abydos (1813), The Corsair (1814), and Lara (1814), tempered by the influence of Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field (1808), The Lady of the Lake (1810), Rokeby (1813), and Waverley: Or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since (1814), combined to foster Hood’s first major poem, The Bandit, probably written between 1815 and 1817 but not published until forty years after his death.
The Bandit is a relatively long poem (some 820 lines divided into three cantos), a narrative about Ulric, the earl of Glenallen, who, as a result of treacherous circumstances, has been forced into the role of “Chieftain” to a band of outlaws. Although a cunning and brave leader, Glenallen secretly despises the mischievous deeds he has done, yet “Repeated wrongs had turned his breast to steel,/ And all but these he had forgot to feel.” In the first canto, Glenallen discloses the plans of his final act as chief of the bandits, “To ’venge the wrongs he suffered from the world!” Heedlessly, he discloses to the outlaws his true identity as earl of Glenallen, proclaimed a traitor to the throne of Scotland. All the bandits except Wolf, Glenallen’s rival, depart with the chieftain to take revenge on Glenallen’s former friend, Arden, at the latter’s wedding to Glenallen’s former betrothed, Adelaide. In the second canto, Glenallen disrupts the wedding and announces his intention of murdering Arden before he can consummate the marriage; but after the pitiful pleadings of “trembling Adelaide,” he repents and orders his bandits to disperse. Just at this moment, Wolf arrives with another band to take Glenallen for the reward on his head. In the ensuing swordplay, Arden makes several attempts to save the life of Glenallen, who is finally wounded into unconsciousness after killing Wolf. Before the bandits can deal with the wedding guests, however, the castle is mysteriously set afire. The bandits take up the unconscious Glenallen and flee. Canto 3 opens with Glenallen already in the custody of the authorities, locked away in a tower and awaiting execution. In his bitterness of soul, he eagerly awaits the release that death will bring him. The keeper enters and proves to be a former confederate: “Is it Donald! or a mocking dream?/ Are these things so, or do they only seem?/ Am I awake?” Donald, after failing to convince Glenallen to escape, and in haste for what seems to be the sound of an approaching guard escort, lends his dagger to the captive so that he might dispatch himself honorably. Glenallen perishes just as “Pardon! Pardon!” echoes on the walls and Arden rushes into the cell.
The puerility of the plot and the verse fails to disguise the influences of Romanticism. Glenallen is a typical Romantic hero, arraigned in a stock melodramatic situation, pausing at the appropriate times to brood over his cruel alienation from humanity and life, more ready to die than to live. His is the childish fantasy of “after I’m dead and gone, then they’ll be sorry they hurt me,” but, after all, it is the same childishness of vision that pervades much of Byron and Shelley. The significance of The Bandit lies in Hood’s ability to use language well and to exercise a healthy imagination in verse that accommodates at least the superficial elements of Romanticism at a time before he has seriously devoted himself to writing poetry.
Although there were Romantic tendencies in Hood’s own writing before Keats’s death, one can find in his verse a pronounced identification with the style of Keats that extends about five or six years after 1821, beginning with Hood’s introduction to the Reynolds family through his work at the London Magazine that same year. Reynolds and his sisters had enjoyed a close friendship with Keats and entertained fond memories of the young Romantic. Hood entered an atmosphere in the Reynolds household suffused with intimacies from the life and work of the relatively unknown Keats. To this period belongs most of what is often called Hood’s “serious” poetry.
The Romantic movement had peaked and already begun to decline into the commonplace sentimentality and melodrama from which Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson were destined to rescue it momentarily. Shelley and Byron’s best works had already been published; indeed, Shelley died soon after Keats. Coleridge had graduated to philosophy, Wordsworth had defected to the establishment. Keats’s final volume—“Lamia,” “Isabella,” “The Eve of St. Agnes,” and Other Poems—had appeared in 1820 (Hood’s closet drama Lamia, based on Keats’s poem, was written in 1824 but not published until after Hood’s death). With friendly critics encouraging and applauding the growing likeness of Hood’s poetry to that of Keats, it was an easy time for Hood to begin imagining himself to be Keats’s successor.
“The Sea of Death”
Perhaps a sense of identification with Keats’s illness and death led Hood to give death such a preeminent place in his serious and even in his comic verse. Hood seems to accord death a place of passive acceptance, at times even to embrace it. For example, “The Sea of Death,” which appeared first in the London Magazine (March, 1822) and later in “The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies,” “Hero and Leander,” “Lycus the Centaur,” and Other Poems, makes the somewhat trite comparison of death to an “oceanpast” that erases the sand tracks of life “like a pursuing grave.” This idea, however, is developed into a passively beautiful scene, where “spring-faced cherubs” also are asleep in “the birth-night of their peace.” For contrast, Hood adds “neighbour brows scarr’d by the brunts/ Of strife and sorrowing”; and with the dead, Time itself “Slept, as he sleeps upon the silent face/ Of a dark dial in a sunless place.” It is a typical Romantic eschatology; death is a place of silence and repose, a dreamlike eternity. Although Hood’s view of death acquired a more theologically sound dimension during the next twenty years, his attitude of resignation to the inevitable did not change. His awareness of the closeness of death permeates all his poetry; death, dying, and corruption tinge nearly every poem with sobriety and cause his humor to wax dark. Living in continual ill health as he did, this could hardly be called a Romantic affectation.
Hood’s important poems from this period include a number of sonnets, many deserving more attention than they have received. The sonnets also reflect the influence of the Romantic poets. “Midnight,” the two-sonnet “On a Sleeping Child” (all three in the London Magazine, December, 1822), and the eulogistic “Sonnet: Written in Keats’s ’Endymion’” (the London Magazine, May, 1823) are among his very best. Another, beginning “It is not death . . . ,” reveals not only Romantic, but also direct Shakespearean influence. It was included, along with most of his other “serious” poetry, in the volume “The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies,” “Hero and Leander,” “Lycus the Centaur,” and Other Poems.
“The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies,” “Hero and Leander,” “Lycus the Centaur, and Other Poems”
Most of the poems in this book (twenty-two of thirty-seven) had been previously published, many in London Magazine. The book constitutes the evidence offered by many that Hood was a thwarted Romantic because of the pervasive influence of Keats. The title poem consists of 126 Spenserian stanzas (except that the final lines are pentameters), celebrating, “by an allegory, that immortality that Shakespeare has conferred on the Fairy mythology by his Midsummer Night’s...
(The entire section is 4402 words.)