ABOUT THOMAS HOOD.
BY W. M. THACKERAY.
I HAVE been reading the Memorials of Hood, by his children, and wonder whether the
book will have the same interest for others, and for younger people, as for persons of my own age and calling.
Books of travel to any country become interesting to us who have been there.
Men revisit the old school, though hateful to them, with ever so much kindliness and sentimental affection.
There was the tree under which the bully licked you: here the ground where you had to fag out on holidays—and so forth.
In a word, my dear Sir, You are the most interesting subject to yourself of any that can occupy your worship's thoughts.
I have no doubt a Crimean soldier, reading a history of that siege, and how Jones and the gallant 99th were ordered to charge, or what not, thinks—
"Ah, yes, we of the 100th were placed so and so, I perfectly remember."
So with this memorial of poor Hood; it may have, no doubt, a greater
interest for me than for others, for I was fighting, so to speak, in a
different part of the field, and engaged a young subaltern in the Battle
of Life, in which Hood fell, young still, and covered with glory. "The Bridge of Sighs" was his Corunna, his heights of Abraham—sickly, weak, wounded, he fell in the full blaze and fame of that great victory.
What manner of man was the genius who penned that famous song?
What like was Wolfe, who climbed and conquered on those famous heights of
Abraham? We all want to know details regarding men who have achieved famous feats, whether of war, or wit, or eloquence, or endurance, or knowledge.
His one or two happy and heroic actions take a man's name and memory out of the crowd of names and memories.
Henceforth he stands eminent. We scan him: we want to know all about him: we walk round and examine him, are curious, perhaps, and think are we not as strong and tall and capable as yonder champion? were we not bred as well, and could we not endure the winter's cold as well as he?
Or we look up with all our eyes of admiration; will find no fault in our hero; declare his beauty and proportions perfect; his critics envious detractors, and so forth.
Yesterday, before he performed his feat, he was nobody. Who cared about his birthplace, his parentage, or the colour of his hair?
Today, by some single achievement, or by a series of great actions, to which his genius accustoms us, he is famous, and antiquarians are busy finding out under what schoolmaster's ferule he was educated, where his grandmother was vaccinated, and so forth.
If half a dozen washing-bills of Goldsmith's were to be found to-morrow, would they not inspire a general interest, and be printed in a hundred papers?
I lighted upon Oliver, not very long since, in an old Town and Country Magazine, at the Pantheon masquerade,
"in an old English habit." Straightway my imagination ran out to meet him, to look at him, to follow him about.
I forgot the names of scores of fine gentlemen, of the past age, who were mentioned besides.
We want to see this man who has amused and charmed us; who has been our friend, and given us hours of pleasant companionship and kindly thought.
I protest when I came, in the midst of those names of people of fashion and beaux and demirips, upon those
names—"Sir .L R-yn-lds, in a domino; Mr. Ur-d-ck and Dr. G-ldsni-th,
in two old English dresses," I had, so to speak, my heart in my mouth. What! you here, my dear Sir Joshua? Ah, what an honour and privilege it is to see you! This is Mr. Goldsmith?
And very much, Sir, the ruff and the slashed doublet become you! Oh, Doctor! what a pleasure I had and have in reading the
"Animated Nature." How did you learn the secret of writing the decasyllable line, and whence that sweet wailing note of tenderness that accompanies your song?
Was Beau Tibbs a real man, and will you do me the honour of allowing me to sit at your table at supper?
Don't you think you know how he would have talked? Would you not
have liked to hear him prattle over the Champagne?
Now Hood is passed away —passed off the earth as much as Goldsmith or Horace.
The times in which he lived, and in which very many of us lived and were young, are changing or changed.
I saw Hood once as a young man, at a dinner which seems almost as ghostly now as that masquerade at the Pantheon (1772), of which we were speaking anon.
It was at a dinner of the Literary Fund, in that vast apartment which is hung round with the portraits of very large Royal Freemasons, now unsubstantial ghosts.
There at the end of the room was Hood. Some publishers, I think, were our companions.
I quite remember his pale face; he was thin and deaf; and very silent; he scarcely opened his lips during the dinner, and he made one pun.
Some gentleman missed his snuff-box, and Hood said—(the Freemason's Tavern was kept, you must remember, by Mr. CUFF in those days, not by its present proprietors). Well, the box being lost, and asked for, and CUFF (remember that name) being the name of the landlord, Hood opened his silent jaws, and said
[* * * *]
Shall I tell you what he said? It was not a very good pun which the great punster then made. Choose your
favourite pun out of "Whims and Oddities," and fancy that was the joke which he contributed to the hilarity of our little table.
Where those asterisks are drawn on the page you must know a pause occurred, during which I was engaged with
"Hood's Own," having been referred to the book by this life of the author which I have just been reading.
I am not going to dissert on Hood's humour; I am not a fair judge.
Have I not said elsewhere that there are one or two wonderfully old gentlemen still alive, who used to give me tips when I was a boy?
I can't be a fair critic about them. I always think of that sovereign, that rapture of raspberry tarts, which made my young days happy.
Those old sovereign-contributors may tell stories ever so old, and I shall laugh; they may commit murder, and I shall believe it was justifiable homicide.
There is my friend Baggs, who goes about abusing me, and, of course, our dear mutual friends tell me.
Abuse away, mon ben! You were so kind to me when I wanted kindness that you may take the change out of that gold now, and say I am a cannibal and negro, if you will.
Ha, Baggs! Dost thou wince as thou readest this line? Does guilty conscience throbbing at thy breast tell thee of whom the fable is narrated?
Puff out thy wrath, and, when it has ceased to blow, my Baggs shall be to me as the Baggs of old—the generous, the gentle, the friendly.
No, on second thoughts, I am determined I will not repeat that joke which I heard Hood make.
He says he wrote these jokes with such ease that he sent manuscripts to the publishers faster than they could acknowledge the receipt thereof.
I won't say that they were all good jokes, or that to read a great book full of them is a work at present altogether jocular.
Writing to a friend respecting some memoir of him which had been published, Hood says,
"You will judge how well the author knows me, when he says my mind is rather serious than comic."
At the time when he wrote these words, he evidently undervalued his own serious power, and thought that in punning and broad-grinning lay his chief strength.
Is not there something touching in that simplicity and humility of faith?
"To make laugh is my calling," says he; "I must jump, I must grin, I must tumble, I must turn language head over heels, and leap through grammar;" and he goes to his work humbly and courageously, and what he has to do that does he with all his might, through sickness, through sorrow, through exile, poverty, fever, depression —there he is, always ready to his work, and with a jewel of genius in his pocket!
Why, when he laid down his puns and pranks, put the motley off, and spoke out of his heart, all England and America listened with tears and wonder!
Other men have delusions of conceit and fancy themselves greater than they are, and that the world slights them.
Have we not beard how Listen always thought he ought to play Hamlet?
Here is a man with a power to touch the heart almost unequalled, and he
passes days and years in writing "Young Ben he was a nice young man," and so forth.
To say truth, I have been reading in a book of "Hood's Own" until I am perfectly angry.
"You great man, you good man, you true genius and poet," I cry out, as I turn page after page.
"Do, do make no more of these jokes, but be yourself; and take your
When Hood was on his death-bed, Sir Robert Peel, who
only knew of his illness, not of his imminent danger, wrote to him a noble
and touching letter, announcing that a pension was conferred on him:
"I am more than repaid," writes Peel, "by the personal
satisfaction which I have had in doing that for which you return me warm
and characteristic acknowledgments.
"You perhaps think that you are known to one, with
such multifarious occupations as myself, merely by general reputation as
an author; but I assure you that there can be little which you have
written and acknowledged which I have not read; and that there are few
who can appreciate and admire more than myself the good sense and good
feeling which have taught you to infuse so much fun and merriment into
writings correcting folly and exposing absurdities, and yet never
trespassing beyond those limits within which wit and facetiousness are
not very often confined. You may write on with the consciousness
of independence, as free and unfettered, as if no communication had ever
passed between us. I am not conferring a private obligation upon
you, but am fulfilling the intentions of the legislature, which has
placed at the disposal of the Crown a certain sum (miserable, indeed, in
amount) to be applied to the recognition of public claims on the bounty
of the Crown. If you will review the names of those whose claims
have been admitted on account of their literary or scientific eminence,
you will find an ample confirmation of the truth of my statement. "One
return, indeed, I shall ask of you—that you will give me the opportunity
of making your personal acquaintance."
And Hood, writing to a friend,
enclosing a copy of Peel's letter, says: "Sir R. Peel came from
Burleigh on Tuesday night, and went down to Brighton on Saturday.
If he had written by post I should not have had it till to-day. So
he sent his servant with the enclosed on Saturday night; another
mark of considerate attention." He is frightfully unwell, he
continues, his wife says he looks quite green: but ill as he is,
poor fellow, "his well is not dry. He has pumped out a sheet of
Christmas fun, is drawing some cuts, and shall write a sheet more of his
O sad, marvellous picture of courage, of honesty, of
patient endurance, of duty struggling against pain! How noble Peel's
figure is standing by that sick bed! how generous his words, how
dignified and sincere his compassion! And the poor dying man, with a
heart full of natural gratitude toward his noble benefactor, must turn
to him and say: " If it be well to be remembered by a minister, it is
better still not to be forgotten by him in a 'hurly Burleigh!'"
Can you laugh? Is not the joke horribly pathetic from the poor dying
lips? As dying Robin Hood must fire a last shot with his bow—as one
reads of Catholics on their death-beds putting on a Capuchin dress to go
out of the world—here is poor Hood at his last hour putting on his
ghastly motley, and uttering one joke more.
He dies, however, in dearest love and peace with his children, wife,
friends; to the former especially his whole life had been devoted, and
every day showed his fidelity, simplicity, and affection. In going
through the record of his most pure, modest, honourable life, and living
along with him, you come to trust him thoroughly, and feel that here is
a most loyal, affectionate, and upright soul, with whom you have been
brought into communion. Can we say as much of all lives of all men of
letters? Here is one, at least, without guile, without pretension,
without scheming, of a pure life, to his family and little modest circle
of friends tenderly devoted.
And what a hard work, and what a slender reward!
In the little
domestic details with which the book abounds, what a simple life is
shown to us! The most simple little pleasures and amusements delight
and occupy him. You have revels on shrimps; the good wife making the
pie; details about the maid, and criticisms on her conduct; wonderful
tricks played with the plum-pudding—all the pleasures centring round the
little humble home. One of the first men of his time, he is
appointed editor of a magazine at a salary of £300 per annum, signs
himself exultingly "Ed. N. M. M.," and the family rejoice over the
income as over a fortune. He goes to a Greenwich dinner—what a
feast and rejoicing afterward!
"Well, we drank 'the Boz' with a delectable clatter, which
drew from him a good warm-hearted speech..... He looked very well, and
had a younger brother along with him.... Then we had songs. Barham
chanted a Robin Hood ballad, and Cruikshank sang a burlesque ballad of
Lord H—; and somebody, unknown to me, gave a capital imitation of a
French showman. Then we toasted Mrs. Boz, and the Chairman, and Vice,
and the Traditional Priest sang the 'Deep, deep sea,' in his deep,
deep voice; and then we drank to Procter, who wrote the said song;
also Sir J. Wilson's good health, and Cruikshank's, and Ainsworth's: and a Manchester friend of the latter sang a Manchester ditty, so full
of trading stuff that it really seemed to have been not composed but
manufactured. Jerdan, as Jerdanish as usual on such occasions— you
know how paradoxically he is quite at home in dining out.
myself, I had to make my second maiden speech, for Mr. Monckton Mimes
proposed my health in terms my modesty might allow me to repeat to you, but my memory won't.
However, I ascribed the toast to my
notoriously bad health, and assured them that their wishes had already
improved it—that I felt a brisker circulation— a more genial warmth
about the heart, and explained that a certain trembling of my hand was
not from palsy, or my old ague, but an inclination in my hand to shake
itself with every one present. Whereupon I had to go through the
friendly ceremony with as many of the company as were within reach,
besides a few more who came express from the other end of the table.
Very gratifying, wasn't it? Though I can not go quite so far as
Jane, who wants me to have that hand chopped off, bottled, and preserved
in spirits. She was sitting up for me, very anxiously, as usual when I
go out, because I am so domestic and steady, and was down at the door
before I could ring at the gate, to which Boz kindly sent me in his own
carriage. Poor girl! what would she do if she had a wild
husband instead of a tame one."
And the poor anxious wife is sitting up, and fondles the hand which
has been shaken by so many illustrious men! The little feast dates back
only eighteen years, and yet somehow it seems as distant as a dinner at
Mr. Thrale's, or a meeting at Will's.
Poor little gleam of sunshine! very little good cheer enlivens that
sad simple life. We have the triumph of the magazine; then a new
magazine projected and produced; then illness and the last scene, and
the kind Peel by the dying man's bedside, speaking noble words of
respect and sympathy, and soothing the last throbs of the tender honest
I like, I say, Hood's life even better than his books, and I wish,
with all my heart, Monsieur et cher confrère, the same could be said
for both of us, when the ink-stream of our life hath ceased to run.
Yes; if I drop first, dear Baggs, I trust you may find reason to modify
some of the unfavourable views of my character, which you are freely
imparting to our mutual friends. What ought to be the literary man's
point of honour nowadays? Suppose, friendly reader, you are one of the
craft, what legacy would you like to leave to your children? First of
all (and by Heaven's gracious help) you would pray and strive to give
these such an endowment of love as should last certainly for all their
lives, and perhaps be transmitted to their children. You would (by the
same aid and blessing) keep your honour pure, and transmit a name
unstained to those who have a right to bear it. You would —though this
faculty of giving is one of the easiest of the literary man's
qualities—you, would, out of your earnings, small or great, be able to
help a poor brother in need, to dress his wounds, and, if it were but twopence, to give him succour. Is the money which the noble Macaulay
gave to the poor lost to his family? God forbid. To the loving hearts
of his kindred is it not rather the most precious part of their
inheritance? It was invested in love and righteous doing, and it bears
interest in heaven. You will, if letters be your vocation, find saving
harder than giving and spending. To save be your endeavour too, against
the night's coming when no man may work; when the arm is weary with
the long day's labour; when the brain perhaps grows dark; when the
old, who can labour no more, want warmth and rest, and the young ones
call for supper.