Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hood, Thomas (1799-1845)

HOOD, THOMAS (1799–1845), poet, born on 23 May 1799 at 31 Poultry, London, was second son of Thomas Hood (d. 1811), a Scotchman, who was at the date of the poet's birth partner in the bookselling firm of Vernor & Hood; the poet's mother was a sister of the engraver Sands. After receiving some education at private schools in London, Hood entered a merchant's counting-house there when about thirteen, but his health failed and he was sent to some of his father's relatives at Dundee to recruit it. He remained in Dundee from 1815 to 1818, and occupied himself in reading and sketching, and in writing for local newspapers. On returning to London he was articled to his uncle the engraver, and subsequently to Le Keux; but the confinement of the profession proved too trying for his delicate constitution, and he turned to literature. Messrs. Taylor & Hessey, the publishers, old friends of his father, gave him in 1821 employment as an assistant sub-editor upon their ‘London Magazine,’ to which he was a constant contributor until its transference to other hands in 1823. His contributions, chiefly in verse, comprise examples of nearly all the styles of composition in which he subsequently excelled. He became acquainted with most of the then brilliant staff of contributors, including De Quincey, Hazlitt, and Charles Lamb, and in 1825 he published anonymously, in conjunction with John Hamilton Reynolds, ‘Odes and Addresses to Great People,’ which no less a critic than Coleridge ascribed to Lamb. On 5 May 1825 he married Reynolds's sister Jane. Lamb's lines, ‘On an Infant dying as soon as born,’ were prompted by the death of his first child. His time was now entirely devoted to authorship. The two series of ‘Whims and Oddities’ appeared respectively in 1826 and 1827, and were followed by the now entirely forgotten ‘National Tales,’ novelettes somewhat in the manner of Boccaccio. The ‘Plea of the Midsummer Fairies’ was published in 1827, and the dramatic romance of ‘Lamia,’ first printed in 1852 in the appendix to vol. i. of Jerdan's ‘Autobiography,’ was probably written about this time. In 1829 Hood became editor of the ‘Gem,’ an annual which gave to light many remarkable productions, or at least productions of remarkable men, such as Tennyson. His own ‘Eugene Aram's Dream’ was among them. In the same year he removed from Robert Street, Adelphi, to Winchmore Hill, where he spent three years. In 1832 he went to live at Wanstead. While there he had a hand in Reynolds's ‘Gil Blas,’ and other dramatic pieces, which his son afterwards found it impossible to identify. The ‘Comic Annual,’ commenced in 1830, was a more substantial undertaking, and met with the most favourable reception. While at Wanstead he wrote his novel, ‘Tylney Hall’ (1834, 3 vols.), and his poem on the ‘Epping Hunt.’ Towards the close of 1834 Hood met with heavy pecuniary misfortunes, the cause of which is obscurely stated; they appear to have been due to the failure of a publisher. Rejecting the temptation to shield himself by a declaration of insolvency, he yielded up all his property to his creditors. Temporarily provided for by advances made to him by publishers on the mortgage of his brain, he retired to the continent with a view to economy while clearing off the liabilities yet remaining. Upon his voyage to Holland (March 1835) he was overtaken by a terrible storm, the effects of which seriously impaired his already weakly constitution. He settled successively at Coblentz (1835–7) and Ostend (1837–40), continuing his annual, and writing ‘Hood's Own’ (1838) and ‘Up the Rhine,’ commenced in 1836 and published in 1839. Much of his correspondence during this period is preserved in the ‘Memorials’ published by his children; its gaiety and spirit are remarkable indeed for a consumptive patient almost worn out by continual attacks of exhausting illness. In 1840 he returned to England, living successively at Camberwell and St. John's Wood, and began to write for the ‘New Monthly Magazine,’ of which, on the death of Theodore Hook in August 1841, he became the editor. In it appeared ‘Miss Kilmansegg,’ perhaps his masterpiece in his own most characteristic style. Still greater success was attained by the ‘Song of the Shirt,’ published anonymously in the Christmas number of ‘Punch’ for 1843. Hood, who could seldom agree with a publisher, retired from the editorship of the ‘New Monthly Magazine’ at the end of 1843, and with a partner established ‘Hood's Magazine’ in January 1844, an undertaking too great for his strength. In the same year he collected some of his recent pieces in a volume called ‘Whimsicalities’ illustrated by Leech. But before Christmas 1844 he completely broke down, and from that date to his death never left his bed. The kindness of Sir Robert Peel soothed his last days by the bestowal of a pension of 100l., with remainder to his wife. The last production of Hood's pen, and not the least valuable, was a letter to the statesman on the estrangement between classes in modern society. He died on 3 May 1845 at Devonshire Lodge, Finchley Road, and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery, where in 1854 a public monument was erected to him, adorned with bas-reliefs from ‘Eugene Aram's Dream’ and the ‘Bridge of Sighs,’ and inscribed: ‘He sang the Song of the Shirt.’ His complete works have been edited thrice; the last time (1882–4) in eleven volumes. His poems were edited by Canon Ainger in 1897. His son Thomas and daughter Frances Freeling Broderip are noticed separately.

There were two sides to Hood's poetical character, either of which would have given him distinction; but his great and unique reputation rests upon the performances in which they appeared in combination. As a poet in the more conventional and restricted sense he was graceful, delicate, and tender, but not very powerful. As a humorist he was exuberant and endowed with a perfectly exceptional faculty of playing upon words. As a poet he is no unworthy disciple of Lamb and Hunt; as a humorist he was exuberant and endowed with a perfectly exceptional faculty of playing upon words. As a poet he is no unworthy disciple of Lamb and Hunt; as a humorist he resembles Barham, with less affluence of grotesque invention, but with a pathos to which Barham was a stranger. In his two most famous poems, the ‘Song of the Shirt’ and the ‘Bridge of Sighs,’ this pathos is almost detached from the humorous element in which it is commonly imbedded, and the result is two of the rarest achievements of contemporary verse—pieces equally attractive to the highest and the humblest, genuine Volkslieder of the nineteenth century. He is, however, most truly himself when the serious and the comic are inextricably combined, as in those masterpieces ‘Miss Kilmansegg’ and the ‘Epistle to Rae Wilson.’ Here he stands alone, even though the association of poetry and humour is the general note of his literary work. As a man he was highly estimable; and the tragic necessity laid upon him of jesting for a livelihood while in the very grasp of death imparts a painful interest to his biography.

[Memorials of Thomas Hood, collected, arranged, and edited by his Daughter, 1860; Hood's Literary Reminiscences in Hood's Own, 1st ser.; Alexander Elliot's Hood in Scotland, 1885; Canon Ainger in Chambers's Cyclopædia, 1890.]

R. G.