The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

V. Lesser Poets, 1790–1837

§ 7. Thomas Hood

Thomas Hood and Winthrop Mackworth Praed, though moving in very different spheres and, so far as one knows, strangers to one another in life, are indissolubly associated in literature, owing to the singular “double arrangement” of their combination of serious and comic work, and of the character of at least the comic work of both. This latter, in its more special aspect, may be postponed for a little, so that we may group it further in a way not unimportant or uninteresting to the historical student of literature. It is sufficient here to dismiss as unprofitable and unnecessary the question whether, in any case, serious or comic, there was a debt owing on either side to the other. Mere partisans have sometimes excited themselves over this question,but it is of no real importance. Although they pair off in so remarkable a manner, each, to eyes of any critical discernment, has a perfectly sufficient idiosyncrasy. It was long the case, and it may be doubted whether it has entirely ceased to be so, that the fame of Hood’s serious work was largely, if not completely, obscured by that of his comic, with the exception of the two great popular-sentimental favourites The Song of the Shirt and The Bridge of Sighs. It is well known that Thackeray, in one of those impulsive outbursts which have been often misinterpreted, expressed himself as rather indignant at Hood’s comic avocation from his real business. No man’s memory and reputation have been more cruelly overloaded and overwhelmed by the publication of heaps of what is only not sheer rubbish because it served once to win bread for a true poet and an admirable man of letters, and because there is nothing in it in the least disgraceful. But, apart even from the very best of the comic work, which is to be noticed later, apart from the “sensational pieces” The Song and The Bridge, which make their appeal at once to all those who are likely to appreciate them, Hood has to his credit a body of purely serious poetical work neither aiming at mere popularity, nor deliberately eschewing it, work to be taken at a purely poetic valuation and judged on that, which (even though fifteen editions of it sold in as many years after his death) is still far too often neglected, and, even when not quite neglected, is far too seldom accorded its proper rank.

It was, perhaps, in the circumstances, a minor misfortune—similar to the major one of the huge unsifted dust-heap of the Works—that there were included in the collection of his Serious Poems, made just after his death, even such, in themselves excellent things, as Miss Kilmansegg and the Clapham Academy ode. For public taste was, is and probably always will be, not merely a “great-sized monster of ingratitudes” but one of haste, indiscrimination and other bad things. It had been accustomed to consider Hood a mere joke-smith; and it was sure to fix on these and one or two others as instances of his real vocation. All this serio-comic or tragi-comic stuff were much better segregated, and the removal would leave nearly three quarters of a volume of some four hundred pages full of poetry pure and simple. Nothing in this is rubbish; some of it is extraordinarily good. The Haunted House is one of the minor, and not so very minor, marvels of English poetry. The only objection that one can imagine as being brought against it, by anyone who can appreciate it at all, is that the craftsmanship is almost too unconcealedly and obtrusively perfect—the accumulation of the unusual, stately, mournful rhythm of the stanza; the carefully constructed and diffused detail and the atmosphere of decay, destruction and dread; the as careful selection of language tending to the same object but never diverging into extravagance or the disgusting; above all, the triumphant avoidance of that slip into the ludicrous which these horror-plays and poems constantly commit. The Elm Tree is nearly as good, though, perhaps, it might have been shortened. The more popular Eugene Aram and The Bridge of Sighs itself are not flawless, but the grimness of the one and the pathos of the other could have been attained by none save a true poet.