Thomas Hood on Other Subjects

Thomas Hood created illustrations and wrote about many serious subjects besides poverty, prisons and the law and religion.

illustration of a pun

Sailors were frequently injured especially during war time. It was not uncommon for a sailor to lose one or more fingers or toes and serious accidents resulted in the loss of hands, arms, feet, legs and eyes.

The crutch and wooden leg will be "friends for life": they will spend a lot of time with the sailor and "stand by" him and "support" him.

In the illustration they stand on shore awaiting his return. But they also await him in the sense that they are his fate, that which he can expect from life.

Note: Most of the graphics below were not originally associated with the works they accompany. They are meant to illustrate other treatments of the same or similar subjects.

"Rural Felicity," The Comic Annual (London: A. H. Baily and Co., 1839), 123-132.

illustration of a pun

In this humorous anti-pastoral a woman from London visits relatives in the country and finds that "all I've seen of a pastoral life only makes one more partial to town."

Walking in town is easier because there no crooked stiles to climb nor bulls to avoid nor ditches to jump. Picking flowers might be pleasant except for the wet dew, nettles that sting and brambles that scratch. The grass stains her clothes. You cannot simply buy food but must churn butter, make cheese and cure hams. Animals are kept in cages in the city where they can't hurt you.

Between complaining about an owl screeching at night and the annoyance of bees, ants and mosquitoes she says: "Then there's plenty of ricks and stacks all about, and I can't help dreaming of Swing --/ In short, I think that a pastoral life is not the most happiest thing."

This refers to the 1830 Swing riots, named for a fictitious Captain Swing who sent letters to landowners threatening damage if they did not provide jobs for the many unemployed agricultural workers. Eventually twenty counties were affected; hay ricks were burned and animals maimed; rioters were hanged and transported. Violence continued for several years.

Although the Swing riots had taken place years earlier, agricultural (and industrial) workers continued to campaign for reforms. Inserted into a comic poem the reference would remind readers that there were more serious problems in the rural areas than owls and insects.

"Town and Country. An Ode," The Comic Poems of Thomas Hood (London: E. Moxon, Son & Co., 1876), 41-43.

illustration of a pun

It's June, the speaker is in London and he longs to be

   In greenwood shades -- my eyes detest
   This endless meal of brick!

The poem is a conventional comparison of the animals, flowers, smells and sounds of the city to those of the country, but it contains some strong images.

   My Corydons [shepherds] use iron hooks,
   And skin -- not shear -- the lambs.

Although there are several puns the poem is not humorous.

   How tenderly Rousseau reviewed
   His periwinkles! -- mine are stewed!

The return of summer brings no joy; the sun sets behind a "chimney pot" not a "purple hill." The streams are "puddle-drains."

   All rural things are vilely mock'd,
   On every hand the sense is shock'd,
   With objects hard to bear:

"A Plain Direction," The Comic Annual (London: A. H. Baily and Co., 1839), 81-87.

illustration of a pun

There is a echo of Dante's Divine Comedy in this poem: the speaker has lost his way in London. When asked for directions, his "guide," in the form of "a little ragged boy," simply nods and winks and tells him to go

   Straight down the Crooked Lane
   And all round the Square.

He boxes the boys ears but since then he has "found that weary path/ Is quite a common road."

He enumerates a number of places he has heard about -- places of abundance, liberty, justice, honesty and even

   Where omlettes grow on trees,
   And roasted pigs run crying out,
   'Come eat me, if you please.'

Each stanza ends with the same question -- "But how shall I get there?" -- and is answered with the same ironic advice: straight down the crooked lane and all round the square. It's a commonplace is to say that the proper and honest way is to stick to the straight and narrow. But you can't go straight down a crooked path. Although you can't square a circle, you can circle a square ("all round the Square") but you arrive at your starting place.

Unlike Dante, the speaker of the poem has no Virgil nor Beatrice to guide him through hell to paradise. And yet, out of the mouth of babes come wisdom: "Utopia is a pleasant place" and maybe it is attainable by following the advice of the little ragged boy.

"Ode to Mr. Malthus," The Comic Annual 2nd edition (London, Charles Tilt, 1832), 91-97.

illustration of a pun

This ode is an example of deadpan satire similar to Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal." The speaker says he agrees with Malthus that there are just too many people (although "not too many undertakers").

He denounces those who try to increase instead of reduce the population. There are "some Wrongheads" who "Sign petitions/ Capital punishment to abolish." Others "New hospitals contrive,/ For keeping life alive."

Specifically, for his own sake he would "weed/ The human breed" of his debtors and creditors and for the world's sake he would eliminate a couple of neighborhood kids, Mr. Irving (who has a chapel) and all Aldermen but one.

"But ah! I fear the public good/ Is little by the public understood": for example, if, when the poor are gathered in old St. Paul's, the Bishop of London proposed to cause the dome to drop and kill them, someone would probably try to stop him. Further, instead of quarantining people to prevent the spread of disease, "We ought to import the Cholera Morbus."

What the speaker actually believes is that there are too many of the "wrong" kind of people. He certainly would not want to eliminate any of his own fifteen children.

"Miss Kilmansegg and her Precious Leg," The Works of Thomas Hood, ed. Epes Sargent, Vol 1 (New York: George P. Putnam, 1862), 231-306.

illustration of a pun

This long satirical poem about the love of wealth appeared in installments in New Monthly Magazine starting in September 1840. Family tradition says the patriarch of the Kilmansegg family became wealthy

   Through an Agricultural Interest
   In the Golden Age of farming;
   When golden eggs were laid by the geese,
   And Colchian sheep wore a golden fleece

Actually, the source of his fortune is more prosaic; he held long leases on many productive acres; he invested at "Five per Cents"; and he made a lot of money selling meat to the government during war.

Into this family is born a daughter.

   Golden-haired Miss Kilmansegg was
   Born in wealth, and wealthily nursed,
   Capp'd, papp'd, napp'd, and lapp'd from the first
   On the knees of prodigality

She is denied nothing and given the best of everything and she grows into a beautiful young woman. One day she is thrown from her horse and receives a compound fracture of the left leg which is amputated in order to save her life. She rejects a wooden leg and demands and receives one made of solid gold.

Throughout the land people hear of it and talk about it. There is a grand fancy ball and everyone who is anyone comes to see the leg. She loves her leg, is proud of it and flaunts it by wearing her skirt short ("a little high-kilted"). One night "inspired by the Golden Leg, she dreamt/ She was turn'd into a Golden Idol."

Her beauty and her wealth make her very desirable as a wife. She is courted by and marries a European Count. During the grand wedding she wears the traditional veil of modesty, but her golden leg is exposed from ankle to knee.

They live in the country and she hates it; her mother goes insane, her father dies and she has no friends. She discovers her husband is not actually a Count; he drinks, smokes, gambles, kisses the maids and treats her badly. He gets into debt and wants her to sell her golden leg:

   The limb became what people call
   A perfect bone of contention

They argue; she won't relinquish the leg. One night he seizes the leg, strikes her with it and kills her.

   Gold, still gold! hard, hard yellow, and cold,
   For gold she had lived, and she died for gold --
   By a golden weapon -- not oaken;
Hood's morality play is replete with puns and other word play. It's based on the idea that there could be an actual "golden calf" and it ends with an absurd comic twist. At the inquest the jury deliberates for three hours
   What the Verdict ought to be,
   And they brought it in a Felo de Se, [self murder, suicide]
   "Because her own Leg had kill'd her!"

See also

Introduction to Thomas Hood