| There is a bizarre and gruesome side of Hood’s humor that is displayed in “The Supper Superstition,” a poem in which a sailor’s ghost warns his family not to finish a sea-food dinner they are eating because the fish on which they are dining had eaten his remains after he had died at sea. Still on the subject of eating delights, Hood witnesses the feeding of a boa constrictor in “A Snake-Snack” and remarks that a very considerable interval intervenes between Gorge the first, Gorge the second, Gorge the third, and Gorge the fourth. The snake’s rabbit prey looks as if to say, like Hamlet: “O could I shuffle off this mortal coil.” Hood’s fellow observer of the snake’s repast, a stout gentleman, stares raptly, his mouth working, and suddenly rushes to a nearby hotel dining room and orders excitedly, “Rabbit, in onions, for two!” See Figure 1 for an accompanying illustration.
A more grotesque note is found in “The Apparition, a True Story” where a fierce gale overturns a ferryboat and drowns all the passengers with Jock, the ferryman. Jock’s body is the last one found after five days in the water. At Jock’s funeral, he is covered with a sheet with candles burning at his head and feet. As the mourners gather around his funeral bier, the candles sputter and go out, but not before the mourners see the sheet move. Panic ensues and almost everyone rushes out of the house. A large pound crab drops down from the bier and scuttles from the house to the seashore, but it is captured by a bonny girl who promptly catches, boils, and eats him. Food must have occupied Hood’s mind, for we find in “Epicurean Reminiscences” a man who associates food with all his memories. At its conclusion, “his wife took ill at the turn of the year, and then her last dying spark went out, when the oysters came in” (Hood 1831:172).
Hood’s writings also show his disapproval of bigotry. No contemporary vice aroused him more deeply than religious fanaticism (Clubbe 69). Hood’s finding humor in the shared attitudes of his time may strike the reader of today as particularly insensitive. Hood ridicules missionaries and blacks in “A Letter to a Parish Clerk in Barbados.” This is a fictitious communication from a churchman surrounded by island Blackamoors, “a strange herd of black cattle I am among,” with a three-page postscript by one of the blacks that parodies blacks, missions, and religion in Figure 1.
Others may also find fault with the flippant “Sonnet, To a Scotch Girl Washing Linen” in which the poet says: “I do not mean to give thee a new damper/ But while thou fillest this industrial part/ Of washer, wearer, mangler, presser, stomper/ Deserving better character - thou art/ What Bodkin would but call - “a Common tramper” (Hood 1831:90). See Figure 1 for the associated illustration. The remainder of the stories and poems in this annual show that Hood was equally adept at parody, dialectical farce, word play, and ”shaggy dog stories,” which are long drawn-out tales that lead up to a punch line.
The overall tone of Hood’s humor seems to be light and well intentioned. Although Hood was not a churchgoer, he was no atheist; he disliked sanctimonious churchgoers, because they hated laughter and condemned any impropriety. His morbid streak may be attributed to his congenital illness and the many deaths in his family. Finally, the preoccupation with food and eating noted in the stories just discussed may be due to his constant financial problems. Hood was harassed by poor health, and his finances became precarious. Hood’s life was one long search for money. He went into debt by being involved in a failed publishing firm in 1834. He determined to repay the debt in full rather than by declaring himself bankrupt, a common practice at that time. Facing financial disaster in 1835, Hood moved his family to Coblenz, Germany to reduce his expenses. While on the Continent, Hood supplied material to John Wright in England in order to continue publishing the Comic Annual. Wright was a personal as well as a business friend who took care of the mechanical side of preparing the annuals for printing until his death late in 1839 (Jerrold 322). Hood’s publisher then became A. H. Baily. The Comic Annual maintained a steady sale of about fifteen hundred copies a year, although it had a readership of many times that number (Clubbe 75).
In 1840, Hood returned with his family to England free of debt. He did not produce a Comic Annual in 1840 and 1841. This interval was probably helpful, because Hood was able to devote himself more to subjects suggested by current affairs. At this time, his comic mirror begins to reflect the dark atmosphere of crisis and reform in England when he returned. England was suffering a deep depression later called the “hungry forties.” The old order was crumbling, and there were many calls for political and social reform. The Reform Act of 1832 had only initiated steps toward a modern electoral system by doubling the total electorate to 813,000 out of six million British males. Substantial reforms followed, involving redress of working-class grievances and the beginning of government intervention in education, welfare, prison conditions, working hours and public order (Poston 9). Hood began writing against social wrongs. Most of the causes that Hood fought for on his return to England have now only historical interest, because the reforms he supported became law.