| Hood’s Comic Annual for 1842 was his last, and it was used in this analysis to show the changes that had occurred in the interim. This annual is also pocket-sized and has a split-leather cover with an embossed gold design on the front and back strip. The page edges are gilt. It contains 41 selections in 326 pages. There are 28 poems (167 pages) and 13 stories (168 pages). The longest poem is 107 pages and the longest story is 106 pages. Hood’s poems and stories are longer than in the 1830 annual, probably because he now intends to reform as well as entertain his readers. There are 12 illustrations designed by J. Leech and engraved by W. Folkard and O. Smith. There are 24 vignettes, 16 designed by Hood and 8 by Leech. The Leech illustrations are much more detailed than Hood’s.
The Comic Annual for 1842 opens with what many think is Hood’s masterpiece, “Miss Kilmansegg and Her Precious Leg.” In this 107 page, humorous-macabre poem, the heroine is a spoiled child of a wealthy family who demands a gold leg to replace one she lost in a hunting accident. Everyone admires her golden leg, but she marries a man of low moral character, “a foreign count of no account.” He clubs her to death with her golden leg and runs away. This is a poem of many morals. Hood uses word play [pursy-verance], puns [Hairess], and repeatedly refers to gold in its many variations to condemn his contemporaries’ values. He indicts both the social and political structures of his time and displays some insights he will later use in his protest poems such as: “She was not born to steal or beg...Or sit all day to hem and sew” (lines 120 and 123). Practically all of Hood’s qualities are displayed in this work: satire, double-entendre, the macabre, and social protest. The poem attacks aristocrats, clergymen, ostentatious consumption, and reflects the anti-Semitism of that time. It is a relentless mockery of the middle-class climber and elite. The humor does not subsume the tragedy, and Hood may have intended it that way. For the modern reader, the many puns sprinkled within the text interrupt the tripping gaiety of the meter and distract from the seriousness of its message. This is indeed a much darker Hood than in the Comic Annual of 1831.
Hood takes foreign policy to task, and attacks both the sanctimonious and the rich in “An Open Question” which argues against a bill before the House of Commons that proposed to close the London Zoo on Sunday. Hood championed the underdog and fought the bill, because the poor could only go to the zoo on Sunday. Closing the zoo would deprive commoners of one of their few places of recreation. The well to do would use Sunday to oppress the poor, because primarily the poor would be victims of the Sunday blue laws. Hood pokes fun at the Quakers in “A Friend in Need: An Extravaganza after Sterne.” This is a long (106 pages) shaggy-dog story about friendship that pokes fun at Quakers, a frequent target of Hood’s ridicule. The reference is to Laurence Sterne’s book, Trisram Shandy, another satire using free association and digressions in relating the tale. Finally, in “A Popular Fallacy” Hood admonishes readers to ignore advice to quit eating while still hungry. Do no such thing. There is only one maxim of this kind that is worth anything. When you are dying, quit while still alive. This may be especially poignant advice, because Hood had been suffering from chronic ill health and relative poverty for most of his life. These conditions were rapidly killing him.
In 1844, Hood began publishing Hood’s Monthly Magazine and Comic Miscellany, but again his irascibility caused trouble with his new publisher. Hood’s most memorable poems were written in the last years of his life: “The Song of the Shirt,” “The Bridge of Sighs,” and “The Lay of the Laborer.” His health collapsed and his friends rallied to keep Hood’s magazine going. Hood continued to work although confined to bed. He died on May 3, 1845. Hood once wrote, “The highest office of literary men was to make the world wiser and better; their lowest, to entertain it” (Clubbe 4). Hood occupied both of these offices based on the contents of these two Comic Annuals. The comparison also reveals evidence of the changing nature of his sense of comedy.
In The Triumph of Wit, Robert Martin points out that during the reign of Queen Victoria, comedy changed from the comedy of sentimental humor to the comedy of wit and paradox. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, humor is “distinguished from wit as being less purely intellectual, and as having a sympathetic quality in virtue of which it often becomes allied with pathos” (Martin 26). In other words, humor laughs with others while wit laughs at them. Hood’s work would definitely be classified as the former. In these two Comic Annuals, one notices the shift from Hood’s early aggressive, playful, and sympathetic wit to the development of a harder, less creative, and more directed edge to his humor. Always somewhat morbid, Hood is less funny and more of a social critic in the later annual. Whether such changes in Hood reflect a change in societal apprehension of humor is unclear. Nevertheless, Hood’s experience of middle class insecurities in the late 1830s and early 1840s darkened, but did not extinguish his sense of humor. One senses that Hood’s humor strongly appealed to his less imaginative contemporaries in their unsettled times. Martin also notes that puns lost their popularity during this period to become “the lowest form of wit.” Puns appear less in Hood’s later work; however, Hood wrote to his middle class audience’s expectation, not for critical appreciation. Hood never forgot that he had to be a “lively Hood” for his livelihood (Brander 9).