Robert Bloomfield 1766-1823
Bloomfield is considered by some critics to have been influential as a forerunner to Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Raised in the countryside and almost entirely self-taught, Bloomfield was at odds with city life though he lived in London for much of his adulthood. His nostalgia for rural life resulted in a sizeable collection of poems. His first success, The Farmer's Boy (1800), earned him considerable popularity with both fellow poets and his reading public. However, neither that poem nor any from his five ensuing collections earned him either wealth or enduring recognition.
Born in 1766 to George, a tailor, and Elizabeth, a school mistress, Bloomfield received an education in his mother's home, briefly supplemented by several months of tutoring paid for by friends. After four years of laboring on his uncle's farm, work for which he was particularly ill-suited due to his slight frame and small stature, he moved to London to work as a shoemaker with his brother George. He was not particularly well-suited to that career either, which resulted in his being assigned the task of reading the newspaper to his fellow cobblers while they worked. That assignment instigated an interest in language and literature that his brother nurtured with the gift of a dictionary and Bloomfield himself cultivated with visits to public lectures and attention to the poetry and reviews published in the London Magazine. He began composing poetry in his head while he made shoes, constructing rhyming couplets to facilitate memorization, and eventually composed much of his most famous poem, The Farmer's Boy, in that manner. With his brother's help, he found an important patron in the figure of Capel Lofft, a barrister and writer who gave The Farmer's Boy to publisher Vernor and Hood. Over the next twenty-three years, he published five more collections of poetry, though without the commercial success of his first. With his wife Mary-Anne Church, whom he had married in 1790, and their two daughters and one son (who struggled with various physical infirmities), he eventually moved from London in an effort to combat the family's relative poverty. Bloomfield spent the remainder of his life working simultaneously as craftsman (he made harps as well as shoes) and wordsmith. Having had little success in either endeavor, in 1823, Bloomfield died in debt and poor spirits.
The Farmer's Boy was Bloomfield's greatest success, selling over twenty-six thousand copies in fourteen separate editions. He also published five other collections of poetry, each a scrutiny of some aspect of rural life, as well as a small assortment of prose. Variously labeled a peasant or rural poet, self-taught or unlearned, Bloomfield made his subjects the laboring poor of the countryside. The relationship of country people to their land, their values, and their joys and pains, remained his primary thematic focus throughout his writing career. John Lucas describes him as “the English Theocritus because he writes about a first world of rural circumstance, one now gone,” and critics frequently note both the influence of and similarities to James Thomson's The Seasons. As with the other peasant poets—Stephen Duck, George Crabbe, John Clare, William Cobbett, and James Hogg, among others—his poetry foregrounds experience and sensory perception. Rural Tales, Ballads, and Songs (1802), which he wrote while waiting for the publication of The Farmer's Boy, succeeded in accurately depicting rural life for some readers, like John Clare, despite Clare's admonition of its “elevated” style. Good Tidings (1804), a poem about smallpox vaccination, shifted Bloomfield's subject matter from the rural to the scientific. A children's tale, The History of Little Davy's New Hat (1815) was meant to teach rural values, and Wild Flowers (1806), pursued similar themes, including a celebration of the harvest festival and country courtships. The Banks of the Wye (1811), converts a travel journal to verse, and May Day with the Muses (1819), takes as its subject the rural poet himself. In the last year of Bloomfield's life, he produced a dramatic sketch, Hazelwood Hall (1823), and one year later, in an effort to raise some funds for Bloomfield's surviving family, Joseph Weston edited and issued The Remains of Robert Bloomfield (1824), which includes correspondence as well as “The Bird and Insect Post Office,” a natural history for children.
His contemporaneous critics, in such journals as the Monthly Review, Critical Review, and British Critic, consistently appreciated Bloomfield's work for its originality and lack of pretension. They celebrated, too, his humanity, his humility, and what many found to be a simple and beautiful use of language, as well as wit in his characterizations and a refreshing absence of either idealization or moral judgment. Though accused of having “a poor mind” by Charles Lamb, Bloomfield found influential supporters in his fellow poets William Wordsworth and John Clare, and critics Robert Southey and William Hazlitt. In the twentieth century, Bloomfield has been both limited and liberated by being primarily considered in the context of the peasant poet. Edmund Blunden, for example, faults Bloomfield for never extending in his work beyond the world he knew, even while he acknowledges The Farmer's Boy as “a phenomenal piece of work” in its “tenacious contentment in the bosom of the earth.” In The Rural Muse, Rayner Unwin finds Bloomfield's poetry exemplary and excellent within the genre of peasant poetry. John Lucas considers the social and political implications of Bloomfield using poetry to redefine himself as a self-taught poet. Bloomfield's most active late-twentieth-century defender, Jonathan Lawson, endorses Bloomfield's modesty and sees a marked moral conviction evident in his characters' values.
The Farmer's Boy; A Rural Poem [Le Valet du Fermier] (poetry) 1800
Rural Tales, Ballads, and Songs (poetry) 1802
Good Tidings; or, News from the Farm (poetry) 1804
Wild Flowers; or, Pastoral and Local Poetry (poetry) 1806
The Banks of the Wye; A Poem (poetry) 1811
The History of Little Davy's New Hat (prose) 1815
May Day with the Muses (poetry) 1822
Hazelwood Hall: A Village Drama (play) 1823
The Remains of Robert Bloomfield (poetry, prose, and letters) 1824
Selections from the Correspondence of Robert Bloomfield, The Suffolk Poet (letters) 1870
Collected Poems, 1800-1822 (poetry) 1971
(The entire section is 85 words.)
SOURCE: Review of The Farmer's Boy, by Robert Bloomfield. Monthly Review, or Literary Journal 32 (September 1800): 50-56.
[In the following excerpt, the reviewer notes Bloomfield's elevation of his rustic subject through unaffected and eloquent poetry.]
This poem [The Farmer's Boy] is ushered into the world under the obstetric auspices of the ingenious Mr. Capel Lofft, but it is the production of a journeyman shoemaker, who was himself originally destined to be a Farmer's Boy. The preface contains some particulars of his life, communicated by his brother to Mr. Lofft; whence it appears that the only literary instructions which he ever had he received from his mother in reading, and from a country schoolmaster in writing, for the space of two or three months. He was afterward sent to London, to his brother, in order to learn to make shoes; and there he continued till, in consequence of the dispute between the journeymen and master shoemakers, in 1784, he returned into the country to his old master, Mr. Austin: who, as the brother says,
“Kindly bade him take his house for his home till he could return to me. And here, with his mind glowing with the fine Descriptions of rural scenery which he found in Thomson's Seasons, he again retraced the very fields where first he began to think. Here, free from the smoke, the noise, and the contention of the...
(The entire section is 990 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Rural Tales and Poems, by Robert Bloomfield. British Critic 19 (April 1802): 338-43.
[In the following excerpt, the author finds Bloomfield's second book an extension of the virtuosity of his first.]
We are pleasingly called away from our abstruser studies, by these productions of a genuine Child of Nature. In Bloomfield's first Poem, the Farmer's Boy, we saw and commended the evidence of an original genius, well deserving of encouragement and cultivation1. The public has agreed with us, and five editions of that work exhibit the most unequivocal attestation of general favour. Of the author's history, as detailed in the Preface, by Mr. C. Lofft, we gave a sketch in the article referred to in the margin, and we are happy now to add to it, in the words of the author himself:
“The consequence has been such as my true friends will rejoice to hear; it has procured me many essential blessings: and I feel peculiarly gratified in finding that a poor man in England may assert the dignity of Virtue, and speak of the imperishable beauties of Nature, and be heard; and heard, perhaps, with greater attention for his being poor.”
With the Farmer's Boy we were highly pleased, because it showed, in the most striking manner, the natural movements of an ingenious mind; and evinced how perfectly new...
(The entire section is 1331 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Rural Tales and Poems, by Robert Bloomfield. Critical Review 35 (May 1802): 67-75.
[In the following excerpt, the critic asserts that Bloomfield's second work, Rural Tales, equals the brilliance of his well-known The Farmer's Boy.]
This volume cannot be better introduced than by the author's preface—a manly and modest performance, highly honourable to his feelings and his abilities.
‘The poems here offered to the public were chiefly written during the interval between the concluding, and the publishing of The Farmer's Boy, an interval of nearly two years. The pieces of a later date are, “The Widow to her Hour-Glass,” “The Fakenham Ghost,” “Walter and Jane,” & c. At the time of publishing The Farmer's Boy, circumstances occurred which rendered it necessary to submit these poems to the perusal of my friends: under whose approbation I now give them, with some confidence as to their moral merit, to the judgement of the public. And as they treat of village manners, and rural scenes, it appears to me not ill-timed to avow, that I have hopes of meeting in some degree the approbation of my country. I was not prepared for the decided, and I may surely say extraordinary attention which the public has shown towards The Farmer's Boy: the consequence has been such as my true friends will rejoice to hear; it...
(The entire section is 1802 words.)
SOURCE: Bloomfield, Robert. Preface to Wild Flowers; or, Pastoral and Local Poetry, pp. vii-x. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, Poultry; and Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, Paternoster-Row, 1806.
[In the following essay, Bloomfield's preface to Wild Flowers; or, Pastoral and Local Poetry, the author offers insight into his subject matter.]
A man of the first eminence, in whose day (fortunately perhaps for me) I was not destined to appear before the public, or to abide the Herculean crab-tree of his criticism, Dr. Johnson, has said, in his preface to Shakespeare, that—“Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.” My representations of nature, whatever may be said of their justness, are not general, unless we admit, what I suspect to be the case, that nature in a village is very much like nature every where else. It will be observed that all my pictures are from humble life, and most of my heroines servant maids. Such I would have them: being fully persuaded that, in no other way would my endeavours, either to please or to instruct, have an equal chance of success.
The path I have thus taken, from necessity, as well as from choice, is well understood and approved by hundreds, who are capable of ranging in the higher walks of literature.—But with due deference to their superior claim, I confess, that no recompense has...
(The entire section is 535 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Wild Flowers; or, Pastoral and Local Poetry, by Robert Bloomfield. Literary Journal, a Review 2, no. 2 (July 1806): 61-65.
[In the following excerpted review, the author values Bloomfield for his lack of pretension and for his generosity toward his subjects.]
Mr. Bloomfield's poetry, when connected with the remarkable particulars of his story, possessed irresistible attractions for the public curiosity; but even had he possessed every opportunity which the young poet can require to awake his fancy and improve his taste, his poetry would have acquired him a just reputation. His writings, with very few exceptions, have nothing in them which could disparage the scholar and the man of taste: his poetry is easy, natural, and perfectly free from affectation; and he has the good sense to employ himself in describing those scenes and manners which have fallen particularly under his own observation. Instead, therefore, of being a mere copyist of others, as is too frequently the case with modern poets, he has a manner and a character of his own; and acquires the praise of originality without degenerating into extravagance.
The present small collection bears the same character as his former publications. Some of the pieces are of a more playful and humorous cast, and in these we think he particularly excels, as they are descriptive of those scenes which place the manners...
(The entire section is 1197 words.)
SOURCE: Review of May Day with the Muses by Robert Bloomfield. Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 11 (January-June 1822): 722-31.
[In the following excerpt, the author satirically meditates on “humble” poets before turning to extol Bloomfield as among the best of the uneducated poets, quoting extensively from his work as evidence.]
A great many ploughmen—shepherds—ditchers—and shoemakers—nay, even tailors—have in this free and happy country of ours wooed the Muses. Apollo, on the other hand, has been made love to, (and in some instances very nearly ravished, as, for example, by that vigorous milk-woman, Ann Yearsley,) by vast flocks of young women in the lower walks of life, dairy-maids, nurses, house-keepers, knitters in the sun, and Cinderellas. A very droll volume or two might be made up of their productions. One thing we observe in the poetry of them all—male and female—a strong bias to the indulgence of the tender passion. They are all most excessively amorous, and every volume is a perfect dovecote, sounding with a continual coo. Roger, the ploughman, makes love in a bold, vigorous, straight-forward fashion, as if he were “in glory and in joy,” “following his plough upon the mountain-side.” Jamie, the shepherd, the yellow-haired laddie—is more figurative and circumlocutory; but just let him alone for a few minutes, and he is sure to get upon his subject at last, and...
(The entire section is 2564 words.)
SOURCE: Blunden, Edmund. “The Farmer's Boy: Duck, Bloomfield.” In Nature in English Literature, pp. 106-131. London: The Hogarth Press, 1929.
[In the following excerpt, Blunden examines Bloomfield's contribution to the genre of “earth-born poetry.”]
The conversation of the men who work on the land, when their topic is their life and experience, is full of translated colour and significant sound; it is with little difficulty that I have sometimes fancied, as I listened to three or four hearty haymakers, that there grew the true poem of Nature. Their whole sense seemed peculiarly trained to answer all that Nature in this country has to say or do, from the grasshopper's rustle to the assembly of the thunderstorm; their verbs seemed of the earth earthy, of the flowers flowery, and their illustrations of meaning simply added other depths of weather-beaten stoicism. We may define poetry as we will, but in the plain, shrewd, and curious eclogues which a subject like thrashing-tackle will set going in the country inn, there is an actuality of impression and a secret glory of soul which may scarcely be called anything but poetry. …
I now turn [from Stephen Duck] to the more celebrated though not more remarkable Farmer's Boy of the early nineteenth century, in whom we may read something of the same ultimate error after similar indications of a genuine earth-born poetry. Robert...
(The entire section is 3101 words.)
SOURCE: Unwin, Rayner. “Robert Bloomfield.” In The Rural Muse: Studies in the Peasant Poetry of England, pp. 87-109. London: Goerge Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1954.
[In the following excerpt, the author reviews the critical response of Bloomfield's contemporaries to his poetry as well as some of the salient features of the poet's biography. A close reading of The Farmer's Boy yields a discussion of Bloomfield's restraint from moralizing and of his conservative intellectual approach.]
First made a Farmer's Boy, and then a snob, A poet he became, and here lies Bob.
Robert Bloomfield: MS. scribble, April 1823
In 1781 Robert Bloomfield, a fourteen-year-old farm boy, threw his old hat in the horse-pond, sold his smock for a shilling, and set off to London to turn shoemaker. It was not without regret that he left the East-Anglian farm where he had been employed for the past three years, but his employer, Mr. Austin, declared that he was too slightly built to be of much use on the land, and in consequence it had been decided to send him to London where he could join his two brothers, George and Nat, who were already established as journeymen shoemakers in that city. “I am glad to find you are well and that you are willing to cum to London,” wrote George. “Pack your Old Cloths up as clos as you can, don't waite, till Shoes or Shirts bee Mended. …” Robert took the...
(The entire section is 9014 words.)
SOURCE: Lawson, Jonathan. “The Later Works: Continued Awareness and Final Decline” and “Bloomfield and the Rural Tradition: Its Value and Values.” In Robert Bloomfield, pp. 94-154. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.
[In the following excerpt, Lawson discusses some of Bloomfield's later works, including his poem on the smallpox epidemic, and evaluates the poet's rural identity and influences.]
THE LATER WORKS: CONTINUED AWARENESS AND FINAL DECLINE
I RURAL TALES, BALLADS, AND SONGS
If there is a unified critical opinion of Bloomfield's works, it is that the first are the best. One modern critic finds that the first poetry, The Farmer's Boy, was surely his best;1 another finds Bloomfield's next work, Rural Tales, Ballads, and Songs, full of “undistinguished poems.”2 More recently, Graham Reed observed that in his later works Bloomfield “succumbed to gentility; he allowed a stilted formalism to suffuse his verse,” and that his “most ambitious works were in a characteristically eighteenth-century style.”3 In this there is just enough truth to want correcting. Even Edmund Blunden, who is indeed Bloomfield's foremost modern champion, finds The Farmer's Boy to be Bloomfield's greatest poem. The rest, he writes, illuminate it, “but none can rival its tenacious contentment in the bosom...
(The entire section is 21604 words.)
SOURCE: Lucas, John. “Bloomfield and Clare.” In The Independent Spirit: John Clare and the Self-Taught Tradition, edited by John Goodridge, pp. 55-68. Helpston: John Clare Society and the Margaret Grainger Memorial Trust, 1994.
[In the following essay, Lucas argues that Bloomfield's “poetry was a means of securing a social identity at odds with his own origins.” He also interprets Clare's praise for Bloomfield's poetry as praise for the depiction of an ideal, uncorrupted rural life.]
[John] Clare's intense admiration for Bloomfield is well known. ‘The English Theocritus & the first of the Rural Bards in this country’, he called him. He also said that in his opinion Bloomfield was ‘our best Pastoral poet’. Johanne Clare rather questions Clare's motives in piling up such exaggerated praise, as she thinks it to be. Clare, she says, ‘must have recognized that by rallying to Bloomfield's reputation he was to some extent helping to lay the foundations for his own’ (John Clare and the Bounds of Circumstance, p. 62). This is almost certainly unfair. True, Clare closely identified with Bloomfield, and this is hardly to be wondered at. But his warmest praise tends to occur in letters, which can hardly be thought of as a form of ‘rallying’, with all that implies of a public concern; and anyway, had he been so intent as Johanne Clare argues on using Bloomfield to help build...
(The entire section is 5545 words.)
Ashby, Robert F. “The First Editions of The Farmer's Boy.” The Book Collector 41, no. 2 (summer 1992): 180-87.
Describes the quality of paper, print, and illustrative engravings used in the first editions of The Farmer's Boy.
Bloomfield, B. C. “The Publication of The Farmer's Boy by Robert Bloomfield.” The Library 15, no. 2 (June 1993): 75-94.
Places the production and publication of Bloomfield's most famous poem in some historical context and in the context of Bloomfield's family history; also traces some of the financial transactions involved.
Cranbrook, the Earl of, and Hadfield, John. “Some Uncollected Authors XX: Robert Bloomfield, 1766-1823.” Book Collector 8, no. 2 (summer 1959): 170-79.
Offers a brief defense of Bloomfield's poetry and brief account of his life as a writer; then reviews the bibliographical history of his work.
Lawson, Jonathan. Introduction to Collected Poems: 1800-1822. Gainseville: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1971, vii-xv.
Surveys Bloomfield's career from his love for his craft to his ill health and poverty at the end of his life.
Review of Good Tidings; or, News from the Farm. A...
(The entire section is 315 words.)