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.