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The Letters of Robert Bloomfield and His Circle, Edited By Tim Fulford and Lynda Pratt

Introduction: Tim Fulford

Robert Bloomfield, once the most popular poet of the day, is now one of the most neglected of all the writers who captured the public's attention during the early nineteenth century. This neglect, in today's era in which literary criticism is committed to historicism, and in which scores of forgotten writers have been the subject of academic study, is hard to explain. Bloomfield, after all, was no flash in the pan. Not only did his first publication, The Farmer's Boy (1800) outsell Wordsworth's and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads by more than ten to one, but it enjoyed enduring popularity throughout the Romantic era. Nor was Bloomfield a one hit wonder: the follow-up volumes Rural Tales and Wild Flowers also sold in large numbers, becoming the best-known collections of rustic ballads and tales of the period. Bloomfield, moreover, was not just a popular poet, but one respected by the poets who, unlike him, became canonized in the twentieth century. Southey reviewed his work glowingly; Wordsworth paid tribute to it; Clare modelled his verse upon it. Bloomfield, in short, was the rural poet, admired not just for the authenticity that stemmed from his childhood experience as a rural labourer, but accepted as a master of narrative and versification—the living continuation of the Georgic and ballad traditions epitomised by James Thomson and Robert Burns.

What happened? How did Bloomfield get forgotten? Several causes come to mind. First, the Georgic itself gave way to newer, more urbane and urban forms. It was easy to brand Bloomfield's rural simplicity (highly sophisticated in expression though it was) as rustic naivety—the young Byron, eager to make a name for himself, did just that in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. Second, Bloomfield turned aside from the path that led Wordsworth and Shelley to posthumous fame: he left his poem on the subject of his own imagination unfinished and unpublished. And so he never fitted into the category of Romantic lyricism constructed by literary critics. And third, until the last few years of his life Bloomfield became blocked: his output diminished and he lapsed into poverty and illness, without, however, cracking-up in the spectacular way that allowed a Romantic cult to gather around the figure of 'mad' John Clare.

Bloomfield's life is full of interest nonetheless. Born in the Suffolk village of Honington in 1766, he was a poor boy whose father died of smallpox when he was a year old. His mother, the village schooldame, brought him up until, after taking a second husband, she sent him to live and work at the farm of her brother-in-law, William Austin, in nearby Sapiston. Bloomfield proved too physically small to become a useful farmhand, and so was sent as a teenager to London, to live and work with his brothers George and Nathaniel. George, a shoemaker, took Robert in and it was in his brother's workshop in Bell Alley, Coleman Street, that he began to read out the newspaper and magazines, for the benefit of the journeymen. The love of reading that he acquired in this manner led him to poetry—Thomson, Dyer, Gray—and to composition. He made verses as he worked, in his head, committing them to memory. It was in this way that The Farmer's Boy was composed, the Georgic poem on life as rural labourer. When put down on paper, the poem found a sponsor in the Suffolk Whig gentleman Capel Lofft, and was published under his supervision by Vernor and Hood in 1800.

The publication changed Bloomfield's life. It was promoted among the Whig gentry and aristocracy; it found a buying public. He was catapulted into fame, a phenomenon—the verse-making shoemaker and farmer's boy—in demand in the drawing rooms and salons of the rich. He found this an uncomfortable experience, as his letters reveal; moreover, the number of callers at his quarters and the volume of correspondence he received made it impossible to continue his trade. He moved from the court in the Bell Alley to a cottage on the City Road (near the Shepherd and Shepherdess inn; now the Eagle pub). From here he composed his new titles, Rural Tales (1802) and Wild Flowers (1806), and oversaw new printings of his first success. His family grew: his daughter Hannah and lame son Charles, whom he would rely on in letter after letter in later years, grew up here, and further children arrived. In the years to 1813 Bloomfield was prosperous, sending money to his mother and brother George (now back in Suffolk) and supporting the attempts of Nathaniel to publish his poems and his third brother Isaac to publish his musical settings. In these years, too, he forged a number of friendships with gentlefolk who admired his work. In particular the extended family of Granville Sharp the abolitionist, particularly Sharp's niece Mary Lloyd Baker and her sister Catherine, acted as advisers, hosts and fellow tourists—inviting him on the tour of the Wye valley and Wales that was the most exhilarating experience of his life. This tour spawned his picturesque poem The Banks of Wye (1811).

It was the bankruptcy of his bookseller that precipitated Bloomfield's decline. Already financially stretched by his commitments to relations, he lost his royalty income and his long-term publisher, discovering, moreover, that legal ownership of his copyrights was too vexed an issue for another publisher easily to take on his existing works. By 1811 he was forced by poverty to retire from London to the village of Shefford in Bedfordshire, where he could live more cheaply but whence it was harder to maintain his literary connections. Chronic illnesses set in: he was afflicted by crippling rheumatism and he lost effective vision in one eye. His wife, never an easy presence, had become a follower of the self-proclaimed prophet Joanna Southcott. In the years 1816 to 1823 when he died (on 19 August), it was his love of his capable daughter Hannah and his hopes for his schoolmaster son Charles that animated Bloomfield. He wrote fewer letters, let correspondences with his brother George and with old literary acquaintances lapse, and, depressed by his near blindness, wrote little poetry.

The sad result of Bloomfield's decline into obscurity (a process that led to obituaries terming him a forgotten man even by the mid 1820s) has been a lack of scholarly editions of his work. Although The Farmer's Boy and Rural Tales were published many times in the Victorian era, it was not until a critical revival of interest in labouring-class writing gathered momentum in the 1990s that a modern critical edition appeared. John Goodridge's and John Lucas's Selected Poems of Robert Bloomfield (1998) published by Nottingham Trent University in its Trent Editions series, and under the aegis of its Raymond Williams Centre for Recovery Research, made it possible for contemporary readers to enjoy—and study—much of Bloomfield oeuvre in an accurate, annotated format. Once again it became possible to appreciate the poet who did as much as Wordsworth to invent the lyrical ballad (and Bloomfield was an early admirer of Wordsworth when the fashion was to decry him).

Goodridge continues to advance Bloomfield's profile: the second edition of Selected Poems of Robert Bloomfield (2007) presents the text of The Farmer's Boy edited from the manuscript which Bloomfield copied out so as preserve a version of his magnum opus free from his patron's emendations. Thus we can access the poem as Bloomfield wanted it to be read, as well as see it in the bowdlerised form in which it has long been known. In the process, we gain new insight into the patron/poet relationship—so crucial and so costly for Blake, Clare and Wordsworth as well as Bloomfield, as they found their words subject to the censorious attitudes of well-meaning but limited literary gentlemen.

In 2006 there appeared a collection of critical essays Robert Bloomfield: Lyric, Class and the Romantic Canon (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press), edited by Goodridge, Simon J. White and Bridget Keegan. This volume included valuable bibliographical essays by B. C. Bloomfield and by Bruce Graver, as well as discussions that set Bloomfield's work in the context of its times—and other poets' writing in the context of his. For the first time, Bloomfield entered a critical dialogue with such writers as Wordsworth, Clare, Crabbe, Gilpin, Burke and Cowper. In 2007 Bloomfield received further scrutiny with the publication of Simon J. White's Robert Bloomfield, Romanticism and the Poetry of Community (Aldershot, Burlington VT.: Ashgate). His poetics and politics came under scrutiny; his adaptation of rural traditions and traditional genres was examined. Bloomfield was taken seriously as an important poet—traditional and innovative, literary and oral, gentlemanly and labouring-class.

This present edition aims to build upon the foundation that these recent volumes have laid down, making study of Bloomfield properly possible for the first time by collecting all his extant letters plus a selection of those written to him by literary correspondents. The hope is that by presenting a properly edited and annotated Collected Letters, we, the editors, will not only foster the infant that is Bloomfield Studies, but also enable him to be a significant figure for all those studying early nineteenth-century literature and culture. Bloomfield's letters cast new light on many of the issues that concern critics and historians most about the period. In vivid and witty prose, for example, he describes the reception of the Napoleonic war among the ordinary people. He was present at Dover in 1814 when the generals and diplomats disembarked, fresh from the defeat of Buonaparte, and he captures the euphoria of the moment (see Letters 289 and 290). Later he celebrates the festivities commemorating victory in his home village: these letters, for the wry humour with which he delineates character and for the verbal energy with which he brings to life the public scene, are worthy of Dickens (Letters 291-292). Earlier, however, he records his reluctance to be pressed into the militia, capturing the animosity that many London artisans felt towards Pitt's bellicose policies which cost the lives of the labouring classes (Letters 112, 137).

The distinctive attitudes of the London artisan class are traceable throughout Bloomfield's letters. This is partly a matter of what they discuss—work in garrets, poor relief, popular songs and political protest, for example. Bloomfield meets the radical shoemaker Thomas Hardy and converses with Hardy's fellow-accused in the 1794 treason trials, John Horne Tooke; he also corresponds with Paine's admirer Thomas Clio Rickman (Letters 353, 129-30). It's also a matter of casually revealed details about customs and practices: Cockney vegetable gardens and bird-keeping; Sunday excursions to the countryside. Like the memoirs of Francis Place, and the more passing comments of William Blake, Bloomfield's letters open up a world not recorded in print at the time, and absent from most twentieth-century histories. They are invaluable resources for the social historian, and not least because there is a constant correspondence back to the relatives left behind in rural Suffolk—a reminder that at this period of rapid emigration from country to city, the distinctive urban culture was still linked by blood to the life of the village. Bloomfield knew the work discipline of London's small industries—the very composition of his verse was patterned by his work-rhythms as a shoemaker. Yet he also knew, through his kinfolk and through his memories, the contrasting discipline of labour in the fields and the powerful superstitions and traditions that countryfolk still practised.

It was a Suffolk man, Capel Lofft, who became Bloomfield's patron and promoter. Other Suffolk gentlemen also took him up, notably the Duke of Grafton. No doubt Grafton regarded it as part of his duty to support a member of the 'lower orders' who had worked on his estates as a boy and who represented, apparently, the life of the country without questioning the social hierarchy. And Bloomfield was careful, his letters reveal, not to question that hierarchy in print, whatever his private opinions. Yet time and again his letters display his discomfort as a patronised poet—even as they also show that his patrons were advanced Whigs, a circle of benevolent gentlemen who stood for 'the people' and argued for a reform of parliament and extension of the franchise. This circle is revealed in action in the correspondence: gentlemen using their connections with trusted fellow Whigs to gain Bloomfield access to lords, dukes and princes. Yet this network of well-meaning libertarian patronage was suffocating for the poet, who resented having Lofft, his principal patron, insert his own political material in the prefaces and notes he insisted on adding to Bloomfield's publications. The result is a long series of letters that exemplify the difficulties of patronage in a manner that all students of Clare, Blake, Wordsworth and Johnson will wish to examine (see e.g. Letters 58-64, 67, 69). Bloomfield was too dependent and socially inferior to throw his patron off decisively, yet too determined to be dictated to. His letters reveal his distress, resentment and resistance yet also, in later years, his nostalgia for patrons who at least cared about his work and did not try, as by the 1820s local gentlemen were trying, to make him conform in print and in private to a loyalist, evangelical and Tory agenda (see Letters 350-53). In other words, the correspondence demonstrates the tensions and also the collapse of eighteenth-century 'disinterested' patronage, as the Whig gentlemen who occupied power gave way to a new generation of landowners who were ideologically committed to indoctrinating and restraining labourers so as to prevent a French Revolution occurring in Britain. After his death, his friend Thomas Inskip published an anecdote that is tellingly revealing about the changes in patronage relationships and their effect on Bloomfield:

Amidst all the gloom of neglect and difficulty that was hastening him rapidly to decay, his gratitude, a distinguished characteristic, was frequently awakened by the knowledge that some kind natures felt for his situation, though their efforts to diminish his anxieties were unavailing. Amongst these, the late poet Southey, to whom he was personally known, took occasion to suggest to a knot of wealthy individuals a simple and ready means to rescue him from present necessity, and secure him from future embarrassment, by an annual subscription of £10 each; and thus ten gentlemen 'to whom a guinea was a grain of sand' might have lengthened life, wedded gratitude to genius, and done honor to their country.

This proposal of Southey was accompanied by an offer to set the example in his own person, would any present second it? The generous appeal was made in vain; they were silent, and 'made no sign!' Another eminent wealthy poet, still living, used his utmost endeavours to rouse the minister of the day to a sense of the great benefit he had it in his power to confer on Bloomfield, by devoting a modicum of the sums placed by the country at his disposal to reward genius. This proposal was listened to with well-dissembled alacrity, and promise made of its immediate consummation. Week after week, and month after month, wore away, without any further notice of promise or poet. After a considerable lapse of time, occasion was taken to jog his lordship's recollection; an ample and lordly apology for the infirmity of a bad memory was ready. A second promise equally protracted, met the same fate as the first; and a third promise followed at the dinner table of the generous poet-patron of the suffering bard, with the assurance making it doubly sure, that a very small delay should suffice for its accomplishment. Alas, for humility and nobility; the noble statesman's carriage still rolled over the pavement of his broken promises, and crushed the poet's hopes for ever! It was, however, at this very dinner table, during the ruminant repast of the dessert, that one of the nobility present, who had listened attentively to the last appeal on behalf of poor Bloomfield, pulled forth his pocket-book, and, concealing it beneath the edge of the table, pencilled on his knee, and handed over to the poet's friend a draft for one hundred pounds. Lord L—'s check was honored; and what man with a heart will not honor the deed for ever? (Thomas Inskip, 'Bloomfield and his Latter Days', The Odd Fellows' Quarterly Magazine, vol. IX, NS (July, 1847), 346-49 (p. 348).

If relationships with patrons most vex Bloomfield in his letters, those with booksellers come a close second. Here too the correspondence is exemplary of an age in which, for the first time, the role of the patron and of gentlemanly subscribers is in uneasy competition with the influence of a mass public and the publishers who sell books to that public. An overnight sensation on the market, Bloomfield found himself caught between the power of his patron and the demands of his booksellers, unable to please both or retain independence. Enriched by his sales, he nevertheless could not afford to offend his gentlemanly protectors, despite having to service the unpredictable taste of the reading public. In later years, as his popularity waned, Bloomfield's career illustrated the new pressure of writing for the market: needing money, he composed works with an eye to current fashion—a children's book, a play—only to see them fail. In this respect his letters illuminate the trajectories of contemporaries who also found themselves squeezed between patrons, the pressure of an unknowable public and the booksellers who translated that public into the capitalist bottomline of a financial deal. Like Coleridge's, Bloomfield's involvement with publishers became less rewarding and more involved as his popularity declined—a matter of loans, advances, borrowings and rejections. Worse still, Bloomfield experienced the full dangers of being a commodity on the newly expanded market when his long-term publisher went bankrupt, wrecking his only source of income for years to come. The consequences of this for his life and work were disastrous, making his stoic and humorous response all the more admirable. Bloomfield, then, is vital reading for any critic interested in the book trade and its effect not just on authors but on authors' very conception and practice of authorship—on, for instance, the suspicion of the reading public evident in Wordsworth and Coleridge and on the effects of that suspicion on their poetry.

It's evident in the letters that other poets saw Bloomfield as their representative. He received many letters from labouring-class writers, or from middle-class radicals seeking to recruit him as an ally. Valuable documents in that they show labouring-class self-educated men finding supportive networks, creating, in effect, literary circles beyond the usual middle-class milieux of university, coffee house and club, these letters do not, however, establish Bloomfield as an altogether willing mentor. A shy and private man, Bloomfield resented those whom he thought had designs upon him, and complained about the time required to read the unsolicited manuscripts he was sent. On one occasion, with a turn of phrase that only those who knew him well would recognise to be ironic, he told one such donor of a long poem, 'Your letter and your Poem on so great and so interesting a subject as "Bread," came to hand last week' (Letter 87). Later, in a hilarious letter that may have been a prank he was invited to be a ghost writer for a young naval man seeking to improve his reputation by being the author of a successful poem (Letters 124-27). Bloomfield refused with typical modesty, although indignant. Yet when he felt a genuine sympathy with the would-be poet writing to him—as with John Clare and Joseph Blacket—he was an encouraging and kind respondent, delighted to assist at the birth of a fellow labouring-class author (Letters 241, 348, 358)

Bloomfield's chief delight, however, was to escape London and literary correspondents, and take to the hills. The joy with which he greets the ascent of small hills around Dorking, or the cliffs of the Kent coast, or, in the most euphoric event of his life, the Sugar Loaf mountain near Abergavenny, reminds us that labourers at this time rarely travelled (Letters 106, 289-90, 212-13). Bloomfield had not seen a mountain or the sea until a mature man: even when enabled by his literary success to make a tour, he would go on foot and, usually, stay within a few days' walk of London. But when he did go he found as much that was sublime, beautiful and plain curious to involve himself in as did Wordsworth in the Alps or Coleridge in the Lakes. His letters describing his Wye tour, supplementing the picturesque poem he published (The Banks of Wye (1811)), are models of animated re-creation of an experience of place so intense that they surpass the genre of picturesque which they appear to follow. Originally intending to publish a three-part prose/verse/picture version of this trip, Bloomfield was prevented by cost from doing so. But his letters at least let us see what flavour one of these parts would have had, while also constituting a major addition to the literature of the picturesque tour.

Kindness is one of the most marked features of Bloomfield's letters. As one reads his life through his letters, one is moved by his character: modest, shy, friendly, self-deprecating, generous, loving, anxious, domestic and unexpectedly witty. He was always verbally inventive, as when he christened a Shefford neighbour 'the Cork Rump' or declared the King Lear description of Dover cliff 'one of old Willy's long stretches' (Letters 297 and 290). And he was often intimate, revealing his inmost worries or analysing with wise self-knowledge his own fearfulness. While we do not get his detailed thoughts on his own poetry or aesthetics as we do in Keats's and Coleridge's letters, we nevertheless gain insight into his private reflections and inner feelings—his enthusiasms as well as his anxieties. His enthusiasms included the poetry of Burns and that of Wordsworth (Bloomfield made perceptive comments about both) (Letters 35-36 and 52 and 94) as well as the Georgic verse of Thomson and Dyer, often quoted. Thus his letters allow us to trace the genesis of a poet who had little formal literary education but much critical insight. In this respect his letters form, between the lines, a Romantic autobiography, as Coleridge's notebooks do, less self-conscious and less planned than The Prelude, but a portrait of the artist who suffers, loves, discovers and grows nonetheless.

This edition is a Collected Letters with an extra element, for it constitutes every known letter by Bloomfield himself, plus a selection of the letters sent to him by literary correspondents and those exchanged between members of his circle. We have, in addition, tried to take advantage of web-publication by including a series of resources for which there is rarely space in a print edition. These, we hope, will be particularly valuable in view of the relative paucity of modern editions of Bloomfield's work and that of the poets in his circle. Accordingly we have included the texts of unpublished poems by Bloomfield himself, which we have edited from manuscripts, and of his brothers' verse, taken from broadsides, pamphlets and newspapers. We also include, where Bloomfield cites or alludes to them, the texts of popular songs and ballads. What becomes clear as one accesses these texts is that such songs and ballads constituted a powerful living tradition—a line in which a poet could continue. And this was true not simply in the country, where traditional ballads were still sung, but in London, where Bloomfield spent most of his life. Just as for Blake, another London artisan, the form and style of Bloomfield's written poetry was shaped by the songs sung in the theatres, pubs and streets by people of his class—not least his workmates.

'People of his class' are a problem for any historian, in the sense that the lives and identities of artisans do not appear in the print records as do those of gentlemen. Accordingly we've provided links to biographies of all the significant figures in the correspondence about whom we can discover information. The more obscure the person, the more detailed the biography, when it has been possible to discover information. Our edition makes it possible to identify little-known labouring-class writers and to research more deeply rural clergymen of a literary bent. It also offers explanations of the key locations mentioned in the letters, allowing readers, we hope, to reconstitute the significant geographical axes along which Bloomfield lived and worked – axes in which tiny Suffolk villages and East London rookeries were more significant than the great halls and houses that he also visited.

Published @ RC

September 2009