Part Four, covering the period 1810-1815, was a crucial one for Southey’s career and reputation. It has, however, never before been fully documented or fully understood. By 1810 he was established in Keswick...
34. James Swan to Capel Lofft, 12 July 1800*
From the pleasure I receiv'd in reading the FARMER'S BOY, and from some strange coincidences in the early part of Mr. Bloomfield's life with my own, I was naturally enough anxious to become acquainted with the Author. For this purpose I obtain'd his address, and found him... the modest, the unambitious person you describe; wondering at the praise and admiration with which his Poem has been receiv'd; whose utmost ambition was to have presented a fair copy to his aged Mother, as a pledge of filial affection, and a picture of his juvenile avocations. So unexpected was the fame of his production, that the whole of his good fortune appears to him as a dream. — 'I had no more idea,' says he, 'to be sent for by the Duke of Grafton, and be so kindly and generously treated, than of the hour I shall die.'
I gave him... my card of address, an invitation to my house, and a sincere profession of friendship; if, among his numerous admirers, and noble and royal patrons, the latter was worthy of acceptance.
Last Sunday afternoon I was highly pleas'd with his company, and gratified and entertain'd with his conversation. — Sir, he is all... nay, more than you have describ'd.
Among other subjects of conversation respecting the Farmer's Boy, I wish'd to be inform'd of his manner of composition. I enquir'd, as he compos'd it in a garret, amid the bustle and noise of six or seven fellow workmen, whether he us'd a slate; or wrote it on paper with a pencil, or pen and ink. But what was my surprize when told that he had us'd neither. — My business, during the greatest part of my life having led me into the line of litterary pursuits, and made me acquainted with litterary men, I am, consequently, pretty well inform'd of the methods us'd by authors for the retention of their productions. We are told, if my recollection is just, that Milton took his Daughters as his amanuenses; that Savage, when his poverty precluded him the conveniency of pen, ink, and paper, us'd to study in the streets, and go into shops to record the productions of his fertile genius; that Pope, when on visits at Lord Bolingbroke's, us'd to ring up the servants at any hour in the night for pen and ink, to write any thought that struck his lively and wakeful imagination; that Dr. Blacklock, though blind, had the happy faculty of writing down, in a very legible hand, the chaste and elegant productions of his Muse.
With these and many other methods of composition we are acquainted; but that of a great part of the Farmer's Boy stands, in my opinion, first on the List of Litterary Phaenomena. — Sir, Mr. Bloomfield, either from the contracted state of his pecuniary resources to purchase Paper, or from other reasons, compos'd the latter part of his Autumn and the whole of his Winter in his head, without committing one line to paper. — This cannot fail to surprize the Litterary World: who are well acquainted with the treacherousness of memory, and how soon the most happy ideas, for want of sufficient quickness in noting down, are lost in the rapidity of thought.
But this is not all. — He went still a step farther. — He not only compos'd and committed that part of the work to his retentive memory, but he corrected it all in his head. And, as he said, when it was thus prepar'd,... I had nothing to do but to write it down.
By this new and wonderful mode of composition he studied and completed his Farmer's Boy in a garret; among six or seven workmen, without their ever suspecting any thing of the matter.
Sir, this to me was both new and wonderful: and induc'd me rather to communicate the information to you through the medium of the Press than by writing; that it may meet the eye of many, who will be equally struck and pleas'd with the novelty of the idea as myself.