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The Banks of Wye by Robert Bloomfield, Edited by Tim Fulford

Introduction: Tim Fulford

1.        Robert Bloomfield’s poem, tour journal and sketch book The Banks of Wye (1807-11) represents a visually and verbally rich response to the fashionable tour of the Wye that the poets Thomas Gray and William Wordsworth, the artists Paul Sandby and J. M. W. Turner, and the picturesque theorists William Gilpin and Uvedale Price, made popular. Entering the valley later than these tourists, Bloomfield took an already well-travelled and much-described route. His Wye texts reveal the cultural significance the tour had already acquired but also show the way that tourism redefined existing genres. It put the topographical and Georgic poem in motion: views were now observed from a boat or carriage rather than from hilltops. It encouraged appreciation of native, rather than Italian, scenes and antiquities, identifying the tourist patriotically with British, rather than classical, landscape and history. And it promoted a tradition of amateur enquiry: Bloomfield's manuscript sketch- and scrap-book is an example of the newly popular fashion for on-the-spot sketching. Full of self-penned images of views and ruins, it is a fine example of the visual culture that the English gentry began to produce and to value, a homemade book to pass around in drawing rooms before turning either to the latest set of engravings published by Mr Westall or Mr Turner or to the poetic tour —The Banks of Wye — that Bloomfield himself issued in print. Bloomfield, indeed, hoped to issue not just the poetic tour but also the 'whole triple-page'd Journal, Drawings, prose, and rhime'. [1]  Cost prohibited such a publication at the time: only now, with this composite edition of poem, prose, scrap- and sketch-book, can we, the public, see the multimedia response to the Wye that was then accessible only to the intimate friends among whom the manuscript circulated.

2.        If this edition reveals much about the picturesque tour and the visual and manuscript culture of the Romantic era, it also tells us much about Bloomfield himself. Although hardly a household name or canonical author now, he was, when he took his tour of the Wye valley and the Welsh borders in 1807, already established as the best-selling 'pastoral poet' of the age—far better known than Wordsworth and Coleridge, whose Lyrical Ballads his own Farmer's Boy (1800) outsold by twenty to one. Indeed, in the eyes of contemporaries, it was Bloomfield, rather than the two West Country and Lakeland poets we now call 'Romantics', who had revived both landscape verse (the dominant poetic genre in the 1700s) and Rural Tales (the title of his second, 1802, collection) for the new century. But he had not done so by harvesting the already-poetic landscape of the Wye valley. For although Bloomfield admired the work of John Dyer, who had imagined the Welsh Marches as Siluria—a culturally unique zone in which, since Roman times, British history had been rooted into the landscape [2]  — it was nevertheless, the flatter area of Suffolk that inspired his poetry. Suffolk because it was there, in a small village, that Bloomfield had spent his boyhood and there, in that same small village, that his family still lived. Bloomfield himself, however, did not: his rural poetry detailed his Suffolk youth from a distance; it was a new kind of Georgic not just because it spoke of rural work from the perspective of a labourer rather than a landowner but also because it spoke from the city. Bloomfield's were poems for the new urbanising Britain because they remembered the country from the position of a villager who had, as so many thousands did in the early nineteenth century, emigrated to London. And they did so from a world of sweated labour: Bloomfield's boyhood was an emotion recollected not in tranquillity but in the workshop; he composed verse in his head whilst labouring for hours a day as a shoemaker in an East End garret.

3.        If Bloomfield's poetry gives the lie to Wordsworth's fear (expressed in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads) that mechanical labour corrupts, by its very repetitiveness, the taste of the labourer, it nevertheless displays many of the same characteristics as Wordsworth's own verse—a matter not of mutual influence but of similar responses to times in which an industrialising culture left many people deracinated and yearning for a half-remembered place of origin—a childhood land in which the power of capital had not yet disturbed the culture or the consciousness. These similar responses included the organisation of verse according to the work-rhythms of shepherds and labourers, the penning of rural tales based on popular ballads and songs, and the addressing of poems to favourite landscapes. Not surprisingly, Bloomfield was an early supporter of Wordsworth's poetry: he had read 'Tintern Abbey' by 1802; he was, by 1807 a poet steeped in the latest developments in the loco-descriptive poetry that James Thomson and William Cowper had perfected a few generations earlier.

4.        Bloomfield took to the hills. When he climbed Box Hill, Surrey, in 1803, during a solitary walking tour, it was the first time he had been in upland country, having previously, like most of the labouring classes, been confined to the fields and the shop where he worked:

Having been harrassd by too much thinking and too many trivial engagements, and an employment that I shall never like, I determined that I would respire one mouthfull of real country air if possible and I know at the same time that pollution of smoke reaches ten miles round the Metropolis. I had heard much of Leithe Hills and of Box Hill in the neighbourhood of Dorking. . . . Remember that I am no Welshman, therefore to me these Hills are Cader Idris's and Snowdens.— (letter 106 of The Letters of Robert Bloomfield: to George Bloomfield, 17 April 1803)
The tour put Bloomfield in the position of a Romantic for the first time: a solitary walker travelling as a social, aesthetic and moral antidote to the effects of modern, urban life upon him. It led to no published writing, only to private correspondence, but it made him all the more eager to go west in 1807 when a tour of Wales was suggested by his friend Mary Lloyd Baker of Uley in Gloucestershire.

5.        Lloyd Baker, née Sharp, had written a fan-letter to Bloomfield in 1803. This led to a correspondence and to Bloomfield's warm reception in Lloyd Baker's extended family-circle of sisters, aunts and uncles, based near London and in Northamptonshire. The Sharps were radical Whig gentry (Granville Sharp, the anti-slavery and anti-cruelty campaigner, was Lloyd Baker's uncle) who neither wished to interfere in his publications nor make him recite verses in public. They had no designs upon him, though he remained conscious of their difference in class, power and education and knew that he could never reciprocate their invitations to their houses. But Bloomfield enjoyed their attention and readily made his way in August 1807 to Uley, to take the tour in the company of Lloyd Baker, her husband the local landowner, and their friends Robert Bransby Cooper and his son and daughter (relatives of the radical surgeon Astley Cooper). Together, the party then embarked on an elongated version of the already-popular tourist route: they went by road from Uley to Ross, then by boat along the Wye, alighting at Tintern.

6.        This route was already established, featuring in the prose of picturesque tours, and in numerous watercolours and engravings. Of the former, Bloomfield became familiar with work of the poet Thomas Gray, who toured the Wye and Wales in summer 1770, and whose enthusiastic notes about the scenery and antiquities were published after his death as A Catalogue of the Antiquities, Houses, Parks, Plantations, Scenes, and Situations, in England and Wales (1773). He also refers to the aesthetic discussions of William Gilpin as revealed in the seminal work of the picturesque, Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales, etc. relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770 (1782). Gilpin's book was illustrated with plates based on Gilpin's sketches, etched by his nephew William Sawrey Gilpin using the aquatint process. Sketching as they went, Bloomfield and his companions continued a fashion for sketching tours that Gilpin had helped popularise. Sir Joseph Banks had come down the river in 1771, bringing the artist Paul Sandby with him, and aquatints after Sandby's pictures circulated widely. In 1794 Sir George Beaumont, a keen amateur artist, later to be Wordsworth's friend and patron, went to Tintern with the painter Thomas Hearne. Hearne's pictures were engraved and published in his Antiquities of Great-Britain, Illustrated in Views of Monasteries, Castles, and Churches... (1786-1807). Other artists followed, recognising a growing market for topographical and historical views: by the time Bloomfield embarked, sites on the Wye such as Goodrich Castle, Tintern Abbey, and Chepstow Castle had been drawn, engraved and published many times over. [3]  To service the growing numbers of tourists, a local trade grew up: the Monmouth printer Charles Heath began to specialise in guidebooks. In rapid succession he published A Descriptive Account of Raglan Castle (1792), a Descriptive Account of Tintern Abbey (1793), an Account of the Scenery of the Wye (1795), The Excursion down the Wye (1796), and Accounts of … Monmouth (1804). Bloomfield used the Excursion down the Wye in preparing his own Wye texts and also relied upon the recently-published work of the antiquarian and traveller William Coxe, A Historical Tour in Monmouthshire (1801).

7.        It was not only in print that the Wye tourist received assistance. An infrastructure grew up to service travellers' needs, as Suzanne Matheson describes:

A water journey to Tintern Abbey was less taxing for passengers than land-travel, although not free entirely from danger or discomfort. Recreational excursions on the Wye were taking place by the 1740s, instituted by the hospitable Rev. Dr. John Egerton of Ross (later Bishop of Durham), the so-called 'father of the Wye voyage'. In 1745 Egerton 'caused a pleasure boat to be built to enable his guests to enjoy excursions by water amid scenery which could not fail to delight and surprise.' [4]  The rental and provisioning of manned boats effectively became one of the earliest organized tourist industries in the area. William Gilpin travelled in this manner during the fortnight-long 1770 tour that resulted in his influential Observations on the River Wye. Thomas Gray ranked his descent of the Wye from Ross to Chepstow as the 'very principal light, and capital feature of my journey.' [5]  By the end of the century, tourist directories advise that these boats, 'lightly constructed, which are used with or without sail, and navigated by three men' were kept in 'constant readiness' for tourists at Ross-on-Wye. [6]  In 1796 the charge for a trip from Ross-on-Wye down to Chepstow at the mouth of the Severn was three guineas, plus provisioning for the boatmen; from Ross to Monmouth the fee was one and a half guineas. . . . Until the end of the eighteenth century the boats appear to have been quite simple — 'small, but filled up with no less convenience than neatness', or 'a good covered boat, well stored with provisions' are typical descriptions. [7]  By the late 1830s, however, the vessels had become like 'a small floating parlour', made commodious with sunshades, cushioned seats, and a table. At Ross 'the Wye is a good little river, without vices or virtues', as one traveler described. [8]  After engaging a boat, tourists would descend past Goodrich Castle situated on the English or Herefordshire side. Later, in the gorge near Coldwell Rocks, it was common to halt for a climb to take in the view from Symonds Yat, while the rowers brought the boat the long way round. Afterwards, the current moving more quickly now, travelers would pass Raglan Castle, destroyed in the Civil War, and land at the substantial market town of Monmouth. . . . Roughly ten miles further down-river from Monmouth is Tintern, where the Wye is tidal and its character more capricious. Charles Heath warns in his guide that 'the Boat being obliged to descend with the Tide to Chepstow, two hours is the utmost time possible that can be allowed the company for visiting the Abbey'. [9]  . . . Between Tintern and Chepstow the river widens and quickens again in its run towards the Severn. The rich farmland of the Lancaut peninsula, with its little dreaming ruined chapel, contrasts the precipitous rocks and hanging forests at Wyndcliff. The Upper and Lower Wyndcliff viewpoints were once part of the grounds of the Piercefield estate, owned by Valentine Morris. Past Wyndcliff, the sterner limestone cliffs foreshadow the fortifications of Chepstow Castle. [10] 
Bloomfield's party followed in the wake of earlier travellers, but also added to the Wye itinerary a further land trip out of the Wye valley into mountainous Wales: Abergavenny, Crickhowell and Brecon, before returning to the Wye at Hay and proceeding to Hereford, Malvern, Cheltenham and home.

8.        But it was the boat trip along the river that initially fascinated Bloomfield and that led him into the spots celebrated by picturesque writers, not least Tintern Abbey. Bloomfield's response to the famous ruin was a little different from Gilpin's and Wordsworth's: he neither wished for a mallet to break some of the gables to make the abbey more picturesque nor averted his gaze from the beggars and ironworks that clustered around. Instead, moved too deeply to sit and sketch the arches as his companions did, he 'gave vent to my feelings by singing for their amusement and my own the 104th Psalm'. The 104th Psalm thanks the Lord for creating the earth. In the King James' version Bloomfield knew, it evokes pastoral valleys such as that in which Tintern stands:

He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills.
They give drink to every beast of the field: the wild asses quench their thirst.
By them shall the fowls of the heaven have their habitation, which sing among the branches.
He watereth the hills from his chambers: the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works.
He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth.

(Psalm 104:10-14)
Bloomfield declared of his performance 'though no "fretted vault" remains to harmonize the sound, it soothed me into that state of mind which is most to be desired'. 'Fretted vault' is a quotation from Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard': 'Where thro' the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault / The pealing anthem swells the note of praise' (lines 39-40). For Bloomfield, then, the pastoral valley and ruined church call forth a poetic act of worship, poetry being the mode which he feels to be profound enough to express his love of nature and its creator. This act, he knows, is over-determined: he sees the abbey and imagines his Psalm-singing in relation to Gray's portrait of the country church as a place where the act of commemoration acquires value. He is self-consciously following in Gray's verse-steps, quietly claiming poetry as a deeper, more pious, response to Tintern than the picturesque sketches that tourists were expected to make.

9.        Visiting the Wye as a labourer-poet taken-up by well-meaning patrons, and as a tourist expected to sing for his tour, Bloomfield found himself in a new and precarious position. Mostly, he enjoyed it, since, precisely because he had been tied to his trade in a way gentlemen poets never were (even poor and radical ones like Wordsworth and Coleridge), he had never before travelled west of London. Nonetheless, his new and, to him, anomalous position, a visitor rather than rather a Londoner recollecting his native Suffolk, led him to commence an innovative kind of work—a conventional tour poem (The Banks of Wye (1811)) that was to accompany a prose guide with accompanying sketches made at picturesque spots. As such, the project, like Wordsworth's Description of the Scenery of the Lakes (1811) was a new, hybrid, genre, the tour guidebook as rewritten by the poet to feature his own verse and illustrations. The effect was to represent the region as a place of aesthetic value and antiquarian interest: footnotes gave historical information about ruined castles and Roman forts. Bloomfield hoped to take advantage of his popularity as a topographical poet and of the Wye's renown as a picturesque location, building on the success of The Farmer's Boy, which featured many engravings of rural scenes, by feeding the public's ever-increasing desire for lavishly illustrated books.

10.        Bloomfield began the making of his Wye-book while still basking in the warmth of the new experience and the attention paid him by the gentlewomen of the party. His letters show him taking his new roles as artist and tour guide very seriously, seeking sketches and verse from Mary Lloyd Baker and promising her a private view of his work:

But of all this I will write more in due time. And you will here probably ask yourself, what does he mean by due time? Why I mean that when you have fulfilld your promise, and sent me your Wye Scetches to copy, and the said copying is done. I mean to have the pleasure of exhibiting to you and them my whole triple-page'd Journal, Drawings, prose, and rhime.
Since my return I have spent an evening at Fulham, very delightfully. Mr and Mrs Owen, and a Sweedish Gentleman, the Baron De Gear... The Sweed talkd of the scenery of the Baltic, Mr O talk'd of the Alps, and of the passage of mount St Gotherd &c, —and I—What could I talk about?—The Wye, to be sure! (letter 216 of The Letters of Robert Bloomfield: to Mary Lloyd Baker, 2-5 October 1807)
Once he received the sketches, Bloomfield set about recreating the tour on paper:

I have succeeded beyond the former estimate of my own self approving vanity, and the proof that I posess that latter article, is my telling you so. They are all done by Candle light! These long winter evenings are all in my favour, and you may figure to yourself the solid oak of my old Table bearing on his back half the Castles in Wales, besides my two elbows, and all the paraphernalia of drawing! Remember that though I am in general pleased with my own performances I percieve that some of my trees are amazingly like a pile of Cheshire Cheeses. And one in particular, I was hamper'd with, it seem'd to have a determination to resemble a large Oil Jar with a handle, but I cut the handle off, and, it became as good a tree as the rest, aye and as good as some that I have seen at Sadler's Wells. (letter 217 of The Letters of Robert Bloomfield: to T. J. Lloyd Baker, 18 November 1807)
Mildly flirtatious letters of this kind were Bloomfield's way of prolonging a relationship that was valuable to him: Lloyd Baker's admiration, and that of her sisters and aunt, gave him confidence without intimidating him (as the patronage of noblemen tended to do). He flourished in a feminine circle, enjoying being humorous for their benefit, unbuttoning as he could not to others outside his class, but knowing, all the same, that his value to these gentlewomen depended upon his amusing them. He was, nonetheless, careful to show the ladies' powerful husbands that he needed their help too, consulting Thomas Lloyd Baker and his friend Robert Bransby Cooper about histories of Monmouthshire in preparation of the prose section of the book. As a result, he made frequent use of Coxe's An Historical Tour in Monmouthshire, adding to both prose journal and verse tour historical notes that affiliated his work to the antiquarian texts consulted by learned gentlemen.

11.         Despite Bloomfield's diligent effort, his Wye-book never appeared in the intended tripartite prose/poetry/picture format. Back in London, away from the Lloyd Baker/Sharp circle, afflicted by financial difficulties and sinking into depression, he found work slowing-up. It was not until February 1811, after many months' practice at turning his rough sketches into finished drawings and much research into local history, that he sent the Wye-book to his publishers, Vernor and Hood, only to hear that that they were now 'averse to the costly and fashionable stile of publishing' and would produce only a smaller-scale volume with no more than four illustrations (letter 256 of The Letters of Robert Bloomfield: to Mary Lloyd Baker, 16 January-2 February 1811). Their decision may have been an early indication of the financial difficulties that would bankrupt the firm after Hood's death in 1811. At all events, it made the book they did publish in that year a far less appealing production, containing only Bloomfield's Georgic verse and a few engravings after his fellow-tourist Bransby Cooper's sketches. Nevertheless, The Banks of Wye, now more straightforwardly a poetry publication, was a substantial work, albeit not one for which the public was looking from a poet they liked for his tales of village life. Two centuries later, however, we can finally reconstitute the Wye-book that Bloomfield originally prepared, by accompanying the 1811 poem with the prose journal (transcribed from the manuscript), exhibiting the sketch- and scrap-book, restoring deleted passages of the poem from manuscript, and investigating hitherto unpublished letters.

12.        Reconstituted here, Bloomfield's Wye-book can be seen to have made a distinctive response to the tour that was, at the same time, a departure in his own oeuvre—despite its affiliation to the conventional genre of the tourist poem and guidebook. In part this was, as Tim Burke has noted, [11]  a matter of Bloomfield's sympathetic understanding of the work of the rural labourers that he now witnessed, in passing, as a leisured tourist—an understanding that subverts the unthinking aestheticisation of labour that often characterises the picturesque. The informal prose journal shows Bloomfield chatting long with a shoemaker friend in Ross; discussing the price of cider with their Welsh guide; noting that the Welsh girl who served their meal at Tintern was glad to see them go. Everywhere, he is immediately interested in the people who work the landscape, regarding them as authorities on it as important as the guide books, aesthetic treatises and county histories. His viewpoint comprehends not just the viewing stations built by local landowners such as Valentine Morris but also the cracks of the floorboards in his inn-chamber, through which he peeps at the ostlers and maids breakfasting together below. It also sees the burgeoning and smoky forges, smelters and mills that made the sylvan Wye an important industrial centre. And there is a passage of social and moral criticism of the Prince of Wales, which Bloomfield's literary executor Joseph Weston excised from the version of the journal he published in The Remains of Robert Bloomfield (1824):

The prince was at Cheltenham, and though the votaries of fashion follow him as gnats do a horse, to sting him, or to be lashd to death, I found all moralists, and all thinkers, through the whole xxxxx <town> speak of him with a shake of the head, and a humbled, and negative kind of exultation—I hope the feeling will last as long as truth and history.
Although Bloomfield was not a political writer, there are acerbic comments about the excess and hypocrisy of the wealthy in his letters and he maintained radical and reformist sympathies. These, however, are not apparent in Weston's timorous and conventional version of the journal, which was posthumously produced and had no authorial sanction (it appeared with spelling and punctuation regularised and with occasional slang and accompanying sketches and maps removed). Accordingly, it is not represented in this edition of Bloomfield's Wye texts.

13.         The journal, as the facsimiles presented here show, was never simply a verbal document. Bloomfield carefully interspersed his prose descriptions with a wealth of visual material, surrounding it on the page and facing it too, so that writing is but one element of a representation of the tour to which pictures and maps were also fundamental. In this respect Bloomfield's Wye-book offers a glimpse of the practice, common especially among gentlewomen, of compiling sketch- and scrap-books that included verse, drawings and letters, reconstituting a place, an experience or a relationship on paper. It is not, that is to say, the sketchbook of a professional artist who intended to work his on-the-spot sketches into finished oils at a later date. Rather, it is a record of the tour produced with an audience in mind – compiled to be shared after the event with his fellow tourists, to aid them in recreating the tour, and the companionship the tour offered, in memory. Even the sketches are social: Bloomfield includes his own designs, in and around his prose, with his copies of original drawings made by Robert Bransby Cooper and Mary Lloyd Baker and loaned to him after the party's return. They represent his incorporation in a gentleman- (and woman-)ly tradition of amateur art: Cooper and Lloyd Baker had received tuition in drawing—mastering perspective, composition and shading—and Bloomfield's sketches showed them that he in turn had learned from them.

14.         By including maps in his Wye-book, Bloomfield showed he was keen to anchor the sketches and the prose to places on a route. Like the published guidebooks, which began to feature maps from the 1790s, he sought to locate the views in a graduated space that, by virtue of its cartographic representation, he and others could reaccess virtually (moreover, he included in the prose journal specific timings of arrival and departure from each place visited: the tour would be relivable in memory because it was calibrated spatially and temporally on paper). He pasted in small-scale engraved county maps of Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire, but these offered little local detail. And so he made his own map, a fold-out sheet he entitled 'Sketch of the River Wye, from Ross to Chepstow'. Delineating the river in a strip-map, this marked the principal stopping point and views: it was, in effect, a new kind of sketch map aimed at serving the tourist rather than at giving an overall survey of an estate or county (it would have been of no use to a land surveyor, a landowner or an army). As such it reflected a change in mapping conventions produced by a change in the social use (and users) of maps: in that other area of tourism, the Lake District, Peter Crosthwaite began in 1783 to sell linear maps of the main lakes to tourists who wanted to follow the shorelines in search of picturesque views. The lake, like Bloomfield's river, was abstracted from the country that surrounded it, its banks becoming the object of largescale (three inches to the mile) cartographic focus. And the map now had for the first time an openly aesthetic, rather than economic, aim — to record beauty spots rather than landholdings or political boundaries.

15.         Bloomfield's map remained in manuscript, part of the tripartite Wye-book that never achieved publication. What he did publish. however, the verse Banks of Wye, defines more directly and forcefully than ever before the new purpose of touring: not the education of taste in rules of aesthetic judgement (as in Gilpin) but the mental restorative that holiday-escape into natural beauty offered an urban middle-class otherwise chained to the account-book and the office.

Wait not, (for reason's sake attend,)
Wait not in chains till times shall mend;
Till the clear voice, grown hoarse and gruff,
Cries, 'Now I'll go, I'm rich enough.'
Youth, and the prime of manhood, seize;
Steal ten days absence, ten days ease;
Bid ledgers from your minds depart;
Let mem'ry's treasures cheer the heart;
And when your children round you grow,
With opening charms and manly brow,
Talk of the Wye as some old dream,
Call it the wild, the wizard stream;
Sink in your broad arm-chair to rest,
And youth shall smile to see you bless'd.

(The Banks of Wye, book IV, lines 407-20)
Here the Wye is a consolation of age: taking a longer view than Wordsworth at Tintern, Bloomfield sees the river, recreated virtually in memory and talk, as reviving, in an otherwise sedentary figure, a younger and livelier self. It confers a blessed experience of wildness that is also a token of masculinity: the father, defined by domesticity, is cheered in himself and admired by his children because recollecting his experiences of 'the wizard stream' conjures into being the 'manly brow' of his 'prime of manhood'.

16.         Bloomfield is ambivalent about the picturesque. His Wye-book was to feature engravings after his and his friends' sketches. His prose journal records them sketching at every castle they visited. At Tintern, however, sketching was not a deep enough response and, as he concludes his verse tour, he offers only faint praise of Gilpin. Artists may learn from the Wye, he declares, but by encountering nature's forms and rhythms rather than by applying artificial criteria and apparatus:

Artists, betimes your powers employ,
And take the pilgrimage of joy;
The eye of genius may behold
A thousand beauties here untold;
Rock, that defies the winter's storm;
Wood, in its most imposing form,
That climbs the mountain, bows below,
Where deep th'unsullied waters flow.
Here Gilpin's eye, transported, scann'd
Views by no tricks of fancy plann'd;
Gray here, upon the stream reclined,
Stored with delight his ardent mind.

(The Banks of Wye, book IV, lines 421-32)

17.        Gilpin is 'transported' when he looks at nature unguided by fancy or predetermined ideas. Bloomfield's role model is, instead, the poet Gray, who absorbs delight by letting his ardent mind repose on the water, as if in meditation.

18.         How to recline upon the stream was a question for Bloomfield's own representation of the tour. His poetic endorsement of natural form led to a problem that was not resolved in the published Banks of Wye, a problem to which the tripartite Wye-book would have presented a novel solution. The problem concerns his own medium: whether nature's forms and rhythms are always so neatly harnessable within the polite diction and conventional rhyming couplets of the tour poem. Had the poem been combined with the colloquial first-person prose journal and the amateur sketches as it is here, then its obtrusion of formality upon the reader would have been seen to be only one version of the journey, in dialogue with more informal responses which, without it, might themselves have seemed too slight and private for publication. Standing alone, the published poem seemed too mixed, veering from the colloquial to the stilted, lacking the animation of The Farmer's Boy because Bloomfield did not speak for the Wye landscape as his own—known as a place marked on his body and mind by work in its fields. The original verse-manuscript, deleted passages from which are presented in this edition, shows that Bloomfield recognised this difficulty and found an original way to overcome it, for it begins more in a comic-heroic than a polite manner with a prelude about a giant called Scoop, who had fashioned the hills and dales of the Gloucestershire country in which the Lloyd Bakers lived:

When Time's young curls embower'd his brow
And infant streams began to flow,
Huge giant Scoop with spade in hand,
And all the Island at command,
With puffing breath and monstrous stride
Came thundering on by Severn's side.
Fancy still hears his foot rebound,
When Stinchcombe trembled at the sound.
Here Cambrian mountains caught his eye
Towring to meet the distant sky
Jealous he mark'd them one by one
And dreading much to be sore the work out-done
'Out-done' he cried, 'Tis true I'm warm'
But this bright prospect nerves my arm
I too the mountain pile can rear
Outdone, there shall be just such here.'
Then stript at once to set about it,
(Look at the spot and who can doubt it,)
But, at the moment he was speaking
His limbs were stiff, his back was aching,
For Mendip, and the western shore,
The marks of recent labours bore:
Weary he rested, full of pain,
By Nympsfield, on the upland plain,
And with a gnashing envious smile
There stuck his spade upright the while,
And chang'd his mind.—Then sprewing first,
O'er Severn's Vale a cloud of dust,
Again he pluck'd it from the ground,
The crumbling earth flew wizzing round;
Then dashing sternly to and fro,
He cut a casual hole or two;
In one of which (a sweet one truly)
Some modern pigmies built up Uley
And Owlpen, by the dark wood side,
Which none can find without a guide.
And here, the happy natives stroll
Around their green illshapen Bowl,
A Bowl all zigzagg'd round about
With one large gap to let them out.

(British Library Add. MS 28265 ff. 48-49)
With their deliberately clunky rhymes ('truly/Uley'), slangy diction ('wizzed' 'zigzagg'd') and undignified account of the country's origin as a giant's casual whim of imitating the hill country of Wales, these opening lines undercut their own pretensions to the heroic. They also present a compliment to Bloomfield's gentlemanly (and womanly) patrons, in which deference is pre-empted by humour. That humour is derived from local folklore: Scoop was a Gloucestershire descendant of the giant of Shropshire legend, Gwendol Wrekin ap Shenkin ap Mynyddmawr, who intended to flood the town of Shrewsbury by dumping a shovelful of earth into the river Severn. He was discouraged by a local shoemaker who told him 'It's a very long way to Shrewsbury . . . look at all these shoes I've worn out walking back from there!' The giant then dropped the spadeful of earth on the ground next to him, where it became the Wrekin hill. [12]  It was probably the comic heroism of a fellow shoemaker, and the humorous opposition of Wales and England, that made the story appeal to Bloomfield: he mentioned the giants sleeping in the Welsh mountains later in the poem. It was typical of him to assert and mock his own role as poet creator, and also typical of him to draw on local lore as well as learned books.

19.        As a beginning to a four-book landscape poem, the lines on Giant Scoop are highly unorthodox, a versification of the tongue-in-cheek humour of Bloomfield's correspondence with Lloyd Baker. They are playful, revealing the poet's enjoyment of his own ability to fictionalise, to tell it like it's not—and in this they reflect the West Country's status as a charming holiday place, an escape from Bloomfield's London cares and from his branding as a Suffolk labourer poet. Yet for all that, they do concern themselves with labour, as Bloomfield so often did: funny though they are, they show the giant working up a sweat digging. Polished, knowing and displaying a flexible deployment of Samuel Butler's Hudibrastic cocktail of octosyllabic couplets, phrasal verbs and casual diction, Bloomfield's light verses still suggest, however jokily, that the country depends on backbreaking toil—a point quietly made later in the poem when the tourists in their pleasure-boat glide effortlessly past bent-backed gleaners in the fields. Bloomfield's West Country was not a holiday-land for everyone.

20.         As different from Wordsworth's 'Tintern Abbey' as they are from Gilpin's Observations, Bloomfield's lines on Scoop reveal a cultivated, accomplished, well-read poet entertaining his patrons; they also suggest that he was worldly enough to know that the Cotswolds were not, after all, the Alps and that, therefore, describing them in pious and solemn terms would only lead to bathos. Nevertheless, getting the tone right was a vexing matter for him, and as the tour became a more and more distant memory, and the flirtatious feminine circle receded from his grasp, he worried about whether the opening was appropriate for a piece intended for public consumption. Revealingly, it was when Mary Lloyd Baker wrote to him during the course of another West Country tour she was making (of Cheddar Gorge) that, in the light of her intimate attention, he again became enthusiastic about the lines, writing in reply

[t]he Cheddar Cliffs have taken up a nook in my heart, and imagination scratches a picture of her own, like an old Hen in a garden.
I had taken a momentary dislike to Old Scoop, but you strengthen my original feeling and I begin to think that He may be a personage not altogether to be ridiculed. I have a great mind to keep him alive. (letter 245 of The Letters of Robert Bloomfield: to Mary Lloyd Baker, 31 October-1 November 1809)
In the end, The Banks of Wye, to its detriment, appeared without Scoop: the lines fell prey to Bloomfield's anxiety (evident in the more sober main body of the poem) about his qualifications to write in the style of a leisured gentleman—a position in which the trip put him for the first time. He internalised the perceived doubts of his patrons, Capel Lofft and Thomas Park, literary gentlemen who edited poetry for magazines, and consulted other friends too: it seems none of these men, arbiters of conventional taste, saw the opening as serious enough. Effectively, as another letter to Mary reveals, Bloomfield's was too playful a discourse to meet male expectations about the proper language for topographical poetry:

Since you saw or heard any part of my Journal, and I think I remember how far I had then proceeded in my amusement, much alteration has taken place in the plan and divisions &c. As I advanced I began to conceive that it might even eventualy be renderd fit for publication, and this perswasion set me about a thorough examination and revision. I concieved that it was, owing to the careless and hasty manner of its early composition, much too hudibrastic, and containd a vast deal of useless matter which might give way to the superior graces of nature, or to unbridled fancy. I had finished it, as I thought, according to this plan, last summer; and I had the joint opinion of my then companions, Inskip, himself a poet, and a man of strong mind, and my host, Mr. Weston of Shefford, Beds, and as he has read and thought more than any man I ever found in his station of life, and his age, and is an enthusiast in poetry, with a memory truly astonishing considering his multifarious reading, I consider him highly capable of detecting what were blemishes in a harum scarum story like mine,—We read it for the purpose of criticizing closely, We all doubted the propriety of Giant Scoop in the outset of the piece, yet all agreed that the ridiculous thought was not without merit, only perhaps out of place. Previous to this I had shown it to Mr Rogers, author of 'The pleasures of memory', and he, even then, in its ruder state, said that it would probably be well recieved if published, but that it was evident that I had not taken the pains with it which might be taken. I then wrote the whole out again with great emendations, in which state Mr. Lofft gave the opinion which I very barely stated to you. I took his hints and the others in conjunction, and wrote the whole out again, still in the mending way with additions and curtailments, and in this new dress, without the personage above mentioned, Scoop, I submited the piece to the calm, judicious, and candid Mr Park of Hampstead (He had seen the giant long ago and said nothing in his praise, which I know how to understand) He was decidedly of opinion that the thing would do me credit, and at the same time pencil'd his doubts and remarks. With this encouragement I once more wrote out the whole; gave the brat a name; and offer'd it to My Bookseller. I know of nothing which can now retard its ultimate appearance before the world. (letter 256 of The Letters of Robert Bloomfield: to Mary Lloyd Baker, 16 January 1811)
Being new to the tour-poem and of inferior class to his readers, Bloomfield did not dare to be facetious and mock the public's cultural expectations of such a book and of the place it described. Abandoning his hudibrastic lines, he left out the most characteristic and individual of his poetic voices, submitting to male critics rather than reproduce in public the verse inspired by his chatty, female correspondents. What was lost in this new excision from The Banks of Wye, however, was an idiosyncratic response to the West Country that remade the poetic traditions in which that region had previously been compassed and that questioned the conventional pieties of the gentlemanly tour. Without this response, and lacking the prose journal and extensive illustrations intended for the tripartite publication, The Banks of Wye was a slighter and less original book than first planned.

21.        The abandonment of the tripartite Wye-book and the excision of Old Scoop revealed that Bloomfield was unable to continue in a direction in which his writing took comic flight away from his homeground. He was not helped by those arbiters of politeness and propriety, the reviewers: 'the author's humour is generally very poor; and the language of it too coarse even for his honesty of style' declared the Eclectic Review, while the Critical Review spoke of 'bathos' and 'vulgarity' and singled-out offending phrases. In the second edition of the poem of 1813, perhaps in response to the reviewers' sniffiness about the colloquialisms, Bloomfield revised in favour of more formal, serious and socially conservative diction: thus he omitted a whimsical passage imagining a war between earth and gods:

Celestial power with earthly mix'd;
Gods by the arrow's point transfix'd!

(III, 247-48)
He also added initial capitals to 'king' and 'heaven'. Elsewhere he redrafted to clarify meaning but, in the process, made the verse more Latinate and Thomsonian, as a topographical poem was expected to be (as a youth Bloomfield had been inspired to write by reading The Seasons). Thus the lines 'When a dark thunder-storm had spread / Its terrors round the guilty head' (II, 71-72 in the 1811 text) became, in 1813, 'A summer flood's resistless pow'r / Raised the grim ruin in an hour! / When that o'erwhelming tempest spread / Its terrors round the guilty head'. All verbal revisions in the editions published (or prepared for publication) in Bloomfield's lifetime are recorded as variants in the present edition, the copytext for which is the 1811 first published version.

22.        The revisions are regrettable because they tend to cloak the innovative, common speech element of the poem in gentrified respectability. Bloomfield in fact understood better than did the prissy reviewers for polite journals, as Wordsworth and Byron also did, that a tour poem – whether the 'Epistle to Sir George Beaumont, Bart' or Don Juan — demanded informality, since it depended on the convention that it was a letter home from a traveller. And this was still more the case in view of the fact that Bloomfield was a commoner, a shoemaker rather than a lord, who aimed to be a man speaking to men (and who, revealingly, admired the Wordsworth's colloquial 'The Idiot Boy'). Unlike Wordsworth (himself scorned by reviewers for his adherence to common speech) and still more unlike Byron, Bloomfield was dependent on powerful gentlemen who were his social superiors. He could not ignore polite disapproval and so he pruned some of his colloquialisms away. The published Banks of Wye of 1811 and 1813 suffered by this removal, the remaining comic slang seeming increasingly out of place in a poem that mostly conformed to approved poetic diction.

23.        Despite its often stilted verse, time after time the poem flares into life for the space of a highly original passage. Bloomfield's sincerity to his own highly unusual viewpoint —a labouring-class man accompanying gentlefolk on a tour that labourers would never be able to take by themselves, let alone in such company—led him to see and say things that escaped most other Wye tourists. There is, for example, a brilliant meditation on the mind's relationship to place and time. Bloomfield had read and admired Lyrical Ballads: his Wye poem may eschew the first-person self-analysis of Wordsworth's famous Tintern lines, but it nevertheless also considers the effects on the reflective mind of recalling a spot of natural beauty and human history. In climactic verses on ruined Raglan castle, once the last stronghold of the Royalists in the Civil War, Bloomfield first evokes the triumph of nature over man's achievements, however violent and heroic they once were:

Majestic Ragland! Harvests wave
Where thund'ring hosts their watch-word gave,
When cavaliers, with downcast eye,
Struck the last flag of loyalty:
Then, left by gallant Worc'ster's band,
To devastation's cruel hand
The beauteous fabric bow'd, fled all
The splendid hours of festival.
No smoke ascends; the busy hum
Is heard no more; no rolling drum,
No high-toned clarion sounds alarms,
No banner wakes the pride of arms;
But ivy, creeping year by year,
Of growth enormous, triumphs here.
Each dark festoon with pride upheaves
Its glossy wilderness of leaves
On sturdy limbs, that, clasping, bow
Broad o'er the turrets' utmost brow,
Encompassing, by strength alone,
In fret-work bars, the sliding stone,
That tells how years and storms prevail,
And spreads its dust upon the gale.

(Book III, lines 19-40)
The ivy embraces the stone; as the castle moulders, the plant prospers, until the monuments of martial valour are encased in a 'wilderness of leaves' and the sounds of human life give way to the stifling constriction of the creeper. These are sophisticated verses that demonstrate how much could still be achieved in the Augustan rhyming couplet. Partly this is a matter of allusion: Milton's serpent Satan is not far behind the snake-like plant that 'with pride upheaves' itself at the tower's expense. It's also a result of lexical vividness, rhetorical insistence and syntactical energy creating urgency: Bloomfield pressures his reader to feel awed and threatened by a nature that, in the figure of the ivy, represents the triumphant and vampiric power of death, supporting itself on the works of mankind. Yet, encasing the crumbling masonry, the ivy also configures a natural, growing memorial to a defunct human edifice. This is a post-Edenic fallen world, where nature is both beautiful (as in the glossiness of the leaves) and menacing because time, death and—in Miltonic terms—sin are fundamental to its growth. It is a world, too, in which nature and humanity (here represented by historical monuments to human deeds and achievements) are at odds.

24.        It is now that Bloomfield ventures a meditation on time, history and nature that is akin to Wordsworth's and that may represent his response to reading Lyrical Ballads:

The man who could unmoved survey
What ruin, piecemeal, sweeps away;
Works of the pow'rful and the brave,
All sleeping in the silent grave;
Unmoved reflect, that here were sung
Carols of joy, by beauty's tongue,
Is fit, where'er he deigns to roam,
And hardly fit—to stay at home.
Spent here in peace,—one solemn hour
('Midst legends of the Yellow Tower,
Truth and tradition's mingled stream,
Fear's start, and superstition's dream)
Is pregnant with a thousand joys,
That distance, place, nor time destroys;
That with exhaustless stores supply
Food for reflection till we die.

(Book III, lines 41-56)
'[O]ne solemn hour / . . . / Is pregnant with a thousand joys' is verbally close to Wordsworth's 'One impulse from a vernal wood / May teach you more of man, / Of moral evil and of good, / Than all the sages can' from 'The Tables Turned', although for Bloomfield it is the encounter with nature's overwhelming of humanity's works, rather than solely with its beauty, that makes visiting the spot so endlessly educative. The surprising word here is 'joys': as in Wordsworth's 'Tintern Abbey' the visitor unexpectedly derives joys from a scene that should, because it reveals the passing of time, produce melancholy. This is, then, no simplistic sightseeing event, no mere touristic picturesque, but a complex response that finds, as the paradoxical one/thousand phrasing suggests, a plenum of emotions and thoughts from a brief encounter. These emotions and thoughts are joys, despite the evidence of destruction that gives rise to them, because they fertilise a human activity that turns out to be less vulnerable to time than castles and towers are—the activity of reflection that vivifies the mind and restores the past in memory and that, though it may die with us, survives, in the form of 'legends' and tradition, as the stories, songs and poems that we make and that others repeat after us. And these, implicitly, renew the 'carols of joy' that long-dead denizens of the castle once sang with 'beauty's tongue'. This, of course, is an implicit poetic; Bloomfield was adding another turn to the traditions, legends and songs that allow us to redeem from oblivion the works of the past—and redeem ourselves as consciousnesses destined for oblivion. Carolling joyfully in the poem, he retrieves the songs of yore from the ivy's clutches. As a response to a Wye-tour this is as profound, but not as self-foregrounding, as Wordsworth's in his 'Lines Composed a few Miles above Tintern Abbey' to which it compares in its intimation of the ability of the human mind to overcome time's depredations when that mind, fertilised by an encounter with a temporally-shaped landscape, is prompted to reflect upon itself and assert its power of song.

25.        Profound though it is, Bloomfield's response to Raglan remains isolated, lost in a poem of occasional brilliance that was published without its more original lines and without the prose journal and sketches that should have accompanied it. Bloomfield missed a chance, owing to his booksellers' reluctance and his own inhibiting consciousness of what was proper for a labourer-visitor writing at the touring-gentry's behest. As a result it was easy to neglect the merits of his Wye: literary criticism, although idealising a fellow nature-poet's imaginative response to the Wye valley, damned the poem with faint praise. In the twentieth century, Bloomfield's reputation dwindled to nothing. His multimedia Wye texts, now published for the first time, show us both that this eclipse was not of his own making and that Wordsworth's egotistical sublime was not the only way to bring into being a new and distinctive response to landscape. The Wye, in Bloomfield's verse, prose and pictures, produced an original, humane and at times profound contribution to the visual and literary culture of the early nineteenth century.

Tim Fulford

Builth Wells

April 2010


[1] Letter 216 of The Letters of Robert Bloomfield: to Mary Lloyd Baker, 2-5 October 1807. BACK

[2] John Dyer, The Fleece: a Poem in Four Books (London, 1757). Dyer's Siluria is discussed in John Goodridge, Rural Life in Eighteenth-Century English Poetry (Cambridge, 1995). BACK

[3] An example being the aquatints drawn by Edward Dayes and engraved and published by Francis Jukes for the series Views on the River Wye (1799). BACK

[4] Quoted in Ivor Waters, The Unfortunate Valentine Morris (Chepstow, 1964), p. 16. BACK

[5] Thomas Gray, Letter from Thomas Gray to Dr. Wharton, May 24, 1771, The Poems of Mr. Gray, To Which are Prefixed Memoirs of his Life and Writings, ed. William Mason (York, 1775), pp. 223-34. BACK

[6] Charles Heath, The Excursion Down the Wye, from Ross to Monmouth (Monmouth, 1796), Preface. BACK

[7] A. Cooper, 'Journal of a Tour Down the Wye 1786', Yale Center for British Art MSS p. 6; Henry Skrine, Two Successive Tours throughout the Whole of Wales, with several of the adjacent English Counties (London, 1798), p. 9. BACK

[8] Louis Simond, Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the Years 1810 and 1811 by a French Traveller: with Remarks of the Country, its Arts, Literature and Politics, and on the Manners and Customs of its Inhabitants. (Edinburgh, 1815), pp. 208-09. BACK

[9] Charles Heath, 'Useful Information to Travellers', Historical and Descriptive Accounts of the Ancient and Present State of Tintern AAbbey (Monmouth, 1803), n.p. BACK

[11] Tim Burke, 'Colonial Spaces and National Identities in The Banks of Wye: Bloomfield and the Wye after Wordsworth', in Robert Bloomfield: Lyric, Class, and the Romantic Canon, ed. Simon White, John Goodridge and Bridget Keegan (Lewisburg, 2006), pp. 89-112. BACK

[12] The tale appears in C. S. Burne and G. F Jackson, Shropshire Folk-Lore: A Sheaf of Gleanings (London, 1883). BACK

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July 2012