Robert Bloomfield: The Inestimable Blessing of Letters

"The Infection of Robert Bloomfield: Terrorizing The Farmer’s Boy"

Ian Haywood
Roehampton University


A note on abbreviations and editions

Throughout this article the title of the main poem under discussion, The Farmer’s Boy, has been abbreviated to FB, and within the poem the titles of the four books are abbreviated to Sp (Spring), S (Summer), A (Autumn), and W (Winter). In order to cite line numbers, which were not included in the early editions of Bloomfield’s poems, I have used the modern reprint of the poem in John Goodridge and John Lucas’s Robert Bloomfield: Selected Poems (1998). 1805 and 1827 refer to two early editions of Bloomfield’s poems (see Works Cited), which incorporated the important introductory essay by Capel Lofft and other editorial apparatus not reproduced in Goodridge and Lucas’s 1998 edition. All the numbered references to Bloomfield’s letters are taken from the Romantic Circles online edition edited by Tim Fulford and Lynda Pratt (2009).

Yet poverty is his, and mental pains.

- Robert Bloomfield, The Farmer’s Boy

Darkness o’er hangs thy origins and mine.

- Robert Bloomfield, "To My Old Oak Table"

. . . piety, sensibility and the most engaging and artless simplicity breathe throughout the whole, and irresistibly attack the feelings of the reader.

- Nathan Drake, Literary Hours  [1] 

Not inspiration, but a mind diseased.

- Lord Byron on the Bloomfields, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers  [2] 


1.        Robert Bloomfield’s The Farmer’s Boy is a troubled and troubling poem. Initially a spectacular success, neglected for many decades, and now rightly reinstated within the expanded canon of Romantic literature, Bloomfield’s masterpiece still poses interpretive challenges for even the most sympathetic critic of laboring-class poetry. The aim of this essay is to propose a substantial revision to some of the critical orthodoxies, both past and present, upon which the reputation and value of the poem continue to rest. Specifically, I want to liberate the poem from the generic confines of “rural,” “pastoral,” and “georgic” writing, and relocate its most powerful effects in the quite different aesthetic modes of allegory and fantasy. If this critical step seems at first to be simply illogical and even impertinent (the poem’s subtitle is, after all, "A Rural Poem" ), [3]  my intention is to show that the prevailing pastoralization (indeed, pasteurization) of the poem reveals a curious critical tendency to evade or minimize the poem’s striking evocations of violence, terror, and guilt. Such evasive readings of the poem carry twin risks: firstly, of reinforcing the original Bloomfield “myth” in which his poetic identity is defined predominantly by rural rather than urban culture, and in which the ruptures and dislocations experienced by moving from the country to the city do not threaten the coherence of the text [4] ; and secondly, of losing the opportunity to use the most disturbed and disturbing textual moments of the poem as portals onto Bloomfield’s conflicted imaginative condition. Focusing on the poem’s episodes and tropes of violence, terror, and guilt is also, I hope to show, an as yet undervalued way to locate a proto-Romantic subjectivity in FB. By probing the metaphorical means by which the poem dramatizes, negotiates, and confronts a variety of terrors, we can open FB up to a new set of critical perspectives in which both personal and cultural compulsions work simultaneously to explore the poet’s troubled past and anxious present. If FB remains, in the last instance, a “rural” poem, it represents rural life and culture through a distorting lens which reflects and magnifies the twin terrors of psychic and political repression. In Bloomfield’s brilliant coinage, FB is his “boyage,” a voyage of self-discovery into the painful emotional territory of separation, loss, and anxious success. [5]  The value of the poem, in my mind, lies not only—or even primarily—in its evocation of rural culture, but in the intriguing imaginative resources which Bloomfield deploys to both recognize and contain what we can surmise to be unresolved personal anxieties. [6]  By taking a necessarily speculative psycho-biographical approach to these issues, I hope to show that FB is a darker, deeper, and more troubled poem than has yet been appreciated. [7] 

2.        It is odd that FB has proved so resistant to allegorical readings, especially when we consider that the poem was published at the end of an unprecedented politicized decade in which the English countryside became a fiercely contested symbolic prize (Janowitz 152-61). As the “revolution debate” of the early 1790s expanded into a national ideological struggle for the hearts and minds of the British people, competing visions of the “land” proliferated in both print and visual culture: at the radical extreme, Spence’s “people’s farm” and Paine’s agrarian justice; at the other extreme, Hannah More’s self-help village politics and the culture of “contentment”; somewhere in between, Lyrical Ballads’ lost souls and wanderers, victims of Pitt’s militarism and high taxation, and Gillray’s wry images of the King as Farmer George. Any attempt, therefore, to locate the “rural” in a space outside of this supercharged ideological matrix, either in an uncontaminated generic zone, or in the “Romantic” imagination, is a lost cause. Indeed, the quest to find “pure” or detoxified images of rural life was and remains an act of fantasy, wish fulfillment, and withdrawal which by negation and denial betrays its conflicted and terrorized origins. The key Romantic text in this context is probably Coleridge’s Fears in Solitude (1798), a poem whose title alone reveals a great deal about the Romantic paradox of retreat and internalization: the deeper Coleridge retreats into heath, heart, and home, the more the phantoms of Jacobin violence continue to haunt him.

3.        Yet the repressive hypothesis remains a useful if incomplete way to plot the emergence of Romantic literary subjectivity. In a period where freedom of expression was constantly under attack and “all privacy was subject to invasion” by the state (Barrell, Spirit 247), the switch from “public” to “private” literary discourse served the twin purposes of avoiding prosecution and constructing a secure model of the ego which could resist further encroachments by a tyrannical State apparatus. The creative risk of this willingly or unwillingly adopted strategy was the ever-present danger of uncontrollable sublimation: it was one thing to intentionally allegorize contemporary politics, for example in John Thelwall’s radical satires, and quite another to imaginatively collude with dominant ideology by generating compelling fantasies and stereotypes of oppressive power. The test case for the latter, compromised aesthetic position is the De Quincey of John Barrell’s tour de force psycho-biographical study, The Infection of Thomas De Quincey (1991). For Barrell, De Quincey’s autobiographical imagination is plagued (or sustained) by a continuous reenactment of a childhood tragedy (the death of his sister Elizabeth), the pain of which De Quincey can only psychically discharge by repeatedly scapegoating and demonizing the lower classes and imperial subjects. De Quincey’s subjectivity is for Barrell both a deeply personal and intensely public discourse, a screen onto which the intertwined and mutually displacing terrors of private and public history are projected, and in which “each aggravates the other in an ascending spiral of fear and of violence” (Barrell 21)

4.        I have borrowed Barrell’s title for this essay as I see no reason why a similar investigative methodology cannot be applied to Bloomfield in order to help us “retrace the paths of wild obscurity” in FB (Sp 6). As with Barrell’s De Quincey, I want to use a model of Bloomfield’s creative behavior in which a “myth of his own childhood” is “rewritten” as “narratives of trauma and narratives of reparation” (Barrell 22). Though we can only speculate about the precise biographical details behind this “myth,” I want to use the textual evidence of Bloomfield’s poems and letters to propose that FB is wracked with insecurities or “psychic wounds” (Barrell 22) which emanate from Bloomfield’s past and which become amplified in the echo-chamber of the politically turbulent 1790s. Of course, FB is a concealed or surrogate autobiographical poem, but from the outset this generic ambiguity has not deterred critics from simply peeling off Giles’s mask and conflating the hero with the poet. Indeed, it is unlikely that the poem would have made the impact it did without Capel Lofft’s prefatory essay, a seminal document which crafted an image of Bloomfield the peasant poet and which rooted the poem’s value in its supposedly authentic rendition of Bloomfield’s early life on his uncle’s farm. But even if we regard the poem, correctly, as “semi”-autobiographical (White, Romanticism and the Poetry of Community 12), it is striking that no critic has yet felt the need to interpret the darker aspects of the poem within this “semi”-autobiographical framework. Lofft may have had the painful examples of Duck and Burns in mind when he declared that FB conveyed the “sweetness and ease” of its author (1805 126) [8]  but this placing of Bloomfield on a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic pedestal has led to an over-simplified estimation of his poetic strengths and procedures. Bloomfield’s letters show clearly his ambivalent and often embittered feelings about his dependency on patronage (and it would be astonishing if, as an intelligent urban artisan, he did not have such a response), [9]  so there is no reason to assume that this self-consciousness about his compromised social and cultural position is not reflected, played out, and even (in the case of FB) anticipated in his poetry:

Then no disgrace my humble verse shall feel,
Where not one lying line to riches bows. (A 322-3)
As much as Bloomfield’s success was a genuine literary, social, and economic step forward, I want to speculate that it also reawakened and reconfigured unresolved anxieties about separation, change, and dependency. The violent and disturbing episodes of FB reflect both the strength of these feelings and the counter-revolutionary political mood of the late 1790s: far from retreating into the idyllic past, Bloomfield’s poem provides an intriguing psychopathology of laboring-class poetry in the Romantic period. [10] 


5.        The first description of Giles in FB establishes the poem’s characteristically awkward use of the “semi”-autobiographical mode:

. . . meek, fatherless and poor;
Labour his portion, but he felt no more;
No stripes, no tyranny his steps pursu’d;
His life was constant, cheerful servitude: (Sp 27-30)
It is quite difficult to know how to react to this thumbnail sketch: does it convey sympathy for the socially disadvantaged, or skepticism at the acceptance of (oxy)moronic “cheerful servitude”? Moreover, the comparison with slave-driving, which seems a gratuitous or strenuous attempt to present Giles as a free-born Englishmen, runs the risk of backfiring: when it is read as a continuation of the previous line (“no more; / No stripes, no tyranny”) there is a lingering sense that (like the stereotypical slave) Giles’s docile body would not even feel these lashes. [11]  A further problem arises if we take the passage at anything like face value as an imaginative transcription of Bloomfield’s own experience. The fact that Giles is “fatherless” seems to accord with the young Bloomfield (whose father died of smallpox when the poet was less than one-year old), so this leads us to consider that Giles could be a version of Bloomfield working on his uncle Austin’s farm at Sapiston. But if this is the case, how do we interpret the reference to a lingering threat of “tyranny”? If tyranny does not emanate from his “generous Master” (Sp 47)—a possible reference to his Uncle Austin—can we find another source? One of the attractions (and weaknesses) of a psycho-biographical approach is that it enables us to make connections between circumstantial textual “clues” and the writer’s personal experience without recourse to “hard” biographical evidence. One way to think about the negatively asserted “tyranny” of the vignette is therefore as a dual protest: the alienated condition of rural labor is a generalized expression of the personal dislocation which Bloomfield may have felt when he was displaced from his home to become a “farmer’s boy.” [12]  This disruption represents a “tyranny” in the sense that the displacement was an involuntary separation: in Barrell’s terms (1991, 1-24), a “narrative of trauma.” My initial proposition is that a “semi”-autographical reading of the poem must take into account the possibility that Bloomfield had unresolved feelings about separation, loss, and success, and that these feelings are worked through imaginatively in hyperbolic figurations of familial catastrophe, dispossession, and guilt.

6.        In order to test this hypothesis, we can turn to the poem’s most sensational episode, the slaughter of the lambs at the end of Spring. Following scenes in which Giles has had to stake out dead crows and milk some “lazy” cows, his final task of this first section of the poem is to shepherd his flock, a job which, at least initially, seems like a pastoral reward for the harsher and less fulfilling labors which have preceded it. Not only is this pastoral mainstay the narrator’s “darling theme” (Sp 283), it is also clear that the lambs are the epitome of pastoral comfort, “Indulg’d” in a life of “ease” and “play” (Sp 291-2). But an ominous shadow soon falls over their innocent bliss, as they are also described as “happy tenants, prisoners of a day” (Sp 291) who inhabit “bright inclosures circling round their home” (Sp 286). This is another example of the oxymoronic darkening of tone which first appeared in Giles’s “happy servitude.” The language of confinement alerts us to the fact that there is more than one kind of “indulgence” at work here, as both the lambs and the reader are being lulled into a false sense of security. No amount of “spotless innocence, and infant mirth” (Sp 317) can protect the lambs from the descending knife of the “murd’ing Butcher” (Sp 346):

Ah, fallen rose! sad emblem of their doom;
Frail as thyself, they perish while they bloom!
Though unoffending Innocence may plead,
Though frantic Ewes may mourn the savage deed,
The shepherd comes, a messenger of blood, (Sp 339-43)
The surprising aspect of this scene is not the anthropomorphic violence but the implied treachery and collusion of Giles, no longer a caring shepherd but a “messenger of blood.” [13]  In a striking reversal of the Christian values associated with the pastoral shepherd’s role, Giles becomes nothing less than a collaborator with the Herod-like butcher who “Demands the firstlings of his flock to die” (Sp 347). The political connotations of this massacre are made crystal clear: the slaughter of Giles’s “gay companions” (Sp 349) is compared to the undermining of “life and liberty” (Sp 348).

7.        The full allegorical impact of this “shocking image” (Sp 354) can be felt if we furnish the political allusion with some specific historical events. In 1798, the year in which Bloomfield finished the poem, the Irish rebellion saw over 20,000 Irish killed, most of whom were peasants. But the trope of slaughtered innocence was also the standard textual fare of Romantic atrocity scenes, and such bloody vignettes abounded in anti-slavery, anti-war, and anti-Jacobin writing (Haywood passim). In 1797, for example, William Cobbett (writing as “Peter Porcupine”) published his macabre The Bloody Buoy, also known as Annals of Blood, a catalogue of graphically detailed Jacobin outrages (Haywood, chapter 2). This work was popular, and it is not beyond the bounds of speculation to consider that if Bloomfield knew the work, he may have been infected by its compulsion to expose the desecrated victims of political terror, even though Bloomfield’s “fleeces drench’d in gore” are emblems of English, not French, tyranny (Sp 350). But political contextualization is still only a partial allegorical reading of the scene, as it does not explain Giles’s seemingly guilty role in the massacre, and Giles’s own feelings remain obscure. As in the rest of the poem, his interiority is inconsistently represented, and it is often insubstantial and transient—“he felt no more.” [14]  This vagueness shifts the responsibility for coping with the “ideas foul” (Sp 353) to the narrator, who intervenes to bring the scene to a hasty close so that Giles (and the reader) can put this carnage behind them and look ahead to the “universal joy” of summer (Sp 358).

8.        However, the “shocking” impact of this bloodbath cannot be forgotten so easily, and its reverberations trouble the poem throughout the next three sections. It is only just over a hundred lines into Summer, for example, before we are told that Giles fell into a “delicious” sleep after a rewarding day’s labor:

From sleep who could forbear,
With no more guilt than Giles, and no more care?
Peace o’er his slumbers waves her guardian wing,
Nor Conscience once disturbs him with a sting (107-10)
Although the reference to “guilt” could be explained in georgic terms as taking a break from labor, the combined effect of the diction (“guilt,” “peace,” “conscience”) surely gives these lines a darker hue when the preceding slaughter is recalled. It is as if the narrator’s absolution comes only at the cost of narrative amnesia. But another important pointer towards an allegorized, psycho-biographical reading of the slaughtered lambs scene is the presence of those “frantic Ewes” who “mourn the savage deed” (Sp 342). This intense maternal grief enables an interpretation of the scene in which the traumatic act of separation from the mother is both registered and contained by displacing its agency onto a hyperbolically violent third party (in Barrell’s terms, “this, that, and the other”). [15]  The seemingly paradoxical component of this fantasy—the collusion of Giles in the violence—can be explained as a means to manage the guilt generated by the contradictory emotions of love and resentment. This reading of the scene then permits us to deepen and broaden the significance of the most “shocking” object in the episode, that emblem of destroyed innocence, the gory fleece. Once we see the fleece as a key player in a psycho-biographical drama of loss and separation, at least four avenues of critical exploration are opened up: first, we can compare the scene to one of its key intertexts, the sheep-shearing ritual in Thomson’s The Seasons; second, we can take a fresh look at the way Bloomfield revisits the scene at the end of FB, clearly in an attempt to produce a “narrative of reparation”; third, we can investigate the function of the image of the fleece in Bloomfield’s curious elegy to his mother, the poem "To a Spindle" ; and fourth, we can use the idea of sartorial transformation to shed new light on a whole subset of poetical tropes which cluster around the themes of adoption and failed guardianship.


9.        Thomson’s The Seasons is more than just an influence on FB, [16]  it is also a major component in what I have called the Bloomfield “myth.” According to Lofft, Bloomfield first conceived FB in 1784 when, in order to avoid a trade dispute in his London workplace, he returned to his Uncle Austin’s farm in Sapiston:

And here, with his mind glowing with the fine Descriptions of rural scenery which he found in Thomson’s Seasons, he again retrac’d the very fields where he first began to think. Here, free from the smoke, the noise, the contention of the city, he imbibed that Love of rural Simplicity and rural Innocence, which fitted him, in a great degree, to be the writer of such a thing as “The Farmer’s Boy” (1805 xi-xii)
Though the attractions of this fable of rural origination are obvious, [17]  no critic has thought to question why Bloomfield did not return to his real rather than his adopted home, [18]  and there is a further issue about the remaining fourteen years of gestation during which the poem took shape in the shoemaker’s workshop in the City of London. But leaving these reservations aside for now, Bloomfield clearly organized FB as an imitation of The Seasons. Beginning with Lofft and Nathan Drake, there has been a tendency to bolster Bloomfield’s reputation by showing that at times he is capable of bettering Thomson, either through the use of greater realism or through his skill in utilizing and modifying the conventions of the georgic. [19]  But there are other and potentially more probing ways to investigate Bloomfield’s relation to his poetical master. The Seasons was more than just an inspiring text; it also provided aspiring laboring-class poets with two powerful but contradictory narratives of cultural development and progress. On the one hand, the decline from a pastoral golden age into urban decadence and corruption; on the other, the georgic myth of industrious progress from barbarism to civilization. [20]  For the polite reader of the poem, these competing models of national culture undoubtedly offered differing ideological rewards and challenges, but the impact on the rural laboring-class poet was potentially much more personal and deep-seated, as these two narratives defined the conflicted poetic identity of the “humble” writer whose value derived precisely from those “simple” origins. Critics have noted that Bloomfield both benefited and suffered from the existing sentimental stereotype of the “humble” laboring-class poet which predominated in his editors’ and patrons’ eulogies (McEathron, "Wordsworth" 6), but Bloomfield’s story was not only written by his benefactors and patrons: it was already woven into the generic logic of the eighteenth-century georgic. Thomson’s assertion that those who “fret in guilt / And guilty cities” can never know “the life / Led by primeval ages uncorrupt” (Thomson, A 1348-9) not only prefigured Romantic rhetoric, it also constructed a primitivist discourse of value which, particularly for the laboring-class poet, was both a literary conceit and a dominant biographical construction. But if the alleged 1784 conception of FB fits this pastoral paradigm neatly (Bloomfield leaves the “guilty city” for the “uncorrupted” sanctity of the farm), the converse narrative of georgic progress relocates the poem’s genesis in Bloomfield’s workroom, a site of industry and virtuous artisan labor.

10.        It is in this context that I want to look at the anthropomorphic force (or “farce”) [21]  of Thomson’s sheep-shearing scene (Thomson, S 371-422), an episode which combines elements of both pastoral innocence and georgic industriousness. The sentimental structure of the scene is the inverse of FB, as the “loud complaints” (Thomson, S 391) of the “harmless race” (Thomson, S 388) of corralled sheep express an awareness that their fate stands (literally) on a knife-edge; the sheep are “wondering what this wild / Outrageous tumult means” and they remain—in a haunting phrase—“Inly disturbed” (Thomson, S 390-1), a sharp contrast to the “dumb uncomplaining innocence” (Thomson, S 416) of their outward appearance. In order to reassure the sheep (and the reader), the narrator intervenes:

Fear not, ye gentle tribes! ’tis not the knife
Of horrid slaughter that is o’er you waved;
No, ’tis the tender swain’s well-guided shears,
Who having now, to pay his annual care,
Borrowed your fleece, to you a cumbrous load,
Will send you bounding to your hills again. (Thomson, S 417-22)
What could have been an allegorized act of monarchical “horrid slaughter” presided over by the “pastoral queen” and “shepherd-king” (Thomson, S 401-2) is transformed into a charitable ministry of relief: natural resources are benignly “borrowed” for the good of the national economy, making the fleece (however unconvincingly) a redemptive symbol of virtuous commerce rather than violent expropriation. [22]  In Autumn, Thomson revisits the trope and condenses the georgic myth of industrious advancement into a fable of sartorial progress, showing how Industry took the benighted savage, “Tore from his limbs the blood-polluted fur, / And wrapped them in the woolly vestment warm” (84-5).

11.        Placed next to Thomson’s virtuous and consoling fleece, the carnage of FB seems like a deliberate travesty, as if Bloomfield was keen to repudiate not only the basic illusion of non-exploitative labor (which in John Dyer’s even more patriotic sheep-shearing scene in The Fleece [1757] comprises “peaceful subjects” who “without murmur yield / Their yearly tribute” [80]) but also Thomson’s compromise trope of mutual “borrowing.” In order to explain why this metaphor was the target of such a violent repudiation, we can speculate about Bloomfield’s radical, anti-capitalist political affiliations, but we can also recognize that the “farmer’s boy” was precisely a “borrowed” asset, a “fatherless” and “poor” boy farmed out to an uncle’s farm and later transplanted a second time to his brothers’ care in the “meridian,” the metropolis where he was again symbolically re-clothed. In Thomsonian terms, Bloomfield’s slaughter scene collapses the stadial distinction between the barbaric “blood-polluted fur” and the enlightened “woolly vestment warm”: cathected indeed, Bloomfield exposes the instability of Thomson’s own rhetoric in which paternalist swaddling is preceded by a violent disrobing. My proposition, therefore, is that the massacre of the innocents in FB is simultaneously an anti-pastoral debunking and a displaced reenactment of what I am speculating was a traumatic moment in Bloomfield’s young life when he was “torn” away from the maternal “woolly vestment warm” and “borrowed” by his uncle “to pay his annual care.” The gory fleece is FB’s central memento mori, an emblem of annihilation and arrested development.

12.        The poem’s need both to confront and discharge psychic terror is one way to understand the fact that each of the four seasons of FB (and this is not apparent from the anodyne Thomsonian "Arguments" ) is disturbed and disrupted by episodes which narrativize and allegorize emotions of fear, resentment, and guilt. At the same time, these “digressions” attempt to find a resolution to the anxieties they raise and return the poem to a condition of stability and “peace.” The culmination of this cycle of rupture and resolution comes at the end of the poem when Bloomfield returns to the haunting image of the bloody fleece. There is a strong impression that the poem cannot be allowed to end until this problem has been formally resolved, [23]  and this raising of the aesthetic stakes brings the maternal trope more fully into view. The closing scene transforms the earlier slaughter into a fable of adoption or “borrowing.” The massacred flock is reconfigured as a therapeutic moment of “maternal fondness” (W 352) [24]  in which an orphaned lamb is adopted by a new mother: by borrowing the fleece of a dead lamb, the mother is “cheated” into thinking the lamb is her own (W 358). In Freudian terms, this resolution could be seen as a family romance in which the displaced hero finds new and more perfect parents, but in Bloomfield’s “narrative of reparation” the closure is unstable and fraught with contradictions. Not only is the restored mother “cheated into tenderness,” but the orphan has a split identity, wearing “his predecessor’s skin” (W 357) and being “doom’d awhile disguis’d to range” (W 356-7)—an intriguing metaphor for the dilemma of the laboring-class poet who, as a cultural orphan, faces the choice of adopting or adapting borrowed clothes. [25] 


13.        Bloomfield’s need to turn FB into a fable of “maternal fondness” did not end with the composition of the text. Lofft was overjoyed to discover that Bloomfield presented the poem as a gift to his mother. He used the preface to FB to announce that Bloomfield “seems far less interested concerning any Fame or Advantage he may derive to himself, than in the pleasure of giving a printed Copy of [FB], as a tribute of duty and affection, to his Mother.” [26]  In fact Lofft revealed that Bloomfield had not visited Honington for twelve years, [27]  but this made the symbolic reunion of mother and “tribute” even more moving: “[he] has review’d, with the feelings of a truly poetic and benevolent Mind, the haunts of his youth” (1805 xxi). For Lofft, restoring FB to its maternal “home” is the crowning glory of the poem’s pastoral virtues, as if the poem is truly where it belongs, outside of the corrupting egotistical forces of “guilty cities.” But the conversion of FB into an object of gift culture does not have to be seen in these sentimental and primitivist terms; it can also be seen as a measure of Bloomfield’s having finally achieved a measure of self-respect and independence. [28]  According to Lewis Hyde, “It is when art acts as an agent of transformation that we may correctly speak of it as a gift,” adding that “the transformation is not complete until we have the power to give the gift on our own terms” (47). Intriguingly, Hyde illustrates this point by alluding to the well-known folk-tale The Elves and the Shoemaker. This fable is not unrelated to Bloomfield’s situation: the story concerns a struggling shoemaker who is rescued from pauperism by the magical intervention of two elves who turn his unfinished shoes into “complete masterpieces.” The shoemaker becomes “thriving and prosperous” by selling these shoes as if they were his own, at which point he returns the compliment by making some clothes for the naked elves. But the unresolved issue, which is not addressed by the text, is the fraudulent basis of the shoemaker’s success—in essence, he has been deceiving his customers (Hunt 1: 140). With this fable in mind, we may wonder if “duty and affection” are the only “tributes” contained within FB; perhaps Lofft unintentionally let slip one answer to this problem when he identified the inspirational core of the poem as the “haunts” of Bloomfield’s youth.

14.        But if the presentation of FB as a “tribute” to his mother provided Bloomfield with even a partial release from his complex feelings about childhood separation, the textual evidence of his elegy "To a Spindle" (1805), [29]  written as a response to his mother’s death at the end of 1804, [30]  suggests that many psychic and emotional blockages still remained. [31]  This poem is particularly valuable for any critic working on Bloomfield’s biography, yet its strange refusal to conform to generic expectations and provide an unambiguous “tribute of duty and affection” has failed to attract any critical attention. As its intriguing title indicates, the poem is characteristically full of displacements, odd rhetorical shifts and tonal shocks. Moreover, it is significant that the most compelling trope of the poem is not the concluding image of reunion but the mother’s “half-finished” fleece. The textual route to this image is not straightforward and involves a journey through several important biographical incidents and dates. Bloomfield’s brief but highly revealing preface states that the poem was inspired by his mother’s last visit to London in the summer of 1804, [32]  but beyond this bare fact we are told nothing about their relationship. Instead, the preface paints a harrowing portrait of his mother’s last moments in which her usual “patient resignation” gives way to two unstable forms of regressive behavior: first, she develops “an ungovernable dread of ultimate want,” as if her life has been a complete failure and she is pitched back into a primary condition of insecurity: “to meet Winter, Old Age, and Poverty, was like meeting three giants” (65). Second, she becomes a compulsive spinner. As the poem reveals, Bloomfield’s mother was by profession a “village school-mistress” (line 36), but in the preface’s vignette she reverts to the customary occupation for which, we are told, she was renowned, and which becomes an obsession in her last moments:

During the tearful paroxysms of her last depression, she spun with the utmost violence, and with vehemence exclaimed, “I must spin!” A paralytic affection, struck her whole right side, while at work, and obliged her to quit her spindle when only half filled, and she died within a fortnight. I have that spindle now. (65)
These are intriguing details, yet the final piece of information provided by the preface is even more revealing for the purposes of this essay. Bloomfield returns to the topic of his mother’s last visit to see him in London and notes that “she returned from her visit to London, on Friday, the 29 of June, just to a day, 23 years after she brought me to London, which was also on a Friday, in the year 1781.” No further comments are given, but the coincidence of dates indicates that the poem functions, at one level, as a metaphorical or allegorical revisiting of that formative moment in Bloomfield’s life when “she brought me to London.” From the evidence of the preface, therefore, the mother’s “spindle” is not only a quasi-religious “relic” (the first word of the poem) but also a fetish, an object with the transcendental power to summon the ghosts of the past.

15.        As the first line of the poem shows, Bloomfield’s relation to this fetish is conflicted: “Relic! I will not bow to thee, nor worship!” Does this defiance represent Bloomfield’s complex feelings about his mother? Or is it a protest directed at the generic expectations of the elegy? If the latter, the line explodes the notion that (in Drake’s words) “piety” and respectability seeped from the pores of Bloomfield’s poetry. Whatever the answer, this is an unorthodox opening to an elegy, and it establishes a discordant and edgy tone for the fragmented biographical narrative which follows. In the next seven lines Bloomfield seems to affirm all the pastoral myths about his poetic origins by stating that the spindle evokes those “sunny days, that ever haunt my dreams” (an echo of the rosy phrase “the sunshine of my youth” used in "To My Old Oak Table" [1803] to describe the inspiration for FB). But these are not the days on the Sapiston farm: the lines refer to the time preceding this, “ere the farm received / My vagrant foot,” and even this tantalizing reference to Honington is only superficially “sunny.” To begin with, the parental role in his transfer to “the farm” is conspicuously deleted and replaced with the awkward passive mood. Furthermore, to call himself a “vagrant” (6) is an almost comic misrepresentation of the basic facts (which were in the public domain) of his involuntary removal to Sapiston, [33]  a point that gains some credence from the punning association between the “vagrant foot” and metrical feet. When line six is read to the end, a quite different interpretation of events emerges from the ambiguous syntax: “ere the farm received / My vagrant foot, and with its liberty”—only the possessive “s” of “its” prevents this line from implying that his “liberty” was sacrificed, though ostensibly that word refers to the farm’s new pastoral freedoms which “Had taught my heart to wander” (8). This mood of liberation could therefore be a consolation for the pain of separation and the hardships of becoming (and failing to remain) a “farmer’s boy.” [34] 

16.        But if the waving of this spindle-wand seems to have magically cleansed Bloomfield’s infant past from any parental interference—as if his mother’s death has indeed released him from her sphere of influence—this does not mean that all is forgiven. Having dispensed with his past, Bloomfield then calls on the spectral spindle to teach “a moral” to “me and mine” (10). This “moral” takes the form of a reworking of those scenes in the preface which described his mother’s dying moments. In the poetic re-imagining, the two scenes of frantic spinning and terrified hallucinations are conflated, as if the former is a deranged or superstitious attempt to erect a barrier between herself and the three giants “grim and bold.” Not content to show that “terrors fill’d her brain,— / Nor causeless terrors” (13-14), Bloomfield adds a final macabre touch, the intervention of Death itself who “to her trembling hand and heart at once, / Cried ‘Spin no more’” (20-21). The poem changes the preface’s description of her final seizure—described as a “paralytic affection” (itself an intriguing phrase, [35]  and an echo of Lofft’s “tribute of duty and affection”)—into a more dramatic, sudden demise. Death’s pronouncement “Spin no more” presumably answers the mother’s deranged declaration “I must spin!” in the preface, but there is surely also a disturbing allusion to the famous curse “Sleep no more” in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: this echo gives the “utmost violence” of her words a much darker subtext. But if imagining his mother as an infamous murderess is a shocking step for Bloomfield to take, even unconsciously, the allusion could be one way, if an extreme one, to appease his feelings of abandonment and betrayal. What his mother leaves on her spindle, significantly, is an incomplete, “soft downy fleece” of the type that “she wound / Through all her days, she who could spin so well” (22-3). This “half fill’d” and “half finish’d” fleece (24) is yet another modulation of the trope of dysfunctional parental bonding which recurs in FB.

17.        The image of the incomplete fleece is central to the poem’s psychic and aesthetic success. Indeed, the image can be seen as the poem’s “spindle” or pivotal point around which the various strands of meaning are gathered. As if he is aware of this, Bloomfield reflects on his own metaphor:

Half finish’d? ’Tis the motto of the world:
We spin vain threads, and strive, and die
With sillier things than spindles on our hands. (26-8)
The first two lines of this generalization are unimpressively conventional, but in line 28 there is a characteristic slippage. It seems that Bloomfield is remembering a letter written to his brother George in September 1798 in which he refers self-effacingly to his plans to publish FB: “very silly things are sometimes printed.” (letter 10, 16 September 1798.) [36]  The verbal echo implies that Bloomfield is now thinking of his own poetic identity. With his mother’s memory safely contained in the twin symbols of the spindle and (more importantly) the half-completed fleece, Bloomfield can now transfer the trope of spinning to the production of his own lines of verse, though he makes this move initially under the protection of self-deprecating allusions to “vain threads” and “sillier things.” [37]  He then uses the third, concluding section of the poem to restage the process of becoming a poet: “Then, feeling as I do, resistlessly, / The bias set upon my soul for verse” (27-8). With this autobiographical re-enactment in place, the final, redemptive modulation of the fleece image provides an appropriately beneficent and pacific conclusion to this allegorized life story. Looking ahead to his own death, he asks God to accept his “purity / Of thought and texture” (32-3) and convert a “poor fragment” (31) into a “snowy innocence” (35).


18.        The textual evidence adduced so far allows us to surmise that unresolved feelings about filial separation lie behind Bloomfield’s affinity with the orphaned lambs of FB who are “doom’d awhile disguis’d to range” (W 355) in borrowed fleeces, so that the “unsuspecting dam” (W 359) would be “cheated into tenderness” (W 358). The trope of the “half finished” or “half fill’d” fleece provided a means to condense the “torrent” of feelings about his early life ("To My Old Oak Table," line 96) into a poetically flexible trope of loss and transformation. In psycho-biographical terms, Bloomfield was “re-fleeced” three times. The first major break was the move to Sapiston, the place where he became a farmer’s boy and “reliev’d his Mother of any other expence than only of finding him a few things to wear; and this was more than she well knew how to” (1805 v). The second transformation was his arrival in London in 1781, a journey predicated on the promise of his brother Nathaniel “to clothe him” (1805 v). The third metamorphosis was the publication of FB, the moment when Bloomfield became a poet and acquired a set of parental substitutes in the guise of patrons and supporters. Each of these rites of passage can be seen as a return of the repressed which generated new and often extreme imaginings of those core emotions of insecurity, guilt, fear, and terror.

19.        The initial wrench from Honington to Sapiston seems to have been either too painful or “obscure” to imagine directly. It is curious that even in his poem "On Revisiting the Place of my Nativity" (dated 30 May 1800, and published initially in the third edition [May 1800] of FB) there are no details about his parents, his home, or, for that matter, the village (121-2). [38]  After expressing the conventional sentiment that absence has given “Ideal sweetness to my distant home” there is no further mention of this “home.” Perhaps Bloomfield was disconcerted by the response of local people to his celebrity:

I conceited that I saw the workmen and neighbours look at me as an idle fellow. I had nothing to do but to read, look at them, and their country and concerns. They did not seem to know how to estimate me. (1827 xx)
This is the classic dilemma of the laboring-class poet whose social mobility is regarded with suspicion or bewilderment by the class and community from which he or she originated. As an adopted son of polite culture, Bloomfield had embarked on that perilous voyage of dependency and commercial success which had afflicted the lives and the sanity of some of his plebeian predecessors, notably Stephen Duck. [39]  But unlike Duck, Bloomfield was not transported straight from the fields to the mansions of patronage. By 1798, when he completed FB, Bloomfield had lived and worked in London for seventeen years, absorbing and negotiating metropolitan culture in a period of intense political and cultural upheaval. [40]  Unfortunately, we have only a few tantalizing yet precious glimpses into Bloomfield’s life in the period, most of which appeared in Lofft’s narrative, based on information supplied by George Bloomfield (letter 20, before 1 March 1800). We can only speculate about this thinness of detail: it may be explained by the need to conceal radical political affiliations, [41]  or—which is more likely—it tells us that for Lofft and other admirers and promoters, Bloomfield was essentially and definitively a pastoral poet. He may have lived in the city, but his real creative, spiritual, and moral home was in the Suffolk countryside. The pasteurization of Bloomfield was both a marketing ploy and a way of domesticating Bloomfield so that his patrons could be freed from any guilt about inflating his expectations; laboring-class poets must not be encouraged to “rise into a line that is beyond their reach.” [42] 

20.         Hence it is the rustic image of Bloomfield which is foregrounded in Lofft’s account of “little Robert’s” arrival in London on 29 June 1781. [43]  When his mother hands him over to his brother George, she charges George “as I valued a Mother’s Blessing, to watch over him, to set good Examples for him, and never to forget that he had lost his Father.” [44]  Lofft finds this moment of surrogate fathering a “pathetic and successful Admonition,” even though it clearly reinforced Bloomfield’s orphaned status. Revealingly, Bloomfield is wrongly dressed for the occasion: the “little, fatherless boy” is “dress’d just as he came from keeping Sheep, Hogs, &—his shoes fill’d full of stumps in the heels. He looking about him, slipt up—his nails were unus’d to a flat pavement.” [45]  This is affectionate social comedy, [46]  but the humor releases some genuine tensions about the awkward transition from rural to urban culture. The most telling detail is the wonderful literalization of insecurity, the moment when the boy “slipt up” on the pavement (and the joke becomes even more poignant when we remember that Bloomfield had come to London to be apprenticed as a shoemaker). But there is more than one type of “slippage” here. When Bloomfield used the preface to the 1809 edition of his poems to correct inaccuracies in Lofft’s preface, the only incident which he revised in any detail was this “anecdote” of rustic gaucherie. In the corrected narrative, he has prepared for the “change I was going to experience” by wearing his best, Sunday clothes, “such as they were.” Symbolically, he sold his smock frock (the standard dress of the country laborer) for a shilling, and recalls “slily washing my best hat in the horsepond, to give it a gloss fit to appear in the meridian of London.” Clearly, Bloomfield wanted to make his entry into London a more empowering if still comic scene, a moment which emphasized aspiration rather than ineptitude or incongruity. [47]  He also recalls “riding backwards on the coach” and being amazed that all the coaches “stood for hire!” (1827 x-xi). These details, which Bloomfield dismisses as “surely trifling anecdotes,” are all important adjustments to Lofft’s version of this rite of passage: the conspicuous dressing up recalls the orphaned lamb “doom’d awhile disguis’d to range”; the literal backwardness on the coach expresses the formidable scale of the journey ahead of him; and the naivety about commercial society anticipates the transition to artisan labor and the free market. Far more was at stake, therefore, in Bloomfield’s rewriting of this initiation scene, than a simple change of clothes. The Sunday-suited Bloomfield was a declaration of independence, an affirmation of the right to dress (and address) himself, and a means to distance himself from his alter ego Giles, who ploughs his field single-handedly “Till dirt adhesive loads his clouted shoes” (Sp 82).


21.        But the slaughtered lambs of Spring are only the most spectacular example of Bloomfield’s allegorical dramatization of terror. The anthropomorphic conventions of georgic enabled Bloomfield to displace onto animals a discourse of human rights and a whole battery of violent effects which seem to evoke the climate of terror in the 1790s. But while some of these moments in the poem have been analyzed by critics in this way, the possibility that the same violent tropes might serve both a political and psycho-biographical agenda has yet to be considered. For example, no serious critical attention has been given to one of the earliest examples of terror in the poem, the shooting and staking out of crows (Sp 103-24). Yet this incident contains powerful allegorical possibilities: an exposure of the brutality of the Black Acts, a condemnation of capital punishment, an anti-hunting scene, or even an anti-war allegory. [48]  The passage is structured as a georgic demonstration of the best way to prevent “the wary plunderers” (Sp 107) consuming the newly sown seed:

Yet oft the sculking gunner by surprise
Will scatter death amongst them as they rise.
These, hung in triumph round the spacious field,
At best will but a short-liv’d terror yield:
. . .
Let then your birds lie prostrate on the earth,
In dying posture, and with wings stretcht forth;
Shift them at eve or morn from place to place,
And Death shall terrify the pilfering race. (Sp 109-12, 117-20)
There are a number of ways to interpret this passage: on the one hand, there is a confrontation between civilization and primitive nature; on the other hand, the “wings stretcht forth” clearly evoke sacrificial victims and the Crucifixion. The role of Giles is also not entirely clear, as the hunter figure is not Giles but a generic “sculking gunner.” Only after the passage ends are we told that “This task had Giles, in fields remote from home” (Sp 125). As there is no information about Giles’s feelings, it is not easy to know if he is just indifferent, or if he is a reluctant collaborator in this slaughter. Interestingly, the next day he is given a similar “care,” this time to deter “prowling Reynard” (Sp 158, another “pilferer,” and the first of numerous murderous predators in the poem) by stringing up dead hens:
His feather’d victims to suspend in air,
High on the bough that nodded o’er his head,
And thus each morn to strew the field with dead. (Sp 160-3)
Like the crow-killing, this scene evokes a contemporary political landscape of terror: in the troubles in Ireland, for example, victims were routinely tarred and “feather’d,” but the latter trope could also evoke the mass executions of women or aristocrats in France. The crow-slaying incidents also share a common theme: the severest punishment is meted out to those who “plunder” and give nothing in return; or, put another way, terror is a justified defense against an implacable external threat. But the most intriguing interpretation is to read the scenes as an exploration of Bloomfield’s “poetical welfare,” [49]  in which case we can posit that Bloomfield has internalized and redeployed the rhetoric of terror in order to defend his own vocation (the rural poet) against the threat of invasion and expropriation by “plunderers”—in psycho-biographical terms, this could be anyone who steals his “seed” and ruins his “harvest.” If we assume that the laboring-class poet is by definition a culturally insecure subject position, [50]  it is possible that these scenes function as fantasies of pre-emptive retaliation, as if Bloomfield is attempting to expel all “threats” from the poetic landscape. This interpretation gains weight from the fact that the crow-killing scene was almost certainly the first part of FB to be written. In a letter to George written in September 1798, Bloomfield revealed:
The parts of the poem first composed, before any thought was entertained of going through with the Seasons, were the morning scene in Spring, beginning “This task had Giles,” and the description of the lambs at play. And if it be lawful for an author to tell his opinion, they have never lost an inch of ground in my estimation from that day to this. [51] 
Tellingly, this information also reveals that the other foundational scene of FB was the “lambs at play,” a euphemism for the scene of slaughter which concludes Spring. This information makes clear that the poem’s origins lay not in rural nostalgia but in one of the georgic’s most disturbing conventions, the anthropomorphized slaughter of animals. In psychic terms, the two scenes record Bloomfield’s failure to protect his imaginative landscape from catastrophic violation.

22.        There is also an intriguing coda to this analysis of the allegorical density of the crow-slaying scene in Spring. The spectacle of the slaughtered birds prompted Lofft to spring paratextually to their defense. In one of his editorial notes, he expressed his regret that Bloomfield had not given a “stay of execution” to the birds. For Lofft (drawing on Bewick), the crow is a “very beautiful and very sensible Bird” which deserves “not only mercy, but protection and encouragement.” To prove his point, Lofft reveals that he has in his care two crows that were lamed in a storm. Both birds have become domesticated, but one bird is yet more remarkable, since although enjoying his natural liberty completely, he recognizes, even in his flights at a distance from the house, his adoptive home, his human friends, and early protectors. (1805 103)

23.        The camouflaged meaning in this anecdote is not difficult to uncover: the story of Lofft’s tamed and grateful crow is clearly designed to extol the virtues of patronage and enlightened “care.” Lofft’s re-allegorizing of Bloomfield’s scene functions itself like a “sculking gun.” Not only does it attempt to intervene in the poem and regulate the imaginative terrain; it also surreptitiously accuses Bloomfield of exceeding the poetic “liberty” of his “adoptive home” and offending his “early protectors.”

24.        But even if Bloomfield had taken Lofft’s advice, it is doubtful that the “stay of execution” would have lasted long. From its inception, FB gave Bloomfield the creative means to explore and confront fears and terrors, not to avoid or repress them. The poem is structured like a series of seismic tremors followed by a temporary periods of “pastoral” calm. To some extent this pattern follows the model of Thomson, but the much shorter length of FB makes the eruptions of painful and disturbing material into the text more intense and disruptive. One way in which the poem tries to keep control of these ructions is, as already noted, by displacing them onto animals (Perkins 105-6), but as we have seen, the anthropomorphizing imagination which is released by this maneuver quickly exceeds its original georgic purpose. Consider, for example, the fate of “Poor, patient Ball” (S 207), the docile workhorse whose lost tail implies emasculation. His “short-clipt remnant of a tail” has reduced him to “A moving mockery, a useless name” (S 210-11) who is defenseless against blood-sucking flies. An allegorized psycho-biographical reading of this image could suggest an attempt to vent feelings of abjection, disempowerment, and dependency: a series of displacements could take us from “poor” Ball to Giles the “Gibeonite” (Sp 223) to Bloomfield’s more elevated insecurities about status. This chain of association also links to that other, more spectacular “moving mockery” of the poem, the withering account of the decline in the quality of Giles’s locally produced cheese, a decline explained in terms of the dominance of the London market. As the cheese is transported to the “ever-craving mart” of the “huge Metropolis” (Sp 237-8)—the same route, of course, undertaken by Bloomfield in 1781—it is met by “derision and reproach” (Sp 253). The cheese is so hard and dry that it resembles unflattering wooden objects, a “post” (Sp 256), or “the oaken shelf whereon ’tis laid” (Sp 259); and in a final stab of unpalatable phallic humor, it is “Too big to swallow, and too hard to bite” (Sp 262). This brilliant, satirical imagining of commodification displaces the social impotence of rural labor onto the desiccated, devitalized products of that labor which are “mockeries” of masculine prowess and dignity. The importance of this phallic and totemic motif for Bloomfield can be seen in the fact that problematic and over-determined wooden objects are the focus of his two most autobiographical poems "To a Spindle" and "To my Old Oak Table." The motif also reappears in the aptly entitled "The Broken Crutch," a poem which, as the title suggests, expresses the frustrated rebelliousness of the rural lower classes.

25.        The same disdain for servility and docility can be seen in the strange episode of the two cruelly treated horses in Winter (154-213). This anecdote is meant to prove the virtues of “duty” and obedient labor, but the argument relies on a brutal comparison between rural and urban exploitation. Whereas “Short-sighted Dobbin” (W 159) suffers mere drudgery and cannot see (understandably) that “Thy chains were freedom, and thy toils repose” (W 162), his urban counterpart the post-horse is callously and horrifically mistreated: “His piece-meal murderers wear his life away” (W 198). Though an anthropomorphic reading of this scene reinforces the perceived “anti-urban” bias of the poem (Lawson 88), the advantages of rural labor are hardly legion, as Dobbin still “wear[s] the clinking chain” (W 158). [53]  Moreover, the violent condemnation of urban culture raises again the vexed question of Bloomfield’s own relation to his formative years in the metropolis. Bloomfield’s urban identity is almost entirely suppressed in his poetry, as if he could only imagine himself as the rural poet of his own legend, but one way to interpret FB’s disturbances is in terms of his anxious and self-questioning urban self—the autodidact poet, the artisan and the father—forcing its way into the text in various disguises.

26.        Take, for example, the poem’s most sustained full-frontal assault on modernity: this is the passage at the end of Summer which makes a Cobbett-like attack on the gentrification of farming. The first point to note about this tirade is that it focuses on the changed role of the farmer: formerly a “good old Master” who shook his workers’ hands, he is now a collaborator with the “new grandeur” (S 348). In one sense, then, the farmer resembles a compromised patron who has sold his soul to “Bold innovations” (S 384) that “bear no peace beneath their showy dress” (S 385). The sartorial metaphor signifies the farmer’s betrayal of his roots and responsibilities, but behind the farmer is the more general paradigm of social mobility, that anxious move from “humble industry” (S 354) to the “hated face” of “refinement” (S 338). The awkward allegorical question raised by this interjection, therefore, is the extent to which the successful laboring-class poet—who by definition will almost certainly become socially or culturally mobile—can retain an authentic self-identity without selling out to “tyrant customs” (S 335). Bloomfield’s solution to the problem (which, as he was writing the poem, could only be in anticipation) is twofold: to avoid self-incrimination, he displaces the offense onto the farmer; he also polarizes bourgeois “refinement” and “humble” rural life, leaving nothing in between, but in order to do this he has to invent an anonymous and ghostly “mourner” for the lost organic society. This figure acts as a useful pseudo-autobiographical device, enabling Bloomfield to present the most militant “rural” version of himself in the poem:

Can my sons share from this paternal hand
The profits with the labours of the land?
. . .
Where’s the small farm to suit my scanty means? (S 357-8, 360)
Clearly, this cannot be the actual Bloomfield of 1798, who had lived in London for seventeen years. What seems to be the poem’s most autobiographical intervention is, significantly, an adopted voice, albeit a more elevated persona than the inarticulate Giles: “Let labour have its due; then peace is mine” (S 399). Perhaps this is Bloomfield’s fantasy of the person he might have become if he had stayed in the countryside, but the statement of solidarity with rural labour relies on the effacing of the real, “refined” Bloomfield whose quest for peace was a complex social, intellectual, and cultural affair. [54] 

27.        Indeed, Bloomfield’s quest to find existential “peace” by confronting the demons of his imagination explains the presence of three seemingly gratuitous episodes in the poem: the mad girl Ann, the marooned Giles (both in Autumn), and the poem’s climactic scene of terror, the apparition in Winter. Perhaps based on similar figures in Cowper and Goldsmith, Ann (originally named Poll) is the most troubled figure in the poem: “her peace was gone” (A 115) and “Terror and Joy alternate rul’d her hours” (A 121). She could be a fallen woman, though there is less evidence for this than in Wordsworth’s "The Thorn." What is clear is that she has suffered arrested development and has become an exile from normal social life. As a “lost child” mourned by her “afflicted parents” (A 128), she is the poem’s most spectacular orphan, detached not only from family life but also from rural culture: “Inverted customs yield her sullen joy”(A 130). Ann is a travesty of the organic community, preferring to sleep with pigs than in the “cot’s warm walls” (A 137). She is a blot on the rural landscape, a constant reminder of social and psychological breakdown. But having raised a ghost who threatens the stability of pastoral conventions, Bloomfield has to rebuild those same defenses: his antidote to the mad Ann is to invoke a sentimental stereotype of the humble cottage which restores the Burkean virtues of family life: “Inestimable sweets of social peace!” (A 176). With this reassurance in place, the poet is able to learn the correct lesson from Ann’s tragic story, “Let peace ne’er leave me, nor my heart grow cold” (A 179). [55] 

28.        But the peace does not last long, as the very next scene is also about isolation, abandonment and deep inner suffering. When Giles is given an extremely lonely job guarding the crops against birds, his misery is made keener when his friends fail to come and visit him. This neglect deepens the gloomy mood of alienation and entrapment: “If fields are prisons, where is Liberty?” (A 226). Moreover, the narrator insists, a broken promise is worse than no promise at all. The breakdown of sociability leaves Giles with one option, to seek consolation in the nostalgic past:

Back to past joys in vain his thoughts may stray,
Trace and retrace the beaten, worn-out way,
The rankling injury will pierce his breast,
And curses on thee break his midnight rest. (A 249-52)
As the retreat into the consolations of “past joys” collapses, the normally compliant Giles becomes a figure of seething discontent and resentment. It is hard not to see this scene as yet further circumstantial evidence of a “rankling injury” of neglect and abandonment under which Bloomfield labored.

29.        But the culmination of the poem’s engagement with terror is the appearance of the “grisly Spectre” in Winter. This scene is preceded by several violent incidents, notably the “piece-meal” murder of the post-horse and the treacherous nocturnal raids of the mastiff—“A pattern of fidelity by day, / By night a murderer, lurking for his prey” (W 223-4). The mastiff’s victims are “peaceful sheep” (W 226) and their “reeking blood” (W 228) evokes the slaughter at the end of Spring, as if the “reeking” legacy of that scene has to be resolved before FB can end. This closure is sought through several restagings of the problem of failed guardianship. The tone is set by the change of the mastiff from a “midnight Chieftain . . . / Beneath whose guardianship all hearts rejoice” (W 214-15) into a creature which “will from the path of duty err” (W 222). This pattern of lost trust is repeated in the next episode in the poem, in which Giles has to protect his “little flock” against such “nightly terrors” as the mastiff (W 239-40). As Giles wanders through the moonlit fields, his “loos’d imagination” (W 265) compares the nocturnal clouds to a “beauteous ’semblance of a Flock at rest” (W 260), but this sublimation of the poem’s central symbol of “spotless” innocence is actually a guilty indulgence: “neglected Duty calls; / At once from plains of light to earth he falls” (W 267-8). Recalled from poetry to pastoral duty, Giles finds himself in a “narrow lane” (W 269) which is uncannily both familiar and strange. Temporarily disorientated by his flight of poetic fancy, Giles suddenly finds himself face to face with a “grisly Spectre, cloth’d in silver grey” (W 273). Giles’s response to the apparition is interesting: rather than fleeing, he shows a determination to face down the ghost and prove that it is nothing less than another figment of his imagination. Before he can exorcise the phantom, however, he has to absolve himself of guilt:

’Tis not my crimes thou com’st here to reprove;
No murders stain my soul, no perjur’d love: (W 283-4)
With his “conscious Innocence” (W 312) in place, Giles identifies the “motionless deformity” (W 292) of the shape as nothing more than an optical illusion, the visual tricks played by bright moonlight on an “aged” ash tree. Far from being a threat, the tree is actually a symbol of order and reparation: “Its perfect lineaments at once appear, / Its crown of shiv’ring ivy whispering peace” (W 306-7). This symbolic reversal is not only a victory over stereotypical rustic superstition, [56]  it also represents an allegorical victory for the poem. By banishing the specter, Giles has acquired new psychic parents, “loit’ring Reason” and “Truth” (W 316). These are the “blest guardians” (W 317) who will “tranquillize his breast” (W 319) and fulfill the promise of Summer when, temporarily, “Peace o’er his slumbers wave[d] her guardian wing” (S 109). [57]  As if all terrors have finally been expelled from the poem, the stage is now set for a final reenactment of virtuous guardianship in the re-fleecing of the orphan lambs. Yet, as discussed earlier, this festive resolution relies on two unstable textual devices: the “Dam” who is “cheated into tenderness,” and the amnesiac rechristening of the poem as a series of “Delightful moments!”


30.        Though based on psycho-biographical speculation, I hope this essay has begun, in the words of a closing phrase from the poem which was deleted on Lofft’s advice, to “pierce the dark wood” of Bloomfield’s imagination. [58]  And though FB remains the most symptomatic and auspicious text for this exploration, the story does not end there. In the limited space remaining, I want to offer brief readings of some of Bloomfield’s subsequent works through the same allegorical lens of terror, trauma, and insecurity.

31.        The failure of FB to exorcise Bloomfield’s personal terrors is vividly evident in a letter written to George in 1801. Plagued by ill health and depression, Bloomfield reveals that “I tried to sooth my pain with poetry, to exert myself forcibly, and to conquer by a coup de main, the imaginary evils that beset me, for imaginary they certainly were in a great degree.” [59]  With this hauntology in mind, the next text which invites interpretation is "The Fakenham Ghost," a comic ballad about a rustic woman who, while returning home one night, mistakes a lost ass’s foal for a phantom. The poem was published in Bloomfield’s second collection Rural Tales, Ballads and Songs (1802), and an introductory note states that the incident is a local legend and “is still related by my Mother.” [60]  Given that the story takes place in Euston Park, the country seat of Bloomfield’s patron the Duke of Grafton, there seems little reason, on first inspection, not to take Bloomfield at his word. However, once we place the poem in the context of Bloomfield’s continuing “imaginary evils,” a darker, richer, and multilayered text emerges.

32.        "The Fakenham Ghost" is much more than a lightweight piece of Suffolk literary lore. Its plot conspicuously reworks the two major episodes which conclude FB, an encounter between a terrified rustic and a specter and a healing act of animal adoption. In the reconfigured psychic landscape of trauma and reparation of the later poem, there are three important changes of setting and personae. First, the role of Giles is replaced by “an ancient Dame” (5); second, the “Monster” is not a tree but an “Ass’s Foal” which has “lost its Dam” (61); third, the location is Euston Park not Sapiston. These revisions can yield all kinds of fascinating psycho-biographical results. For example, if we see the “ancient Dame” as a surrogate mother figure—and as the introductory note makes clear, Bloomfield’s mother is one of the keepers of the tale—then it is possible to conclude that the poem is a form of symbolic castigation. As “darker fears / Came o’er her troubled mind” (21-2) she “own’d her sins, and down she knelt” (39). The “trotting ghost” (31) which stalks her is not only her own conscience but Bloomfield’s “troubled mind” pursuing its psychic prey (with the slightly comic word “trotting” connoting the ballad meter which is serving as the instrument of the pursuit). The comic resolution of the plot is of course one way to discharge all this painful material, and there could be a hint of self-mockery in the transformation of the “imp of sin” (65) into an orphaned ass’s foal. The adoption of this “shaggy stranger” (67) by the Dame is in some ways a more satisfactory resolution than the end of FB, as the mother is actually human, but on the other hand the assimilation remains a “joke” (76) and the “favourite” is still called a “Ghost” (73).

33.        The relocation of the action to Euston Park is also interesting, as it signifies Grafton’s new role as Bloomfield’s patron. If, at some unconscious level, Bloomfield is the “shaggy stranger,” then it is ultimately Grafton who “kept the joke alive” (76). But there is another ghost haunting this landscape. Buried away in Bloomfield’s memory is another diabolical trespasser in Fakenham Wood. In one of the "Anecdotes and Observations" which were published in the second volume of Remains, Bloomfield recalls being told that the young Thomas Paine and his sister once wandered into these same woods. [61]  As Bloomfield notes wryly, “I had the misfortune to be born only six miles from the birthplace of Tom Paine!! This, to some ears would be horrible” (Remains 2: 345; see also letter 354, 31 May-1 June 1821). As if to guard against any suggestion of Painite sympathies, Bloomfield states that he heard about the incident in a roundabout way: the story came from his friend Dr. Walker who was returning from Egypt (where he had just given “vaccine inoculation” to troops) when he met Paine in Paris. Apparently, Paine and his sister went into the wood to collect nuts, without telling their parents. They became lost (“wandered out of their knowledge”), so Tom climbed a tree to “see his way out of the wood” but fell and narrowly avoided serious injury. Walker (as reported by Bloomfield) remarks “that there are many thousands who will probably exclaim: ‘What a pity that he had not broke his neck!’” but in Paris the response was different. One of Walker’s interlocutors remarks that “The guardian angel of Liberty was near thee, Thomas.” In this highly mediated episode, Fakenham Wood becomes nothing less that the site of a revolutionary deus ex machina and the place where Britain’s homegrown “imp of sin” found deliverance. The other “joke” of the poem is therefore its satirical allegorization of counter-revolutionary hysteria and the pacification of Jacobinism, and it is worth noting that 1802 was the year when invasion fears and loyalist mobilization reached their peak. Hence the poem’s ending could contain a covert allusion to ongoing political repression:

For many a laugh went through the Vale;
And some conviction too:—
Each thought some other Goblin tale,
Perhaps, was just as true. (77-80)
In the spirit of that playful but penetrating word “conviction,” I want to suggest that "The Fakenham Ghost" is a highly spun fable of terror and salvation in which the symbolic aim is to reunify the body politic and inoculate the poet and the reader against the Pain(e) of the traumatic loss of the mother (country).

34.        Yet this incursion of a suppressed revolutionary narrative into a seemingly artless ballad shows that Bloomfield’s “rural” themes remained infected with the discourse of terror and the burdens of a troubled consciousness. It is revealing that Paine’s “fall” entered "The Fakenham Ghost" through the agency of a physician who administered “vaccine inoculation” to the army, as if immunization symbolized both a medical and ideological barrier against contamination. [62]  Hence we can see Good Tidings; Or, News from the Farm (1804), [63]  Bloomfield’s tribute to Jenner, as another quest for personal and political tranquility, a Utopian fantasy of detoxification and exorcism which redeems the loss of his father and preserves the integrity of both the organic community and pastoral poetry. Inoculation represents both the “emancipation of the human race” (18) and “private peace” (35); it banishes painful memories of loss and achieves a perfect victory “unstain’d with gore” (36), the ideal theme for “the glory of the pastoral reed” (36). [64] 

35.         Inoculation is also a parental responsibility and duty. [65]  The common thread which runs through nearly all of Bloomfield’s post-FB poems is the family romance: the loss and recovery of actual or surrogate family members. Looked at superficially, there is nothing surprising about finding this traditional theme in collections of rural verse with titles such as Wild Flowers (1806) and May Day with the Muses (1822), but for Bloomfield the family romance was an aesthetic and psychic space in which he could revisit and re-stage his “boyage” from childhood separation to the ambiguous rewards of patronage. The most symptomatic text in this context is probably "The Broken Crutch" (1806), [66]  a poem which seems to strenuously undermine itself. The story shows the humiliation of a “plebeian” man who mistakenly tries to defend the honor of his niece against a landowner he mistakenly perceives to be predatory: the “broken crutch” of the title is a symbol of emasculation which converts popular protest into another “joke” and idealizes the paternalist virtues of the niece’s suitor. Yet this victory (“unstain’d with gore”) sits uneasily with an angry interjection in which the poet denounces the “murderous axe” of enclosure (57-78), leaving the reader unsure about the poem’s loyalties. Similarly, it is hard to know if Sir Ambrose Higham, the patron of May Day with the Muses, is a figure of unconditional praise (which seems to be the prevailing critical opinion) or “sculking” resentments. Given that Bloomfield wrote this last collection of poems in poverty and “a wretched state of health,” [67]  the spectacle of a “monarch of his own paternal ground” (15) asking his tenants to “pay their rents in rhyme” (hence High-em or Hire-em) could have the effect of deflating the lofty (Lofft-y) ideals of patronage. [68] 

36.        I hope that this essay has enhanced rather than diminished The Farmer’s Boy’s status as the “foundational text for Romantic-era laboring-class poetry.” [69]  If my argument has been at all persuasive, the obvious next step is to extend this allegorical and psycho-biographical approach to the wider laboring-class tradition. What could emerge from such work is a new aesthetics of laboring-class writing which does full justice to the unique “mental pains” of the plebeian author, and which avoids or complements the critical imperative to prove or disprove explicit ideological affiliations. Laboring-class writing is by definition a radical culture issue; the question which remains is precisely how we configure and value the full creative range and depth of such writing, and the extent to which we are prepared to confront some of our own mythologies in the process.

Works Cited

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Christmas, William J. The Lab’ring Muses: Work, Writing and the Social Order in English Plebeian Poetry, 1730-1830. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2001. Print.

Christmas, William J. "The Farmer’s Boy and Contemporary Politics." White, Goodridge, and Keegan . Print.

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Drake, Nathan. Literary Hours or Sketches Critical and Narrative. 2 ed. 2 vols. London: [n.p.], 1800. Print.

Dyer, John. Poems. London: [n.p.], 1770. Print.

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Goodridge, John, ed. The Independent Spirit: John Clare and Self-Taught Tradition. Helpston: The John Clare Society, 1994. Print.

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Haywood, Ian. Bloody Romanticism: Spectacular Violence and the Politics of Representation 1776-1832. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006. Print.

Hazlitt, William. Lectures on English Poets. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1929. Print.

Hunt, Margaret. Household Tales. 2 vols. London: [n.p.], 1884. Print.

Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Vintage, 1983. Print.

Janowitz, Anne. "Land." An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture 1776-1832. Ed. Iain McCalman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Keegan, Bridget. "Lambs to the Slaughter: Leisure and Laboring-Class Poetry." Romanticism on the Net (2002). Web.

Keegan, Bridget. Labouring-Class Nature Poetry, 1730-1837. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2008. Print.

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Lucas, John. "Bloomfield and Clare." The Independent Spirit: John Clare and Self-Taught Tradition. Ed. John Goodridge. Helpston: The John Clare Society, 1994. Print.

Marcus, Laura. Auto/biographical discourses: Theory, Criticism, Practice. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1994. Print.

McEathron, Scott. "Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads and the Problem of Peasant Poetry." Nineteenth Century Literature 54 (1999): 1-26. Print.

McEathron, Scott. "An Infant Poem of War: Bloomfield’s On Seeing the Launch of the Byrne." White, Goodridge, and Keegan . Print.

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Perkins, David. Romanticism and Animal Rights. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.

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Thomson, James. The Seasons. Ed. James Sambrook. Oxford: Clarendon, 1972. Print.

Unwin, Rayner. The Rural Muse: Studies in the Peasant Poetry of England. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1954. Print.

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[1] Drake 2: 443. BACK

[2] Byron, 48 (line 766). BACK

[3] In Goodridge and Lucas’s 2007 edition, the original subtitle is simply given as "A Poem," but Bloomfield was not in control of the shaping of the poem’s image. BACK

[4] “The great city can have made singularly little impression on this preoccupied shoemaker. He was not gifted with imagination, but his memory shielded him from uncongenial surroundings, and enabled him to transfer his mental life to those fields and woodlands where he had been most happy” (Unwin 91). Derek Roper describes FB as “quiet and pleasant” (65). John Lucas calls the poem’s depiction of rural life “pre-lapsarian” (62), though Lucas, like most current commentators on the poem, sees the poem’s nostalgia as only partially successful in fending off pressing literary and social anxieties. My approach aims to probe much further into this “darker” side of Bloomfield. BACK

[5] Letter 6, to an unidentified bookseller, possibly W. Bent, 21 June 1798. BACK

[6] According to Laura Marcus, eighteenth-century life writing was “a destabilising form of writing and knowledge” in which the “inner” self was constituted as both a “sacred place and a site of danger” (15). For Felicity Nussbaum, such writing was an opportunity to “experiment with interdiscourses and the corresponding subject positions to breach the uncertainties of identity” (37). BACK

[7] There is ample evidence in Bloomfield’s letters to support a psycho-biographical approach to his writing. One of the best examples is his account of “the two years that I was breeding with Giles” (letter 16, to George Bloomfield, 8 September 1799). Literary creativity and parental anxieties are fused into a trope of uncertain and insecure depth which crystallizes into an apt verbal slip: “ . . . by the time I was brought to Bed with my Boy, my wife was breeding another;! We some times see a ball of wax with so small a portion of the buoyant quality that it knows not whither to sink or swim; if you put your finger on it when at the surface, it will dive deep and be a long time in rising again; so it was with my Boy Charles, he dived me into some debts this time twelvemonth, from which I am not yet free, but I have great hopes I shall be free by the end of November.” In Jonathan Lawson’s citation of this letter the key word “buoyant” is spelt “boyant,” a slip which is full of ironies. Lawson is the only critic to see the importance of this letter, noting that it clearly “stirred terror as well as joy” and showed a side of Bloomfield which was “hidden away by his editors and biographers” (23). See also Bloomfield’s barbed comment that “Gentlemen, ’tis true, seldom enter alleys, or see the domestic habits of those nests of human wretchedness” (Remains 2: 71-2). The poems, however, do enter such psychic “alleys.” BACK

[8] Lofft cites Nathan Drake. See letter 25, Nathan Drake to Capel Lofft, 9 March 1800. BACK

[9] “My double capacity of poet and snobb somtimes plague me” (letter 50, to George Bloomfield, 24 February 1801). BACK

[10] Barrell subtitles his book "A Psychopathology of Imperialism" to convey the point that the excessive orientalist imagery in De Quincey’s writing should not be interpreted as simple racism but as a psychic attempt to displace and resolve anxieties arising from the emotional damage inflicted on him by childhood trauma. Similarly, I want to suggest that we can find insights into the working-class writer’s troubled experience of social and cultural mobility by locating what Barrell calls tropes of “trauma” and “reparation” rather than looking for a direct transcription of life into text. BACK

[11] The phrase “he felt no more” also echoes the poem’s motto, “A shepherd’s boy, he seeks no better name” (the first line of Alexander Pope’s pastoral poem Summer). Interestingly, Bloomfield cited this motto and Lofft’s introduction as examples of editorial imposition. In the preface to the 1809 edition of his poems, Bloomfield recalls that the first knowledge of the poem’s publication came when his brother Nathaniel saw in a bookseller’s window “a book called The Farmer’s Boy, with a motto. I told him I supposed it must be mine, but I knew nothing of the motto” (1827 xix). Bloomfield also told Lofft that, “I had not seen the poem, and consequently not the preface” until he visited the Duke of Grafton (letter 23, to Capel Lofft, 5 March 1800); see also the "Authorial Note" (1801) cited in Goodridge and Lucas’s 2007 edition (22). BACK

[12] The whole question of exactly what was connoted by the word “farmer’s boy” and its various derivatives is certainly worth more attention, as it is more than possible that “boy” in this context was a term of derision which poked fun at the docile country yokel, or at the very least that it was a sentimental stereotype of conformity and social mobility. It is certainly the case that a well-known ballad called The Farmer’s Boy or The Lucky Farmer’s Boy was in circulation by the early nineteenth century, though I have yet to determine if it precedes Bloomfield’s poem (many versions of the ballad can be found in the online Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads collection). In the ballad, a fatherless boy begs for work at a farm and after being taken in becomes a model worker and eventually marries the farmer’s daughter. See also the Cheap Repository Tract The Good Militia Man; or, the Man that is Worth a Host, Being a New Song by Honest Dan the Plough-boy turned Sailor (1796), in which “Dan” is a model of conformity; and Young Lubin was a Shepherd Boy (1794), in which the hapless hero drowns on the eve of his wedding. Also of note are The Village Boy (1780); and The Wounded Farmer’s Son (1795). Lofft reported that on Austin’s farm the young Bloomfield was treated fairly like “all the Servant Boys” (1805 xvii). BACK

[13] It is hard to imagine how Nathan Drake could conclude that this scene “breathe[s] the utmost tenderness and sweetness” (457-8), but the failure to confront the full impact of this gruesome slaughter has persisted to the present day. Bridget Keegan notes correctly that a “potent symbol of pastoralism is slaughtered” in this scene, but she is reluctant to probe further; though she ponders “what other feelings, besides pity for the lambs, does this unsettling scene provoke?” her answer is that “the angry tone of these lines is atypical of Bloomfield” and she explains the “unsettling” violence as a “profound protest against the exploitation of nature” ("Lambs," pars 31, 33). In a more recent assessment, Keegan explains the scene in terms of ecological “sustainability” (Labouring-Class 21-3). See also White, who attributes the scene’s anger to Bloomfield’s rage at the carnivorous appetites of the “the metropolitan rich” (Romanticism and the Poetry of Community 19). BACK

[14] Tim Burke has noted perceptively that, far from being a representative of an organic community, Giles often works alone and rarely participates in social gatherings: for Burke, FB is the “most extended and most intense, exploration of friendlessness” (3). BACK

[15] Barrell uses this phrase for the title of his introductory section, 1-24. BACK

[16] According to George Bloomfield, Robert “spent all his leisure hours in reading the Seasons, which he was now capable of reading. I never heard him give so much praise to any Book as to that” (letter 20, before 1 March, 1800). BACK

[17] Lofft wrote to George Bloomfield in November 1798: “It is truly a rural Poem, more so than any with which I am acquainted in our language; except Allan Ramsay’s Gentle Shepherd, and Burns’s Poems” (letter 15). BACK

[18] Note the grammatical slippages in George Bloomfield’s account of this event: he told Lofft that Robert “came home; and Mr Austin kindly bade him take his house for his home till he could return to me” (letter 20, before 1 March 1800; 1805 xi). BACK

[19] Nathan Drake, for example, argued that the “minutiae of the animal and vegetable creation” in FB surpassed Thomson (446). Such tributes may have been particularly gratifying in light of the fact that when Charles Dilly rejected FB he “exhorted” Bloomfield “not to waste his time, and neglect his employment, in making vain attempts, and in particular in treading on the ground which Thomson had sanctified” (Obituary in The Monthly Magazine; Or, British Register 16 [1823]: 182-3). BACK

[20] Kevis Goodman calls The Seasons “inchoate” and “amorphous” but I doubt this was how it was read, particularly by aspirers such as Bloomfield (247). BACK

[21] This is John Goodridge’s assessment of Thomson’s contradictory attempt to combine the harsh reality of animal husbandry with a sentimental attachment to the animals (see Goodridge, Rural Life 56). BACK

[22] As Goodridge notes, the word “borrowed” is “suggestive and duplicitous” (Rural Life 57). BACK

[23] William J. Christmas accepts that this scene can be read allegorically but only in social terms as an “ideological accommodation” and a “paternalistic model for social harmony” (Lab’ring Muses 277). BACK

[24] The word “maternal” may originally have been “paternal” (see Goodridge and Lucas’s 2007 edition). BACK

[25] This trope is revisited self-mockingly but nevertheless pertinently in "On Hearing the Translation of Part of the Farmer’s Boy into Latin," a poem which appeared in Rural Tales (1802):

Hey Giles? In what new garb art dressed?
For Lads like you methinks a bold one:
I’m glad to see thee so caresst;
But, hark ye,—don’t despise your old one. (128-9)

[26] 1805 xvi-xvii. Compare Lofft's commments with Bloomfield’s rapturous account of receiving his first “gift” from the Duke of Grafton: “What a glorious thing is a present of -------- to a man in distress! If hundreds should arise from my writings, I question if hundreds will produce the exquisite sweetness of that --------” (1827, xx). The blanking out of unsightly figures shows a lingering embarrassment, but we know that Bloomfield received 5 guineas, albeit given to him “screwed up in a little bit of paper” (letter 22, to his mother, 5 March 1800). BACK

[27] 1805 xxi. It seems that Bloomfield planned to return to Sapiston in 1788 or 1789 but, according to his brother George, “you told me, you had resolved, not to go to Sapiston—till independent” (letter 2, from George Bloomfield, 27 December 1789). BACK

[28] Bloomfield wrote to George in 1798 that the uncorrected manuscript of FB “would look awkward to give it even to my Mother without some kind of introductory letter” (letter 11, Robert Bloomfield to George Bloomfield, 7 November 1798). But there is no question that Bloomfield saw FB as a means to give some material assistance to his mother: “Dearest Mother—I trust I shall be abel to do you some Good, pleas God. If I can assist you with some comforts my soul will rejoice” (letter 17, 3 October 1798). In the event, the letter which accompanied the “gift” is quite neutral in tone: “I will not fail to tell you further of all that is in agitation, as soon as I have Leisure, but I am rather pressed for time” (letter 22, 5 March 1800). BACK

[29] The poem was first published in Remains 1: 20-23. I have used the text in Goodridge and Lucas’s 1998 edition. BACK

[30] His mother’s death is described in letter 153, written to his wife, 1 January 1805. The fact that this letter has been badly torn may or may not be significant. BACK

[31] “My mind is not easy; though it may be very unwise to tell you so, as it is quite impossible for you to do me any good . . . If you will vex yourself with the impossible wish of helping your Children: I know of no Better balm for your mind, than recommending the words of Old Richard in the Ballad ‘We’ve nothing for u’n but our prayers’”(letter 66, to his mother, 1 November 1801). BACK

[32] See letter 136, to his mother, 3 August 1804. BACK

[33] According to George Bloomfield, Uncle Austin “took the Author, when very young, and kept him from motives of charity” (letter 12, George Bloomfield to Capel Lofft, November 1798). BACK

[34] Bloomfield was “so small of his age that Mr Austin said he was not likely to be able to get his living by hard labour” (1805 v). BACK

[35] The phrase “paralytic affliction” is used to describe his mother’s condition in letter 152, to Thomas Park, December 23 1804; the change from “affliction” to “affection” is revealing. BACK

[36] Letter 10, 16 September 1798. BACK

[37] Bloomfield may also have been remembering some lines from Dyer’s The Fleece:

. . . many, yet adhere
To the’ancient distaff, at the bosom fix’d,
Casting the whirling spindle as they walk . . .
It yields their airy stuffs an apter thread. (3: 128)

[38] Interestingly, there is no record of this visit in the letters. Only letter 29, written to George in May 1800, gives a few jumbled details of the coach journey, and the fact that Bloomfield confuses the outward and return legs of the visit seems an indication of mixed feelings: “I have wrote the latter part of my letter backward.” BACK

[39] Bloomfield soon came into conflict with Lofft about his intrusive editorial role: see their correspondence in 1801 beginning with letter 58. BACK

[40] The need to acknowledge the effect of urban culture on laboring-class poets has been made forcefully in relation to Stephen Duck, but is proving a harder nut to crack in relation to Bloomfield. See, for example, Landry and Christmas. For the purposes of this essay, I have assumed that Bloomfield absorbed the “spirit of despotism” of the 1790s via whichever cultural and political forces he encountered; the available evidence from letters and other sources make this a reasonable assumption. BACK

[41] There is one moment in FB when Giles flashes up as a potential surrogate radical figure, but typically for the poem this possibility is presented through denial and pacification, to the extent that the moment functions like a mock-allusion to radical allegory. When he is milking cows in Spring, Giles’s “tatter’d” hat “purloins a coat of hair” (202) from the cow’s side and becomes “A mottled ensign of his harmless trade, / An unambitious, peaceable cockade” (Sp 203-4). The tone of these two lines is slippery: what seems like a gratuitous reinforcement of pastoral’s counter-revolutionary credentials could equally, in my mind, consign Giles to docility and political inefficacy. In other words he becomes—for a brief moment—the kind of conservative stereotype perpetuated in Hannah More’s tracts. The other point to note about the scene is that it is yet another reworking of the trope of the expropriated fleece in which a natural resource is (peaceably in this instance) “purloined”: the scene has the added function of attempting to allegorically counterbalance the slaughtered lambs of Spring. BACK

[42] Anderson 393-5. Anderson’s review of the poem gives a useful insight into the perils of patronage. In response to a long letter from a reader which praises FB and its author, “a simple farmer’s boy” (391), Anderson states that he read “this little poem in manuscript with much satisfaction” but also with uneasiness about the wisdom of bringing Bloomfield “forward to public notice” (393). He states that patronage can be the “severest cruelty” if it leads lower-class poets into “an uninterrupted struggle” to “rise into a line that is beyond their reach.” But he is reassured that the “characteristic features” of FB are “innocence and beneficence” and “native simplicity” and that these qualities are a reflection of Bloomfield’s sensible decision not to aspire socially and intellectually beyond “domestic comforts” and those “few congenial souls” (polite friends) “in whose conversation he may feel himself fortified in his natural propensities rather than deranged” (394-5). Nathan Drake also reassured budding patrons who “from their opulence and taste are disposed to patronise and foster the efforts of rising genius” that they would find a “peculiar gratification” in the fact that both FB and its author were thoroughly respectable “in a moral light” (479). The image of the pasteurized Bloomfield quickly congealed into a species of hagiography, completely suppressing the less settling aspects of his “poetical welfare.” The Gentleman’s Magazine called him “the best of husbands, an indulgent father and quiet neighbour, and particularly affectionate to his mother” (70 (1800): 1181), and Robert Southey applauded “one whose talents were of no common standard, and whose character was in all respects exemplary” (163). But the apotheosis of this tendency was probably Joseph Weston’s gushing defense of Bloomfield’s integrity in Remains. For Weston, Bloomfield is a paragon of English poetical virtue, exuding “sweetness, simplicity and feeling,” producing “pictures . . . drawn directly from nature” which are “always just and true, like the reflections of a polished mirror” and uncontaminated by the “infestation of impure motivation or poetical conduct.” Hence “everything is simple and unaffected, purely pastoral and truly English” like the poet himself who eschewed all “phantoms of foreign extraction” (Remains 1: vii, ix, x). BACK

[43] The fact that this was only one year after the devastation of the Gordon Riots has been overlooked by critics, but surely the visible effects of this destruction would have been apparent, and could have colored Bloomfield’s impressions of the great “meridian.” BACK

[44] 1805 vi. Lofft quoted George Bloomfield almost verbatim: see letter 20. BACK

[45] 1805 xviii. See also letter 27, George Bloomfield to Lofft, 27 March 1800. BACK

[46] White is more severe on Lofft and argues that, due to his being eclipsed by the success of FB, he included this anecdote in the second edition of FB (May 1800) as an act of “rhetorical emasculation” (White, Romanticism and the Poetry of Community 90). BACK

[47] See also a letter which Bloomfield wrote to his mother in October 1797 (at which point he was hard at work composing FB). The letter makes clear that Bloomfield feels some guilt about the fact that he cannot “help” his mother, but he explains his dilemma in terms of “successions and changes amongst us” and pinpoints his arrival in London as a key moment: “I have read your letters with pleasure, when you have been under the pressure of ill health or bad prospects, the natural though painful conclusion is, I cant help you; you I believe often think over those things, you know the difficulty of keeping afloat in the dirty stream of the world, and I think you know too the hearts of us all, that the power, and not the will, is wanted.—It is sixteen years last June since I washed my old hat in the Horse-pond and sold my smock for a shilling to Sam Shelver’s boy, and set off to London to turn shoemaker, and I always remark that though I am aquainted with the principle alterations and deaths and changes, children grown to Men and Women since &c, the first thought that is, I mean whenever not thinking of other things my mind returns to the country, for the first moment, it always presents the old picture. I see my uncle master of the farm instead of my cousin, and can see in imagination my old neighbours and things just as they were; fixing the memory thus, brings in a strong point of view the quick successions and changes amongst us; for if I had 16 years ago fixt my attention on a flourishing oak, or a whole grove of oaks, the alteration might be disernable, but not striking” (letter 5, 22-[29] October 1797). BACK

[48] In Summer there seems to be a clear anti-war message:

No blood-stain’d victory, in story bright,
Can give the philosophic mind delight;
No triumph please, while rage and death destroy;
Reflection sickens at the monstrous joy. (291-4)
With just a little “reflection,” however, the reader will recall the “blood-stain’d” lambs of Spring. BACK

[49] A phrase used in letter 16, to George Bloomfield, 8 September-6 October 1799. BACK

[50] For Hazlitt, Bloomfield’s Muse had “something not only rustic, but menial in her aspect. He seems afraid of elevating nature, lest she should be afraid of him” (145). Coleridge wrote to Southey in 1803 that “Blomfield [sic] is the Farmer’s Boy, not a Poet—in the mind of the Public” (cited in McEathron, "Wordsworth" 11). BACK

[51] Letter 10, 16 September 1798. BACK

[52] The motif also recurs in Bloomfield’s warning to other laboring-class writers to not throw away “the honourable staff of mechanic independence” for the “untried and brittle support” of patrons (1827 xii). BACK

[53] William J. Christmas regards the deflected “revolutionary implications” of animal rights scenes in the poem as a way to ensure that “explicit references” to politics would not “derail” Bloomfield’s “first major entrance into literary culture” (“The Farmer’s Boy” 39). If this was the case, it simply reinforces my point that the early readers of FB seemed to be wilfully naïve and ready to overlook the many indirect ways in which the poem evoked a culture of terror and paranoia. BACK

[54] Bloomfield remained uneasy about his role as the noble savage or peasant genius: “And this is no small privilege to a man swung at arm’s length into publicity with all his mechanical habits and embarrassments about him. How far such habits are, or ought to be, overcome, is a question upon which I have not decided: but I have been sometimes hurt, or amused, at witnessing the evident disappointment of such persons as appeared to expect in the writer of pastoral poetry, and literally a cow-boy, the brilliancy and the vivacity of polished conversation; to which I never had made the slightest pretences” (1827 iii). BACK

[55] In a note added to the Preface to the 1809 edition of his poems, Bloomfield finally laid Ann’s ghost to rest, claiming that he had met her on a visit to Honington in 1800 and “found her greatly recovered, and sensible of her past calamity” (cited in Goodridge and Lucas’s 1998 edition, 132n.). BACK

[56] See, for example, Richard Newton’s caricatures An Hobgoblin (1792), and Terror or Fright (1800). BACK

[57] Scott McEathron notes that a “yearning for peace” is “invoked, mantra-like” in FB ("An Infant Poem of War" 228), but does not elaborate further. BACK

[58] This was the original version of line 390 of Autumn (Goodridge and Lucas 2007). As White notes, the “unsettling and strange nature of the original wording does say something of the kind of mental processes involved in the composition of the poem” (Romanticism and the Poetry of Community 30) .The phrase recalls the famous opening of Dante’s Inferno. BACK

[59] Letter 55, 27 August 1801. BACK

[60] I have used the text in Goodridge and Lucas’s 1998 edition. Line numbers are in parentheses after the quotation. BACK

[61] Remains 2: 85-6. BACK

[62] See Roland Barthes on ideological “inoculation” in Barthes 1973, 150. BACK

[63] Robert Bloomfield, Good Tidings; Or, News from the Farm (1804). BACK

[64] See Fulford and Lee for a detailed analysis of this poem. BACK

[65] See letter 111, Capel Lofft to Bloomfield, 10 July 1803. BACK

[66] I have used the text in Goodridge and Lucas’s 1998 edition. BACK

[67] Robert Bloomfield, May Day with the Muses (London, 1822), viii. References in brackets are page not line numbers. BACK

[68] An idealized aristocrat-patron can be found in "Walter and Jane, or, The Poor Blacksmith" (1802), and redeemed and recovered fathers feature in "The Miller’s Maid" (1802) and "The Soldier’s Home" (1822). BACK

[69] McEathron, Introduction 47. BACK

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Published @ RC

December 2011