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Robert Bloomfield: The Inestimable Blessing of Letters

"Editors’ Introduction: The Inestimable Blessing of letters"

John Goodridge and Bridget Keegan
Nottingham Trent University and Creighton University


TEI

How can we consistently praise the inestimable blessing of letters and not wish to extend it?

- Robert to George Bloomfield, 30 May 1802

1.        This enthusiastic comment from the poet Robert Bloomfield to his older brother reflects one of the more varied and vigorous letter-writing sensibilities of the Romantic period, one that has hitherto been neglected, but is now gloriously showcased by the new online collection of the letters of Bloomfield and his circle, to which the present collection of essays forms a companion volume. [1]  Unlike many other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century laboring-class poets, Robert Bloomfield was able to sustain and develop his publishing career. While none of his subsequent publications received the acclaim of his debut poem, The Farmer’s Boy (1800), after his initial success Bloomfield rightfully considered himself a professional author for the remainder of his life. His letters, made available to a modern audience for the first time with this online edition, document one artist’s struggles (and sometimes his victories) to share his unique voice and vision. Even though Bloomfield’s published legacy is rich and varied, the publication of his extant letters, as well as additional letters to and about him, reveals new and exciting insights into Bloomfield the artist and the man. Bloomfield in his letters demonstrates his active and thoughtful engagement with the London literary scene, with the broader literary culture of his day, and with his fellow laboring-class poets. The letters also provide a fascinating historical resource for those interested in the lives of the members of an extended laboring-class family, as they negotiated the new forms of mobility available to them in the early nineteenth-century, both geographic and intellectual.

2.        Although some of Bloomfield’s correspondence was made available in Joseph Weston’s 1824 Remains, and some in W. W. Hart's Selections of the Correspondence of Robert Bloomfield (London, 1870; reprinted Redhill, Surrey, 1968), Tim Fulford and Lynda Pratt’s electronic edition offers a comprehensive and easily-searchable resource for anyone wishing to know more about Bloomfield and his personal and literary milieu. The letters and complementary texts offer insight into the poet’s larger literary concerns as well as his more quotidian activities. They include reflections on his creative process as well as detailed accounts of his personal finances. In short, the letters enable modern readers to better understand what made Bloomfield one of the best-selling poets of the early Romantic period, and they offer a compelling argument about the intellectual value of the recovery and study of laboring-class literary culture in general. The essays included in this collection highlight and draw attention to aspects of Bloomfield's literary production that would likely not be possible without the full access to his letters that this edition provides. As Tim Fulford notes in his introduction to the letters, Bloomfield's significance to the Romantic period has only recently begun to be reevaluated, and the following essays further the project of enriching our understanding of the poet's significance within a wide range of contexts.

3.        One particular epistolary exchange, highlighted in four of the essays, illustrates how the correspondence enables us to rethink Bloomfield’s consequence to literary history. This is the series of letters between Bloomfield and T. J. Lloyd Baker, one of the poet’s many “friends” throughout his career. Bloomfield had enjoyed a long relationship with Lloyd Baker, his wife Mary, and his wife’s family, the Sharps, including joining them on the trip along the Wye that formed the basis of Bloomfield’s ambitious long poem. (Among the more noteworthy members of the Sharp family was Mary's uncle, the celebrated abolitionist Granville Sharp, another interesting connection for the poet.) The exchange of 1821 is exemplary of the tensions between the public and the private, the personal and the professional that were particularly fraught for poets of laboring-class origins. Bloomfield had to negotiate these tensions throughout his career, and, as this series of letters reveal, his patience had begun to fray.

4.        While Bloomfield was burdened throughout his life with significant difficulties, he did not fit many of the stereotypes often associated with the cult of “natural genius” that affected the reception of so many other poets with plebeian origins, including early tragic death and chronic mental or physical illness, although as Peter Denney suggests, common ideas about original genius gave Bloomfield a potential justification for refusing to air any political opinions. But like other poets of his class (most notably John Clare), because Bloomfield’s first major poem was “semi”-autobiographical (as Ian Haywood discusses), much of the initial interest in the work was based as much upon curiosity about the author as appreciation for the work. And polite readers had certain expectations about what laboring-class poets should and should not say—both publicly and privately. These expectations are transparent in Lloyd Baker’s letter, which castigates Bloomfield for holding political and religious views that could be considered “radical.” Bloomfield’s rightfully indignant response helps to reveal some of the shifts in the poet’s understanding of what expectations could be legitimately imposed upon him. A similar transformation of patron-poet relations is evident in the study of earlier laboring-class poets, including Ann Yearsley and James Woodhouse. While Lloyd Baker’s letters demonstrate the late survival of the old patronage system well into the Romantic period, Bloomfield’s responses indicate just how far the poet’s sense of his professional identity—and his personal rights—had altered in the twenty years since his debut publication. These four letters touch on civil and creative liberties, family relations, the right to privacy in politics and religion. They challenge the more irenic presentation of the good-natured and well-behaved shoemaker poet that has perhaps made Bloomfield less enticing to modern critics who (like the poet’s contemporary audience) seem more drawn to writers whose lives embody more thrilling catastrophe or controversy.

5.        The essays in this companion collection elaborate upon the themes encapsulated in the letters discussed above and make a strong case for why Bloomfield continues to be worthy of study. They also suggest how much more remains to be said about this prolific poet. Tim Fulford’s essay, which opens the collection, demonstrates that contrary to most caricatures of the isolated Romantic genius, Bloomfield’s letters show his intense sociability. Fulford highlights some of the key themes and motifs from 426 letters available in the edition. He challenges the view of Bloomfield as a strictly “rural” figure, elaborating upon his engagement in urban—and more significantly—suburban life. Nevertheless, the letters reveal too Bloomfield’s dedication to keeping alive village traditions important to himself and his family, and provide a degree of lively ethnographic detail of various popular customs, festivals, and pastimes. Bloomfield engages in nature-tourism like fellow early Romantics such as Coleridge, but his letters describing his clerical toils anticipate Victorian scenes such as those Dickens depicts in Great Expectations. Regardless of the subject matter, as Fulford demonstrates, “[t]he abiding theme of Bloomfield’s correspondence is the control of his own words.” While Bloomfield was as besieged as any laboring-class poet by various patrons throughout his career, his letters show his skill in negotiating a variety of difficult social and financial transactions. His perspicacity, intelligence, and commitment to his art are continually underscored in his correspondence.

6.        Following Fulford, Ian Haywood offers what may be the riskiest and most iconoclastic—but also the most provocative and productive—reading of Bloomfield to date. While other critics have hinted at some of the potentially darker elements in Bloomfield’s work, Haywood uses a psycho-biographical approach to uncover the underside of the more congenial and complacent public image that Bloomfield (or at least his patrons) wanted to project. Focusing in particular upon the remarkable passage describing the slaughter of the lambs in The Farmer’s Boy, Haywood argues that this dramatic primal scene provides a key into a persistent pattern of mental anguish and psychic struggle that the pastoral façade of much of Bloomfield’s writing would seem to disguise. Like Fulford, Haywood asks us to look beyond a conventional reading of the rurality of The Farmer’s Boy and to see in the georgic moments of violence evocations of contemporary events such as the 1798 Irish rebellion. Haywood integrates information from the letters into his reading of the poem to reveal degrees of ambivalence, anxiety, and guilt heretofore largely ignored in Bloomfield’s writing, offering insight into the possible shadow side of the seeming bucolic bliss ostensibly celebrated in the text.

7.        While Haywood looks to possible political allegories embedded in the scenes of animal slaughter, Peter Denney’s essay takes up the question of Bloomfield’s politics and explores this dimension explicitly. Bloomfield’s avowed refusal to discuss politics or religion in his poetry sets up an immediate roadblock for such an analysis, but by framing his discussion of any political dimension of Bloomfield’s writing within the parameters of cultural expectations surrounding “natural” or “original” genius, Denney is able to complicate productively our understanding of Bloomfield’s own nuanced sense of his relationship to the pressing social questions of his day.

8.        Finally, Bridget Keegan focuses on some of the literary texts made available along with the letters in the Fulford and Pratt online edition, namely Bloomfield’s writing for children. These seemingly “simple” works also embed a degree of social and political complexity that the other contributors have similarly highlighted in their essays. For example, while the moralistic plot of Little Davy’s New Hat might seem yet another fairy tale of virtuous poverty rewarded, Bloomfield incorporates concrete details evoking the famines of the 1790s. And the charming letters of The Bird and Insects’ Post Office evince the same ambivalence about violence toward animals that Haywood draws attention to in The Farmer’s Boy. Keegan aims to show that Bloomfield’s efforts in the genre of children’s literature are of a piece with his other writing—both published and personal.

9.        Far from providing the definitive reading of the letters and new materials made available in this edition, these essays attempt to further enrich the critical discussion of Bloomfield’s significance, modeling the variety of ways in which his work might be approached and the wealth of possible future readings that are possible through access to this larger body of his writing. Having, together with Simon White, edited and published the first modern collection of critical essays on Bloomfield in 2006, we are delighted to see how much these letters have added to current knowledge of this important poet, and fully anticipate that the letters and the critical conversation they have begun to inspire here will lead to future work and inspire other scholars of the period to investigate Bloomfield’s rich oeuvre, one that is becoming increasingly central to the discussion of the Romantic cultural and social environment.

The editors would like to acknowledge the generous assistance of Jill Havlat and Krystal Kirwan who helped with the final preparation of these essays for publication. Bridget Keegan would also like to thank Gail Jensen, Dean of the Graduate School at Creighton University, for a small grant to help in the production of these essays.

Notes

[1] The Letters of Robert Bloomfield and his Circle. Ed. Tim Fulford and Lynda Pratt. Romantic Circles Electronic Editions, 2009. (http://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/bloomfield_letters). These letters are cited throughout the present collection of essays in short form, by their letter number and, as appropriate, by their author, recipient and date. BACK

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Published @ RC

December 2011