Robert Bloomfield: The Inestimable Blessing of Letters
Bloomfield’s Writing for Children
1. Robert Bloomfield twice wrote works explicitly for a juvenile audience. The History of Little Davy’s New Hat was first published in 1815 and had gone through three separate editions by 1824. The Bird and Insects’ Post-Office, which he was writing with his son Charles at the time of his death, was published posthumously in Bloomfield’s Remains (1824). To my knowledge, only Jonathan Lawson’s critical biography (1980) has given these works any attention and then only of the briefest sort. Tim Fulford and Lynda Pratt’s online edition of Bloomfield’s correspondence amply demonstrates the poet’s devotion to his family and especially his children, and a discussion of these neglected pieces might provide a useful critical complement to the picture the letters present of Bloomfield the father as much as Bloomfield the author. Bloomfield’s letters reveal the poet’s intense attachments to his family, and his concern for their wellbeing at every level—physical, moral, and intellectual. Remembering his own pursuit of knowledge under difficulties, Bloomfield consistently demonstrates his commitment to his children’s education, making it a recurrent theme in his personal and published writings. He mentions in the prefaces to each of his two works for children that his own mother was a schoolmistress, and his son and coauthor, Charles, became a teacher. Education was an important family legacy.
2. A re-examination of the works for children thus contributes to the project of demonstrating how Bloomfield fully participates in his Romantic cultural moment. While differing in style and in audience, these two texts are also very much of a piece with Bloomfield’s other core moral and artistic concerns. Although celebrating Bloomfield’s children’s books could be seen as inviting the risk of once again relegating Bloomfield to the status of naïf—a writer capable only of simple works and observations because of his laboring-class background—if we understand them in relation to the rest of Bloomfield’s achievements they appear less anomalous and less simplistic. For instance, at a superficial level, the story of Little Davy might seem to express the same wishful charitable social circumstances represented in May Day for the Muses—where Sir Ambrose Higham decides to accept poems and songs instead of rent. However, for a children’s story the circumstances described in Little Davy are socially complex and confront crucial contemporary political and economic crises. Bloomfield himself is alert to potential accusations of oversimplification. He writes in the preface to third edition of Little Davy: “Perhaps the characters are too good—too perfect—for what we unfortunately see in real life; but that their poverty is not beyond truth, I am certain” (ix).
3. As with much of Bloomfield’s writing for adults, what at first seems simple upon closer examination reveals the author’s larger awareness of broader cultural traditions and complicated social issues. Both of Bloomfield’s children’s works are unafraid to contend with life’s harsher realities even as they perform the typical moral function of children’s literature and extol the virtues of charity and kindness to the poor and to animals. More importantly, even in these works, Bloomfield is always an artist. Form and style matter as much as the content or lessons the stories contain. As he writes in the Remains: “I never get hold of a child’s book but I feel an inclination to see how the story is told, be it ever so simple. If I can judge by my girls, the minds of children are much interested by such as are well written” (2: 120). Bloomfield knew that pure didacticism was unlikely to win readers, especially those readers he cared most about.
4. But Bloomfield also knew that he was trying his hand at what was, in the early nineteenth century, a relatively new genre in England. While folktales and fairytales (genres which Bloomfield also engaged) are timeless, large-scale publishing specifically for children had only really begun in the mid-eighteenth century with John Newbery, whom Peter Hunt credits with beginning “the serious business of publishing for children” (34). According to Hunt, “Newbery’s significance lay in developing the children’s side of his publishing business to such an extent that this class of book could be seen as worthy of the kind of artistic and financial investment reserved for adult books” (34-5). By the Romantic period, this business had developed into a very healthy market, with contributions from some of the most important authors of the age, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin in the early part of the period and Charles Lamb in the later. Some of the most important publishers, such as Joseph Johnson, carried on Newbery’s legacy, bringing out children’s works by Wollstonecraft, Anna Barbauld, Sarah Trimmer, and Maria Edgeworth (Hunt 55).
5. Writing these kinds of books was not something Bloomfield considered a frivolous endeavor, as he was well aware of the esteemed company he aspired to join. He did not see himself as another hack chapbook writer, but a professional children’s author. In finally signing his name to the third edition of Little Davy’s New Hat, Bloomfield writes:
The History of Little Davy’s New Hat: Rural Social Relations and the Teaching of Charity
6. In the introduction to his first work for children, Bloomfield mentions that he wrote the tale in 1801 to try to teach children moral lessons, primarily kindness to the poor; he notes that he was inspired in this pursuit of using imaginative literature to promote morality based on his own childhood experience. One of Newbery’s most significant publications, Goody Two Shoes, taught Bloomfield to abominate the fantasies of other stories such as The History of Jack the Giant Killer. Bloomfield thus places himself squarely in the camp of the more overtly moralistic “Goody” (an anonymous story once widely suspected to have been the work of Oliver Goldsmith) despite the fact that “Jack” was a tale approved of and enjoyed by such eighteenth-century literary moralists as Samuel Johnson and Henry Fielding.
7. Little Davy’s parallels to Goody Two Shoes are fairly direct. Like little Margery Meanwell, who is so poor she only has one shoe, Davy also lacks a critical item of apparel (though, to be fair, one can imagine Margery had slightly greater hardship). Also, in both cases the child’s distress is alleviated by a generous nobleman. One might say that the prospect of benevolent aristocrats returning to a sense of their feudalistic charitable obligations is probably as much of a fantasy as killing Cornish and Welsh giants, but Little Davy does not indulge in a social-climbing fantasy to the extent that Goody Two Shoes does. In the latter story, virtue is rewarded, Cinderella style, as Margery’s goodness eventually brings her marriage to a wealthy widower. While Little Davy does include a marriage, it is that of the benevolent Miss Wideland, the wealthy farmer’s daughter, who is matched with the equally generous Mr. Stanmore.
8. As noted above, the world of Little Davy is fairly complex. The Woodly family includes Davy, his mother, ailing father, ailing grandfather, little sister Jane, and absent older brother, Will, a soldier away at war in Jamaica. The wealthy farmers, the Wideland family, are their most important neighbors, as is the shopkeeper Mr. Soapgroat (to whom the family is indebted for their bread). Other neighbors include Will’s fiancée Lydia, another wealthy neighbor, Mrs. Meadowly, and her household staff as well as assorted neighborhood boys. Both Davy’s father and grandfather attempt to earn a living making birch brooms. As both are ill (the effects of malnutrition as one might guess from the pressing lack of food highlighted in the story), they find it hard to keep up this trade, which was probably not lucrative in the first place. Their house is falling down on one side and Davy’s mother’s petticoats are tattered—sewn and re-sewn. Davy doesn’t go to school but receives what education he can from his grandfather.
9. Food is a central element in the plot of the story. All other expenditures, including that of the hat of the title, are subordinated to its purchase. As the text later reveals, the war in which Will is fighting has created the conditions for famine, and starvation appears always at the door in this text. In the narrative’s first episode Davy heads to the Wideland farm to get milk for his family and in his boyish frolics on the route home, he twice almost loses the precious contents of the pitcher. Davy’s guilt about his narrow escapes underscores the critical need for nourishment that drives the story, even as the tale seems to emphasize the moral lesson of not loitering.
10. In the second episode, food again becomes a focus. Miss Wideland visits the family and Davy’s three-year-old sister Jane accidentally breaks the family teapot. Miss Wideland immediately sends Davy to the shop for a new one that she will purchase for the family. The conversation then turns to the news of brother Will in Jamaica, a “sad unhealthy place” (20) where Mr. Woodly had earlier lost a brother due to the inhospitable climate. The war is not only responsible for taking Will across the ocean, but in the conversation we learn that the war is also responsible for the high cost of flour that forces the family to raid Davy’s hat fund. Thus, the fairly recent memories of the historical reality of the famines of the 1790s are written into what might seem a superficial story. Davy’s mother notes in her conversation with Miss Wideland that with flour so dear, she cannot even imagine eating meat. We learn too in this episode that because the father and grandfather make brooms they are not eligible for as much parish support as they might need to feed the family. Finally, we learn that old Mr. Woodly was once a farmer himself, and that the house where the family resides belonged to another farmer who is currently in the workhouse. In these details we see the limitations of the poor laws and the hint of enclosure represented within this children’s tale. The conversations among the adults place the tale squarely in its historical and socio-economic moment. The family’s poverty is not mythic but has clear-cut causes that Bloomfield explicitly includes and implicitly critiques.
11. The initial reason for Miss Woodly’s visit is that she has come with the gift of a puppy, which she had rescued from drowning and was going to offer to the Woodly family. She begins to regret it upon hearing the family cannot afford meat for themselves let alone for a pet. However, it is agreed that Davy will come to the Wideland farm every morning for milk—for the dog and for the family—and the situation is resolved. As will be discussed below, part of the charitable universe that both texts celebrate involves kindness to animals as an essential barometer of the moral code the stories try to instill. Teaching children kindness and care for animals, creatures lesser than themselves, inspires in them that same empathy and awareness for suffering humans. Although equating the poor with animals is potentially problematic for modern readers, it is clear that Bloomfield believes that greater sympathy and fellow feeling would go a long way to allay socially-created distress. Although his is not the revolutionary social critique we might hope for, we should recollect the target audience and imagine that the adults reading the story to their children might be alert to the factual economic and political details included. There is no naïveté in the author’s understanding of the causes of the problems he depicts, as the discussion in these two chapters demonstrates.
12. During her visit, Miss Wideland invites Davy to go with her on a short journey she must take in her chaise, asking him to assist her by opening the gates she must pass through. Miss Wideland doesn’t simply give charity but tries to create some opportunities for employment; thus, she is not only benevolent but also enlightened. The only impediment is Davy’s going in public on this journey without a hat, which is resolved when Miss Wideland digs up an old one, made of “cat-skin” that used to belong to Abel the farmhand and which is so decrepit it must have the earwigs knocked out of it before it is fit for use (more on earwigs below).
13. Hatlessness addressed, Davy is off on a journey that takes him out of his knowledge (to use John Clare’s phrase). On their drive, Miss Wideland quizzes Davy as to how he became hatless and learns that his last hat was lost while he and a friend were nutting the previous fall (no doubt as part of the effort to add some much needed protein to his family’s diet). We learn that while his friend was beaten, Davy escaped corporal punishment, which his parents do not practice (another coded message to adult readers). On their journey Davy sees many new things, such as a boat. But Miss Wideland rapidly becomes more interested in Mr. Stanmore, who meets their chaise. He is the nephew of Mrs. Meadowly, whom Miss Wideland is visiting.
14. In the next chapter, Davy is handed over to the gossiping maid Betty who wishes to learn all she can about Mr. Stanmore’s behavior. What is more likely to interest today’s reader is the fact that Betty is also a lover of ballads and sings one about war that she has recently purchased. She charges Davy to take it back to his mother once Davy informs her that his mother also loves to sing. Davy further receives sixpence from Mrs. Meadowly and Mr. Stanmore, as well as more food to take home to his family from Betty. Returning to his family, Davy regales them with tales of his adventure, and while everyone asks about his second-hand cap, Davy holds on to the hope that he will soon have a new one. His father believes that he will sell enough brooms at Brookside Fair in May. When Davy gives the ballad that he has had from Betty to his mother, she begins to cry because it is entitled “Soldier Will.” Fortunately, she does not stay to hear the ballad read (it is quoted in full in the text) as it a tale of grave misfortune to the eponymous hero. Grandfather Woodly is able to calm her by reading her chapters from Job. Thus, Bloomfield offers us a vision of the variety of literary influences present in a rural household, likely quite similar to what he might have experienced growing up. While poor, the family is not without a sense of traditional literary culture, both oral and written.
15. The family’s engagement with the arts is described again in Chapter 8, when the family goes to church and we learn of Davy’s father’s talent in singing the Psalms. Furthermore, as we discover in Chapter 9, in Davy’s conversations while sitting at his grandfather’s sickbed, his grandfather had aspired to be a poet and had written some verses on the death of a horse killed by a hive of bees. Davy is thus surrounded by poetry of all kinds—popular, biblical, and original. Despite the family’s need for food, they are still rich in various forms of culture.
16. In Chapter 9 we learn too of the broader social conditions and complexity of the life of the Woodly family—again, with much historically significant information woven into the details. As Davy’s father is preparing to go to the fair to sell his wares, we are told that in the neighborhood there is only one “little farmer” left in the area who has a cart that might be borrowed to transport the brooms. It may be surmised that while the Wideland family might be generous, they have also been involved in enclosure, although this possibility is only implied and not elaborated upon. The story continues to follow the family from spring to summer, and as they are successful at gleaning enough grain in the harvest to hold against the coming winter, their prospects seem brighter. Miss Wideland and Mr. Stanmore marry, and he takes over the Wideland family farm, offering to take Davy under his wing, inviting him to live with him, and taking on the responsibility for clothing and educating him.
17. Lydia too receives a letter from Will in Jamaica, and soon after we are informed that the peace has been signed and thus that Lydia and the Woodlys may expect Will home. Mrs. Stanmore confirms the news that Will is coming home, and that, as a result of the peace (presumably the Treaty of Amiens of 1802), the price of corn will likely fall. To top off all the happiness and joy, Davy’s father is finally able to buy him a new hat. The explicit lesson here is one of patience in poverty, as the final lines repeat: “If, therefore, any good boy should read this story, and should have been very poor, and often disappointed, I earnestly advise him to have patience, and to remember Little Davy’s New Hat” (94-5). The fact that problems big and small, personal and international, coexist in the space of this seemingly simple story show Bloomfield’s social commitments even within the unadorned morality required for children’s stories in this period. Davy’s need for a hat exists within a wider spectrum of needs, including that for basic sustenance, which is threatened by enclosure as well as international crises.
The Bird and Insects’ Post-Office: Teaching Love for Nature
18. Another of Bloomfield’s core social and ethical commitments emerges in his second book for children: a love and respect for non-human creation. Richard Louv’s recent book The Last Child in the Woods makes an impassioned (and scientifically supported) case for the developmental importance of children encountering and experiencing nature. Louv’s study forms one of the most popular recent works in the growing field of Environmental Education, also known as Environmental Literacy, a burgeoning movement in the field of education, complete with its own national organization in North America (the North American Association of Environmental Education) designed to help teachers at all levels instill awareness of and respect for the natural world in a generation of children whose parents and grandparents will leave them with a destroyed planet. Such a concern for educating children about nature and in nature is inherited from the Romantics via Rousseau. “Let nature be your teacher,” expounds Wordsworth. But such injunctions are not easy to carry out, especially if you are a child of the early nineteenth century living in an urban or suburban area and perhaps compelled to spend more of your time indoors working than outdoors roaming the Lake District. This is the audience we can imagine that is implicitly being addressed in Robert and Charles Bloomfield’s The Bird and Insects’ Post-Office, one of the last works that the poet wrote.
19. Elsewhere in the Remains, Bloomfield explicitly discusses the importance of children learning a love for nature: “What a wide difference may be seen between the manner of bringing up children, as to the chance of seeing in their youth, what we call the beauties of Nature” (2: 68). Bloomfield notes how at least his earlier service as a farmer’s boy gave him ample subject matter for poetry. He then recollects the situation of one of the other boys who worked with him in the London shoemaker’s garret. Jem was an orphan who lived his entire life in London and his encounter with “nature” was limited to helping collect maggots to be used for fishbait for those angling in the New River. Happily for us, Bloomfield’s exposure on the farm was a bit more wide ranging. One cannot help but imagine that Bloomfield might have had his old friend Jem as much as his own children in mind when he was writing this last work.
20. The Bird and Insects’ Post-Office is certainly useful to bookend with Bloomfield’s first work, The Farmer’s Boy. Both texts concern themselves with how children can and should be educated about nature and what nature will and should teach children. Both demonstrate an ethics of stewardship toward nature, and both offer a portrayal of the beauties as much as the realities of the natural world. As I have written elsewhere, in The Farmer’s Boy Bloomfield writes with exuberant pastoral relish of the playful lambs, but he also provides grim georgic details of their butchering as part of the cycle of life (and death) on a working farm. The young Giles learns to sing along with the wild birds who serenade him as he trundles out to the field to work, but some of that work involves killing the marauding crows who steal the farmer’s grain and hanging up their corpses around the fields as a warning to others (for more about this darker dimension of rural life, see Ian Haywood’s essay in this collection).
21. Similarly, the inherent charm of talking birds and bugs is offset in other passages such as the lengthy description, offered by the poor mother earwig, regarding the massacre of her children:
22. In using the animals as a vehicle to convey human moral values, Bloomfield is placing himself in direct relation to a classical tradition dating back to the most celebrated writer of animal stories, Aesop, whose Fables he explicitly mentions. In the Preface to Bird and Insects’ Post-Office, Bloomfield describes a controversy, fanned by “some French author” about the advisability of using the fiction of a talking animal as a vehicle to teach children, because this might delude children into believing that animals could “in reality” talk—or in this case, even more preposterously—write. Here Bloomfield responds as an experienced parent, observing that most children are clever enough to understand the difference between reality and make-believe. He describes how children, when playing with a pet, will often imagine, by looking at the animal’s reaction and expression, what it might say if it could speak, all the while knowing that it does not talk as humans do.
23. This empathy is a critical characteristic that Bloomfield strives to develop in the letters that follow, as he himself imagines in what style each of the birds and insects he describes might write, based upon his observations of “their well-known habits and pursuits” (2: 126). Bloomfield’s prefatory remarks are comparable to those of many Romantic-period children’s writers, such as Sarah Trimmer, who writes in the introduction to her The History of Robins (first published as Fabulous Histories in 1786) that “The book should be taken ‘not as containing the real conversation of birds, (for that is impossible we should ever understand) but as a series of fables intended to convey moral instructions applicable to themselves’” (quoted in Hunt 72). As Hunt observes, Trimmer, like many others in the period, understood that “children’s affinity and fascination with animals could be exploited to deliver homilies on man’s duty toward them” (72). Hunt provides an inventory of the proliferation of animal “biographies” that abounded during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, including one of the most popular, the tale of Cock Robin, which helped introduce children to the concept of death.
24. The Bird and Insects’ Post-Office provides powerful commentary on how we should treat the rest of creation. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this comes in letter 12, written from the Pigeon to the Partridge, vividly describing the “sport” of trap shooting. Explaining why he has not written back, the Pigeon details how “we are subject to more than the random gun-shot in the field, for we are sometimes taken out of our house a hundred at a time, and put into a large basket to be placed in a meadow or a spare plat of ground suiting the purpose, there to be murdered at leisure” (2: 158). The pigeon explains how when the lid of the basket is lifted, they all fly out to escape and are then fired upon. The pigeon is outraged that this is known as a sport, and Bloomfield himself is compelled to add his own footnote descrying the wanton savagery of this pastime, noting that he was so disgusted by what he saw, he wished that the hunter could have suffered some of what he had inflicted while participating in this “cowardly practice” (2: 158). The pigeon concludes his letter by telling his friend the partridge that he would prefer to be torn apart by a hawk, who though he “stands for no law, nor no season, but eats us when he is hungry. . . . He is the perfect gentleman compared to these ‘Lords of Creation,’ as I am told they call themselves” (2: 159).
25. An earlier letter, letter 6, from the Wild Duck to the Tame Duck, also criticizes hunting practices, here the use of decoys. While the Wild Duck extols the virtues of his lifestyle to his tame cousin, he notes that “every station of our duck-lives is subject to some disadvantages and some calamities. Thus, with all our wildness, we are not secure: for we are taken sometimes by hundreds, in a kind of trap, which is called a decoy” (2: 143). Bloomfield once again annotates this passage to provide us with a brief history of the drained fenland known as Bedford Level and to verify the astounding number of ducks taken from this area. While this wild duck has narrowly escaped capture, he notes that he has a good sense of what happened to his brother ducks who were less fortunate, and he condemns the insatiable demand for ducks among that “very large assemblage of fellow creatures to those, who catch us” (2: 145). As is evident in his writing as far back as The Farmer’s Boy, Bloomfield does not object unilaterally to killing animals. He objects to the excessiveness of the trap shooting and duck hunting, which is not for animal husbandry or to meet human nutritional needs. Rather, it is killing for the sake of killing. The letters demonstrate that death is a part of nature as much as life, but that we should recognize and condemn death when it is clearly unnatural.
26. The lessons that the book provides are not all grim. Humans are depicted not only as violent and greedy creatures but as a bit stupid as well, as is evident in the second letter, “From a Young Garden Spider to Her Mother,” which tells of how one of the “striders” (as they call people) captured the newly born spiders in the bottom of a glass bottle, little suspecting that they would use their web-building powers to escape. She writes triumphantly: “I shall never forget how the great booby stared when he saw us all climbing up our rope ladders” (2: 134). This reflection leads the little spider to meditate upon whether humans ever try to imprison one another and how, thus suggesting a more modest lesson about our need to respect fellow creatures in their freedom.
27. Another theme that runs through the collection is how each creature believes his or her way of life to be the best. This argumentative device helps Bloomfield and his son find a vehicle for describing the creature’s way of life in some detail. For example, the first two letters provide the correspondence between a magpie and a farmyard sparrow. The magpie, the only creature to appear more than once in the letter series, officiously advises the sparrow to leave the farmyard and fly free. He pompously extols his own powers as a singer. The sparrow, in response, is rightfully offended, mocks the magpie’s “singing,” and warns the magpie away from the farmyard and from stealing her eggs, thus teaching readers that the magpie has a harsh voice and eats any food it can get its hands on. Magpies are one of the few bird species that can recognize itself in a mirror, perhaps accounting for the rather conceited tone Bloomfield gives “Mag” in his letter. The Tame Duck, in the seventh letter, instead of sympathizing with the fate of the hunted Wild Duck, devotes most of her message to belittling the hen’s ridiculous lifestyle. In letter 9, the Dunghill Cock criticizes the chaffinches for stealing the barley from the farmyard. Overall in the letters one bird’s habits are described by another in largely negative terms.
28. Charles Bloomfield’s contributions to the collection are all written in verse (Robert’s are all in prose) but they treat similar topics. Letter 10, “The Bluebottle Fly to the Grasshopper,” describes the fly as doubly threatened, first by a human and then a spider, whereas letter 11, “The Glow-Worm to the Humble Bee,” offers a warning to the bee about how humans are preparing to steal the honey from the hive. The glowworm is compelled to turn to a written correspondence because when it tried to tell the bee in person, the bee was too busy to listen. The collection of letters, albeit unfinished, ends with a poem by Charles: “On Hearing a Cuckoo at Midnight.”
29. As we know from poems such as The Farmer’s Boy and The Banks of Wye, Bloomfield was a powerful painter of the natural world. Yet the natural world presented in these pieces is circumscribed. Why, one might wonder, only birds and insects? Why not other animals, such as sheep or cows or foxes or badgers? The answer may lie in the fact that these are creatures that any child might encounter in a city, suburban area, or the country. They are creatures that Bloomfield’s old colleague, Jem, might have had a hope of encountering. These are not mythical or magical beasts that would promote the kinds of superstitious beliefs that Bloomfield worked in other poems to dispel (see, for example, another animal poem, “The Fakenham Ghost”), and which he notes in the parental preface to Little Davy is reason for the book to be consigned to the fire. Bloomfield’s goal is to reach and inspire as many children as he can, not just his own.
30. Bloomfield’s works for children, while certainly not his masterpieces, are important to understanding the author’s sense of his vocation. Bloomfield did not conceive of himself only as an author who wrote a certain kind of rural poetry, nor even as only a poet. He actively engaged with a variety of poetical and non-poetical genres. And while conventions of Romantic-period children’s literature demanded heavy didacticism, Bloomfield’s moralizing never strays from the kinds of ethical and social commitments he expresses in other works. The need to remember—and to live by—our responsibilities to others in our human and animal communities is a thread that extends throughout Bloomfield’s career.
Bloomfield, Robert. The History of Little Davy’s New Hat. 3rd ed. London: [n.p.], 1824. Print.
Bloomfield, Robert. The Remains of Robert Bloomfield. 2 vols. London: [n.p.], 1824. Print.
Bloomfield, Robert. The Letters of Robert Bloomfield and His Circle. Ed. Tim Fulford and Lynda Pratt. Web.
Hunt, Peter, ed. Children’s Literature. An Illustrated History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995. Print.
Keegan, Bridget. Labouring-Class Nature Poetry, 1730-1837. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2008. Print.
Lawson, Jonathan. Robert Bloomfield. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Print.
Louv, Richard. The Last Child in the Woods. Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2008. Print.