Robert Bloomfield: Lyric, Class, and the Romantic Canon, ed. White, Goodridge, and Keegan
Arizona State University
Several years ago, Pickering and Chatto published three volumes of collected period poems entitled Eighteenth-Century Laboring-Class Poets, as well as another three volumes under the title Nineteenth-Century Laboring-Class Poets. Through this large project general editor John Goodridge and a list of volume editors have brought to light many lesser known poets, and they have contextualized better known peasant poets such as Stephen Duck, Mary Collier, Robert Burns, Ann Yearsley, Elizabeth Hands, Robert Bloomfield and John Clare. The formidable size of this handsome collection calls for scholarly inquiry into a large number of poets and poems which have seen only marginal attention.
Robert Bloomfield is one such laboring-class poet whose work has seen a revival of interest. Yet, as with many such marginal figures, scholarly work on Bloomfield has been scattered. The brilliance of editors Simon White, John Goodridge, and Bridget Keegan has been to bind into a single book collection a sampling of readings of this poet and his life’s works. The collection seeks to validate Robert Bloomfield as a poet worthy of study and does so according to the metrics most commonly accepted by the profession today. There is a large amount of historicism in the volume. Some essays position the poet in relation to other laboring-class poets, and a few place him in the tradition of the picturesque. Bloomfield is best known for The Farmer’s Boy, first published in 1800. There are several good essays on the poem, while the rest of the collection explores the poet’s life and work prior to and after this central and defining work. The collection succeeds in making the case that Bloomfield is a poet whose work was not simply a passing fashion of the period, but is worthy of reflection and continued scholarship. As an aside, I do hope others will take up the call to publish similar collections on other laboring-class poets.
In his introduction, Simon White gives a brief biographical sketch of Bloomfield, and then traces his influence on John Clare and William Barnes, and through them onto Thomas Hardy, Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney. From here the collection moves to essays beginning with Bloomfield’s larger and better known works, and then moves on to smaller poems, and his relation to other poets.
In his excellent essay, “Illustrating The Farmer’s Boy“, Bruce Graver traces the publication history of the poem as Bloomfield navigates between the publishers Vernor and Hood, who wished to sell it as a quaint pastoral work, and the patron Capel Lofft, who touted the radical political implications of the poem (underscored by his own introduction). Most interesting about Graver’s essay is that he makes the argument not only from historical records of transactions and correspondences but most strikingly through the commissions for illustrations to the poem. The Farmer’s Boy has an extensive history of illustration, and Graver opens the conversation by following key shifts in early editions from the first rustic “primitive” woodcuts of John Anderson (a student of Thomas Bewick), to the later “softening process” of Nesbit’s illustration of a pastoral poet who has all but abandoned labor in the field. Worth noting is that popular agricultural painters and engravers such as George Moreland and James Ward can be added to Graver’s list of illustrators to the poem.
The Farmer’s Boy is not the only poem in which Bloomfield found himself caught between patron and publication. Tim Fulford and Debbie Lee trace a similar tension between poet and patron—in this case the famed doctor Edward Jenner—in the publication of Good Tidings, a work commissioned by Jenner to advocate his cross-species cure of cowpox to immunize against smallpox. Their essay “The Vaccine Rose: Patronage, Pastoralism, and Public Health” extends their work on smallpox from Literature, Science and Exploration in the Romantic Era (2004). As Fulford and Lee claim, Bloomfield was quite excited to be approached by Jenner for this commission. That Bloomfield’s father and siblings died from smallpox certainly influenced his willingness to take the commission and their deaths are recorded in Good Tidings. Since Jenner made his discovery by refining folk wisdom regarding smallpox and cowpox, Bloomfield’s rustic writings were a clear fit with Jenner’s cure. But as Bloomfield found with Lofft and The Farmer’s Boy, “Jenner . . . turned out to be another patron who wanted to present Bloomfield’s words on his own terms to advance his own cause. . . . Jenner was a commercial operator, who had commissioned a poem as part of his own propaganda campaign” (155). Bloomfield found himself caught between the old patronage model for publication and the newer commercial market.
Bridget Keegan’s essay “Science, Superstition, and Song” complements Fulford and Lee’s on the role of science and reason in Bloomfield’s poetry. Keegan traces the life of the self-taught poet and his religious faith as one of piety and industry. His “humble Christianity was offered to counteract readers’ suspicions that by writing poetry the author was aspiring beyond his or her God-given station in life” (197). The Farmer’s Boy is replete with the “spiritual lessons of the rural scenery” and praise for “the morally salutary quality of rural life” (201). As evident in The Farmer’s Boy and Good Tidings, Bloomfield disavows folk superstition and advocates the wedding of reason and Christian beliefs.
Several essays position the poet’s work in relation to other pastoral poetry. Hugh Underhill puts Bloomfield next to Cowper and notes that while both have a sensitivity to place, Cowper maintains a picturesque distance from labor while Bloomfield is at home with the grit and detail of the bucolic. Underhill provides an excellent overview as to why Bloomfield’s peasant poetry is invaluable for re-reading the picturesque. In “Labor and an Ethic of Variety in The Farmer’s Boy“, Kevin Binfield positions Bloomfield’s work in relation to Thomson’s georgic, The Seasons. While Bloomfield follows Thomson’s episodic, descriptive and reflective structure, for Bloomfield the “task is to depict or recover in an active and not entirely monumentalizing manner that whole [of rural life]” (71).
Several authors bring to the general reader’s attention lesser known works by Bloomfield. As such, these essays help the collection in becoming an authoritative introduction to the poet’s oeuvre. Each essay provides a narrative introduction to the poem or collection, coupled with analysis of the work as a whole, while also marking crucial passages for investigation.
For Simon Smith, the lyric “My Old Oak Table” shows the peasant poet struggling to write amid the mundane and the domestic. The work is an extended meditation on the rough and rude table and its similarities to the poet, whose work does not have the polish and finesse of writers with greater education and social standing. Furthermore, the weary and worn quality of the table serves as an entryway for the poet to recall the many illnesses which plagued him and his family (a topic which crops up as well in “Shooter’s Hill”). Tim Burke’s essay “Colonial Spaces and National Identities in The Banks of Wye” explores “how Bloomfield, listening now with the ear of the tourist, hears the voices of the various fishermen, cart drivers, cow-herders, boat pilots, and gleaners of Monmouthshire amplified by the territorial ambiguity of the border country which they inhabit” (92). Burke compares and contrasts how Bloomfield populates his poem in relation to the picturesque reading of the terrain by William Gilpin and William Wordsworth. Burke sees Bloomfield’s account as recovering the polyphonic and heterotopic traits of the region. In particular, Monmouthshire proves stubbornly complex, since it was counted as an English county but was redolent with Welsh history, culture, and geography. Scott McEatheron examines Bloomfield’s early work “On Seeing the Launch of the Boyne” as a war poem that displays “a concern with the often contradictory demands of personal and national liberty in the period of the Napoleonic Wars” (213). Moving from the ship to the landscape and then the reason for the ship’s creation, the poem works on “fittedness” and “scale” to show how the ship relates to humans, the ship-building city to the larger world, and humans to God. From McEatheron’s essay the reader can glean a theme common to much of Bloomfield’s work: inspiration from technologies (ships to agriculture, for example) which make the country great, and yet, just below this praise, a reluctant recognition of the violence enabled by these technologies and the nationalism they inspire.
In a well-wrought essay, “Georgic Ecology,” Donna Landry positions the history of the georgic in relation to the pastoral: “The georgic ethos rewrites the pastoral as fantasy, and itself as pragmatic reality, but it cannot exist without feeding on the very pastoral it repudiates” (254). The essay puts Bloomfield in relation to Clare and Yearsley as georgic peasants thinking about landscapes. Other essays are as their titles indicate. William J. Christmas considers that while Bloomfield was a shoemaker in London (after his childhood days on a farm), he would have found himself amid “the largest representation among the ranks of artisans who joined the London Corresponding Society in the 1790s” (28). Christmas’ reading of the politics of horses, and what constitutes cruelty (such as tail docking) is interesting for animal studies, and his reading of the politics of the harvest-home feast in The Farmer’s Boy is astute. John Lucas traces the traditions of the May Day fairs. John Goodridge explores the scant instances of women’s stories in Bloomfield and Clare, and Mina Gorji traces the use of Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard as a way of framing the biography and works of peasant poets. The collection concludes with a useful checklist of works and editions of works by Bloomfield.
Current scholarship is almost without exception invested in historical-biographical approaches to literature, with a bit of cultural studies at the margins. Thinking in new, critical ways in Romantic studies increasingly has come to mean thinking about new authors, rather than shifting the ground of thought itself. We’ve yet to find new ways into the works of laboring-class poets, but this is not the goal of this collection. Rather, Robert Bloomfield: Lyric, Class, and the Romantic Canon provides historical and cultural readings of the poems in order to nudge the “the Romantic Canon” a little further toward Bloomfield.