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.