75. Robert Bloomfield to the Earl of Buchan, 19 January 1802


75. Robert Bloomfield to the Earl of Buchan, 19 January 1802* 

London: Jan. 19, 1802.

Near the Shepherd and Shepherdess, City Road, London

My Lord

It may look strange that one, who has been repeatedly honoured with your lordship's conversation, should have anything left to express by writing: But the sudden transition from shade to sunshine, from obscurity to publicity, which have fallen to my lot, has sometimes proved almost painful, and often perplexing to a great degree. Condescension from superiors ought at least to inspire confidence sufficient to meet their approbation in all its shapes and modifications; and, when it does not, I am apt to suspect, that it deserves no such plausible name as modesty. It is a dastardly child, the offspring of ignorance and fear. I feel and know, that in my composition there is not an atom of what is called wit. My replies are the slow suggestions of contemplation, and my 'good things' mostly come half an hour too late. I find this to be true in conversation with my equals, where restraint can have no force. There is however, another enemy (though in some cases my dearest friend) whose power is resistless, and whose visits are perpetually made known by a rising of the stomack, and a redundance of water in the eyes. Subjects of interest to the feelings are frequent in parties, such as I have lately had the honour to join; when, independent of the subject being often above my reach, I find this weakness, (if it be a weakness) stand in my way, and absolutely obstruct any remark or reply whatever. Your lordship informed me particularly of the death of a lady [1]  the circumstance attending which were of an uncommonly interesting nature. I know not whether to wish such scenes to fall in my way, or whether to rejoice selfishly, that I have no such torture, for excess of pleasure certainly becomes pain. I have never frequented so desirable & honourable a school as that in which your Lordship presides; I mean your friendly conversations with the learned and good, the very cream of a nation's talents & when I reflect on what I am, I can but wonder at that one qualification, which alone is thought sufficient to entitle me to be amongst you. But the clashing of animated spirits, the flint and steel of conversation, tho' they communicate no fire, give me a generous light, & while I suppress my own thoughts, I often hear them better advanced by another. The illustrious soul that has left amongst us the name of Burns, has often been lower'd down to a comparison with me; but the comparison exists rather in circumstances than in essentials, that man stood up with the stamp of superior intellect, on his brow a visible greatness; and great and patriotic subjects would only have called into action the powers of his mind, which lay inactive while he played calmly & exquisitely the pastoral pipe. The letters to which I have alluded in my preface to the Rural Tales, were friendly warnings, pointed with immediate reference to the fate of that extraordinary man. [2] Remember Burns has been the watch word of my friends. I do remember Burns, but I am not Burns, neither have I his fire to fan or quench, nor his passion to controll. Where, then, is my merit, if I make a peaceful voyage on a smooth sea, and with no mutiny on board? To a lady (I had it from herself) who remonstrated with him on his dangers from drink, and the pursuits of some of his associates, he replied, Madam, they would not thank me for my company if I did not drink with them; I must give them a slice of my constitution. [3]  How much to be regretted that he did not give them thinner slices of his constitution, that it might have lasted longer. I write this my Lord under the burning of an headacke, to which I am subject, and which has prevented my waiting on your Lordship this morning. If in my fireside reflections, I thus draw a picture of myself, I hope I do not trespass on Mr. Gardner's art, & more particularly I hope I shall not trespass on your Lordship's patience. I feel so great a triumph in having your decided approbation that I cannot forbear hazarding an avowal of it in writing. I have said 'Nature's sublimer scenes ne'er charmed mine eyes' [4]  and what effect the Cambrian or Caledonian mountains might bring, or a sight of the sea would have, I can only guess. These to me are distant visionary raptures like the saint's prospect of heaven. My Emma's Kid [5]  is in therefore the dream of imagination, the eye had no share in collecting one idea to identify the picture.

If a man is set upon a house top, he must be a fool not to tread with caution, & feel a becoming solicitude for his safety; more particularly so, if amongst the spectators some might be found who would like to see him fall. This is my situation in some degree. The patronage of wealth and conspicuous talents may well be envied, & perhaps may as long as envy exists in little minds, and true Nobility in great ones, tho' I know that I am incomprehensible to myself & thus call my courage & confidence to a reckoning for failures, I know that a small dose of poison, alias spirits, has a momentary influence in strengthening both. But my Lord, as I have a strong predilection for living as long as I can, & for living with your Lordship's favor upon my head, I beseech you at all times, & on all occasions to guard your decisions with your accustom'd good sense & candour, & never to believe that Bloomfield is turned fool, untill you see it yourself. Indeed I much question the wisdom of counteracting & opposing my watery-headed propensity at all. The indulgence of it is more precious than the wealth of all distilleries in the world; & I have always written best when I indulged it most. But I perceive, I am tattling like old Rich [6]  all about myself, & beg pardon for thus troubling your Lordship with the fruits of the headacke, & the stirrings of gratitude & perhaps ambition, but I will never be ashamed of any of them while I hold life, and your Lordship's good opinion.

Robert Bloomfield

[NLS copy, in another hand]: 'Bloomfield's first letter to the Earl of Buchan after the Recitations at the Adelphi'

* Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: Ashcombe Collection, II.132 (copy in RB's hand). National Library of Scotland MS. 15953, ff. 47–48 (copy in another hand). Extract published in Hart, p. 40, enc. 2 BACK

[1] Bloomfield refers to the death of Miss Elizabeth Linley who died of tuberculosis in 1794 after singing in Handel's Messiah 'I know that my Redeemer liveth'. BACK

[2] On p. vi of the preface to Rural Tales, Bloomfield states, 'I have received many honourable testimonies of esteem from strangers; letters without a name, but fill'd with the most cordial advice, and almost a parental anxiety, for my safety under so great a share of public applause'. BACK

[3] The anecdote is quoted unsourced by Wickett and Duval, p. 31, and is also included in the second volume of Remains, p. 78: 'Miss Johnson, with whom I dined at the White Hart Inn, Fetter Lane, was personally acquainted with Burns; who, breakfasting with her, drank a large tumbler of beer previous to taking either eatables or tea, saying that he had been up till three in the morning, and had drank too much wine. On Miss J's remonstrating with him as to the injury to which he exposed his health, he replied, 'Madam, they would not thank me for my company, if I did not drink with them, I must give them a slice of my constitution', I wish Burns had given them thinner slices of his constitution, that it might have lasted longer; I then might possibly have had the pleasure of seeing him. He died but two months after I began composing The Farmer's Boy though at that time, and long after, his death and history were unknown to me'. BACK

[4] Bloomfield quotes line 11 of 'Spring' from The Farmer's Boy: 'Nature's sublimer scenes ne'er charmed mine eyes'. BACK

[5] 'Emma's Kid' was published in the first volume of Remains with the following note: 'Originally accompanying a pair of kid-leather shoes, which the Earl of Buchan had requested me to make with my own hands for his lady, then at Dryburgh abbey' (pp. 42–46). BACK

[6] Garrulous hero of Bloomfield's 'Richard and Kate: Or, Fair-Day. A Suffolk Ballad', published in Rural Tales, pp. 1–14. BACK