TO IMMAGINATION (1800)
Bloomfield composed ‘To Immagination’ in May 1800 on the evidence of the surviving manuscript and of his correspondence. He was in the first flush of success as a published poet and was revisiting the village in which he had spent his boyhood and in which he had set The Farmer’s Boy—Honington. ‘To Immagination’ was, in this context, something of an oblique tribute to the poetic imagination that had conjured up a Suffolk country boyhood from the distance of London’s rookeries and garrets. It was his first major composition after the appearance of The Farmer’s Boy, an ambitious piece that was a considerable departure in style and subject-matter—an ode in the poetic territory marked out by poets renowned for their sublimity, such as Mark Akenside, Edward Young, William Collins and Erasmus Darwin, whose Popean couplets and machinery it echoed.
Problems began when Bloomfield showed the manuscript to his patron Capel Lofft. Lofft did not want to prevent him reaching for a so-called higher genre—the ode. As a Foxite radical, a Whig of advanced liberal views, Lofft regarded it as part of his duty to represent the interests of the labouring classes. He wanted to show that the common people, if properly encouraged, could produce as sophisticated forms of poetic expression as their social superiors. The issue was the nature of this encouragement: Lofft wanted both to edit Bloomfield’s verse to fit his own notions of taste and to gain the credit for having shepherded the prodigy into print (see Introductions to The Farmer’s Boy and to Rural Tales). Now, Lofft added to the needy grandstanding in which he had indulged in The Farmer’s Boy a well-meaning but coercive rewriting of Bloomfield’s new manuscript. The resultant tensions are evident in Bloomfield’s letters, the first reference coming in early 1801, when Bloomfield wrote to his brother George to say that ‘Mr. L —is deafening me with solicitations to print “Imagination,” which I had rejected; he has set it to rights, and certainly made it Better by adding here and there a connective line as he calls them; he has written out the whole piece for me, and says I shall do an injury to him, to the public, to poetry, and to myself, if I do not publish it, there is a sufficient volume without it and I have not yet determined.’ (Letter 48). By the end of the year, Bloomfield had decided not to print the poem in his forthcoming collection Rural Tales and, in the wake of the increasingly bitter dispute with Lofft triggered by the publisher wishing to omit Lofft’s embarrassing prefatory remarks in the new edition of The Farmer’s Boy, was restoring his manuscripts to their pristine state. He sent George a manuscript of ‘To Immagination’, noting ‘I have copied it, and copied what Mr L would have added and withdrawn. I think you will not wonder at my rejecting it’ (30 November 1801, Letter 69)
Bloomfield’s sensitivity over his ‘Immagination’ manuscript was clearly greater than over The Farmer’s Boy which, after all, he had initially been content to publish with Lofft’s revisions. This stemmed not just from accumulated resentment over Lofft’s behaviour but also from the fact that the new poem was a departure from the Georgic into a loftier, more gentlemanly, voice. Bloomfield was aware that his social claim upon that voice was slight and was acutely sensitive to the interfering of his patron who, precisely because this poem was written in a gentlemanly voice, felt himself better qualified to modify it. Bloomfield had not the authority over this poetic voice to insist on his own words, whereas he had (albeit at a price) over his poems that dealt with rural labour and village tales. The outcome was that, after Lofft’s revisions, well-meaning though they were, Bloomfield felt alienated from his own language of the imagination. It fell dead in his hands and became a poem he could neither publish nor polish, written in a style he would never again attempt. He vented his feelings in a letter of April 1804 to Edward Brayley: ‘Three years past I had written a long address “to Imagination,” in what I calld Blank Verse, but my friend Mr Lofft thinking it deficient, was for adding and explaining, and in effect perverting my meaning till I finish’d the contest by refusing to print the piece, and by ultimately destroying it’ (13 April 1804, Letter 120).
Fortunately, Bloomfield did not destroy all the manuscripts of the poem. The manuscript, which is kept in the British Library (Add. MS 30809), and which we publish here, is decidedly Augustan in manner, while suggesting a relationship between nature and the poet’s creativity that is akin to Wordsworth’s. In contrast to ‘Tintern Abbey’, imagination, stimulated by the view of nature, is personified but not self-consciously related to the poet. Instead, the personified faculty takes a topographic flight, a departure indeed for Bloomfield, formerly bard of a single Suffolk village, and a token of his desire to escape the labourer-poet tag (since labourers’ views were held to be limited to the local range within which their experience was confined). It is as if he deliberately set out to elaborate upon Dr Johnson’s maxim that the poet should ‘Let Observation with extensive view / Survey mankind from China to Peru’  —since in rhyming couplets and eighteenth-century diction he takes a shifting but apparently omniscient view of nature and humanity in South America (principally) and Africa. It is a less egotistical response to nature than Wordsworth’s, but nevertheless derives from it a comparable emotional and moral pressure. Bloomfield, learning from Pope’s Windsor Forest and Darwin’s Botanic Garden, disengages the poetic imagination from the personality of the poet and from his own limited viewpoint, allowing him vicariously a greater scope of comment. The voice allows the narrator to seem to rise above his own personal interest and moralise: this is not the egotistical sublime but a new version of the eighteenth-century poetic persona of narratorial independence of self. As such, it puts the Wordsworthian—the Romantic—imagination in a wider cultural context showing that imagination could be addressed via a renewal of an older Augustan discourse. In this, Bloomfield learned from Akenside, Young, Darwin and Joel Barlow, whose 1787 Vision of Columbus surveys the American continent from the skies as Bloomfield does in ‘To Immagination’. Bloomfield’s poem contains verbal echoes of all these poets and it is intriguing to think that he may have derived his narrative device and main topic—the aerial flight over the Atlantic and South America—from one of the earliest American poets.
Pliable enough to allow heartfelt sympathy with exploited labourers (another sign of the respect for the realities of hard bodily labour that is present in many of Bloomfield’s poems) as well as generalising moral commentary about slavery, ‘To Immagination’ reveals, despite Bloomfield’s fragile confidence in it, that it was possible to fuse Romantic-era aesthetics with Augustan style. It helps us see why Wordsworth’s autobiographical verse looked singular and perverse to critics as different as Jeffrey and Byron. The visionary revelation of inwardness was not the only discourse created, and seen to be created, by the Romantic-era imagination.
As a poem that modifies eighteenth-century poetic language from a labouring-class perspective, ‘To Immagination’ has much to show us about that language’s continued potential as a sensitive medium for the expression of moral and emotional truth. It also reveals some of the limitations of that language: Bloomfield’s is certainly not a romantic-era poem on imagination that succeeds where others fail in displaying its own imbrication in social and political forces. Bloomfield does not—and he’s like Clare in this—offer a communitarian model of imagination arising from a world of shared labour to counter the individual transcendentalism of Wordsworthian Romanticism. His imagination is disembodied—from himself and from others—a moral discourse that is divorced from the speaker’s position and from the context from which it arises. This might be judged, though Bloomfield never explicitly acknowledged as much, a sign of the alienation of the poet from a socially-produced poetic voice that he could call his own or call the voice of his class. Instead, he produced a simulacrum of poetic discourses previously produced by Augustan gentlemen for whom adopting an omniscient objectified voice was an unproblematic sign of cultural power—Young’s Night Thoughts, Akenside’s Pleasures of the Imagination, Darwin’s Botanic Garden. It is not surprising, then that ‘To Immagination’ has hesitancies and failings which are symptoms of the author’s unease with the position of authority in which his narratorial position places him. The fact that Bloomfield left it unpublished, meanwhile, is telling evidence of the crisis in poet-patron relationships caused by class-difference as it operated in poetic language. Equally, the fact that it languished in manuscript for so long suggests the continuing class bias and social exclusivity that attended the critical adoption of the Romantic imagination as a criterion of worth.