Denney, "The Talk of the Tap-Room: Bloomfield, Politics and Popular Culture"

Robert Bloomfield: The Inestimable Blessing of Letters

"The Talk of the Tap-Room: Bloomfield, Politics, and Popular Culture"

Peter Denney
Griffith University


1.        The tendency to associate the value of a particular literary work with the personal probity of its author had characterized the polite reception of laboring-class poetry ever since Oxford professor Joseph Spence wrote his influential account of Stephen Duck in the early eighteenth century. Emphasizing his industriousness, contentment, and piety, Spence praised the way that Duck displayed “so many Merits, and so much Humility join’d together,” evincing, for example, a preference for the religious and moral writings of Addison rather than the low burlesques of street literature (27). From Stephen Duck to John Clare, the laboring-class poet was expected by the polite to conform to a model of exemplary private virtue, diligent, dutiful, and suitably distanced from what were perceived to be the vulgar elements of collective plebeian life. [1]  But this image acquired a new urgency with the growth of popular radicalism in the late eighteenth century, and especially amidst the counter-revolutionary climate that witnessed, with the publication of The Farmer’s Boy in 1800, the transformation of Robert Bloomfield from anonymous shoemaker to literary celebrity.

2.        Indeed, shortly after Bloomfield’s death in 1823, the editor of his Remains, his friend Joseph Weston, sought to establish the poet’s posthumous reputation by commending not only the excellence of his verse, but also the spotlessness of his character. And it was precisely to counter damaging rumors concerning his allegedly irregular religious beliefs, at a time when such beliefs were regarded as potential accessories of insurrection, that Weston set about to defend the poet’s personal morality. “The virtues . . . of this excellent man,” proclaimed Weston, “did not protect him from the shafts of calumny; on a point too, which . . . must have wounded his sensitive heart, for it chilled the affection of his earliest friends. The world will learn with astonishment, that Bloomfield has been traduced on the subject of religion!—Robert Bloomfield!—whose life was one pure and gentle stream of overflowing kindness;—in whose meek and quiet spirit there was ‘indeed no guile;’ whose conversations and writings were ever filled with incentives to piety” (1: xx-xxi).

3.        As several contributors to this issue point out, among those friends most troubled by rumors of Bloomfield’s dangerous religious and political views was T. J. Lloyd Baker. In a series of letters of 1821, Lloyd Baker demanded that the poet, then experiencing severe poverty and ill health, clarify his beliefs for the peace of mind of his supporters. The letters implied that Bloomfield’s wife’s devotion to the provincial servant-prophetess, Joanna Southcott, had somehow rubbed off on the poet, leading him to forgo church attendance, as if religious heterodoxy were a natural stepping stone to infidelity. Worse still, Lloyd Baker had heard rumors that Bloomfield had got into the habit of reading radical periodical publications, which aimed to overthrow the established government. And from these “two circumstances,” Lloyd Baker concluded, “the idea” had spread that Bloomfield had “imbibed Deistical & Republican principles”—beliefs “frequently united in the same persons” (letter 351, 23 May 1821). Such rumors had apparently led many of Bloomfield’s polite friends—and it was only the friendship of the affluent that Lloyd Baker thought it was worthwhile preserving—to withdraw their support, respect, and financial aid. But although professing to write with the intention of restoring the goodwill of his polite friends, this was conditional on an appropriately conservative response, and Lloyd Baker later conceded that it would be “highly wrong in any person . . . to associate with, & to give countenance to a man” desirous of undermining the “Church or Government of this country” (letter 353, 29 May 1821). Understandably, Bloomfield was offended by the letter, not least because none of these supposed friends were presently providing any financial assistance whatsoever. He was also clearly incensed at the assumption that his personal life was the proper object of surveillance by people of a superior social class, a feeling that had plagued him throughout his literary career, whether he was regarded as a “curiosity” or, as in this instance, a “dangerous man” (letter 351). But perhaps what infuriated Bloomfield most of all was the fact that the letters forced him to compromise his independence by explicating his views on two subjects, religion and politics, which, in the year he first entered the polite literary scene, he had resolved not to discuss either in his intimate letters or in his public writings.

4.        This essay takes as its point of departure Bloomfield’s repeated and strenuous claim in his correspondence that he saw himself as a poet, not a politician. It should be stressed that this was a position Bloomfield maintained to people of all political persuasions: radical, liberal, and conservative. As he wrote in 1804 to the bookseller, poet and republican, Thomas Clio Rickman, “I . . . have four years past made a determination to be nutral in Politicks and Religion . . . I must and will be as private a Man as pastoral poetry will permit me to be, or subjects that involve not creeds and systems of which all the world knows I have had small means of judging” (letter 129, 29 May 1804). Such a comment apparently endorsed the age-old dictum that those engaged in manual work did not possess the leisure necessary for formulating accurate political judgments, an idea endlessly repeated in loyalist propaganda from the 1790s onward. “How can we expect to receive pure instruction,” asked one clergyman, “if we . . . draw our notions of national policy from the lips of a labourer or mechanic?” (Hurdis 41). But Bloomfield had a deep respect for the intellectual capacity of rural and urban workers, and he was contemptuous of the tendency of the rich and polite to denigrate the experiences, expressions, and aspirations of laboring people. “I have heard more sense and truth in a tap-room, than I have sometimes heard in better company; and there is nothing more striking to me . . . than that total ignorance of the manner of living among the poor . . . of what they talk, and of what they think! Nothing to me has appeared more strange or more disgusting, than finding amongst those ranks, raised above the mechanic and labourer, such a mean opinion of the poor!” (Remains 2: 71-72). Furthermore, as this comment attests, Bloomfield did express strong beliefs on a range of social and economic questions, though these did not fit neatly into the polarized political culture characteristic of the post-revolutionary period.

5.        All this seems to support the view that Bloomfield pandered to the conservative impulses of the polite reading public by disingenuously representing himself as an exclusively pastoral poet, as unconcerned with political subjects as the rural laboring people he idealized in his poetry (Sales 18-22). And it is true that throughout Bloomfield’s career, both detractors and sympathizers often described him simply as “the Farmer’s Boy.” For William Hazlitt, for example, this appellation aptly reflected the fact that “his Muse has something not only rustic, but menial in her aspect . . . Bloomfield never gets beyond his own experience; and that is somewhat confined” (145). But Bloomfield’s poetry has recently been shown to disclose a complex engagement with contemporary political debate, drawing eclectically on the wide variety of radical discourses to which he had been exposed during his long association with urban artisan culture (Christmas 27-48; White 10-25, 132-42). Even so, the distinction Bloomfield made between poetry and politics deserves to be taken seriously, for his correspondence reveals this to be more than just a marketing ploy, and it sheds much light on the difficulties faced by plebeian autodidacts during this era of political agitation and reaction. While for obvious reasons this particular laboring-class poet clearly felt more comfortable commenting on political subjects in his private letters than in his literary publications, it is of enormous interest, I think, that his letters nevertheless communicate a general desire to find in poetry a space apart from divisive political debate, even when it might have been safe to admit otherwise.

6.        Before examining these issues, it is important to recall that the concept of natural genius flourished in polite society at the same time as the political horizons of plebeians were broadening, a development initiated by the Wilkes affair and then massively escalated by the British response to the French Revolution. [2]  The rehabilitation of Shakespeare and the cult of Ossian, together with a new degree of emphasis on the primitivism of “peasant” poetry, all occurred against a background of polite anxiety about the increasing political activity of laboring people. In the 1770s, for example, the author of The Minstrel lamented that “All ranks are run mad with politics”; and Elizabeth Montagu—patron of plebeian poetry and author of an important essay on original genius—despaired that “Treason was talked in every Alehouse, and sung in every street” (Forbes 1: 158; Blunt 2: 76). Unlike these debating, ballad-singing plebeian patriots, the embodiment of original genius was imagined as a quiet individual, whose strong sensibility and powerful imagination ideally found succor in domestic and natural spaces, away from the tumult of collective popular leisure or public political action. To quote one aesthetician, such a person conceived poetry as a “sanctuary from which the noise and folly of mankind are excluded,” a “refuge from the numerous perplexities of human life” (Duff 363). In this context, given that every laboring-class poet had to identify as a natural genius in order to satisfy polite taste, secure patronage, and therefore get into print, this theory provided a potential vehicle for drawing upwardly aspiring artisans away from the expanding sphere of popular radicalism. The significance of this is reinforced by the fact that not only did many plebeian reformers have literary aspirations, but, besides politics, poetry was the primary means by which artisans could satisfy their intellectual ambitions. [3]  Well before the shoemaker Allen Davenport embarked on his career as a Spencean and Chartist radical, for example, he was fantasizing about cutting a figure in the world of literature, seeking to climb “Mount Parnassus” and envisioning himself as a “little rustic bard” (5).

7.        To a large extent, Bloomfield genuinely embraced the idea of natural genius and gained much confidence from its privileging of feeling, inspiration, and simplicity over learning and artifice. Plebeian autodidacts characteristically experienced great discouragement in their literary endeavors as they confronted the aesthetic standards and other invisible boundaries that had formerly policed access to polite culture. As Davenport wrote, reading the poetry of Pope operated to all but “extinguish every spark of my poetic genius. I felt ashamed of my own, as I now thought, wretched doggerel” (15-16). Likewise, in the year before Bloomfield would be buoyed up by the overwhelmingly positive reception of his first published poem, he remarked of the supreme arbiter of neoclassical taste that “Dr. Johnson . . . is a ‘Thwackum’ amongst criticks; I allways look at him and his abilities with a mixture of reverence and anger” (letter 16, 8 September - 6 October 1799). This anger was at least partly informed by Bloomfield’s rejection of the assumption that the republic of letters was the exclusive preserve of classically educated men of leisure, a notion evidenced by Johnson’s condescending dismissal of an earlier shoemaker poet James Woodhouse: “better . . . furnish the man with good implements for his trade, than raise subscriptions for his poems. He may make an excellent shoemaker, but can never make a good poet” (Boswell 444).

8.        By contrast, while Wordsworth had in some measure simply placed the authority of men of leisure on a different footing, Bloomfield was greatly encouraged by the polite Romantic poet’s attempt “to come near,” if not actually speak, “the language of Men” (letter 94, 2 September 1804). After reading Lyrical Ballads in 1801, he wrote excitedly to his brother, George, “if there is no poetry in them I will give up my pretension to feeling and Nature. I can trust you I think to be struck with them, first with the extreem simplicity, and then for what I before mentioned, NATURE” (letter 52, 19 April 1801). The potentially leveling implications of this conception of poetry were not lost on Bloomfield, and, in his first address to the public, his preface to Rural Tales, he declared “I feel peculiarly gratified in finding that a poor man in England may assert the dignity of Virtue, and speak of the imperishable beauties of Nature, and be heard, and heard, perhaps, with greater attention for his being poor” (iv). In this sense, Bloomfield found the theory of natural genius immensely attractive, for it popularized an aesthetic which enabled him to circumvent at least some of the obstacles to polite literary culture.

9.        But if the idea of natural genius permitted plebeian poets to enter the republic of letters, it did so under terms that emphatically excluded their participation in the public sphere of politics. In an early issue of the official journal of the London Corresponding Society, a contributor argued that it was “once the distinguished office of poetry to awaken and cherish [the] heroic virtues,” before suggesting that, like liberty, such a function no longer prevailed in the present “degenerate age” (Moral and Political Magazine 1 [1796]: 26). And one of the aims of the journal was to reclaim for an artisan occupational group the public purpose of poetry against what was perceived to be its increasingly private range of concerns. For most commentators, however, the qualities attributed to the natural genius—enthusiasm, imagination, simplicity, sensibility, impetuosity, and wildness—remained a source of enormous value in the context of poetic production. It was just that these qualities were conceived as thoroughly incompatible with the more overtly rational skills thought necessary for effective participation in political debate (Barrell 11-13).

10.        Most famously, in a critique of the sentimental language of Edmund Burke, Mary Wollstonecraft asserted that the natural genius was a figure too impulsive and too controlled by the imagination to qualify for citizenship. Although Wollstonecraft admired the “genuine enthusiasm of genius,” she consigned it to the “infancy of civilization” for, in modern Britain, liberty was possible precisely because “reason” had clipped the “wing of fancy” and the “youth” had become a “man” (28). Small wonder, then, that Thomas Paine decided to pursue a course of self-education in natural and social philosophy, noting that “I had some turn . . . for poetry; but this I rather repressed than encouraged, as leading too much into the field of imagination” (49). Nor is it surprising that John Thelwall would justify his literary endeavors to a reading public still largely hostile to his former career as a radical orator on the grounds that his proven failure in politics would mean probable success in poetry. With a heavy dose of irony, Thelwall announced that “since he has proved so bad a politician as to plunge himself and his family in ruin . . . it ought to be regarded as an argument a priori in favour of his poetical talent: that species of imprudence . . . having always been considered as a distinguishing characteristic of those whom Apollo and the Muse inspire” (xliv). To put it simply, what were thought to be assets in poetry acquired a largely pejorative connotation when carried over to the sphere of politics. This was particularly true for the prototypical plebeian poet, who was routinely represented as a child of nature, a figure unassisted by civilization, and therefore implicitly deficient in such mature, masculine attributes as reason, self-command, and foresight. [4] 

11.        Accordingly, the British Critic began its review of Bloomfield’s second publication, Rural Tales, with an acknowledgement that the periodical’s focus had shifted from a serious to a trivial, if still gratifying, subject. “We are pleasingly called away from our abstruser studies, by these productions of a genuine Child of Nature”; and the review concluded by praising this “original genius” as the “genuine inspiration of a mind, whose thoughts and feelings turn naturally to poetry” (British Critic 19 [1802]: 338). Similarly infantilizing was the conclusion of another critic that “if we behold in Thomson an elegant scholar adorning the simple beauties of nature from the stores of a cultivated mind, we see in Robert Bloomfield, a simple farmer’s boy, painting such scenes as no poet need be ashamed” (Anderson 3: 391). The implication is that a laborer could be a poet but not a poet and a scholar, a distinction which ensured that laboring-class poetry was regarded as a relatively superficial, even childish, pursuit, permitted to please but not to please and instruct. As Charles Lamb very bluntly put it, “I have had the felicity of hearing George Dyer read out one book of ‘The Farmer’s Boy.’ I thought it rather childish. No doubt there is originality in it . . . but no selection” (1: 162).

12.        Bloomfield was surprised at receiving such a positive response from the conservative press, primarily because his patron, Capel Lofft, was a prominent radical figure and a member of the polite reform association, the Society for Constitutional Information. In fact, Lofft had used the preface to The Farmer’s Boy to express a number of political views, much to the poet’s frustration. In a letter to his brother George, Bloomfield wrote of the British Critic and the Anti-Jacobin Review in the context of their admiration for Rural Tales, “they are avowd partizans on the side of existing Systems, and existing abuses, and . . . I may think myself well off to have escaped their lash” (letter 83, 3 May 1802). But the representation of the plebeian poet as a natural genius found a congenial home in conservative culture, undoubtedly because it enabled a talented and aspiring laborer to be celebrated for possessing qualities which disqualified him from participating in the public realm of politics.

13.        In its review of The Farmer’s Boy, for example, the British Critic drew from the preface of the poem to emphasize the fact that Bloomfield had conscientiously avoided a “combination among . . . journeymen shoemakers,” projecting an image of a sensitive individual, opposed to collective artisan activity (15 [1800]: 602). Yet, like most shoemaker poets, Bloomfield remained proud of his artisan heritage, and he greatly admired the socialized forms of knowledge generated in the workshop, an environment which played a formative role in nurturing his intellectual and poetic endeavors. [5]  “In our trade,” he wrote, “when any one reads the newspapers or a book, by the neighbourly custom of sitting all in one room . . . we have nothing to do, but to discuss the subject. Community, is perhaps the point, to which those who say that ‘shoemakers are politicians,’ might trace the solution of their wonder” (Remains 2: 91-92). Equally significant, he added, this custom not only fostered the acquisition of political knowledge, but also intellectual reflection of all sorts, again underscoring his belief in the dignity of the “talk of the tap-room.” If the British Critic sought to distance Bloomfield from what was perceived as a vulgar and dangerous artisan milieu, however, it simultaneously denied his ability to join the ranks of the polite and to write poetry of a public or political character. “The writer’s observations will not be found to have been very extensive . . . and he appears to have attended to many minute circumstances, which would probably have escaped a loftier mind” (British Critic 15 [1800]: 602). Similarly, the poem had “various errors and defects,” as if to confirm that Bloomfield possessed genius, but not the authoritative rationality of the man of taste; nevertheless, such blemishes, the review suggested, were outweighed by the expression of “poetical feeling” and “warm and vigorous imagination,” with the accompanying implication that The Farmer’s Boy should be read for its sentimental rather than its intellectual content (British Critic 15 [1800]: 601). And this appeal to sensibility enabled the British Critic to subsequently disregard as an irrelevance those “melancholy” “reflections” on the harvest home, which indicated that the “author [had] received some impressions, probably at the debating-society, of a questionable kind” (15 [1800]: 604).

14.        But the idea of natural genius could also serve a decidedly radical purpose, and George Dyer, for one, claimed to delight in those very “questionable” reflections on the harvest home, which did, indeed, highlight the injustice and degeneracy of contemporary society. [6]  A friend of Wordsworth, Dyer combined the identities of poet and political activist during the 1790s, publishing several radical pamphlets and actively participating in the democratic reform movement. [7]  Through Capel Lofft, he met and became friends with Bloomfield, whom he introduced into his polite literary circles in the early 1800s. Of The Farmer’s Boy, Dyer described in a letter to Lofft how “it recalled to my mind those ages and those countries in which the Poet and the Shepherd were more naturally united . . . . Your Shepherd’s Boy with the poetical character that he undoubtedly possesses, requires indeed no other name; poetry is more immediately the language of nature . . . I can truly say I have been charmed with his Seasons, and that my heart echoes back every thing said by you in the preface” (letter 51, 19 April 1801). This conception of poetry as a literary form that had been debased by the advance of commercial refinement constituted a cultural version of the age-old condemnation of luxury, which became a staple of radical argument in the post-revolutionary period. To quote Thelwall, “let us . . . labour to abolish luxury. . . . Let us . . . persuade mankind to discard those tinsel ornaments and ridiculous superfluities, which enfeeble our minds, and entail voluptuous diseases on the affluent, while diseases of a more calamitous description overwhelm the oppressed orders of society from the scarcity resulting from this extravagance” (Claeys 67). In the process of increasing social inequality, so the logic ran, luxury corrupted the taste of the polite, leading to the predominance of a form of literature governed by the shallow imperatives of fashion. But if the theory of natural genius could be hitched to a radical political argument, Dyer implicitly imagined its embodiment, Bloomfield, as a pre-political subject, a “Shepherd’s Boy,” as deficient in the mature, masculine virtue of reason as he was free from the modern, feminine vice of sensuality.

15.        And yet the image of the natural genius was also invoked in radical polemic as a herald of revolutionary ardor, whose lack of exposure to polite learning and other sorts of cultural refinement provided the basis for an authentic critique of the subservience of the literary establishment to an aristocratic political system. In an untitled poem he contributed to the Moral and Political Magazine, for example, Dyer proclaimed that the “poet’s untaught lays” were essential to the extension of “Justice,” part of a “purer song” of “Freedom” which served “Virtue’s cause” (1 [1796]: 95). The iconic figure in this respect, of course, was Burns. Indeed, the “ploughboy poet” was celebrated in the same magazine as an oppressed genius, whose neglect exemplified the prejudice of polite culture and its associated refusal to encourage talent in and diffuse knowledge among laboring people (Moral and Political Magazine 2 [1797]: 48). [8]  But such an argument was even more fraught with ambivalence. For it focused on the talent of the “untaught,” “primitive” poet in order to justify an enlightenment belief in the need to advance the improvement of laboring people, through the provision of polite forms of knowledge no less than the support of plebeian varieties of self-education, from reading groups to political associations.

16.        In the biography of Bloomfield, written by his brother, George, and included in the preface to The Farmer’s Boy, it was noted that the poet’s literary ambitions were fostered by a range of cultural institutions available to artisan men in late eighteenth-century London, including newspapers, periodicals, dissenting meeting houses, and debating societies. [9]  But in a footnote, Lofft glossed the present state of one of these institutions after the passing of the Gagging Acts in the mid-1790s: “It is another of the Constitutional Refinements of these times to have fettered, and as to every valuable purpose, silenced, these Debating Societies. They were at least, to say the lowest of them, far better amusements than drunkenness, gambling, or fighting. They were no useless Schools to some of our very celebrated Speakers at the Bar and in Parliament; and, what is of infinitely more importance, they contributed to the diffusion of Political Knowledge and Public Sentiment” (Bloomfield, Farmer’s Boy vii). In this way, Bloomfield was held up by Lofft to support the radical and liberal notion that the present climate of surveillance and censorship threatened to stifle the moral and intellectual improvement of laboring people, thereby leading to the growth of those brutish, vulgar pastimes which had long been considered by individuals of all political persuasions to be a lamentable hallmark of plebeian culture.

17.        On the issues of refinement, poetic liberty, and popular education, Bloomfield clearly shared many of these radical views, though he maintained a far less censorious attitude to the demotic culture of laboring people. He certainly welcomed at least some of the effects of the French Revolution and subscribed to the principle that the freedom of the press was a vital index of liberty, presently under assault by the government. “I still think that the general system of instruction, and the downfall of the feudal rights of families, with the present religious toleration &c are fruits of the revolution not to be despised” he wrote to George, his most trusted correspondent during the early stages of his career; and he then added “I should like to gossip with you face to face . . . particularly on the subject of englands boast ‘the liberty of the press’” (letter 133, 10 June 1804). [10]  But Bloomfield was a pragmatist rather than an ideologue, neither embracing a utopian or party political program nor envisioning the reform of parliament as the primary solution to social and economic injustice.

18.        Something of his general outlook may be indicated by his letter to the minor poet, Samuel Jackson Pratt. In Pratt’s protest poem Bread, the poverty that became so controversial during the famine years of 1795-1796 and 1800-1801 was represented not simply as the result of a series of bad harvests, but as the consequence of an array of unjust human developments, including enclosure, monopolization, the deregulation of the grain trade, and the introduction of the gentleman farmer, leaving the poor “robb’d of each right that God bestows on man” (14). After receiving an adulatory letter and copy of the poem from Pratt, Bloomfield replied:

Your letter and your Poem on so great and so interesting a subject as "Bread," came to hand last week. Highly flattering as such marks of respect must be to me, and much as they may demand my best acknowledgements, the pleasure of seeing the Cottager vindicated is more grateful still. To see one class of the community grow immensely rich at the expence of an other, to me allways argued an inefficiency in the Laws of this or any country where it happens. If as Goldsmith says, we are hastning to the rottenness of refinement, and if such things cannot be avoided, I see no just reason for starving and contemning the Labourers of the Vinyard, or for keeping from them such degrees of information as they may be capable of receiving . . . . You, Sir, go much deeper into the subject than I am able to follow you; I could never satisfy myself, that, increase of population and increase of individual comforts are not enemys and strangers to each other. (letter 87, 28 May 1802)
Such a position did not fit comfortably within the dividing lines of contemporary political debate. Most obviously, it combined the Malthusian notion that a growing population inevitably led to a rise in inequality with the rough agrarian egalitarianism of Goldsmith, which was based on the contrary belief that a large, increasing rural population was absolutely essential to the health of the nation. To some extent, this was characteristic of the way Bloomfield, perhaps drawing on his artisan heritage, felt confident to assert an independence of viewpoint on social and economic questions, even to people of a superior class. As he wrote to his mother, “Don’t be alarm’d for my safety I am no politician . . . I am my own master yet, and mean to remain so” (letter 42, 3 November 1800).

19.        But the reference to Goldsmith is particularly revealing in light of Bloomfield’s claim that the discussion of political issues was inappropriate in pastoral poetry. For not only did The Deserted Village directly address such subjects, but Goldsmith’s poem became thoroughly politicized during the 1790s and beyond, giving expression to the grievances of rural and urban workers alike. Accordingly, it was extracted in a number of radical plebeian periodicals, from Pig’s Meat (1 [1795]: 33-36) to the Moral and Political Magazine (1 [1796]: 320), as well as in later pamphlets on the condition of the rural laboring poor. In fact, in 1807, the author of one of these pamphlets argued, as Bloomfield everywhere implied in his poetry, that a terrible decline in the condition of the rural laboring poor had occurred “within the last half century,” and that, as a consequence, rural leisure practices had to be respected and agricultural wages had to be raised: “let the Peasant’s labour have its due” (Brewer 6, 14). On the other hand, Bloomfield’s friend, the Devonshire poet, William Holloway, published an anti-pastoral poem, The Peasants Fate, in 1802, which was lambasted in the conservative press, in part for borrowing its imagery and subject matter from The Deserted Village. To quote the British Critic, just as the author was “full of particular discontent and universal benevolence,” so the poem lacked feeling, failing to “raise it above flatness” (19 [1802]: 533-34). As evident in an 1802 letter, Bloomfield followed the reviews of Holloway’s poetry, so he would almost certainly have known that his friend was given short shrift for being one of those writers who “profess to illuminate as well as to delight the public by their poetical productions; and who think that questions of statistical and political œconomy can be advantageously discussed in a series of descriptive couplets” (Monthly Review 40 [1803]: 98). [11]  Paradoxically, therefore, while Bloomfield’s political opinions were informed by his reading of the poetry of rural complaint, he must have become acutely aware that he was writing at a time when pastoral poetry had been reclassified as an index of personal feeling, even as it was being increasingly politicized.

20.        Bloomfield was conscious of the fact that, particularly given his laboring-class status, his poetry would be expected to have a purely private function. In his first attempt to get The Farmer’s Boy published, he wrote to an unidentified bookseller that he intended the manuscript simply as an attempt to put the “little events of my boyage into metre” and to present the result as a gift to his mother (letter 6, before 21 June 1798). And this was reiterated by Lofft in his preface to the first published version of the poem, to show that the “Author, with a spirit amiable at all times,” was motivated by “duty and affection” rather than “Fame or Advantage” (Bloomfield, Farmer’s Boy xvi). But Lofft seemed to ascribe to the older view of poetry as a suitable arena for addressing public issues, though he may well have had reservations about a laboring-class poet claiming to instruct, as well as to please, people of higher social standing. After Bloomfield had repeatedly requested his patron to remove or relocate some footnotes and other paratextual comments from future publications, for example, Lofft resorted to the language of class privilege, “renouncing . . . all future correspondence & conversation with a clown who would so forget himself to me” (letter 197, 16 November 1806).

21.        The quarrel began when Bloomfield, under pressure from acquaintances in the London publishing scene, sought Lofft’s permission to omit from future editions some radical remarks concerning the suppression of newspapers and debating societies. “In his notes respecting Newspapers and Debating societies,” the poet later wrote of his patron, “he had originally written and pertinaciously retained a downright attack upon Government. . . . I still wish it was not there, for, I am not a politician, nor never shall be” (letter 198, 19 November 1806). [12]  For Bloomfield, however, the key principle at stake was that such political remarks would take away from his work’s poetical character. As he first explained to Lofft, without apparently pretending “to dictate,” there was “a very general, if not universal opinion, that political thoughts and references (however just in themselves) ought not to be seen . . . where rural poetry only should be found” (letter 63, before 31 October 1801). Of course, Bloomfield did write about rural subjects such as cruelty to animals in ways which carried quite specific political connotations, as several critics have recently identified (Christmas 27-48; White 10-25). But whatever he actually believed about the relationship between politics and rural poetry, he was clearly conscious that polite taste was predicated on the incompatibility of these two discourses. At the same time, Bloomfield was also troubled by the fact that, in the present climate of political polarization, Lofft’s radical sentiments would inevitably cause controversy, alienating a large section of his polite readership. In addition, he could hardly have failed to be incensed by the way in which the polite political reformer was using his poem to demonstrate his credentials as a disinterested citizen, while silencing the demands of his plebeian protégé. And in this context, Bloomfield was quite right to think that the best method for maintaining his cherished sense of independence was to avoid the topic of politics altogether.

22.        Indeed, Bloomfield’s worst fear was realized in dramatic fashion in 1802 when the prominent conservative politician William Windham cited the preface of The Farmer’s Boy in parliament during a debate on the Bull-Baiting Act. The speech was part of an attack on the movement to reform the manners of the poor; and to this end, Windham recited the descriptions of Bloomfield reading newspapers and attending debating societies, together with Lofft’s radical remarks on these subjects, to illustrate the malign effects of promoting the intellectual pursuits of laboring people. More specifically, he maintained that giving the “lower orders a character of greater seriousness and gravity” by restricting “what were termed idle sports and useless amusements” fertilized the growth of Jacobinism and Methodism, political radicalism, and religious enthusiasm (Parliamentary History 36 [1820]: 833). Needless to say, after reading an account of the speech, Bloomfield was angry at having been used as a pawn in a political conflict he had hoped to avoid, which amply confirmed his prediction that “some publick notice would be taken of Mr. Lofft’s reflections in the prefatory part of the Farmer’s Boy. The lot has fallen to Mr. W” (letter 88, 30 May 1802).

23.        But Bloomfield was even more enraged by Windham’s denigration of the intellectual capacity of the laboring poor. Of the former Secretary at War, he communicated to his brother “I think the poor people of England have very little cause to thank him for his compliment on the score of their capabilities and pursuits. We might as well be totally without minds, for he seems to doubt the propriety of exerting them, or of making an inward store of pleasure for ourselves. So much of this speech is the most unadulterated aristocracy that I have ever heard”; and with characteristic wit, he then inquired “where is the wisdom of saying that the little sons of a little Taylor should amuse themselves with athletic exercises? If we happen to think a moral page a better object to admire than the frizzled forehead of a bull, and like the ascending of a lark in preference to the mounting of a bull-dog, what has Mr. W to do with it?” (letter 88). This distinction between inward pleasure and collective leisure seems to suggest that Bloomfield saw himself as a model of self-improvement, whose literary talents and endeavors elevated him above his fellow artisans and laborers. Yet, even though Bloomfield demonstrated an ambivalent attitude to popular culture, [13]  he did not generally hold a pejorative view of plebeian habits and recreations or sanction the polite movement to reform or abolish the customs of laboring people.

24.        In fact, Bloomfield conceived at least some of his poetry as an attempt to resist this movement. Announcing his intention to avoid the “seriousness of a preacher,” for example, he described his third publication, Wild Flowers, as a collection of “more . . . mirth . . . than many who know me would expect, or than the severe will be inclined to approve” (x-xi). For Windham, of course, the promotion of robust, manly pastimes and festivities was an unabashed mode of social control, aimed at securing the contentment of the laboring poor. [14]  In response, Bloomfield wrote “the common people of his native country, are a rough set no doubt, but I dislike the doctrine of keeping them in their dirt. . . . how can we consistently praise the inestimable blessing of letters and not wish to extend it? Or why should the great and the wealthy confine the probable production of intellectual excellence to their own class, and exclude, by withholding the polish, all that might amongst the poor by nature be intended to be Newtons and Lockes?” (letter 88). And yet, as evident in his last poem, May Day with the Muses, this progressive commitment to democratizing the republic of letters, to spreading the “Empire of the Mind,” as he called it, could and did coexist with a belief in the dignity of the culture of laboring people. [15] 

25.        Given these views, it is perhaps surprising that William Cobbett, who also respected the intellectual abilities and recreational customs of the laboring poor, would later condemn Bloomfield for turning conservative and writing against the interests of his class of origin. The accusation came in the course of an attempt to show that the virtues and talents formerly used to justify the political authority of the patrician class were now only manifest in the populace, with the result being that laborers had both the right and capacity to govern themselves. Cobbett began by asserting that he was “willing to trust to the talent, the justice and loyalty of the great mass of the people, and especially that part of them, who raise the food, the raiment and the buildings, and who fight the battles”; but he then cautioned that the “cause of the people has been betrayed by hundreds of men . . . whom a love of ease and of the indulgence of empty vanity have seduced into the service of bribing usurpers”; and among those men he listed Bloomfield, “the Farmer’s-Boy author” who, so it was claimed, had been “taken in tow, and pensioned for fear he should write for the people” (Political Register 34 [1819]: 980-81). The allegation was remarkable not only for being untrue, but because Bloomfield had largely made good on his resolution to avoid taking an explicit political position in any of his public writings. To add insult to injury, Cobbett again pilloried Bloomfield in a later work, arguing that if the poet “had placed no reliance on the faithless Muses, his unfortunate . . . family would . . . have not been in a state to solicit relief from charity. I remember that this loyal shoemaker was flattered to the skies, and (ominous sign, if he had understood it) feasted at the tables of some of the great. Have, I beseech you, no hope of this sort; and, if you find it creeping towards your heart, drive it instantly away as the mortal foe of your independence and your peace” (43-44). The assumption here was that to participate in any form of polite culture, particularly one such as poetry which privileged imagination over fact, was inevitably to weaken the resolve, distort the mind, and so endorse the progress of refinement, with all its attendant evils of luxury, corruption, and social inequality. [16]  For Cobbett, then, any decision Bloomfield might have made not to include politics in his poetry was irrelevant, since poetic production was itself destructive of political integrity, of industriousness, utility, and fairness.

26.        To some extent, poetry did offer an attractive alternative to politics for many plebeian autodidacts. In particular, it provided opportunities for personal expression which enabled the laboring-class poet to feel a sense of freedom, however partially or briefly, from the restraints on individual thought and conduct characteristic of many areas of collective plebeian life, including, of course, political organization. Perhaps this was why John Clare, who, like Bloomfield, had strong political views, distrusted Cobbett for being a propagandist with “no principles” and argued against “party matters” and the “reform of mobs,” while claiming “I am no politician” (Letters 560). And though Clare, again like Bloomfield, revered rural popular culture, his solitary ways and literary ambitions were derided by his neighbors, leading him to contend that “Scandal and Fame are cheaply purchased in a Village the first is a nimble tongud gossip and the latter a credoulous and ready believer who . . . believd any thing” (By Himself 78). Bloomfield similarly felt that his literary celebrity alienated him from the community at Shefford, and, when T. J. Lloyd Baker forced the poet to declare his political hand amidst rumors of his dangerous radicalism, he denounced the “slander” that circulated in “this vile little town” (letter 352, 25 May 1821).

27.        But Bloomfield also had the disadvantage of writing in the three decades after the French Revolution, when virtually every aspect of culture had become highly politicized. Throughout his career, his work and public image were appropriated to serve a political cause by people of a radical as well as a conservative persuasion, and this must have reinforced the poet’s sense that politics was utterly incompatible with the independence he so much wanted to preserve. According to Bloomfield, even his fleeting encounters and birthplace were scrutinized for their political implications. As he expressed to Lloyd Baker in a brilliant attempt to highlight the unreasonableness, intrusiveness, and even pettiness of his correspondent’s demands, not only had he kept company with bastions of conservatism and radicalism alike, the Bishops Watson and Porteous no less than the survivors of the treason trials, the polite reformer John Horne Tooke and the plebeian dissident Thomas Hardy, but he had the “misfortune to be born only six miles from the birthplace of Tom Paine!” (letter 354, 31 May-1 June 1821).

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[1] For the polite reception of plebeian poetry in these terms, see Christmas 48-49. BACK

[2] For an unrivalled account of this long view of the development of popular radicalism, see Clark 141-57. BACK

[3] Perhaps the most intriguing example of the literary aspirations of plebeian political activists is the case of the London Corresponding Society member Richard “Citizen” Lee, as described by Mee 151-66. BACK

[4] For an excellent analysis of the way in which the “Child of Nature” trope restricted the autonomy and authority of laboring-class poets, see Richardson 247-59. BACK

[5] The public orientation of much shoemaker poetry, along with its expression of craft pride, often defied the model of natural genius, as revealed by Keegan 195-217. BACK

[6] This is not surprising, given that Dyer had recently written a pamphlet, frequently quoted in the plebeian radical press, which listed many of the same developments that Bloomfield identified in the harvest home passage as causes of the oppression of the poor: “the reduction of small farms . . . the extravagant appearance and profits of farmers” and “the extravagancies and luxuries of individuals” (103). BACK

[7] For an account of Dyer’s literary and political activities and preoccupations during the 1790s, see Roe 19-42. BACK

[8] For the contradictory image of Burns in radical culture, see Janowitz 67-69. BACK

[9] For some reflections on the kind of ideas Bloomfield encountered in these institutions, see Lucas 58-61. BACK

[10] Of course, the notion of the freedom of the press as the “palladium of British liberty” had a manifold range of political alignments and uses, as examined by Keen 25-75. BACK

[11] The reviewer ridiculed the basic premise of The Peasants Fate, as described in the poem’s preface: “The drift of this little attempt is principally designed, (without adverting to political argument,) to shadow forth the evils arising to the peasantry of this country, from the system of engrossing small farms, and driving the hereditary occupiers to the necessity of embracing a maritime or military life for support, or being reduced to the most abject state of dependence, and submitting to the galling hardship of becoming servants on the spot where they once had been masters” (Holloway vi-vii). These were also “evils” which Bloomfield criticized, directly or indirectly, in his poetry and correspondence. BACK

[12] Bloomfield had also included a political gloss on the harvest home passage in The Farmer’s Boy in the form of a paratextual quotation from the work of the naturalist on Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific, which comprised a denunciation of luxury, with distinct leveling connotations. But this was before, he declared, “I had considered the consequence of introducing even the appearance of politics into a Rural production (let my own private notions be what they may)” (letter 62, 29 October 1801). BACK

[13] See, for example, letter 199: “I cannot help observing the great difference between an illdresst and a well-dresst mob, and I must indeed be unfeeling and ungenerous to acknowledge it. In our National Theatres I have often sided so far with the Patricians as to wish the Plebeans at the Devel, not because they were such, (that I leave to those who are weak enough, that is, proud enough,) but merely because they would not be quiet.” BACK

[14] To some extent, Windham’s perception of laboring people as an army in reserve might well have added to Bloomfield’s anger. For he expressed frequent opposition to war and, in 1803, when an upsurge in chauvinism witnessed even radicals support the war with France, he strongly criticized the mobilization of the militia: “The measures persued by Government are such as to cause here the greatest consternation and alarm. Great numbers are entering as Vollunteers without knowing I doubt, what they have to trust to, or what will be their privilidges. . . . As to real invasion we deem it less threatening than an appeal to the exercise of rights by those of our own land. . . . I detest, I had allmost said scorn the profession of Soldier” (letter 112, 31 July-[2 August] 1803). BACK

[15] For an illuminating analysis of May Day with the Muses in these terms, see White 121-46. BACK

[16] For Cobbett’s privileging of fact over imagination, along with his associated skepticism of polite culture, see Whale 141-47. BACK