Editorial Introduction to Good Tidings; or, News from the Farm



Bloomfield’s third major publication, Good Tidings; or, News from the Farm (1804), was a poem on the new medical treatment—vaccination—promoted since 1798 by the country doctor Edward Jenner. If this was unexpected from the poet of The Farmer’s Boy and Rural Tales, its form and content turned out to be familiar. In iambic pentameter couplets, the poem focused on the effects of smallpox in a rural village, relying on Bloomfield’s personal knowledge. As he wrote in the Advertisement, ‘it indulges in domestic anecdote. The account given of my infancy and of my father’s burial is not only poetically, but strictly true, and with me it has its weight accordingly. I have witnessed the destruction described in my brother’s family’. The manner and matter that made The Farmer’s Boy so full of conviction and appeal were thus re-created: Bloomfield wrote of his own childhood in the couplets used for ‘Giles’. An epigraph from Thomson also placed the new work in the same tradition as his first success.

The poem germinated from the enthusiasm of Jenner, who was a formidable self-promoter and wished to have his discovery recommended by the most fashionable poet of the day. Bloomfield, genuine in his gratitude for such a life-saving medical breakthrough, was somewhat disconcerted by Jenner’s pushiness. On 21 July 1802, he wrote to his brother George,

I have seen Dr Jenner, and his kindness allmost induced me to shew him the little progress I have made in pursuit of his subject; but I suddenly determined to the contrary, and doubted of the propriety of so doing . . . This moment a Letter from Dr Jenner invites me to tea this evening. what shall I do? leave 150 lines of an unfinished subject in his hands? I am bound to consult Mr Lofft and the Duke and to submit my pieces to their judgement; and never will do otherwise: and yet it is hard to say no in such cases as this. I wish he would suspend his curiosity 6 months, and I would take my chance. He is a very amiable man, and perhaps rates my abilities too high. He is an enthusiast in his pursuit, and well he may; when it is taken up by every country in Europe and by the poor Cherokees of America. The blessing is surely immensely great!! (Letter 90)

Fearful of being supervised by yet another patron, and thus coming into conflict with his first patrons, Lofft and the Duke of Grafton, Bloomfield kept the unfinished draft to himself, and submitted it, when complete in April 1803, to Grafton for approval before letting Jenner see a copy. He did, however, compose and sing a song at the party held by the Royal Jennerian Society (Jenner’s campaigning organisation) celebrating Jenner’s birthday (17 May), thus becoming publicly associated with a man whose claim to be a benefactor of humanity was, while accepted by many, viewed by some as the self-advertisement of a mountebank.

Come hither, mild Beauty, that dwell’st on the mountain,
Sweet handmaid of Liberty, meet us to-day;
Thy votaries philanthropy ask from thy fountain,
A soul-cheering nectar wherewith to be gay.
The cup may o’erflow, and new grapes still be growing;
The eyes of the drinkers resplendently shine;
But grant us, bright nymph, with thy gifts overflowing,
To lighten our hearts, and to relish our wine.
Is Beauty’s gay rosebud a prize worth ensuring?
Its guardianship rests with the friends of our cause.
Shall we mark unconcern’d, what the blind are enduring?
No! mercy and peace are the first of our laws.
Wave, streamers of victory; be bravery requited;
Be sails, in all climes, still with honour unfurl’d;
All lovers of man with our cause are delighted;
’Tis to banish the fears, and the tears of the world.
All nations shall feel, and all nations inherit
The wonderful blessing we place in their view;
And if in that blessing a mortal claims merit,
Oh! Jenner—your country resigns it to you!
From the field, from the farm, comes the glorious treasure,
May its life-saving impulse—all fresh as the morn
Still spread round the earth without bounds, without measure,
Till Time has forgot, when his Jenner was born.

This piece was published in The Gentleman’s Magazine for June, (vol. 93, p. 551); it also appeared in The Lady’s Magazine Or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex in July (vol. 34, p. 383). Jenner, however, wanted it to be followed by the larger poem. He wrote to Bloomfield in summer 1803 ‘enquiring my determination as to the poem on Vaccination’ (Letter 113, 2 August 1803). Bloomfield, however, in the aftermath of the dispute caused by Lofft’s determination to supervise his publications, was wary of going to press. On 23 December he wrote to Jenner’s neighbour, Mary Lloyd Baker:

I have some time ago busied my brain and workd up my feelings to a great pitch in poetically celebrating the great victory obtain’d over the desease that kill’d my Father; and in which your neighbour and my friend Dr Jenner is so immediately concern’d. The piece is still in existence, and I have allmost offended some worthy members of the medical world by keeping it unpublish’d. (Letter 119)

It was not until May/June 1804 that the poem was published by Vernor and Hood, and Longman and Rees, and printed by Bloomfield’s friend James Swan. An extract from the poem, ‘recited at the anniversary meeting of the Royal Jennerian Society’ (1804) was published as a pamphlet.

Reviews were complimentary: discussing the description of the dying father and blinded child, the Monthly Mirror declared (17 (June 1804), 385–89 (p. 389)) ‘it is unnecessary to point out the several exquisite beauties of this passage. Those who feel them, need it not; and those who do not, could derive no advantage from it.—Give us the blind to instruct in colours, and the deaf in sounds, but let nothing be required of us, touching the man who is not sensible of the charms of these verses, except our pity’. Somewhat pointedly, it alluded to the disputes about the Preface to The Farmer’s Boy and notes to Rural Tales: ‘In this delightful labour of his Muse, Mr. Bloomfield has received no assistance from either his worthy and best friend Mr. Lofft or Dr. Jenner, but has depended entirely on himself for the notes subjoined’. The British Critic, (24 (1804), 314–15 (p. 314)) endorsed this judgement that Bloomfield’s independent spirit was at full strength: the poem, it said, showed ‘new strong proof of his powers’.. ‘historical views of former ravages, and affecting narratives of private misfortune, all contribute to interest the reader in the great discovery’. It ‘contains beauties, which only a true genius for poetry could infuse’.

Jenner himself was delighted. On 21 October, he wrote expressing gratitude and offering a token of thanks:

I was in hopes long before this time to have been in town, and to have thank’d you in person for your very elegant & pathetic poem on Vaccine Inoculation, which you have so handsomely dedicated to me and my Brethren of the Royal J. Society. It excited in me those emotions which all who read it must feel, that are not void of sensibility. I trust it will be as well received and gain as high commendation as the Farmers Boy—It need not obtain more.

You must allow me to fix upon you some mark of my esteem & friendship. Do me the favour then to accept a Silver Inkstand, into which the inclosed note may be soon converted, if you will call upon Messrs. Rundell & Bridge, Silversmiths in Ludgate Hill, & use my name. I should like the following plain Engraving upon it. Edward Jenner M.D. to Robert Bloomfield. (Letter 143)

The method of publication was different from Bloomfield’s earlier volumes. Vernor and Hood only distributed the work, having bought no part of Bloomfield’s copyright. This deal seems to have reflected the publication’s purpose as a one-off piece of promotion for the campaign to popularize vaccination, it being intended to collect the poem in Bloomfield’s next major volume. The deal had consequences on sales, as Bloomfield noted in a letter to his brother (Letter 135) of 3 August 1804:

When you wonder that good tidings is not known or advertized, you have only to recolect that of the other works the Bookseler has Half, and of this nothing. The advertizing rests with myself, and I won’t do it, and Hood cannot be expected to push my work as he would his own, more particularly when he knows that when in a vollumn he will have it partly his own property, when it will be worth his while to send it all over the empire?

No second edition was called for, because from 1806 the poem was indeed incorporated in Bloomfield’s new collection, Wild Flowers; or Pastoral and Local Poetry, and was reissued in each edition of that volume. Here, the copytext is the first edition of 1804, collated with the 1806 text from Wild Flowers and with later editions of that publication and also with the 1809 stereotype Poems of Robert Bloomfield (and later editions thereof).