MAY-DAY WITH THE MUSES (1822)
By 1811, Bloomfield was finding that, despite the enormous sales of his first three collections, the income from his poetry was no longer sufficient to provide him and his family with a living. There were many mouths to feed—not just his immediate family but those of his brothers Isaac and George. There were also spiralling expenses repairing his mother’s house in Suffolk. He sought to reduce outgoings by moving from London to the Bedfordshire village of Shefford, hoping to rediscover the placedness in village life that he recalled in his Suffolk youth. But in Shefford poverty loomed as Vernor and Hood went bankrupt and the book trade retrenched. From 1816, the postwar economic recession made matters worse, making it hard to interest publishers in new works. Changing taste, in a nation used to daily news of battles, played a part: Byron’s and Scott’s chivalric tales, full of thrilling, heroic action, became the new vogue; Bloomfield’s village tales, bucolic and comic, seemed tame by comparison.
Bloomfield’s eclipse was gradual but irreversible. In 1814 the onetime market leader was tentative but hopeful: ‘I somtimes dream’, he wrote, ‘that I shall one day venture again before the public somthing in my old manner, some country tales, and spiced with love and courtship might yet please, for Rural life by the art of Cooking may be made a relishing and high flavourd dish, whatever it may be in reality’ (Letter 294, 4 October 1814). Advancing arthritis, partial blindness, and debilitating migraines impeded his capacity to write however, and no new publication appeared in the next seven years. By 1819, he at least had manuscript material to offer publishers, but found them unenthusiastic, telling his daughter ‘I am grieved to wound your feelings, but I realy doubt that myself and my poetry are out of fashion from the taste of the times. Baldwin is cold, and I have tried through Mr Park and Mr Rogers to get the poem into the hands of Murry. If he too says the same, good bye fine prospects!’ (Letter 344, 17 September 1819). Despite the influence of Bloomfield’s old literary friends, John Murray (publisher of Byron and Thomas Moore) did not bite, and nothing from Bloomfield’s pen appeared in 1819, 1820 or 1821. 
It was at the nadir of Bloomfield’s fortunes that one of his old gentlemen friends got in touch with him again. Thomas Lloyd Baker, a wealthy Gloucestershire landowner, wrote in 1821, sending a banknote, but also presuming on their past membership of a companionate circle centered on his wife and her sisters to lecture Bloomfield about his conduct:
It has been remarked that for some time past neither yourself nor any of your family have been in the habit of attending any place of worship whatsoever. It has also been observed that you are in the habit of reading some periodical works which are very hostile to the government of this country. Perhaps from these two circumstances coupled together has originated the idea that you have imbibed both Deistical & Republican principles. The latter tending to the subversion of that Government under which we have all lived so long free from those calamities which have befallen almost every other part of Europe—The former tending to the destruction of Christianity, & herein of every thing most valuable to us all (but most of all endangering the eternal welfare of those who are unhappy enough to become its Dupes) and both being so frequently united in the same persons—These considerations have induced many of your friends & patrons upon principle to withhold from you their accustomed protection & assistance, thinking that by doing as they had done, & as they still wish to do, they should be giving countenance to a dangerous man. I cannot think they are right. I cannot adopt such an opinion of you. In full hope that all maybe explained away, & that you may again stand as high in the esteem of your friends as the religious and moral tendency of your former life & works had placed you, I take advantage of being in your neighbourhood to give you this information, & to assure you that I shall have much pleasure in making known to your former friends any answer to this letter which you may think it right to favor me with for this purpose. (Letter 351, 23 May 1821)
The letter is one example of the ideological strife of post-Waterloo Britain: it places in stark illumination the repression by which the ruling classes maintained their grip on power, all the while fearing revolution. Bloomfield knew he was now living through a reactionary era, in which the classes were polarised, and his public response was to create, in his final collection of poems May-Day with the Muses (1822), a pastoral fantasy wherein the literary circle once offered him by literary gentlemen and women—Capel Lofft, the Duke of Grafton, Lloyd Baker and his wife and sisters-in-law—is reconstituted in an idealised village.
Lloyd Baker’s insensitive letter reached Bloomfield when May-Day was already in press with Baldwin, Cradock and Joy. Writing to Baldwin on 5 June (Letter 355), Bloomfield made plain his financial plight, and the reduced worth of his poetry. He noted that Baldwin had been uninterested in buying a share of the copyright, not wanting to risk the firm’s money on the publication: this was not the arrangement that had operated for The Farmer’s Boy, Rural Tales, and Wild Flowers. He needed money so badly that he asked Baldwin for a loan, to be repaid in instalments from future sales receipts: effectively giving up, in all but name, a quarter of his copyright. Baldwin agreed to this, and to a later request to buy a further quarter, for which Bloomfield received £100. In spring 1822 a first edition of a thousand copies was published, priced at two shillings and sixpence (3000 had been printed for both the first and second editions of Wild Flowers). A second edition, in duodecimo at four shillings, also of a thousand copies, appeared later in the year—but this was not enough to redeem Bloomfield’s fortunes. He was a poor man when he died the following summer, dying so indebted that his family had to hold, in their home village, a public sale of his books and household goods.
May-Day is a collection set in a village in which poetry is able to substitute for money and rent can be paid in verse. Built on a conceit, it is ostensibly the fruit of a poetry slam organized to celebrate the traditional May Day festivities. The local squire, Sir Ambrose Higham, Bloomfield imagines, invites the villagers to recite poems about village life, accepting them in lieu of rent. Thus the landowner renews old customs, preferring poetry to money as a sign of value, and patronizes, in the best sense, rustics who are able to voice their rural experience as verse. The squire respects his tenants and they him: the ideal village, for Bloomfield, is self-policing. This was an old-fashioned and forlorn hope, perhaps, in face of the capitalization of farming and the coerciveness of squires such as Lloyd Baker, but it was one to which Wordsworth, Southey, and Gilpin also subscribed as did Cobbett: despite their political differences, their common commitment to the superiority of the remembered rural society of their youth over the capitalist one of the present led them all to romanticize a rural paternalism that was both radical and conservative in its opposition to the liberal, laissez faire ideology of ‘improvement’ that enriched the landowning classes while impoverishing their labourers.
Comprising ballads and lyrics, May-Day is effectively a conservative revisiting of Rural Tales and Lyrical Ballads, with a frame narrative that, like Wordsworth’s Preface (which Bloomfield had admired in 1802), was designed to outline the poems’ social import and to prepare for their proper reception by the reader. Wordsworth himself had embarked on a conservative reworking of the radical Lyrical Ballads in his ‘Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle’ (1807), in which the poet is imagined as a having the valued role of a bard singing of the deeds of the local Lord Clifford in the presence of that lord, his retainers, and tenants. In May-Day not only does it seem that to be a rural poet is to be a cherished villager and vice versa, but also that poetry is a face-to-face oral activity of a united community. The benevolent squire, moreover, respects tradition and exacts no political toll for his benevolence, which he in fact regards as his duty. Meanwhile, the individual poems that the villagers recite also tell of a traditional society in which authority is vested, at local level, in the community at large, presided over by a single figure who can therefore be addressed, appealed to, and even, potentially, rebuked and chastised face to face—the squire.
The community at large is invoked in ‘The Drunken Father’, a comic tale narrating a potentially tragic story of paternal neglect. The poem evokes ‘The Idiot Boy’ because it features a mother worrying about her young child, out on an errand at night. As in that poem, the errand is a comic journey that might have been tragic—the child rescues his drunken father from the alehouse and navigates him safely home in the dark. The mother is relieved; her emotion, however, is the center of the drama. Domestic harmony is endorsed; the father agrees to reform and become, in the eyes of the villagers, an upstanding family man. If this ending imagines the village as being largely free of exploitation and mostly capable of healing its own social ills, then ‘The Forester’ offers a more critical view, implicitly endorsing a radical politics of nature. Bloomfield has his narrator use the oak-tree motif that had served to legitimize the monarchy since the time of Charles II. A mighty oak in the squire’s park has fallen:
(lines 45–72) 
The astonished deer, keen to ‘learn and muse’ what the unexpected change means, stand in for the local rustics. They also prompt an act of political interpretation by the narrator: he reminds his audience—and us, the readers—that monarchs, however mighty, are dependent on the people. There is a hint of Jacobinism about this lesson; the royal oak can represent a ‘bigot’ as well as a ‘sage’ king, and bigots can be swept away. The political resonances of this passage were picked up on by the reviewer for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (vol. 11, no. 55 (June 1822), 722–31), who noted that the poem’s speaker ‘seems somewhat radically disposed’, and added: ‘We presume from the opinions of his Keeper, that old Sir Ambrose Higham was a Whig, and voted with the majority.’ The poem concludes not with a patriotic declaration of loyalty to king and country, but by imagining nature as a levelling principle that guarantees individual liberty:
Bloomfield’s position here is close to that of Wordsworth in 1798: the wilds and forests are a reliable refuge and resource for revolutionary freedom, at least for the individual poet if not for the masses. Cowper’s rural radicalism stands behind both writers, and Bloomfield honours it by borrowing the oak-tree symbol through which Cowper had most searchingly interrogated power.
The next poem, ‘The Shepherd’s Dream: or, Fairies’ Masquerade’, was arguably even more contentious. This was read, in spite of Bloomfield’s description of it as ‘a lay, / Harmless and wild and fitting for the day’ (lines 23–4), as a parable on the recent wars with France. As the Monthly Review (99 (1822), 89–94) succinctly put it: ‘The shepherd now repeats a very fanciful dream, which is in fact an allegorical description of the French Revolution and the great political events that have followed it.’ Critical opinion on this poem was mixed. The Literary Gazette, and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c. (277 (11 May 1822), 289–91) dismissed it as ‘a sort of allegorical account of Buonaparte’s last campaigns; and furnishes no extract we could wish to adduce’, while The Literary Speculum (2 (1822), 1–12) stated that ‘the political allusion’ to Napoleon’s fate ‘might have been spared, as it is out of place’. As above, the review in Blackwood’s is enlightening. ‘The old shepherd’, it admitted, is ‘beautifully introduced’, but the poem itself was a more difficult proposition. ‘It must have puzzled the audience not a little’, claimed the reviewer, ‘and on the first reading it was to us an enigma’:
It is no less an affair than a poetical summary of some of the principal events in the later parts of Napoleon’s life—the Russian expedition—his subsequent campaigns, his banishment to Elba—return to Paris—Waterloo—and St Helena.—It will be remembered, that Mr Bloomfield was the protegé of Capel Loft [sic], a gentleman who believed with Sir Richard Phillips, that Napoleon was a man of pacific disposition, fond of home-comforts, and an empassioned lover of freedom. It is laughable to observe honest Robert Bloomfield adopting such insane absurdities: but the poem, notwithstanding, is excellent.
Within May-Day as a whole, however, radical statements are few, and most reviewers did not regard the collection as being jacobinical so much as sentimental. ‘Alfred and Jennet’, a ‘father’s tale’ about his daughter’s first love for a local youth who is blind, and written in the couplet form of The Farmer’s Boy, won many plaudits.  The Eclectic Review (NS 27 (1822), 548–51) thought it the ‘best thing in the volume’ but, in a sign of the times, felt it necessary to make a case for Bloomfield, neglected as he now was:
Few poets have more honestly won, or more meekly worn their honours than Robert Bloomfield. That he is a poet, we will maintain in the face of all critics Northern and Southern, who would insinuate to the contrary. Had he been so fortunate as to come into the world fifty years earlier, no one would have thought of depreciating his claims. But the literary world has been of late pampered into daintiness. The Farmer’s Boy was too loftily bepraised at its first appearance. It owed, it is true, much of its temporary success to the well-meant endeavours of its Editor and Commentator; and so far the Poet was under great obligations to his Maecenas. But the ebb-tide of popular feeling has fallen proportionably below the mark, and has left the poet scarcely afloat.
It has been brought as a heavy and annihilating charge against Bloomfield, that he is not either Burns or Clare. To compare him with the former, were absurd, for Burns was not an uneducated man; and it were not less invidious to set up young Lubin to the disparagement of old Giles. But, as such a comparison has been hinted at, we will just take the liberty to remark, that had Giles been left to follow the plough, instead of stooping over the last in Bell Alley, or vegetating at the Shepherd and Shepherdess in the City Road,—had he remained a peasant and a pupil of Nature till his limbs had acquired their full development, his frame had been strung to health, and his education as a poet had been completed by the woods and the streams, the winds and the sunshine, and the quiet of the country, our Farmer’s Boy would have led off with the Muses on May-day in a far higher style than must now be expected from him. The man has brain enough, as his ample forehead testifies. The ‘anterior cerebral lobes,’ as Mr. Lawrence would say, are sufficiently developed to admit of his excelling as a poet. And he has certainly heart enough, for never was a more passionate lover of rural Nature. All that seems wanted is, a greater portion of physical elasticity, that should have given a healthful vigour to his thoughts, and tone to his feelings. The feebleness which is occasionally betrayed in his productions, is that induced by the languid action of a crazy frame, originally unworthy of the mind which it serves, and rendered still more inadequate to the higher functions of imagination by perpetual ill-health and concomitant anxieties, ‘I have written these tales,’ he tells us, ‘in anxiety and in a wretched state of health; and if these formidable foes have not incapacitated me, but left me free to meet the public eye with any degree of credit, that degree of credit I am sure I shall gain.’ They have not incapacitated him for pleasing those who are disposed to be pleased with wild-flowers and May-blossom, and such simple things as go to form a May-day wreath; and he must be a ruthless and a heartless critic who would by rough handling doom them to fade a moment before their time.
This was special pleading. Readers are asked to look kindly on the poems because they pity Bloomfield’s disability and recognise the difficult circumstances in which he had learned to write: condescension is sought because admiration is not to be expected. Bloomfield’s vogue has given way to the fashion for Clare, the new ‘peasant poet’ (who, ironically enough, was influenced by Bloomfield not simply as an example of a labourer poet but as a craftsman in verse).
The Monthly Review, reviewing the second edition, also acknowledged Bloomfield’s ‘yesterday’s man’ status, but offered a more robust endorsement of his powers, though suggesting, between the lines, that his rural tales were good because they ignored the realities of pain and poverty that other poets confronted:
While in Italy we find poets and scholars assuming the character of shepherds, and emulously enrolling themselves among Gli Arcadi, in England our villagers and yeomen not unfrequently exchange the plough for the lyre, and the pruning-hook for the pen. Of the two metamorphoses, undoubtedly the latter is the most natural and rational; and it is an honorable proof of the extensive influence which our free institutions exert over our habits and feelings, that our literary history affords so many instances of eminent authors who have risen to such celebrity from the lowest situations. This is as it should be in the ‘Republic of Letters,’ where genius and talent are the only title to superior distinction.—The English public have always recognized the claims of merit, however nameless and humble; and among those who have been raised from their obscurity by the public approbation and encouragement, no one has deserved his elevation more justly than Robert Bloomfield.
As the author of ‘The Farmer’s Boy,’ this votary of the Muses has long been a favorite with those whose feelings are calm and healthy enough to be delighted with poetry, which borrows its only charm from the innocence and simplicity of rural occupations, and the exhibition of homely affections. In these quiet and unobtrusive descriptions, no writer has been happier than Bloomfield. Unlike Crabbe, who is always most successful when he is painting some scene of wretchedness or knavery,—a young girl breaking her heart at the faithlessness of her lover, or a parish-apprentice cheating the overseers,—Bloomfield delights to describe the virtues and happiness of rural life, and thus affords us most certainly a more pleasant and more satisfactory picture. We rejoice, therefore, to find him once more appearing before the public; giving a proof not only that he is not dead, but that he has not forgotten how to weave together his village rhymes as pleasingly as heretofore.
Noting that there were several poems in Bloomfield’s best, ballad style, there were also some in which ‘we observe a straining to reach a higher tone of feeling than is natural to the poet’, the reviewer concluded by ‘assuring our readers that they will not find many pleasanter modes of whiling away a gloomy afternoon in Autumn than in the perusal of May-Day with the Muses.’ This was to offer modest, if not faint, praise.
I am of opinion that Prefaces are very useless things in cases like the present, where the Author must talk of himself, with little amusement to his readers. I have hesitated whether I should say any thing or nothing; but as it is the fashion to say something, I suppose I must comply. I am well aware that many readers will exclaim—‘It is not the common practice of English baronets to remit half a year’s rent to their tenants for poetry, or for any thing else.’ This may be very true; but I have found a character in the Rambler, No. 82, who made a very different bargain, and who says, ‘And as Alfred received the tribute of the Welsh in wolves’ heads, I allowed my tenants to pay their rents in butterflies, till I had exhausted the papilionaceous tribe. I then directed them to the pursuit of other animals, and obtained, by this easy method, most of the grubs and insects which land, air, or water can supply. . . . . . . . . I have, from my own ground, the longest blade of grass upon record, and once accepted, as a half year`s rent for a field of wheat, an ear, containing more grains than had been seen before upon a single stem.’ 
I hope my old Sir Ambrose stands in no need of defence from me or from any one; a man has a right to do what he likes with his own estate. The characters I have introduced as candidates may not come off so easily; a cluster of poets is not likely to be found in one village, and the following lines, written by my good friend T. Park, Esq. of Hampstead, are not only true, but beautifully true, and I cannot omit them.
written in the isle of thanet,
The word ‘fancy’ connects itself with my very childhood, fifty years back. The fancy of those who wrote the songs which I was obliged to hear in infancy was a very inanimate and sleepy fancy. I could enumerate a dozen songs at least which all described sleeping shepherds and shepherdesses, and, in one instance, where they both went to sleep: this is not fair certainly; it is not even ‘watch and watch.’
I must say, that if I understand any thing at all about keeping sheep, this is not the way to go to work with them. But such characters and such writings were fashionable, and fashion will beat common sense at any time.
This, to my feelings, is a balm at all times; it is spirit, animation, and imagery, all at once.
I will plead no excuses for any thing which the reader may find in this little volume, but merely state, that I once met with a lady in London, who, though otherwise of strong mind and good information, would maintain that ‘it is impossible for a blind man to fall in love.’ I always thought her wrong, and the present tale of ‘Alfred and Jennet’ is written to elucidate my side of the question.
I have been reported to be dead; but I can assure the reader that this, like many other reports, is not true. I have written these tales in anxiety, and in a wretched state of health; and if these formidable foes have not incapacitated me, but left me free to meet the public eye with any degree of credit, that degree of credit I am sure I shall gain.
I am, with remembrance of what is past,
April 10th 1822.
 The publication of Crabbe’s Tales of the Hall in 1819, for which he was paid £3,000 by Murray, may have prompted Bloomfield to make this approach (see Letter 340, 3 September 1819) and may also partly explain his decision to change the title of the work from ‘Oakly Hall’ to May-Day with the Muses. BACK
 This poem was almost certainly prompted by a letter Bloomfield received from his patron, the 4th Duke of Grafton, who wrote to express his regrets that ‘Mr. B’s muse should have been so long silent’, and mentioned ‘an occurrence such as was witnessed by several persons in a neighbouring forest (Salcey), [which] might have roused her from her lethargy, if she had been within reach of surveying the remains of the largest oak in the forest, which fell with a prodigious crash, a few days ago, within a hundred yards of the principal lodge, of which it had been for an age the chief ornament; the noise attracted the notice of all, but of none more than the forest deer, which assembled & remained for some hours around it, as if to perform the funeral obsequies of a departed & reverend friend; at last, they seemed mournfully to retire, their movements being silent and slow’ (10 February 1817, Letter 308). BACK
 The longest poem in the book, ‘Alfred and Jennet’ was probably the earliest written. ‘I long to be at home to finish Jennet &c.’, Bloomfield informed his wife in May 1813, ‘for I am determined to get more money for my rhymes’ (Letter 282). BACK
[‘Damon and Phillis’ was included in a number of eighteenth-century song collections, though in most cases the opening lines are worded slightly differently from those quoted by Bloomfield. An example almost resembling his can be found in Damon and Phillis’s Garland, Containing five Excellent New Songs (Newcastle, c. 1780):
As Damon and Phillis were keeping of sheep,And free from all care, they retired to sleep,Soon Phillis arose, stept behind the green oak,To see how her Damon would look when he woke.He had not slept long ere he open’d his eyes,And missing of Phillis—O Phillis he cries;He snatched up his crook and retir’d o’er the plain,And thus he enquir’d of each nymph and each swain.
Ye swains have ye seen my nymph go this way,She’s bright as the morning—as blith as the day,In rural apparel tho’ grand in her mein,Her face does resemble the fair Cyprian Queen.
Two lambkins milk white a reward I will give,If you’ll but restore my dear Phillis alive;Beside if you’ll be so generous, you swains,To restore the nymph, here’s a kiss for your pains.He searched all round but tidings could not hear,Then back to his flock he return’d in despair,When Phillis perceived her Damon by go,Stept from the green oak and in laughter cry’d, Bo.Bo, cry’d the shepherd, but not in disdain,We’ll pleased he’d found his dear Phillis again,He chided a little—she smil’d at his care,Then each took a kiss and made up the affair. (pp. 2–3)
For variants, see The Wreath. A Curious Collection of above Two Hundred New Songs, Including those of The Bottle, Hunting, Mirth and Jollity, With all those Sung by the most Eminent Performers, at Vauxhall, Ranlagh, Marybon, Cuper’s Gardens, And all Publick Places of Diversion, Few of which are to be found in any other Collection yet published (London, 1753), pp. 62–3, and The Goldfinch, or New Modern Songster. Being a Select Collection of the most admired and favourite of Scots and English Songs, Cantatas, &c. (Edinburgh, 1782), pp. 9–10.]BACK
[‘May-Eve: or, Kate of Aberdeen’, a poem by John Cunningham (1729–1773), Dublin-born poet and playwright of Scottish descent, who lived as a strolling player at Edinburgh and various places in the north of England, before settling in Newcastle:
The silver moon’s enamoured beam,Steals softly through the night,To wanton with the winding stream,And kiss reflected light.To beds of state go, balmy sleep,(’Tis where you've seldom been,)May’s vigil whilst the shepherds keepWith Kate of Aberdeen.
Upon the green the virgins wait,In rosy chaplets gay,Till Morn unbar her golden gate,And give the promised May.Methinks I hear the maids declare,The promised May, when seen,Not half so fragrant, half so fair,As Kate of Aberdeen.
Strike up the tabor’s boldest notes,We’ll rouse the nodding grove;The nested birds shall raise their throats,And hail the maid I love:And see—the matin lark mistakes,He quits the tufted green:Fond bird! ’tis not the morning breaks,’Tis Kate of Aberdeen.
Now lightsome o’er the level mead,Where midnight fairies rove,Like them the jocund dance we’ll lead,Or tune the reed to love:For see the rosy May draws nigh;She claims a virgin queen!And hark, the happy shepherds cry,’Tis Kate of Aberdeen.
Poems, Chiefly Pastoral, 2nd edn (Newcastle, 1771), pp. 30–31]BACK
[Charles Dibdin’s song from The Will-o’-the-Wisp (1795):
’Twas post meridian, half-past four,By signal I from Nancy parted.At six she linger’d on the shore,With uplift hands and broken-hearted.At seven, while taughtening the forestay,I saw her faint, or else ’twas fancy;At eight we all got under weigh,And bid a long adieu to Nancy!
Night came, and now eight bells had rung,While careless sailors, ever cheary,On the mild watch so jovial sung,With tempers labour cannot weary.I, little to their mirth inclined,While tender thoughts rush’d on my fancy,And my warm sighs increased the wind,Look’d on the moon, and thought of Nancy!
And now arrived the jovial nightWhen every true-bred tar carouses;When, o’er the grog, all hands delightTo toast their sweethearts and their spouses.Round went the can, the jest, the glee,While tender wishes fill’d each fancy;And when, in turn, it came to me,I heaved a sigh, and toasted Nancy!
Next morn a storm came on at four,At six the elements in motionPlunged me and three poor sailors moreHeadlong within the foaming ocean.Poor wretches! they soon found their graves;For me—it may be only fancy,—But love seem’d to forbid the wavesTo snatch me from the arms of Nancy!
Scarce the foul hurricane was clear’d,Scarce winds and waves had ceased to rattle,When a bold enemy appear’d,And, dauntless, we prepared for battle.And now, while some loved friend or wifeLike light’ning rush’d on every fancy,To Providence I trusted life,Put up a prayer, and thought of Nancy!
BACKAt last,—’twas in the month of May,—The crew it being lovely weather,At three A.M. discover’d dayAnd England’s chalky cliffs together.At seven up Channel how we bore,While hopes and fears rush’d on my fancy,At twelve I gaily jump’d ashore,And to my throbbing heart press’d Nancy!]