Robert Bloomfield: The Inestimable Blessing of Letters
"Bloomfield in His Letters: The Social World of a London Shoemaker Turned Suffolk Poet"
Nottingham Trent University
1. The publication of Bloomfield’s collected letters gives us for the first time a chance to see him as a writer of intimate prose—prose in which he reveals his inner feelings and deepest desires, prose in which he comes to understand what he stands for, as a poet and as a man. Bloomfield’s letters, spanning the thirty and more years of his adult life, let us chart his progress from London shoemaker, living in an East End slum, through the best-selling poet of the early 1800s, to the impoverished villager living in obscure retirement. But they also show the development of a mind full of penetrating observation of himself, his acquaintances, and the world around him, and the emergence of a character endowed with generous humor, quiet determination, and exceptional sensitivity. These qualities made Bloomfield a wonderful correspondent: he never concealed himself from the person to whom he was writing, always offering them intimacy and thoughtfulness (resembling Keats in this) and always registering the nuances of events with a playful perceptiveness that escapes most. As a consequence, he was a fascinating social commentator (although social commentary is not the chief element of his letters), a perspicuous critic of other poets, and a forthright maintainer of his beliefs about writing against the interference of patrons, well-meaning or brow-beating.
2. Many themes emerge from the letters: I shall concentrate in what follows on illustrating those which most sharply change our understanding of the writer, of his times, and of the business of being a laboring-class poet.
3. First, then, the letters reveal with a new vividness what remains obscure in Bloomfield’s verse: that he was not a farmhand living in one of Britain’s thousands of villages. Despite his self-characterization in his poems as “Giles” the “farmer’s boy,” Bloomfield was, when he wrote, a Londoner working in one of the capital’s hundreds of cramped workshops. He was, in fact, a member of the wave after wave of immigrants that, in the late eighteenth century, flowed from the country to work in London’s burgeoning trades and industries, exchanging a boyhood spent herding animals and tending crops for an adolescence manufacturing items for the expanding consumer market. The change in circumstances this move produced is revealed by his first surviving letter of 1788, in which he invites a Suffolk friend to visit him:
[W]hen you are at my lodging you must expect such treatment as is in my power to give, and when we are out you must have no objection to dine at a decent Cook-shop, where there is good choice, and if you dont like porter we can get good ale, in short, London is like other great places, allmost any thing may be had for money and when we are out, whatever the expence may be for living or for seeing the public buildings, &c, my scheme is, that each bear his own charges, you know how George and others of our trade live, but George have the honour of living in a street, but I cannot Get into a street from my lodgings without going through some such crook of a hole as between your near-barn and the hay-house, but take notice you are not to lodge in such a place as this, you have boath had the small-pox and I think I remember that your sister Judith have had it too, here is a letter enclosed from my sister to Judith and I hope to see you all soon, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful for me to mention only you and your brother, the reason is, I could not procure a suitable accomodation for any woman whatever, a single man have no chance to do it half so well as my sister have, if you all come (as I hope you will) you and your brother must lodge near me, and the street where your sister will live, lead into Berkley Square, just by where my sister live, and we are about three miles apart, so you will have a good chance to see the town in going backwards and forwards, I shall be allways with you and we must be very particular and not be out late of night, nor frequent any low lived places, and as long as we do so, there is no danger to be feard, if you consider the whole expense I belive it will be found a cheap way of seeing London. (letter 1, 11 April 1788)
Bloomfield’s description reminds us of Blake’s “London,” or Wordsworth’s Prelude
description of “Private courts, / Gloomy as coffins, and unsightly lanes / Thrilled by some female vendor’s scream, belike / The very shrillest of all London cries” (1805, 7: 196-9). East End poverty, cramped living conditions, endemic disease, “low lived places”: Bloomfield was writing from experience as one of the new class of “mechanics” about which Wordsworth spoke in his preface to Lyrical Ballads
, one of the nascent proletariat, in Marxist terms. It was this class that Wordsworth diagnosed as having acquired debased cravings for stimulation as a means of escape from their repetitive labor and that Marxists saw as being dosed with the opiates of popular religion and mass culture. Yet Bloomfield belies the Wordsworthian and the Marxist analysis: he suggests that, for first-generation migrants from country to city, it was not novel forms of urban entertainment, but the recollection and celebration of village community and customs, that was the goal. This is shown by a letter which he wrote in 1806 about his first encounter with Italian opera:
The Scenery is truly delightfull. The dancing wonderfull, and the whole, setting probability and nature (allmost) out of the question, is a high treat, Yet I think more like Mince-pie and made-dishes than substancial food. I am too great a novice in Music to judge, I could only be surprize’d and astonished. I sat alone, in the Pit, totally unknowing and unknown. Some Gentlemen behind me were extolling the singular beauty of a Lady of easy Virtue who sat a few seats above us, and I excercised my judgment too, (for when you gave sent me the ticket no restriction was laid as to which way I should look,) and have to tell you that of any essentials of beauty she had not a spark, not an atom! so much for difference of opinion. I do not believe that men agree in this any more than in their palates at Table, or their notions of what is beautifull in a landscape.
I cannot help observing the great difference between an illdresst and a well-dresst mob, and I must indeed be unfeeling and ungenerous not 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.
I observed, according to the best of my calculation, that the petticoats of the women were about ten inches longer than those of the men, one of them the former in particular I should have been glad to have accommodated with the loan of a pair of pantaloons which I had left at home, and yet it is more than a hundred to one if they had pleased her;—I do not wonder in the least that Gentlemen, and ladies too, should frequent a place where they can hear the finest Music, and see the most surprizing agility and grace, but I am now convinced, too that the former have an additional incentive; the exhibition of female beauty in a manner, and in a way which no other place in England will warrant, and by my Soul, I think this is as natural a feeling as any one there excited, “and further this deponent saith not.”
I have had the pleasure of witnessing the best Scenery and Dancing, and the worst Lightning, in England. I saw Narcissus drown himself, (and, by the buy that same Narcissus was worth going three miles to see,) I saw a very jolly and delectable looking Venus, and a number of other young things whose motions indicated that they felt the want of wings and were very angry indeed because they had them not. They plagued poor little Cupid in a most barbarous manner, because he fell asleep after whetting his arrows, on what?—on a Grindstone!
Upon the whole I frankly own that I think I should have relish’d this show much more if it had not happen’d that I had seen the preceeding, week the English Opera of “Love in a Village” and I am unfashionable enough to declare, and my whole heart goes with it, that I would rather be the Author of such a piece than proprietor of the Opera House and all the buildings on his side of the Street. (letter 199, 24 December 1806)
4. Bloomfield’s village—whether the village encountered in the opera-house or that of his own writing—is not the agricultural world seen by a laborer who works in it: it is, rather, a new country—the country seen from exile by an urbanite who has nostalgic desires to reconstitute, in memory and on paper, the rural community he associates with childhood. It is family and village togetherness, imagined as innocent by comparison with the experienced world of urban sophistication, that Bloomfield seeks—as Wordsworth himself did. This suggests that it was not, as Wordsworth thought, urban life and labor that destroyed respect for the values and taste of the older, rural world. Rather, urban exile from the country produced an intense idealization of the rural just as Wordsworth’s continental exile did. Exile, rather than city life per se, stimulated the major Romantic themes of idealization of the rural and fear for its loss. For Bloomfield, as for Wordsworth, it was the recollection of rural society and morality that he had, in practice, left behind that gave him a standard against which to judge the novel culture available in London’s metropolitan and cosmopolitan milieu.
5. But he had not left it completely behind: in the early 1800s, the letters show, the urban and rural poor were not discrete, mutually unknowing populations. Bloomfield’s letters reveal the constant interchange between city and country-dwellers: Bloomfield’s family was typical in having some siblings who worked in the city while others remained in the home village—typical too in the frequent interchange between them. Letters carried news, invitations, and banknotes; parcels carried pheasants, leather-samples, and cheese. The foodstuffs traveled in both directions, Bloomfield taking advantage of his position in Europe’s largest commercial center to send to Suffolk better rural produce than could be found locally: “I send my Mother a piece of cheese such as she could not get at Honington if she had money” he wrote on 30 November 1801 (letter 70), enclosing a Leicester cheese far superior to that of Suffolk (the best milk being sent out of Suffolk to supply London’s market).
6. People went back and forth too: Bloomfield returned to Suffolk to visit; his brothers, drawn to London’s commercial magnet, came to make their fortunes from music and from inventions, themselves returning. The laboring-classes, on the evidence of Bloomfield’s family, were simply not rigidly divided between shrinking rural and expanding urban populations: it was normal for families from the home counties to spend some of their lives in London, some back in the country, as did his brother George who grew up in Honington, worked as a shoemaker in London, and moved back to Suffolk, or his brother Nat, who moved from Suffolk to London, or Isaac, who lived in Suffolk but came to London to sell his musical settings of Robert’s poems, or Robert himself, who moved out of London to a Bedfordshire village in 1811. His sister Bet, meanwhile, emigrated to America. The Bloomfield family is revealed in Robert’s letters as being on the move to a degree that would have been extraordinary fifty years earlier, but nevertheless strenuously keeping in touch using the literacy with which their mother, a village schooldame, had endowed them. The causes of their peripatetic life illustrate the changes in rural society brought about by the combination of increased population, the development of “improved” capitalist agriculture, economic recessions, and a more centralized market economy. Brothers George and Isaac both had many children and found it impossible to provide for them from the proceeds of shoemaking. London, and the opportunity of selling poems and tunes there, offered the prospect of a way out of poverty.
7. Bloomfield’s letters show his most abiding concern to have been the creation and preservation, in a more and more hostile social and political climate, of village and family rootedness. While he still enjoyed royalties from his poems, he used this income to try to recreate rural community from the distance of London. Thus he sent his London-reared daughter Hannah to Suffolk to give her experience of village life. Hannah was charged with retrieving the very rocks and stones Bloomfield remembered by their local names, so strong was his desire to have a bit of his boyhood about him:
I have several times intended to remind you that If your Cousins at Honington or any other boys have any “Fairies Cakes,” curiously markd pebbles and will part with them for halfpence, bring what you can, They will know what you mean. Bring away some thunderbolts, and some “Devel’s Toe Nails”, which are found in a field north of what was Mr Rolfs Rookery, but if these are not to be had, dont stop for either. These strange names make it look like a queer errand to set a young girl about, but I tell you they know what I mean—I feel proud of your letters, but I would rather have your company. (Letter 243, 8 October 1809)
Wanting his daughter to know him by reliving his own childhood, Bloomfield was excited when she witnessed the harvest-home festival that was customary in the area and which he had celebrated in his poem “The Horkey,” even preserving Suffolk dialect in an effort “to tell the rising race of mankind” of the customs “going fast out of use” that, in his boyhood, ritualized the communal interdependence of farmers, reapers and womenfolk:
And Farmer Cheerum went, good man,
And broach’d the Horkey beer;
And sitch a mort of folks began
To eat up our good cheer.
Says he, “Thank God for what’s before us;
That thus we meet agen,”
The mingling voices, like a chorus,
Joined cheerfully, “Amen”.
Welcome and plenty, there they found ’em,
The ribs of beef grew light;
And puddings—till the boys got round ’em,
And then they vanish’d quite! (Wild Flowers, 61-72)
Bloomfield’s letter on the subject is full of quiet satisfaction at rural life experienced vicariously at the consequent reunion of his family:
My eldest Daughter has just return’d from an eight weeks residence in Suffolk at the very Farm that employ’d me in my childhood. She has seen the Harvest, and was present at the “Horkey” and with many of the persons who figured there thirty years ago when I was 13 years old. There is a fund of gossip cut out for me during the winter coming. She return’d on the 24, the next day you may recollect is sacred to our Leather Saint, and is besides her birthday. It was a high holiday in London as a Jubilee, and to crown it all my brother’s family postponed on her account the celebration of a Christning. Thus, by having a family meeting we beat all the Doctors for we killd more than two birds with one stone. (letter 245, 31 October 1809)
Here rural, trade, and family celebrations coincide: in Honington Hannah participates in the horkey; in London Robert celebrates St. Crispin’s day with other cordwainers; also in London brother Nat’s family bring the Bloomfields together for a party. The reality behind such rural poems as “The Horkey,” is a family straddling city and country and occupying the social habitus of each.
8. It was a brief moment. Dispersed across town and village, the Bloomfields were rarely able to, in his words, “kill more than two birds with one stone.” The letters show Bloomfield instead, like Wordsworth, attempting to repossess his rural childhood home. He did this by using the wealth poetry brought him to buy the cottage his mother had rented, letting his relatives live there. This scheme made little economic sense: what drove Bloomfield was the emotional pull of his home village and his need for a family togetherness he had lost when sent away to London as a youth. This need was not met: after his mother’s death Bloomfield found, predictably, that the house made him an absentee landlord, embroiled in legal disputes with once-friendly neighbors over rights to the garden and charged with ever-mounting repair bills while his resident relatives seemed ungrateful or begged for more financial help. Eventually, as relations soured under the pressure of the financial strain Bloomfield suffered after his booksellers’ bankruptcy, he felt reluctant to revisit the place: he could no longer sustain its image as a symbol of boyhood and familial community; it now spoke of his relatives’ expectation that he, having made money, would provide for them, of his own sadness that they were now his clients rather than his peers, and of his disappointment that he could no longer afford to maintain it.
9. If Bloomfield could not return to Honington, he could get as near as was possible given the necessity of being in London to attend to his publications. Almost the first thing he did when the poetry began to sell was to quit the crowded East End, retire from shoemaking, and become one of a social class that mushroomed in this period—a suburbanite. The suburbs as we know them today were a phenomenon of the early nineteenth century, producing a tamed and domesticated simulacrum of the remembered countryside, leisure-time idylls of green in miniature garden-plots that were both retired and accessible from the city, where the suburbanites worked. The outlook of the growing class of people who lived like this—the clerks who, like Charles Lamb and Dickens’s Wemmick, worked in the increasing number of counting houses, offices, and chambers of the imperial and governmental city—found expression in a new kind of verse, ornamental and decorative, that eschewed the full-blown classicism of the epic and the large-scale loco-description of the georgic (both styles associated with the landowning gentry and aristocracy). The suburban was pretty, sentimental, bejeweled, representing the democratization of taste in a class that read magazines and novels rather than Latin and Greek poetry.
10. Bloomfield was not Keats or Leigh Hunt, two poets whose early writing, Nicholas Roe shows, was criticized as the suburban work of writers who had never known the real countryside. He avoided excessive ornamentation, garden settings, and tricked-out diction—all facets of Leigh Hunt’s verse that aroused the ire of traditionalist critics. Nevertheless, his letters reveal that he set out to choose a home that relocated the idealized virtues and pleasures of the country in miniature at the edge of the city. His cottage next to the Shepherd and Shepherdess Inn on the City Road, was situated at commercial London’s margin, where workhouses and almshouses ran out into smallholdings, gardens, and fields. Bloomfield cultivated the garden there, and ensured his family learnt to do so too, as a letter from his daughter Mary to her older sister reveals: “the first thing I have to tell you,” she wrote, “is of the garden, our lobernam will not blow so much as we thought it would, we have got two mugs full of butterflowers, and we have some beans coming up, this is holiday work and many people are crowding by our gate” (letter 163, 3 June 1805). She returned to the subject a week later, “You wanted to know about the garden. I first tell you the beans are growing very high, a good deal of your sweet Williams is dead, and your nut tree is very well, we are going to have a crop of scarlet beans over the grass plat, my father’s thistle will not thrive; Charlesis Cherry tree grows very well, shot has got a nut tree and some butter flowers” (letter 166, 10 June 1805).
11. Bloomfield’s position on the margin gave him a double knowledge that neither East Enders nor Suffolk villagers possessed—a double knowledge that helped make his poetry unique. He used this double knowledge not just to drive his yearning to articulate a rural world he knew to be fragile, but also to demand realism about country and city. It allowed him to achieve a conscious recollection of country customs in plain, rustic language, before these customs were submerged by urban fashions and capitalist agriculture. In a letter of 2 September 1802, for instance, he criticized affected diction and uncolloquial word order in poetry (much like Wordsworth in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads), extending his argument to cover pictorial representations of the rustic:
Something of this kind may be traced in some pictures which I have occasionally seen, which indeed relates more to the foregoing wrong adaptation of words, than to compound epithets—A scene extremely rustic, the Death of the Fox in a Cottage-yard would you there expect to see up against the wall what in London are called Bird-bottles for the sparrows to build in? Country people know sparrows too well; the same picture has the error of chimney pots to the cottage, which I never saw in reality; these are London and Country ideas mixed. (letter 94, 2 September 1802)
Had Bloomfield not, as a youth, read the magazines available in the shoemakers’ workshop (but unlikely to have come his way on a Suffolk farm) he would not have learnt to compose verse at all. He was, in fact, in the rare position of being able to benefit from both city and country: his rural tales benefited from his knowledge of contemporary taste as set out in town-based periodicals as well as from the authenticity that stemmed from his early upbringing on the land.
12. Bloomfield’s suburban cottage was, nonetheless, a retreat from the city proper. In moving to London’s fringe, he was retiring from business—from the trade of shoemaking and from the incessant visitors who, keen to view the phenomenon of a laboring-class poet, had troubled him in his cheap lodgings. From the edge of London, he could supervise his works through the press and call on his literary acquaintances, without becoming a celebrity and having to appear on demand for any gentleman who wished to satisfy his curiosity and advise him what to read. The suburbs for Bloomfield—and here he was proleptic of the phenomenon Dickens fictionalized in Wemmick—were a daily retreat from an urban intercourse from which he could not altogether withdraw, an intercourse he found inimical not just for its crowdedness (although certainly for that) but also for the demeaning of human relationships by the pressures of market-driven work-discipline. Matters came to a head when the Duke of Grafton, his Suffolk patron, found him a job in the busy Seal Office, sealing legal contracts and charters (in a form of tax collection). Bloomfield’s letter on the subject (to his brother George, 29 February 1803)—a cry of desperation—reads as if written by the narrator of Blake’s “London” imprisoned by “each chartered street,” for it highlights the mental toll taken by the binding of self to bureaucratic and commercial institutions—the lack of privacy and self-command, the need to prepare a public face, the slavery to the new discipline of clock-time and office-hours, the reduction of human interaction to overworked clerk and demanding client:
On Friday, the day after the Holidays, I expected a busy day at the Seal Office; and so I found it with a vengeance. I had eat no breakfast, and the Mob of Lawyers made me perfectly savage: at One o’clock we shut the Office, but shut in between 40 and 50 people, and did not get through the Work for 3 quarters of an hour after one. I then grew faint, and knew if I walkd home to the City Road that my Wind and indigestion would get the upper hand of my Stomach, and should eat no dinner; so I put into the Cook’s in Salsbury Court and eat heartily. by this time there was no time to go home and then to Temple Bar again by 4; so I sulkd away the time in St George’s Fields, and then took another 3 hours’ Mobbing at the Office, having seald during the day nearly 1100 Writs! by far the busiest day (if Mr A is to be credited) that have occurrd for eight years past. Returnd to my sick house, tired and insufferably disgusted. At home I found a Letter from Troston, not quite the thing and your most melancholy tidings, and—to crown all, a young Man in the neighbourhood fourced on me a M:S. book of poems for me to read and to give my judgment of, which accorded with the feelings of the moment, being a doleful string of Elegies as black as midnight—This I shall call Black Friday—Another trifle had displeased me. I had found in the Morning Chronicle a bit of news put there by some fool or other that “Bloomfield the poet has been recently appointed to a handsome situation in the Seal Office in the Temple, thus he has not courted the Muses unsuccessfully!” Your letter made it still worse by shewing me that Peter had either originally printed this wonderfull piece of news, or else had made it worse by adding to it what is as false as the Chronicle’s “handsome appointment” is ridiculous. This story has served the Herald two days, the first to say I was there, and the next to say I had resignd it!!—tis useless to be angry, but if the Asses that meddle with another mans business before they know it were buried three times as deep as your poor Wife, I would not were [i.e. wear] black for them.—What G says in his paper is false, thus, because confinement is not my objection, and I hope and trust that it is well known to the Duke. Extreem publicity begins to be more and more disgusting to my feelings, and these boobys make it worse.—The Good Man at Euston will be here soon, and then I shall know how I am to proceed. His last letter said that “he was sorry I was going to leave it at all.” circumstances made it absolutely necessary to reply that I would not leave it, at least untill I see him—thus we stand now—Dr Jenner is in Town, and has written to me. Dr Perkins plagued me by publishing my name with his Tractors, till I wrote to him to forbid it. my cough plagues me, and I have no time to write down my Rhimes, I have enough on my mind to craze a saint, but I feel my soul soar above it all—I know that I shall triumph—and “that Spring will come and Nature smile again”. (letter 103)
Charles Lamb wrote of his clerk’s work in Leadenhall Street as a form of slavery to the East India Company; for Bloomfield less than a mile away at Temple Bar, the situation was exacerbated by his dislike of being a celebrity and having his private feelings and actions tattled about in the London and Suffolk newspapers and his name used by quack doctors in their advertisements.
13. Beyond the suburbs lay solace in the hills. When depressed by the city’s demands, Bloomfield took to making solitary walking tours, refreshing himself with a leisured consumption of nature in which he was, for a few days, his own master, his time and space his own. These tours were a reaction against his lack of a stable place in which independence, self-respect, and rural community could be sustained, when even the suburban retreat on the City Road became prey to the pressure of business and when his boyhood home in Honington seemed polluted by disputes with family and patron. So Bloomfield went to Dover and to Dorking, recording his trips in intimate and informal letters that bear comparison with Coleridge’s descriptions of his 1802 walking tour in the Lakes and with Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals. They represent, that is to say, a new kind of tour-journalism reflecting a new social practice: the pedestrian tour was the creation of a class of writers (Romantics, as they were later called) who, dissociating themselves from gentleman and women tourists for reasons of poverty and politics, eschewed the horse and carriage and asserted their liberty and independence as solitary wanderers in nature. Like Wordsworth, Bloomfield was an urbanite visiting countryside places he felt emotionally connected to by virtue of his rural upbringing but in which he had no present-day social or economic place. Like Coleridge, he was self-conscious of this anomalous status and was ready to record the funny side of being out of place wherever he visited. As such he was an unwitting pioneer of a practice of nature recreation and nature writing that became, and remains, one of the main pursuits of Britain’s suburban masses—a practice of countryside rambling that still has its dedicated organizations and magazines. The description he made of his Surrey tour in 1803, for instance,
has the features we have come to see as familiar to the genre—unexpected adventures, hill country, romantic views, and assertions about nature’s restorative powers:
Having been harrassd by too much thinking and too many trivial engagements, and an employment that I shall never like, I determined that I would respire one mouthfull of real country air if possible and I know at the same time that pollution of smoke reaches ten miles round the Metropolis. I had heard much of Leithe Hills and of Box Hill in the neighbourhood of Dorking. This was the time to see them. I started from the Spread Eagle, GraceChurch Stt. At 3 in the afternoon of Monday and soon rode away from the gay Bonnets and red faces that made a perfect current towards Greenwich. The road is like all others within ten miles of town, much too spruce and too full of inhabitants for my fancy. Epsom is a pretty little town and the country round it open and flat; but 3 or four miles beyond it assumes a quite different aspect, becoming more hilly than I had ever before seen. Remember that I am no Welshman, therefore to me these Hills are Cader Idris’s and Snowdens.—
Evening drew on as we approached the old town of Dorking, and the prospect to me was delightful; but to prove that enjoyment is often dashd with a strange and unexpected kind of naucia, we had behind us on the Coach two Lasses, the one going to join the Thunderer on her arrival at Portsmouth from Chatham, and the other to meet a party of Marines passing through Dorking; they drank Brandy all the way, and then work’d off the fumes by songs of a description which were new to me, so that you see that the school of poetry has many stages. I supt and insured a lodging for two nights at the 3 Tons where the Coach put up, and on Tuesday morning set off with a determination to reach Leith Hill; but though I had a good map of the County in my pocket I took the wrong rout, and as the place of my destination was about 6 miles and my attention and inclination drawn to other and nearer objects I made for the top of a Hill which is planted with about 8 or ten Fir Trees which are very conspicuous at a great distance; this Hill the inhabitants denominate with no small share of pride “Dorking’s Glory.” It affords certainly a most delightfull view on every side; here I could discover that had I kept on nearly in the direction in which I started that I might have passd over Boar Hills to Leith Hills which here appear eminently conspicuous, having a square tower on one summit and being much higher and of greater extant than any other in sight. Being alone and in the pure unadulterated spirit of Idleness and Gratitude mix’d, I cut on an oak bench
“From the smoke of London free
I bless thee, Rural Liberty.”
Box Hill which I had passd the foregoing evening in the way from town lay southward from “Dorkings Glory” and made a noble appearance but it did not appear to me to be higher than that on which I stood;—
Return’d into the town to dinner, which by the by was a poets dinner, Bread and Cheese. (letter 106, 17 April 1803)
Bread and cheese was to be Bloomfield’s dinner increasingly in later years. After Wild Flowers
(1806) his output declined and sales of his publications tailed off. In 1812 his booksellers went bankrupt, depriving him of his income. Much money went to supporting relatives and as donations made by his wife to the prophetess Joanna Southcott. In 1811 he moved from the City Road to the Bedfordshire village of Shefford, seeking to reduce his expenses and to rediscover the placedness in village life that he recalled in his Suffolk youth—a placedness impossible for him to reconstitute in Suffolk because that place had become vitiated by disputes. Some of his early letters from Shefford revel in finding it there instead. In July 1814, for instance, he sent his daughter Hannah (2-3 July 1814) a description of the village celebration of Napoleon’s defeat that is a comic masterpiece, Dickensian in its celebratory yet humorous portrait of village life as a teeming cavalcade in which all are united in sensual enjoyment.
In the procession rode Mr Williamson &c, Mr Walker, (two church parsons,) Mr Potier, the Catholick priest, and Briggs the Methodest preacher, and all who could procure Horses, or wish’d to join the Cavalcade, In the rear of which appeard an old black Horse decorated with an enormous pair of Bullock’s horns place’d near his ears. On his back rode the Devel with a monstrous Mask and horns to corispond, and drest in a black cloak. Behind him rode (riding backwards both on a Horse) a lad with a pale Mask, and in the utmost trembling and destress, to represent the fallen Emperor. Both these perform’d their parts extreemly well, and cause’d the utmost laughter, Inskip was Devil, and Jack sombody was Bounaparte. It was the best Devil I ever saw, and riding thus like a whipper-in after the parsons, had a strange and ridiculous appearance. A Bullock drest in Ribbons, followd likewise by music, had marchd through the town two days before and was now on the Spit, and in the pot, as dinner was to commence at 4. A long range of Tables were placed from Westons door to the George, capable of accommodating all the poor in the Town that is, all who labour for bread, the whole was coverd with Canvass and form’d a compleat tent, border’d throughout by garlands of flowers, and each table having a flag inscribe’d, “Alexander”, “Blucher”, “Platoff” &c. At the end stood a kind of Maypole, bearing a gilded Cock, surmounted by a flag—Across the center of the street was erected a stage for the band, who had there a little bower of their own, above the passing carriages.—At 4 about 250 people sat down to dinner in the greatest good order. At the head of the Table sat Mr Williamson and the other conductors of the feast took each of them a Table, as president and carver, Here you might have seen two Doctors, two publican’s, a parson,
and a Shopkeeper &c &c. in White Aprons, slashing up the Beef and plumb pudding, and sharing out several Baskets of potatoes.—The Town was crouded with spectators, and all was joy. At 6, (after grace in due order) dinner was removed, and the Gentlemen part of the company had a boarded stage for their wine and refreshments, and here; while men women and children were Huzzaing around, they did just what must be expected, viz, got drunk by drinking Toasts. The musical performers at one time did not know “God save the King,” from Jack’s-alive; but this fervor subsided gradually so as to produce no mischief, and to leave the evening for a still more singular exhibition, which is the beautiful effect of light under boughs, which, as you have now seen Vauxhall, you can fully understand. I should here tell you that in the evening Tea was serve’d on the platform to all the women who choose it, and dancing commenced in the real country stile. Miss Weston made more tea than she ever did in one day in her life. Amongsts the flags Inskip had two very large, inscribed “The Strength of Kings is the Affections of the people” and, “Freedom to Slaves, and peace to the World”. Mr Walker had a real fine transparency, and his house a croud of green and blossoms,—Mr Gay several transparencies of his own painting, and his House shaded by Oak-limbs planted in the street. Mr Radwell, Mr Betts &c cut a conspicuous figure; so that when I tell you that there was not a window in the town without Candles, folliage, and flowers, you must try to guess at the effect. It made my eyes water in spite of myself.—This first night’s frolick was not all, though the Town was not quiet till two in the morning.—
On Thursday—A Ball had been announced to be held at the White Hart, to which were invited all the Respectable people round the neighbourhood, and Charles had been busily employd with other scholars to write Notes of invitation. This whole day was spent in mirth. Amongst the rest a large party, (in fact any who pleased) danced to two fidlers on the platform, Young Girls “threading the Needle along” the Street, Boys kicking a Bladder; And more particularly a ridiculous scene, of a Rope suspended upon poles, to which was tied by small twine two lumps of pudding drip’d in treacle, under which stood on stools, two boys with their hands tied behind them, whose business it was to catch the pudding in their mouths! I say nothing of their faces! treacle betide us! what a mess. At Night about 40 Ladies and as many Gentlemen danced at Barbers till morning, with fidlers from Bedford and Nitshill &c—Friday—Taylor the Sadler Chaird through the Town with the Band, and the wife of our “Old Richard” riding on a great thundering black Horse coverd with a white sheet and flowers. This old woman litterally danced all day from Wednesday morning till Friday night. On the Ball night Mr Weston ornamented his House with Hop-vines from his Garden, intersperse’d with Lamps; with several transparencies of his own designing, Saturday—The Townsmen presented a Flag to Sir George Osborn in testimony of his bounty towards this real and National holiday, which the good old man has promise’d to presever and to leave to his grandchildren. &c &c
And now Father how did you get through this bustle,? what did our house look like? did not you want to help?
I saw on Monday that I should “be drag”d” and directly began to regret that Hannah was not at home to contrive and to help. “I wish Hannah was here” was repeated oftener than I ever repeated it before, for Charles was busy at writing, and Charlotte my only housemaid,—However I naild up lathes for the illuminatiion, sent for Candles, Cockades, &c—Joe Saunders procure’d a large bough of Oak, and Old Squires two tall branches of Laurel;—Our three younkers went to Rowney and lug’d home as much Yellow Broom and Cornflowers as they could carry, we set to work, made them with form, and on Wednesday morning up at 6, I hung the outer circle of the parlour window with a garland of flowers, naild a Rose-bush over the door, trimd up Roberts Hoop into a Garland and displayd it on a pole from the Landing window.—In the evening lighted up about four score Candle, and remove’d your old Richard and Kate from the Mill, and with a White flag inscribed peace mounted them on one of Barber’s Gin Kegs on a string inside the parlour window, to the great amusement of the Boys.
Now my dear Girl you must absolutely come home this week, for though Charlotte does all she can, we are in a muddle according to your notions, thus far we have been starving upon bake’d Veal, Calve’s Liver, Shoulder of Lamb and Goosbery pies. Charlotte has a Cold and sore throat.— (letter 292, 4 July 1814)
Here Bloomfield’s evocation plays upon the shared knowledge he and Hannah, his daughter and correspondent, have of the people involved. If there is an occasional touch of sentimentality, this is because Bloomfield has a lot invested in his own and his family’s incorporation in the rural community. As the comparisons with London’s Vauxhall Gardens suggest, metropolitan entertainment remains a reference point: the country is engaged with and judged against the city. The country festival—the social expression of that community—and his description—its literary realization—dramatize the incorporation of incomers from London: they show the Bloomfields are at home, accepted in the village where the traditions of rural Englishness still flourish. Quietly in play in the letter is a self-consciousness about national identity: to be English, Bloomfield suggests, is to appreciate and participate in such bucolic communal pleasures. Hogarth’s “March of the Guards to Finchley,” Hone’s Every Day Book
, and Cobbett’s Rural Rides
present a similar comic vision of national character, in which ale-drinking figures loom large. As a small farmer, Cobbett would organize traditional rural sports on the village green, seeking to renew traditional English customs in which all rural classes participated, as a counterweight to the increasing class hostility between landlords and farmers on the one side and their laborers on the other. Bloomfield is delighted to discover what Cobbett tried to revive, common customs both licensing and limiting the expression of appetite and eccentricity, ensuring the patriotic occasion remains jovial rather than riotous.
14. Things changed after 1815. The depressions experienced nationwide by a newly centralized economy left Bloomfield and his family dependent on charity and poor relief, as they did so many others. Their era of mobility ended by poverty, Shefford became a place that Bloomfield often could not afford to leave: he stayed there isolated by ill-health and depression. Likewise his brother George became trapped in Suffolk, as is revealed in a late autobiographical letter sent by George some years after Robert died (to W. Weston, circa 1830). George’s response to his pauperdom is Uriah Heepish humility towards the gentlemen who gave him charity. His anger at the poverty he movingly describes is displaced instead onto other would-be laboring-class writers who come to visit him:
I actualy became a corrispondant of Sir C Bunbury Esq and 20 others, I do not mean that these persons wrote to me (they did not except Mr Lofft) but were often sending queries by servants &c which as I never would be seen if I could help it caused me to lose much time and slur a great deal of beautiful white paper, the private friendship and assistance I received from Bob amply paid me for my loss of time &c. and when they prevailed on me to be a Master (in that which is now Mrs Armstrong the Hatters shop) my Sheepishness increased so as to inspissate me, And besides it pleased God to take from me my Excelant wife. The Gentlemen the Great friends of my Brothers rais’d a subscription for me Mr Wright (once Recorder of this Borough) set it of,) Mr Gedge, Sir C Bunbury, Capel Lofft Esq &c joind raised upwards of 30 pounds, still I was wretched, I had lost all my fireside comforts It was soon discovered I was going to marry a young widow with 4 childrens!! And as I had 5 we had 9 to begin the world with, this imprudent step displeased some of my great friends, But Mr Smith Sir C Bunbury, Mr gedge and many others continued to be my Benefactors while they lived. In my second marriage I have had 3 children, have (to late) been brought to my senses, In the 20 years that have past in my present marriage I have seen most of my Brothers great friends removed by Death, it is one of the great trials of those who live to be old, they outlive those they love, and those who were able and wiling to help in Time of Need, were that excelant man Mr Gedge or William Smith Esq Sir C Bunbury, Sir C Davers, Capel Lofft &c now alive old age would to me be disarmed of half its terrors here are none to blame or to accuse, it is the lot of all the aged to out live their friends and benefactors, I am truly grateful to kind providence, still Charles Bloomfield Esq lives, a man who did not know there were such a
man as me in the world, who on my Brothers account have been my sure protector and unwearied Benifactor for 30 years, but for whome I must have been in a workhouse years ago; still how precarious is my condition should providence remove him though Mr Hasted and other Gentlemen have often befriended me yet I am at this instant, a poor feeble old man allmost wholly dependant on Charity, I have Grand Children whom I dearly love often nearly naked and bearfoot, and have not the power to help them, And my Self in rags, for though I have clothes given me, my necessities send them up the Spout, my natural Shyness makes me a recluse, for squallid poverty soon pall the beholder, and seldom do I have a second visit from any one unless it is Brassy faced pretenders to poesy, such as David Service Ned Preston &c &c who would willingly count up how many patches are on my old Breeches (I beg pardon) I mean my Small Clothes,—now had I been wise and prudent from 21 to 50 should I have been a poor Despicable being, without the power of Doing any creature on Earth good!!! I had continued health have not kep’d my bed for a single Day since I had the small pox in the year 1765, was a good workman and found the greatest friendship from the wealthy part of society, my present distresses arrise entirely from my too Eager persute of information. (letter 423)
Too poor to travel, reluctant to criticize the gentlemen landowners whom the Napoleonic wars had enriched, George Bloomfield found himself lonely and broken, regretting his literary ambitions but still compliant enough to write, at his patrons’ request, a poem condemning those of his class who, starving, were burning ricks to protest at the price of corn, kept high to profit landowners:
And, sons of Norfolk, proud in manhood’s boast,
Let not the honours of your name be lost;
But, cease, O cease, your sad misguided rage!
Blot not with guilt our fair historic page!
In manly fortitude sustain the blast—
The ills we suffer cannot will not last!
Since devastations evidently tend
To heighten woes they never can amend,
If want beset, if poverty enthral,
Consider those who had so far to fall;
Who, born to wealth, to every prospect fair,
Are sunk in gloom—in wretchedness—despair!
At death’s approach, would you at last be blest,
O, keep a living conscience in your breast!—
Soon, soon, will this terrific storm blow o’er;—
Believe my words, though I am old and poor! (“Friendly Hints”)
George wrote these lines in 1831: they are a testament to the failure of the traditional rural community, its local paternalism shrunk to an empty gesture. They are also symptoms of changed times, as was Robert’s own correspondence with the husband of his friend and admirer, the gentlewoman Mary Lloyd Baker with whom he had toured the Wye valley in 1807. Mary having died in 1812, Lloyd Baker remarried and spent a fortune on building a new country seat for himself. He reentered Bloomfield’s life in 1821, sending a banknote to a poet now impoverished by his bookseller’s bankruptcy, but also in order to police him ideologically so as to ensure he did not agitate his fellow poor villagers:
I have heard lately too with regret, that your health is not so good as we could wish it to be, & also that the failure of trade has been felt, & I fear is still felt by some parts of your family in common with many others. Allow me to request your acceptance of the enclosed note for your use or theirs as you may think right. . . .
Amongst other things which I have heard there is a report which nothing but a sincere wish for your welfare should induce me to take the liberty of mentioning to you. I have too high an opinion of you to give it credit, & therefore I have every hope that your answer will be full & clear, & such as may enable me openly to contradict it. It has already occasioned you the loss of some valuable friends; & if not stopped, it will cause you to lose the friendship of every man whose friendship is worth your preserving.
We have long been aware of the unfortunate tendency of Mrs Bloomfield’s religious opinions & have lamented it, but 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 may be 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)
One-off aid comes with the threat of its withdrawal if Bloomfield does not agree to have his private life monitored to ensure its compliance with Tory and Evangelical, Church and State, conservatism. Bloomfield’s reply was dignified but firm:
I am glad to hear of my old friends at any time, but I am sorry to hear of their coolling without sufficient information.—But who are those who have coold? Who withheld their accustom’d support &c &c—I have no accustom’d support but the Duke of Grafton’s £15 per year, and the ten pounds per ann for six years procured by Mrs Andrews Sharp. All the rest has been casual as chance has directed it
When my subscription was going on many worthy hands assisted; the Earl of Lonsdale, Mr Rogers, Lord Holland, and people of the most opposite opinions.
In the year 1800, (one and twenty years ago) I found that I must unavoidably be brought before the public, raw and uncouth as I was, and I then made the resolution—that I never would in public writing or intimate correspondence enter into disputation or disquisition on the two grand subjects which keep the world in agitation, Religion and politics. I have kept my word or vow, and you will find that I can keep it. (letter 352, 25 May 1821)
Lloyd Baker was not satisfied. He wrote again, applying more pressure: if Bloomfield would declare he was “not hostile to the Church or Government of this country as each now exists, I am inclined to hope that something may yet be done for you” (letter 353, 29 May 1821). Bloomfield’s reply to this, a vindication of his private views, was, between the lines, furious:
I say then there is not a man or woman living who would or could say to my face that I have renounced the doctrines of Christ or his Miracles.—There is not a soul upon earth to say “you are an enemy to the government of your country” Fools, cannot they see that the form of government of a country is rather different to the administration of it? . . .
Cobbett and Hunt are men whom I would not trust with power; they are too eager to obtain it.—Universal suffrage is an impracticable piece of nonscense;—Republicanism will only do in new establishd countrys: not in those which have been govern’d by Kings for a thousand years.—
It is the natural bent and practice of party to go to extreems. Thus they could not let me rest even on the intermediate shelf of Scepticism but made me a Deist at once!!—I have been in the presence of great and good men, the Bishops Watson and Porteous, but then it is equally true that I have taken snuff with Horne Tooke, and have held conversation with Hardy the Boot maker, who was tried for high treason!—Yea, more than all this, I had the misfortune to be born only six miles from the birthplace of Tom Paine!! This, to some ears would be horrible!—I shall go to worship again when I am well enough; and when my dear Daughter and Sons can leave me in the company of a Woman whom you know little about, they will go too. (letter 354, 31 May-1 June 1821)
(See also Peter Denney’s comments on these exchanges.)
15. Letters of the Lloyd Baker kind are grim evidence of the ideological strife of post-war Britain: they place in stark illumination the repression by which the ruling classes maintained their grip on power, all the while fearing revolution. Bloomfield remembered the disinterested patronage of the old Duke of Grafton, Prime Minister in an earlier era, who had supported him as a fellow Suffolk man without ever expecting political or religious conformity to his views, or even public praise of his beneficence. He knew he was living through a reactionary era, in which the classes were polarized, and his public response was to create, in his final collection of poems May Day with the Muses (1822), an ideal scenario in which, to celebrate the traditional May Day festivities, a squire invites the villagers to recite poems about village life. The squire thus renews old customs and patronizes, in the best sense, rustics who are able to voice their rural experience as verse. Clearly, this is wish-fulfillment on Bloomfield’s part: not only does he imagine 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 community in which authority is vested in a single figure who can therefore be addressed, appealed to, and even, potentially, rebuked and chastised face to face. In the earlier verse-tale “The Broken Crutch,” Bloomfield had contemplated the possibility of just such a rebuke, should the squire turn out to be abusing the innocence of a village girl. In the event, the squire’s intentions are pure: he marries her, and her uncle
does not need to beat him. The ideal village, for Bloomfield, is self-policing: the squire respects his tenants and they him. This was an old-fashioned and forlorn hope, perhaps, in face of the capitalization of farming, but it was one to which the conservative Wordsworth, Southey, and Gilpin, also subscribed as did the radical Cobbett—a Romantic rural paternalism.
16. Bloomfield’s only public political discourse was his poetry. His claim to Lloyd Baker that he had kept a vow to make no declarations of opinion was true. Not a political thinker, he refused to become involved in radical writing and publishing, not necessarily through lack of sympathy but because radicals’ forthright and frank avowals seemed to him too exclusive of doubt, difference, and ambiguity, too easily certain and too egotistic. Like Clare in “To a Fallen Elm,” he resented radical campaigners’ assumption that because they were of his class they necessarily spoke for him, and he suspected their motives might include self-promotion. Despite, therefore, his private conversations with Horne Tooke and Hardy, men tried for treason for their radical campaigning, he was sharply critical of Thomas Paine when Paine’s disciple and bookseller, Thomas Clio Rickman, presumed, in an over-familiar way, that he would be keen to have him sell his poems:
All your writings are so confoundedly violent, that I who have four years past made a determination to be nutral in Politicks and Religion, have much ado to convince myself that you ought to expect much assistance from such a cowardly fellow. And it is because I differ in both the above particulars from the Author you first put into my hands, that I do not feel myself acting a consistant part in spreading his opinions. Mr P[aine] in my estimation is the vainest of all authors. My circle of friends have long ago regreted that his great mind should decend so as to disgust his readers by boasting of himself. Perhaps when he laments the falling off of America from her purity of principle he is only lamenting the utterly unavoidable effects of a growing population there, or elsewhere, I believe that if perfect Republicanism be not a dream, its durability is. I am thus commiting myself to you compleatly; but it is to show you that I cannot propagate doctrines which I do not profess either to believe or to understand. 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. You are fond of frankness, of which you set an example both in your writings and your manners. You will therefore not be offended or surprized that I should follow it (letter 129, 29 May 1804)
17. The abiding theme of Bloomfield’s correspondence is the control of his own words—the very issue that most plagued his admirer John Clare. Writing freed him from wage labor for sixteen hours per day as a shoemaker. In terms of time, life habits, and money it gave him a precarious independence as an agent on a newly capitalized popular publishing market. It also subjected him to the pressures of the market while at the same time he was not free from the expectations of the patrons who had helped get The Farmer’s Boy published. His most hands-on patron was the Suffolk gentleman Capel Lofft, who expected, as the price for the advice and literary connections he made available to Bloomfield, to have his own views published in the form of prefaces and notes to the poems. These views embarrassed Bloomfield: Lofft included irrelevant and vain justifications of his own political conduct in the Preface to The Farmer’s Boy and added ridiculously fulsome and insipid commentary in footnotes to Rural Tales. The booksellers responded to public demand and sought the removal of these notes in the second edition; Lofft, insulted, insisted they remain. Bloomfield, caught between patron and market, tried in letter after letter to negotiate with both, while maintaining his own dignity. Ultimately, to his own anguish, he failed: Lofft chose to sulk, regarding himself as betrayed, and Bloomfield lost his first supporter, despite a willingness to compromise to a degree. But he would neither simply acquiesce to Lofft’s will nor toady to him: he retained his independence but at a cost that showed him forcefully that his writing was the subject of competition by others. Bloomfield was, his letters reveal, caught in what we now know was a transitional stage from the
eighteenth-century norm of publishing under patronage, with subscribers funding the work, to the nineteenth-century convention of selling via publishers to a mass market. Caught between patrons’ and booksellers’ demands, he struggled to retain possession of his own writerly self, to avoid becoming alienated from his own dearest words. Even well-meaning patrons pressured him, assuming it their prerogative to intervene on his behalf (as they thought) without first asking him. Thus the wealthy patron Lord Buchan, whose salon Bloomfield had visited in 1802, sent in 1806 to Bloomfield’s publishers, a private letter Bloomfield had written to him after the visit, in which Bloomfield confesses his shyness in polite company and apologizes for breaking down into tears. Buchan requested the publishers to include it in Wild Flowers along with Buchan’s own description of the occasion, so as to promote the sale. The private letter reveals Bloomfield’s insecurity about appearing before his social superiors:
It may look strange that one, who has been repeatedly honoured with your lordship’s conversation, should have anything left to express by writing: But the sudden transition from shade to sunshine, from obscurity to publicity, which have fallen to my lot, has sometimes proved almost painful, and often perplexing to a great degree. Condescension from superiors ought at least to inspire confidence sufficient to meet their approbation in all its shapes and modifications; and, when it does not, I am apt to suspect, that it deserves no such plausible name as modesty. It is a dastardly child, the offspring of ignorance and fear. I feel and know, that in my composition there is not an atom of what is called wit. My replies are the slow suggestions of contemplation, and my “good things” mostly come half an hour too late. I find this to be true in conversation with my equals, where restraint can have no force. There is however, another enemy (though in some cases my dearest friend) whose power is resistless, and whose visits are perpetually made known by a rising of the stomack, and a redundance of water in the eyes. Subjects of interest to the feelings are frequent in parties, such as I have lately had the honour to join; when, independent of the subject being often above my reach, I find this weakness, (if it be a weakness) stand in my way, and absolutely obstruct any remark or reply whatever. (letter 75, 19 January 1802)
When Bloomfield heard from the publishers of Buchan’s request to publish their private correspondence, he politely insisted on retaining control of his own words and on succeeding on his own merits, without the cachet provided by publishing letters of recommendation from the socially powerful. He would not risk appearing to be a creature of a Lord who had solicited for favor—an honorable decision which it required considerable temerity, considering the disparity in rank between Buchan and himself, to make:
To adopt your plan, great and honourable as it is, would involve consequences that I cannot explain. One of the most difficult tasks that arises from my extraordinary situation, for such perhaps with great truth I may call it, is so to act as not to wound the feelings of my good and voluntary friends, nor to violate my own. The Letter I long ago addrest to your Lordship is such perhaps as I ought not to be ashamed of, and such that no person would believe me did I pretend to it. But though I feel the intended honour, I feel too, other sensations that many perhaps could suppress: I feel that it would be a violation of my notions of delicacy to print it now. My object has been to abide by the most simple methods of acquiring reputation, the standing alone, as far as my abilities go, and as far as it can be done in justice to my friends. Thus it has happened that of the many letters which I have had from his Grace the Duke of Grafton, Sir C Bunbury &c, one from the Duke of York, and one from that most great, and most lamented man, Mr Fox, that none of them have been made use of, though, as well as those from your Lordship of a nature highly to be prized, they would have made a proud and conspicuous figure attach’d to any one of my publications. I know not which most to admire, your Lordships candour in stating your opinion of my poems, or your long remembrance of one so distant, and so much longer silent than your kind letters formerly would fairly warrant. (letter 191, 15 September 1806)
Independence was indeed a delicate matter, almost impossible for the laboring-class writer to sustain. But Bloomfield was adamant, reserving his contempt for his elder brother George, on whom he had once depended, when George would not stand up for him but instead toadied to Capel Lofft:
that man would listen to Tom Cat if he could flatter him, so dont pretend that you are too obscure and too humble to be able to do mischief. (whether intended or not.) Were I to take it as a risible subject, there is abundance of room for can anyone conceive a poor fellow more universally loaded with hangers on! There is something in that same letter of yours respecting . . . which from Nats and my own sentiments differ so horribly that I think I shall one day send it you with a few notes, that you may see if I have understood it right or wrong’d you when I deem’d you a turntail and a shufler. (letter 186, undated [after May 1806])
After this, a once frequent and friendly correspondence between the brothers lapsed for seventeen years. Bloomfield wrote again only when he knew he was gravely ill. He had not been able to preserve his family intact in face of the social pressures that authorship produced.
18. He found compensation—for some years—in the friendship of a gentle family of an unusual kind. The Sharp family was a philanthropic one, the best known of whom was Granville, the anti-slavery campaigner. It was, however, through the younger generation, a network of sisters and wives, that Bloomfield entered the extended circle. The married sister, Mary Lloyd Baker, wrote to him admiringly of his poetry and soon he was invited to the family’s houses in Hertfordshire, Gloucestershire, and Northamptonshire. There he was delighted to find admiring female company that made no demands upon him. The Sharp women neither sought to ride on the back of his writing nor to make him perform for them. In their company he relaxed, flirting and joking at their country houses. And since the women were not heads of the households they did not concern themselves with money and social authority as gentlemen did. Bloomfield was able to feel valued as part of sisterly and feminine world based on nature-love. The women appreciated poetry; they sketched; they toured the Wye valley, taking Bloomfield with them. In accessing the rural world through them, Bloomfield experienced it differently: it was not the countryside he met on his solitary pedestrian tours, nor the Suffolk village world of work and customs that he hoped to rediscover in Shefford, but a feminized world of beauty disinterestedly appreciated and shared at leisure. Bloomfield flourished in it, and was freed to exercise his talent for flirtatious humour, as a letter of 22 June 1804 reveals:
The micrometer you will see is scratch’d into squares so minute that each square form’d by the intersections is but the ten thousandth part of an inch. I hope you will not feel any disappointment as to its convenience or powers for I know that my manner of speaking of what pleases me, is apt to make others feel a blank. Yet I think your own good sense and your admirable perseverance will enable you to appreciate its merits, and thus I have no doubt as to the pleasure you may derive from so pleasing an insight into nature with so little trouble.—You have three ranges of objects as part of your purchase, but if I might direct your attention I could point out others, as for example—take your pride (which, by reason that you had no microscope when I was with you I could never see at all) and place it consciously in a good light:—but as such objects to the naked eye are so disgusting I doubt this would give you but little pleasure if you should place the glass so as to find it—secondly you may endeavour with the small spring tweezers to place your affectation in the focus of the magnifier by which means you will at once determine the power of the instrument, as you will then have an object absolutely never seen before. It may be put to another use still, whenever any man shall approach you with a view of sharing your affection and your heart you may immediately put all the best of his virtues into the insect-box and when you have magnified them to your liking give him your hand.—
The kindness of yourself and your most affectionate Mother to me, has left on my mind those impressions and feelings which virtue and goodness will and must for ever inspire, I love you both. May your hearts never know sorrow and, and &c &c I was going to flourish, but had better only beg that you will both believe me to be your most sincere and humble servant. (letter 134)
The many letters to the Sharp sisters may prompt us to a new perspective on Bloomfield in particular and laboring-class poets in general—a perspective showing that he and they flourished in a feminized literary and social milieu that was itself growing rapidly, as female readers valued nature-writing and as more and more female poets popularized a kind of poetry that was not associated with the kind favored by ruling-class men—neither with classical genres, nor political satire, nor the representation of patrons’ country estates. Bloomfield, as revealed for the first time by his correspondence, was not simply a “peasant poet” chiefly valuable for his portrait of labor and for his symbolic position as the voice of the laboring classes. He was a varied—and often comic—writer of intimate prose and verse whose articulations of the struggles he faced are valuable not simply as symptoms of the dilemmas faced by laboring-class writers, or as illustrations of the social world he inhabited, but also—and principally—as sensitive, honest, innovative, and successful negotiations of the consequences, for one in his marginal position on the edge of both, of the changing relationship between country and city, and masters and markets.
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