Robert Bloomfield

Robert Bloomfield
Robert Bloomfield
Born 3 December 1766
Honington, Suffolk
Died 19 August 1823 (1823-08-20) (aged 56)
Shefford, Bedfordshire
Occupation shoemaker, bookseller
Genres rustic descriptive verse
Notable work(s) The Farmer's Boy (1800)
Rural Tales, Ballads and Songs (1802)

Robert Bloomfield (December 3, 1766 – August 19, 1823) was an English labouring class poet whose work is appreciated in the context of other self-educated writers such as Stephen Duck, Mary Collier and John Clare.



Robert Bloomfield was born of a poor family in the village of Honington, Suffolk. His father was a tailor and died of smallpox when the son was a year old. It was from his mother Elizabeth, who kept the village school, that he received the rudiments of education. Apprenticed at the age of eleven to a farming uncle, he was too small and frail for field labour; four years later he was sent to London to work as a shoemaker under his elder brother George. One of his early duties was to read the papers aloud while the others in the workshop were working and he became particularly interested in the poetry section of The London Magazine.[1] Very soon he started writing in imitation and had his first poem, “The Village Girl”, published in 1786. When his brother George returned to Suffolk in that year, he set up on his own as a cobbler and in 1790 married Mary Ann Church, by whom he was to have five children.

The poem that made his reputation, The Farmer's Boy, was composed in a garret in Bell Alley, where half a dozen other men were at work; Bloomfield was able to carry some fifty to a hundred finished lines of it in his head at a time until there was opportunity to write them down. The manuscript was declined by several publishers and was eventually shown by his brother George to Capel Lofft, a radical Suffolk squire of literary tastes, who arranged for its publication with woodcuts by Thomas Bewick in 1800. The success of the poem was remarkable, over 25,000 copies being sold in the next two years. Also reprinted in several American editions, it appeared in German translation in Leipzig, translated into French as Le Valet du Fermier in Paris, and in Italian translation in Milan; there was even a Latin translation of parts of it, De Agricolae Puero, Anglicano Poemate celeberrimo excerptum, et in morem Latini Georgice redditum, by the lively Suffolk vicar Dr William Clubbe (1745–1814).[2] The poem was particularly admired by the Suffolk-born painter John Constable who used couplets from it as tags to two paintings: a 'Ploughing Scene' (shown at the Royal Academy in 1814) and 'A Harvest Field, Reapers, Gleaners' (shown at the British Institution in 1817), which he noted as deriving from 'Bloomfield's poem'.[3]

While this success helped reduce his poverty for a while, it also took him away from his work. As a result the Earl of Grafton, who lived at Euston Hall near the village of Bloomfield's birth, settled on him a small annuity and used his influence to gain him employment in the Seal Office to the King’s Bench Court and then at Somerset House, but he worked in neither for long. Meanwhile Bloomfield's reputation was increased by the appearance of his Rural Tales (1802), several poems of which were set to music by his brother Isaac. Another of them, "The Miller's Maid", was made an opera by John Davy (1763–1824) in 1804 and formed the basis for a two-act melodrama by John Faucit Saville (1807–1855) in 1821.[4] Other publications by Bloomfield included Good Tidings (written in praise of inoculation at the instigation of Edward Jenner, 1804); Wild Flowers or Pastoral and Local Poetry (1806); and The Banks of the Wye (the poetic journal of a walking tour in the footsteps of Wordsworth, 1811).

Unfortunately Vernor and Hood, his publishers, went bankrupt and in 1812 Bloomfield was forced to move from London into a cottage rented to him by a friend in the Bedfordshire village of Shefford. There one of his daughters died in 1814 and his wife became insane. In order to support himself he tried to carry on business as a bookseller but failed, and in his later years was reduced to making Aeolian harps which he sold among his friends.[5] With failing eyesight, his own reason threatened by depression, he died in great poverty in 1823. In order to pay his debts and cover the funeral expenses, his collection of books and manuscripts, and his household effects, had to be auctioned. Allied to this fund-raising was the publication that year of his drama, Hazlewood Hall, and in the following year of The Remains of Robert Bloomfield, which included writing for children on which he had been working for some years and a selection of his correspondence.

The poetry

Bloomfield's poetry invites comparison with that of George Crabbe, who was also a native of Suffolk. Both wrote much in iambic pentameter couplets, both provide descriptions of rural life in its hardest and least inviting forms. Bloomfield, however, is more cheerful in tone and his verse is denser and more vigorous. Here, for instance, is the episode in "The Farmer's Boy" where Giles chops up turnips to feed the livestock in winter:

On GILES, and such as Giles, the labour falls,
To strew the frequent load where hunger calls.
On driving gales sharp hail indignant flies,
And sleet, more irksome still, assails his eyes;
Snow clogs his feet; or if no snow is seen,
The field with all its juicy store to screen,
Deep goes the frost, till every root is found
A rolling mass of ice upon the ground.
No tender ewe can break her nightly fast,
Nor heifer strong begin the cold repast,
Till Giles with pond'rous beetle foremost go,
And scatt'ring splinters fly at every blow;
When pressing round him, eager for the prize,
From their mixt breath warm exhalations rise.

However, such verse is little varied from that of many of Bloomfield's contemporaries, such as James Montgomery and Ebenezer Elliot whose names, like his, were well known in their time but are scarcely remembered now. Besides such formal productions, he told many light-hearted stories in octosyllabics, some of which are interesting for their employment of Suffolk dialect words, particularly in “The Horkey”. His work served as an inspiration to John Clare, who began publishing his own rural poetry in 1820 and praised Bloomfield’s highly.

Robert’s brother, Nathaniel, also published a collection of poetry in 1803, An Essay on War, in Blank Verse, and Other Poems.[6] Byron commented on the brothers in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (lines 775-86),[7] linking Robert's name favourably with other poets of humble beginnings such as Burns and Gifford but dismissing Nathaniel's writing as routine and uninspired. Byron returned to the charge in Hints from Horace with the apostrophe

Hark to those lines, narcotically soft,
The cobbler-laureats sing to Capel Lofft! (lines 733-4)

Although a note makes it clear than Nathaniel is his principal target, he also seems to include 'his brother Bobby' in the accusation that Lofft 'has spoiled some excellent shoemakers and been accessory to the poetic undoing of many of the industrious poor'.[8]

Later Reputation

In 1973 Shefford's secondary school was converted to a middle school (for pupils aged 9–13) and named after the poet.[9] In 2000 the Robert Bloomfield Society[10] was founded to promote awareness of his life and work and has encouraged scholarly publications relating to him. A revised and enlarged selection of his poems was published by Trent Editions in 2007. Recent studies of his poetry evaluate it within its social as well as its literary context.[11]


  1. ^ ’’Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties’’, New York, 1860, pp.104-6; Google Books [1]
  2. ^ See Illustrations of the literary history of the 18th century on Google Books [2]
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ Chamber’s Cyclopaedia of English Literature, Edinburgh, 1844, vol.2, pp.283-4, at Google Books, [3]
  6. ^ Available on Google Books
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ See Simon White's introduction to Robert Bloomfield: lyric, class and the Romantic canon, Cranbury NJ, 2006, p.17ff; available at Google Books [4]

External links

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