Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay


BLOOMFIELD, ROBERT (1766-1823), English poet, was born of humble parents at the village of Honington, Suffolk, on the 3rd of December 1766. He was apprenticed at the age of eleven to a farmer, but he was too small and frail for field labour, and four years later he came to London to work for a shoemaker. The poem that made his reputation, The Farmer’s Boy, was written in a garret in Bell Alley. The manuscript, declined by several publishers, fell into the hands of Capell Lofft, who arranged for its publication with woodcuts by Bewick in 1800. The success of the poem was remarkable, over 25,000 copies being sold in the next two years. His reputation was increased by the appearance of his Rural Tales (1802), News from the Farm (1804), Wild Flowers (1806) and The Banks of the Wye (1811). Influential friends attempted to provide for Bloomfield, but ill-health and possibly faults of temperament prevented the success of these efforts, and the poet died in poverty at Shefford, Bedfordshire, on the 19th of August 1823. His Remains in Poetry and Verse appeared in 1824.

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& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

BLOOMFIELD, Robert (1766-1823) by Tim Fulford

The 1910-1911 Encyclopædia Britannica entry for Robert Bloomfield gives a factually accurate outline of the poet’s career, but is limited by the brevity necessary in a print encyclopaedia. With the larger space available to us now, online, it is possible to go into further detail about his significance, then and since.

Robert Bloomfield
Edridge, Henry. Robert Bloomfield. c. 1805, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

Born into rural poverty in the Suffolk village of Honington in 1766, Robert Bloomfield was a year old when his father died of smallpox. His mother, the village schooldame, taught him to read until, after taking a second husband, she sent him, aged eleven, to work at the farm of her brother-in-law, William Austin, in nearby Sapiston. Bloomfield proved too physically small to become a useful farmhand, and was sent at fifteen to London to live and work with his brothers George and Nathaniel. It was in his brothers’ workshop in Bell Alley, Coleman Street, that he began to read aloud newspapers and magazines for the benefit of the journeymen. The love of verse that he acquired in this manner led him to poetry—James Thomson, John Dyer, Thomas Gray—and to composition. He made verses in his head as he worked. It was in this way that he composed The Farmerʼs Boy, the Georgic poem based on his experience as a child labourer in Sapiston. When written down in 1798, the poem found a sponsor in the Suffolk Whig gentleman Capel Lofft, who wished to patronise talent among the lower classes of his region. After being emended by Lofft, it was published by Vernor and Hood in 1800.

A wild success that sold over 25,000 copies, The Farmer’s Boy made Bloomfield the bestselling poet of the decade (in the Victorian era, his sales were exceeded only by Robert Burns and Lord Byron among nineteenth-century poets). Bloomfield became a celebrity—the verse-making ladies’ shoemaker and farmerʼs boy—in demand in the salons of the rich. He found this an uncomfortable experience; moreover, the number of callers at his quarters made it impossible to continue his trade. He moved from Bell Alley to a cottage on the City Road. From there he composed his new titles, Rural Tales (1802), News from the Farm (1804: a poem celebrating the discovery of vaccination against smallpox), and Wild Flowers (1806); he also oversaw new printings of his first success and of his collected Poems (1809). His family increased: his daughter Hannah and lame son Charles, whom he would rely on in later years, grew up here, and further children arrived. In the years to 1813 Bloomfield was prosperous, sending money to his mother and brothers. In these years, too, he developed a trade in making Aeolian harps and wrote a history of their appearance in poetry, Nature’s Music (1808). He forged a number of friendships with gentlefolk who admired his work. In particular, the extended family of Granville Sharp the abolitionist acted as advisers, hosts and fellow tourists—inviting him on the tour of the Wye valley and Wales that was the most exhilarating experience of his life. This tour spawned his picturesque poem The Banks of Wye (1811).

It was the bankruptcy of his bookseller in 1813 that precipitated Bloomfieldʼs decline. Already financially stretched by his commitments to relations, he lost his royalty income and his long-term publisher, discovering, moreover, that legal ownership of his copyrights was too vexed an issue for another publisher easily to take on his existing works. In 1811, he had already been forced to retire from London to the village of Shefford in Bedfordshire, where he could live more cheaply, but whence it was harder to maintain his literary connections. Chronic illnesses set in: he was afflicted by crippling rheumatism and he lost effective vision in one eye. His wife, never an easy presence, had become a follower of the self-proclaimed prophet Joanna Southcott. In the years 1816 to 1823 when he died (on 19 August), he let correspondences with his brother George and with old literary acquaintances lapse, and, depressed by his near blindness, wrote less poetry. The works of these later years, accomplished as they are, did not attain the popularity of his earlier poems. The History of Little Davy’s New Hat (1815), May Day with the Muses (1822), and Hazelwood-Hall (1823) idealise village life while warning against the social changes that were impoverishing rural labourers and alienating them from the squires and lords who owned the land and ruled the country.

Bloomfield remains a significant poet for several reasons. First, he renewed the Georgic tradition of the eighteenth century by telling of rural life from the farmworkers’ and villagers’ points of view. Second, he was the first phenomenal success of the expanding market for mass print: his poems sold in unprecedented numbers, and his collected Poems (1809) was one of the first books to be reproduced by the new stereotyping technology. Third, this success put him on the watershed between traditional and modern modes of verse publication: in later editions of his works, the role of his patron, Lofft, previously visible in paratextual prefaces, introductions and interpretive footnotes, was excised (to Lofft’s chagrin). The poet and the publisher, empowered and enriched by mass print, would henceforth face the public without the medium of a patron. Fourth, Bloomfield’s achievement won him the respect of other writers determined to make a living from publication independently of patrons: he was admired by Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Fifth, Bloomfield’s success made him a model for dozens of labouring-class or self-educated poets for the next century—among them John Clare.

Modern editions have recovered Bloomfield from the neglect into which twentieth-century critics let him fall: Selected Poems of Robert Bloomfield, ed. John Goodridge and John Lucas (Nottingham, 2007) presents the text of The Farmerʼs Boy edited from Bloomfield’s manuscript; The Collected Writings of Robert Bloomfield, ed. Tim Fulford, John Goodridge and Sam Ward, a definitive scholarly edition, appeared online in 2019; The Letters of Robert Bloomfield and his Circle, ed. Fulford and Lynda Pratt, appeared online in 2009:; in 2006, there appeared a collection of critical essays Robert Bloomfield: Lyric, Class and the Romantic Canon (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP), edited by Goodridge, Simon J. White, and Bridget Keegan; in 2007, Bloomfield received further scrutiny with the publication of Whiteʼs Robert Bloomfield, Romanticism and the Poetry of Community (Aldershot, Burlington VT.: Ashgate); and in 2012, the online essay collection Robert Bloomfield: the Inestimable Blessing of Letters, edited by Goodridge and Keegan, appeared

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