Views in Suffolk, Norfolk, and Northamptonshire/Memoir of Robert Bloomfield
To trace the progress of intellect through the successive stages of its growth, from its early dawn to the period of its full expansion, is an interesting and useful labour; inasmuch, as the formation of proper precepts for moral conduct, must always depend on our acquaintance with the nature of the mind, whether deriving strength from education, or acquiring superiority from the independent exertion of its own powers. The more humble the state, perhaps, from which any human being has emerged to eminence through the vigour of his talents, the higher must have been his merit; for the disadvantages of birth and fortune have a far greater influence on the evolution of the mental faculties, than the moralist, who, with Pope, makes "Virtue its own reward," is at all times willing to acknowledge. Powerful, indeed, must be his genius, who can dissever the brazen trammels that Poverty has forged for her children, and 'outstepping' the control of circumstance, make literature his passport to affluence and to fame.
Robert Bloomfield, the Farmer's Boy, was born at the little village of Honington, in Suffolk, on the 3d of December, 1766. He was the younger son of George Bloomfield, a tailor; and Elizabeth, daughter of Robert Manby, who was the village schoolmistress, and who instructed her own offspring with those of her neighbours. His father died a victim to the small-pox, when the subject of this Memoir was less than a twelvemonth old, and his mother was left a widow with six children.It is observable that Bloomfield has incorporated the most material events of his life with some one or other of his poems, so that were all the passages selected, and duly arranged, his history would want but few additional particulars to be told in the descriptive language of his own muse. Thus, in his "Good Tidings," after alluding to the family distress occasioned by the fell disease just mentioned, he
The Mother of
notices his parent's death, and the general horror which the contagion inspired, in these words:
——— Heav'n restor'd them all,
And destin'd one of riper years to fall.
Midnight beheld the close of all his pain,
His grave was clos'd when midnight came again:
No bell was heard to toll, no fun'ral pray'r.
No kindred bow'd, no wife, no children there:—
Its horrid nature could inspire a dread
That cut the bonds of custom like a thread.
The humble church-tow'r higher seem'd to show,
Illumin'd by the trembling light below;
The solemn night-breeze struck each shiv'ring cheek,
Religious reverence forbade to speak:
The starting sexton his short sorrow child.
When the earth murmur'd on the coffin lid,
And falling bones and sighs of holy dread
Sounded a requiem to the silent dead.
The lowly occupation of Mrs. Bloomfield, and the number of her children, which was increased by the issue of a second marriage, deprived her of the means of giving her son Robert any regular schooling; and nearly all the tuition that he ever received out of her own cottage, was from Mr. Rodwell, of Ixworth (now senior clerk to the magistrates of Blackburn Hundred), to whom he went for about two or three months to be improved in writing. At the age of eleven he was taken into the house of Mr. William Austin, his mother's brother-in-law, a respectable farmer of Sapiston, a little village adjoining to Honington, his mother still continuing to find him "a few things to wear," though even this "was more than she well knew how to do." Mr. Austin, having himself a large family, could pay but little attention to his young kinsman, more than to providing him with food and employment: in this respect, however, the treatment of his servants and of his sons was the same; "all worked hard, all lived well."
'Twas thus with Giles; meek, fatherless, and poor,
Labour his portion, but he felt no more;
No stripes, no tyranny his steps pursu'd,
His life was constant, cheerful servitude:
Strange to the world he wore a bashful look,
The fields his study, nature was his book:
A little farm his generous master till'd,
Who with peculiar grace his station tiil'd;
By deeds of hospitality endear'd,
Serv'd from affection, for his worth rever'd;
A happy offspring blest his plenteous board,
His fields were fruitful, and his barns well stor'd;
And fourscore ewes he fed, a sturdy team,
And lowing kine that graz'd beside the stream:
Unceasing industry he kept in view,
And never lack'd a job for Giles to do.
Honington Church and the Cottage in which Robt. Bloomfield was born
From the Green
For I have heard and seen
The long remember'd Voice the Church the green
Before the age of fifteen it was requisite to make some change in the employment of young Bloomfield, as Mr. Austin had informed his mother that he was so small of his age, as to be very little likely to be able to get his living by hard labour: she wrote therefore to her two elder sons, George and Nathaniel, who were then resident in London: and the former, a ladies' shoemaker, offered to take him and teach him his own business; whilst the latter, a tailor, promised to find him in clothes. On this offer his mother brought him to town, and intrusted him to the care of his brother George, charging him, as "he valued a mother's blessing, to watch over him, to set good examples for him, and never to forget that he had, lost his father."
Mr. George Bloomfield then lived in an obscure court, near Coleman-Street, and worked with four others in a light garret, whither Robert was introduced; and whilst acquiring a knowledge of his trade, became, as he has himself expressed it, though on another occasion, "A Gibeonite, and serv'd them all by turns," The most common of his occupations was to read the Newspaper, his " time being of less value" than that of his brother, or of the other workmen; and because, when thus employed, he frequently met with words that he could not understand, an old and tattered Dictionary was bought for his use, by a constant reference to which he soon attained a greater command of language, and could readily comprehend the meaning of any difficult passage that might occur. His knowledge of phraseology and enunciation was also increased by a regular attendance at the meeting-house in the Old Jewry, on Sunday evenings, when the late Rev. Mr. Fawcett was delivering his eloquent and celebrated lectures.
The principal, and indeed only, books that at this time were at his command, were a History of England, a British Traveller, a Geography and the London Magazine. These were purchased in numbers by his brother and fellow-workmen; but, with the exception of the Magazine, were read by Bloomfield more as a task than as a pleasure: yet even from these he attained some knowledge both of Geography and History. The Poet's Corner in the newspapers had the greatest share of his attention, and here some of the first productions of his muse were registered; but they were not written exactly at the early age which Mr. G. Bloomfield, in his letter to Capel Lofft, has assigned. At the time they were published, Robert was really in his twentieth year; yet previously to that, even as early as the age of fifteen, he had made some attempts to array his ideas in a poetical garb.
About this time a person, who was troubled with fits, took lodgings in the same house with the Bloomfields, and by his horrid screams, and frightful gesticulations, so affected the sensibility of Robert, that his brother was induced to remove to a neighbouring court, through the fear of consequences. In their new residence they became acquainted with a man of singular character, a native of Dundee, who had many books, and among them Paradise Lost and The Seasons: these he lent to Robert, who was particularly delighted with The Seasons, and studied it with peculiar attention. The vivid imagery and glowing diction of Thomson, were in strict accordance with his own conceptions of the charms of nature; but when at a subsequent period here-considered the descriptions of the Scottish bard, he felt a firm conviction that the subject had not been exhausted; and that "the rural occupation and business of the fields, the dairy, and the farm-yard," would still afford a sufficient range for an original and independent poem.
Soon afterwards a dispute between the masters and the journeymen shoemakers, respecting the right of giving employment to those who had not served a regular apprenticeship, occasioned a temporary suspension in the vocations of young Bloomfield; and till the disputes were settled, his old master and uncle, Mr. Austin, again invited him to his house at Sapiston. The invitation was accepted; and in the very fields where his infant mind first opened to the beauties of the country, and imbibed its fondness for rural simplicity and rural innocence, he experienced a renovation of his original feelings, and 'became fitted to be the writer of The Farmer's Boy.'
The dispute in the trade continuing undecided, he returned to London after an absence of two months, and was regularly apprenticed to his brother's landlord, in order to secure him at all events from the effects of the litigation. It was understood, however, that no advantage should be taken of the indentures, and he continued to work with his brother till he had acquired a complete knowledge of his business; his leisure hours being occasionally employed in learning to play on the violin.
At this time his brother left London for Bury St. Edmund's; and about five years afterwards, Robert, who had continued to follow his trade, informed him by letter that "he had sold his fiddle and got a wife." Her name was Mary Anne, daughter to Joseph Church, a boat-builder in the dock-yard at Woolwich. The marriage was solemnized on the 12th of December 1790.
The early years of this alliance were in some respects imbittered by the cares of livelihood, and the sickness of a young family, which interrupted his literary amusements, and for a time made considerable ravages on his health.
Soon came the days that tried a faithful wife,
The noise of children, and the cares of life.
Then, 'midst the threat'nings of a wintry sky,
That cough which blights the bud of infancy,
The dread of parents, rest's inveterate foe,
Came like a plague, and turn'd my songs to woe.
The little sufferers triumph'd over pain,
Their mother smil'd, and bade me hope again.
Yet care gain'd ground, exertion triumph'd less,
Thick fell the gathering terrors of distress;
Anxiety, and griefs without a name.
Had made their dreadful inroads on my frame;
The creeping dropsy, cold as cold could be,
Unnerv'd my arm. ———
But Winter's clouds pursu'd their stormy way,
And March brought sunshine with the length'ning day;
And bade my heart arise, that morn and night
Now throbb'd with irresistible delight.
‘To my old Oak Table.’
On the recovery of his strength he resumed his labours in the garret of the house where he then resided, in Bell Alley, Coleman-Street. Here, amidst all the din and bustle made by six or seven persons, pursuing the same trade as his own, did Bloomfield compose The Farmer's Boy; committing it to paper as he found opportunity, fifty, or a hundred lines at a time, and arranging them as they were afterwards printed, in the exact order in which they had been referred by imagination to memory. The strength of the latter faculty was indeed particularly exerted in the two last divisions of his poem: the whole of his Winter and great part of his Autumn having been entirely finished before a single verse was written down.
When the manuscript was completed, it passed through several hands before it was examined by any person of sufficient judgment to appreciate its value; or, in other words, before it had the fortune to be read by any one enough superior to prejudice, to allow that a good poem could be composed by an uneducated and unpresuming mechanic. At length, in November 1798, it was referred to the well-known Capel Lofft, Esq., of Troston Hall, near Bury; and under his patronage, and most warmly supported by his influence, it was published in March 1800. To the taste and superior sense of this gentleman, therefore, are the public indebted for all the pleasure they have derived from the productions of a Bloomfield: and while the wreath of immortality is decreed to the poet, the civic crown shall encircle the brow of his protector and his friend.
The publication of The Farmers Boy proved eminently successful, and a greater number perhaps was sold in a less space of time, than had ever occurred with any poem previously committed to the press. It attracted the attention of the most exalted personages in the kingdom; and many of the most eminent literary characters concurred in bestowing the meed of approbation upon its author. His domestic affairs were greatly improved by the various presents which he received from those who were emulous to reward the exertion of talents under such untoward circumstances, and, conjoined with the profits derived from the sale of the work, enabled him to emerge from the obscurity of his former situation, and to remove to a small house near the Shepherd and Shepherdess, in the City Road. One of the greatest pleasures, however, resulting to Bloomfield from the printing of The Farmer's Boy, was the opportunity of transmitting a copy to his mother; which he did immediately after its publication.
In the year 1802 he published a second volume of poems, under the title of Rural Tales: these added considerably to his reputation:—his familiar representations of nature giving a charm to his poetry that renders it attractive to every class of readers. A third volume, bearing the appellation of Wild Flowers, has very recently been published, and will be found to possess an equal degree of merit with his former productions.
The family of Bloomfield consists of his wife, three daughters, and a son: to the latter, who is unfortunately afflicted with lameness, his father has dedicated his Wild Flowers. His wife's father is also resident in his house, and it will not be thought undeserving of notice, by those for whom the "simple annals of the poor" have interest, that the "Old Oak Table" upon whose "back" The Farmer's Boy was written, was a gift from this relation towards housekeeping; and to use the words of Bloomfield himself, composed of his
Worldly wealth, the parent stock.
From the little that can at present be ascertained of the family of Bloomfield, it appears that the great-grandfather of the Poet, both on the male and on the female side, is the most distant ancestor whose relationship can regularly be traced; and it is singular that both these relations were tailors, and that they were both placed out to that trade by ladies, whose names are now unknown. Isaac Bloomfield, his great-grandfather by the male line, was apprenticed at Framlingham, in Suffolk; but in the latter part of his life he was Churchwarden during twenty-seven years, of the parish of Ousden, in the same county. He lived to the age of eighty-eight, and had seventeen children alive at one time, of whom James, the youngest, and by a second marriage, was father to Mr. Charles Blomfield, who keeps a very respectable school at Bury St. Edmunds, and is at this time a capital Burgess of that town. The difference in the orthography of the names by the omission of an o, is known to have been occasioned by a quarrel between old Isaac Bloomfield, and a brother of his, who afterwards settled in the neighbourhood of Colchester, where many of his descendants are now living. This Isaac Bloomfield was accustomed to tell a story of his childhood, which has been regularly transmitted to his great-grandson Robert, and is to this effect; that, "he remembered being at a house at Framlingham, surrounded by a moat, and that a party of horse soldiers were lodged there who were in the interest of Charles the First, but that the partisans of Cromwell overpowering them, the people of the house fled, and in the confusion the maid gave him a handful of silver spoons, and told him to throw them into the moat to prevent them falling into the hands of the enemy: he did so, and then ran away himself:'" and this he would observe, on concluding his tale, "was the of our family." What his particular meaning was by this dark expression cannot now be told; but it is a very curious and remarkable circumstance, that an event which occurred in America about two years ago. appears to bear a strong; reference to the above narrative. Elizabeth Bloomfield, an elder sister to Robert, is now resident in George Town, Potomac; and in a letter which she sent to her brother, of the date of February 11, 1805, is the following passage:
"Your Poems, &c., make a great bustle here; they are printing again at New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia; and before I left Philadelphia the Governor of the State of Jersey sent for me. He is an original in his manner; his name is Bloomfield; and every one of that name he meets with he sends for, and examines his genealogy to find if they spring from the same branch. I assure you I have not been so catechized since I was a baby: he seemed to wish to find himself allied to the Poet, as he was pleased to call you. He is an old man; he tells me his great-great-grandfather fled from England in the time of the revolution in England, in the time of Oliver Cromwell. He has a town in the Jerseys called Bloomfield, the inhabitants chiefly composed of that name, which he has hunted out:— he finished by telling me, if ever I wanted assistance, to apply to him, as he made it an invariable rule to help his country people all he could, and particularly those of his own name."
Though this information is defective in not specifying from what part of England the Governor of Jersey deduced his own origin, yet it may be presumed, with great appearance of probability, that it must have been from the eastern coast, as the Bloomfields (with some variation in spelling perhaps) are far more abundant in Suffolk than in any other part of the island; and if so, that his ancestors were the same as those of the Poet. Among others of the name of Bloomfield, and Blomefield, noticed in Loder's History of Framlingham, John Sutton is mentioned as holding a cottage which was Thomas Buckes' in 1676, and John Blumfield's in 1659.
To those who are anywise interested in tracing the rise, the decay, and the connexions of families, a few more words on this subject will not be tedious.—Warton, in his History of English Poetry, vol. iii. p. 84, has these words: "William Blomefield, otherwise Battlesden, born at Bury, in Suffolk, bachelor in physic, and a monk of Bury Abbey, was an adventurer in quest of the philosopher's stone. While a monk at Bury, as I presume, he wrote a metrical tract, entitled ‘Bloomefield's Blossoms, or the Campe of Philosophy.'—Afterwards turning Protestant, he did not renounce his chemistry with his religion; for he appears to have dedicated to Queen Elizabeth another system of occult sciences, entitled ‘The Rule of Life, or the Fifth Essence.' "—Ritson, in his Bibliographia Poetica, styles him Sir William Bloomfield, and says, he wrote "The Compendiary of the Noble Science of Alkemy:" and Bishop Tanner, in his Bibliotheca, informs us, that after his recantation from Popery, he was made 'Vicar of St. Simon and St. Jude, in Norwich, 'whence he was afterwards ejected by the Papists.'
Now, from the birthplace of this Bloomfield being at Bury, it is not improbable but that if the descent could be distinctly traced, he would be found named in the pedigree of the Poet; and it is possible also, that Blomefield, the Historian of Norfolk, might be descended from a branch of the same stock. — Whether, however, these things are so or not, the author of The Farmers Boy requires no adventitious lustre to be reflected upon his name from a connexion with literary ancestors. Modest and unassuming in his manners, retired in deportment, warm in his friendship, and humble in his piety, he is convinced that individual worth must arise from individual merit: and that the inquiry, 'To whom related, or by whom begot,' is only of use when it tends to improve the conduct, and to instruct the heart.
E. W. B.
- March 15, 1806.
- See the eighth edition of The Farmer's Boy, where all the pieces alluded to are re-printed.
- This title, it should be observed, was given to priests in the Catholic times, as may be evinced by many ancient sepulchral inscriptions.