Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bloomfield, Robert

BLOOMFIELD, ROBERT (1766–1823), author of the ‘Farmer’s Boy,' was born at Honington, a village in Suffolk, on 3 Dec. 1766. His father, George Bloomfield, a tailor, died when Robert was a year old, leaving a family of six children; By his mother, who kept the village school, and by a Mr. Rodwell of Ixworth, the boy was taught to read and write. His mother married again when he was seven years old, and had another family. At eleven years of age he was taken into the house of his mother's brother-in-law, William Austin, a farmer in the neighbouring village of Sapiston. Here he acquired his knowledge of rustic manners. At the age of fifteen he was so diminutive in size as to he of little use on the farm. So the mother wrote to the elder sons, George and Nathaniel, the former a shoemaker and the latter a tailor, to inquire whether they could help their younger brother. George engaged to teach him the shoemaking business, and Nathaniel undertook to keep him provided with clothes. Accordingly, the boy came to London, and was domiciled in his brother’s garret in Fisher's Court, Bell Alley, Coleman Street. Four men besides the brother lived and worked in the one garret. Robert was chiefly employed in running errands for the men, or reading the newspaper to them. At Hrst he found in the newspapers many words that he could not understand; but after providing himself with a dictionary he was soon able to read with fluency ‘the long and beautiful speeches of Burke, Fox, or North.' He further improved his intellect by attending on Sunday evenings the discourses of a dissenting minister named Fawcett, who officiated at a meeting~house in the Old Jewry By attention to the teaching of this gentleman (whose language, as George Bloomfield puts it, ‘was just such as the “ Rambler " is written in’) ie ‘gained the most enlarged notions of Providence,' and learned the correct pronunciation of ‘hard words.' His reading at this time embraced the history of England, the ‘British Truveller,’ and a book of' geography. He was particularly fond of scanning the poets' corner of the ‘London Magazine,’ and was one day induced by his brother to send the editor of' that journal some verses entitled the ‘Milkmaid,’ which were accepted and published. Another trifle, the ‘Sailor's Return,' soon followed. About this time the brothers changed their lodging to a garret in Blue-hart Court, Bell Alley, where they had for companion a Scotchman named Kay, who was possessed of a few books (including ‘Paradise Lost’ and Thomson's ‘Seasons'), of which Robert was allowed the use. A dispute arising between the masters and 'ourneymen shoemakers as to the masters' right to employ those who had not served an apprenticeship, Robert, only too glad of the change, accepted an invitation to stay under the roof of his former employer, Armin, until the aiatreme should be settled. After an absence of three months he returned, and was apprenticed to his brother‘s landlord, continuing to work under his brother’s eye until he had completely gualified himself. In 1785 George remove to Bury St. Edmunds. Robert remained in London, and on 12 Dec. 1790 wrote to his brother that he ‘had sold his fiddle and got a wife.’ The young couple lived in the most squalid poverty: it took them several years to acquire a bed of their own. In a garret where five or six others were at work, Bloomfield composed his ‘Farmer’s Boy.' He was accustomed to keep fifty or a hundred lines in his head until he could find an opportunity of putting them on paper. The whole of ‘Winter and a great part of ‘Autumn’ were finished before a line of them had been written. In November 1798, after passing through various hands, the manuscript came under the notice of Capel Lofft, by whose efforts it was published (in sumptuous quarto), with cuts by Bewick and a preface by Lofft, in March 1800. The success of the ‘Farmer's Boy’ was remarkable; twenty-six thousand copies, it is estimated, were sold in less than three years. Translations appeared in French and Italian, and one enthusiastic admirer threw a portion of the work (‘Spring’) into Latin hexameters. Lamb did not share the general admiration for the poor thin verse of the ‘Farmer’s Boy.’ Writing to Manning in November 1800, he says: ‘Don’t you think the fellow who wrote it (who is a shoemaker) has a poor mind? . . . I have just opened him, but he makes me sick.’ Byron some years later, in ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,’ referred to Bloomfield in complimentary terms after some satirical lines upon Blackett, another poetical shoemaker [q. v.] The success of the ‘Farmer's Boy’ enable Bloomfield to remove to a small house in the City Road. About 1802 he received from the Duke of Grafton the post of undersealer in the Seal Office: but though the duties were light, his health would not permit him to attend to them, and he soon resigned. The duke made him an allowance (which was continued by his successor) of one shilling a day, and then Bloomfield employed himself in making Æolian harps, In 1802 appeared ‘Rural Tales,’ in 1804 ‘Good Tidings, or News from the Farm,’ and in 1806 ‘Wild Flowers.’ At the advice of some friends he now embarked in the book-trade, and soon became bankrupt. As he was in failing health, some friends took him in 1811 for a tour in Wales, and he recorded in a volume of verses, ‘The Banks of the Wye’ (1811), the impressions made upon him by the change of scene, In 1812 he retired for a time to Shefford, in Bedfordshire, returning to London in April of the following year. In June 1814 he went for a short tour to Canterbury and Dover. Having now become hypochondriacal and half blind, he retired to Shefford, where he died in great poverty on 19 Aug. 1828, leaving a widow and four children. Had he lived longer, he would probably have gone mad. Bernard Barton and others wrote verses to his memory, and a gravestone was raised to him in Campton Churchyard, Bedfordshire. In addition to the works previously mentioned Bloomfield published: l. ‘History of Little Davy’s New Hat,’ 1817. 2. ‘May-day with the Muses,’ 1822. 3. ‘Hazlewood Hall: a Village Drama,’ 1823. A collected edition of his works in three volumes, with a biographical sketch by Joseph Weston, appeared in 1824. Bloomfield was a man of a simple affectionate nature, but he was sadly wanting in independence and manliness. His letters preserved in the British Museum (Add. MSS. 28265-68) are singularly uninteresting, and afford convincing proof that he had, as Lamb said, a ‘poor mind.’ Selections from his correspondence were edited in 1870 by W. H. Hart. George Bloomfield, the elder brother, who also wrote verses, died—as he had lived—in wretched squalor, on 29 Jun. 1831.

[Joseph Weston's preface to the collected edition of Bloomfield's Works, 1824; Davy's Suffolk Collections, xci. 129-31, xciv. pp. 25-40; Add. MSS. 28265-68; Hone's Table Book, 801-5; Farmer’s Boy, ed. 1800.]

A. H. B.