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Robert Bloomfield

Robert Bloomfield was born of a poor family. 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 in Honington, that he received the rudiments of education. Apprenticed at the age of eleven to his mother's brother-in-law, he worked on a farm which was part of the estate of the Duke of Grafton, his future patron.

Four years later, owing to his small and weak stature (in adult Bloomfield was just five feet tall) 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. He 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, Coleman Street. It was influenced by James Thomson's poem The Seasons. 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, the radical squire of Troston with 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). 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'. It was also admired by Robert Southey, a Romantic poet and future poet laureate.

While this success helped reduce his poverty for a while, it also took him away from his work. As a result the Duke of Grafton, who lived at Euston Hall near the village of Bloomfield's birth, settled on him a small annuity of £15 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. 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.

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.