Post by Audrey Kinch, Special Collections and Archives
For though on hoary twigs no buds peep out,
And e’en the hardy brambles cease to sprout,
Beneath dread Winter’s level sheets of snow,
The sweet nutritious Turnip designs to grow.
These lines are an excerpt from the ‘winter’ section of the poem entitled The Farmer’s Boy by English poet Robert Bloomfield (1766-1823). The poem was first printed in March 1800 and a copy is held in the English collection in the Russell Library.
Robert Bloomfield was born in Honington in the English county of Suffolk and he was one of six children. His father George was a tailor who died when Bloomfield was a year old. His mother Elizabeth was a schoolmistress and he learned to read and write at an early age mostly under her guidance. Elizabeth later re-married and the family continued to grow. When he was approximately 12 years of age, Bloomfield was sent to live with his uncle William Austin at Sapiston. William worked a farm for the Duke of Grafton and Bloomfield spent three years as a farmer’s boy where he was treated well. He always held fond memories of this time in his life.
In May 1796, Bloomfield began writing The Farmer’s Boy which was originally intended as a gift to his mother. The poem is about a boy called Giles as he completes his chores on the farm, his observance of and interactions with nature. It is a pastoral poem, a celebration of rural life and is c. 1,512 lines in length. The poem is divided in four sections which correspond to the seasons.
Due to a slight build, Bloomfield was deemed not wholly
suited to the manual work on the farm so his uncle advised his mother to find
another position more suited to his abilities.
Elizabeth arranged for him to move to London and his brother George
would teach him to become a shoemaker.
In 1781, at the age of fifteen he arrived to London, stayed with George
and four other cobblers in Coleman Street and learned the trade of shoemaking. Bloomfield had apparently a great memory for
poetry and could recite numerous lines.
By 1786 he was a qualified shoemaker and explored his interests in music
by acquiring a violin and hand-crafting aeolian harps. In 1790 he married Mary-Anne Church and their
first child Hannah was born in 1791.
The poem opens with an invitation for spring to come with a positive and uplifting tone ‘Sweet inmate, hail! thou source of sterling joy’ with an observation of snow topped hills, the morning dew and open skies. Though privately mourning for his father, Giles is depicted as happily pre-occupied in his work and his mind is off his worries. His uncle is portrayed as a kind man, engaging with his young nephew and setting out his work for him to do.
The summer section refers to the weather and the harvest, ploughing the land and all the labour involved in the harvest from toiling in the fields with the ‘sweeping scythe’ to working in the barn until it is filled. Bloomfield notes after the day’s work ‘Sweet twilight, welcome!, Rest, how sweet art thou.’ Descriptions of the rain falling, ploughing in the fields, insects swarming, a sky-lark singing, clear blue skies and crops appearing as ‘the smiling produce of the land’ provide a clear image of rural life.
In the Autumn section the changing season is visible with fallen acorns, blowing winds and fallen leaves which lie on the ground. Bloomfield depicts the wild ducks, pheasants and foxes in the woods and gives account of village life. He comments on Gile’s and how he is tired, weary yet diligent in his work. Nature is both recognised and praised ‘bless the Power that rules the changing year.’ The tone within the autumn section remains positive, ever-looking forward ‘That Spring will come, and Nature smile again.’
Winter arrives in the final section, the ground is under frost, ice and snow. The farmer thinks of respite when he returns home ‘the cold may pierce, and storms molest, Succeeding hours shall cheer with warm and rest.’ In the evenings, Giles visits the cows in the shed and the pigs in the sty, his voice is familiar to the animals and they eagerly feed from his hand. The gentle, strong hardworking farm-horse Dobbin is happy to return at the end of the day ‘And joys to see the well-known stable door, as the starv’d mariner the friendly shore.’ Ewes and lambs die due to damp and cold however the farmer is uplifted to see the flock group together and the orphan lambs survive. The remaining lines give thanks and praise for the experiences of the seasons which appears an insightful, deep appreciation of nature. In a moment of mindfulness for anyone this could be considered a poem of positive wellbeing which is relaxing to read.
Initially three publishers rejected publication of The Farmer’s Boy and Bloomfield gave up and gave the poem to his brother George as a gift. George showed the poem to editor and writer Capel Loftt who was also an influential figure in Suffolk society. Loftt included an evaluation and The Farmer’s Boy was published in March 1800 by Vernon and Hood. Robert Bloomfield published further volumes of poetry in his lifetime and he died in Shefford, Bedfordshire in August 1823.
The edition of The Farmer’s Boy held in the Russell Library was published in Halifax by William Milner in 1837. The Russell Library is open on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 10.00am to 1.00pm and 2.00pm to 5.00pm. Access to the Russell Library is arranged through appointment by telephone (01) 7083890 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
In beaded rows if drops now deck the spray,
While the sun grants a momentary ray,
Let but a cloud’s broad shadow intervene,
And stiffen’d into gems the drops are seen;
Bloomfield, Robert: A Farmer’s Boy, rural tales, ballads and songs (1837)
Kaloustian, David: Bloomfield, Robert (1766-1823), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)