Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 28. Robert Bloomfield; John Clare

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

V. Lesser Poets, 1790–1837

§ 28. Robert Bloomfield; John Clare

Community of circumstance, of misfortune and (in part) of subject has linked Robert Bloomfield and John Clare together. Both, though Bloomfield was not “tied to the soil” by birth, wer agricultural labourers, or, as Bloomfield’s own much better phrase has it, “farmers’ boys”; both made themselves authors under the consequential difficulties; both were patronised; neither made the best use of the patronage; and both died mad, though, in Bloomfield’s case, actual insanity has been questioned. Nor is there quite so much dissimilarity between the poetic value of their work, if the poems of Clare published during his lifetime be taken alone, as readers of the high, and not ill-deserved, praise sometimes bestowed on the younger poet might expect. The late Sir Leslie Stephen, indeed, took a low view of Clare’s production as a whole; but “asylum verses” were not the kind of poetry that generally appealed to that accomplished critic. They certainly distinguish Clare from Bloomfield, from whom even madness or approach to madness did not extract anything better than a sort of modernising of Thomson, most creditable as produced under difficulties and entitled to the further consideration that, when he first produced it, the newer poetry had hardly begun to appear, and that nothing but eighteenth century echoes could possibly be expected. Charles Lamb, who never went wrong without good cause, and who, on no occasion, was an unamiably “superior” critic, thought that Bloomfield had “a poor mind,” and there is certainly nothing in his work to indicate that it was a rich one, poetically speaking. Lamb put Clare higher, even on the work he knew, and his judgment was eventually justified; but it may be questioned whether the appeal of the volumes on which he formed it is, except in technique, much higher than Bloomfield’s. As was certain to be the case in 1820, as compared with 1800, the stock couplet versification and diction of the eighteenth century are replaced by varied metres, a more natural vocabulary, and a general attempt at lyrical quality. The sense of the country may not be more genuine in Clare than in his elder, but it is more genuinely expressed; still, there is constant imitation, not merely of Goldsmith and Thomson, Beattie and Shenstone, but of Cowper and Burns, and, save now and then (The Last of March is a favourable instance), nature is not very freshly seen.

Yet, even in these early poems, the sonnets, with that strange magic of the form which has often brought out of poets the best that was in them, contain poetic signs which are nowhere to be found in Bloomfield, and the poems written during the miserable later years—for Clare, unlike many luckier lunatics, was not only mad but miserable in his madness—confirm these signs almost as well as could be expected. The wonderful late lines

  • I am—yet what I am, who cares or knows?—
  • one of the greatest justifications of Waller’s master stroke as to
  • The soul’s dark cottage, battered and decayed—
  • are, indeed, far above anything else that Clare ever wrote, but they show what he might have written. And other poems among these sad waifs exhibit, with greater art, the truthfulness of that “country sense” to which he had been unable to give full poetic expression earlier. No such results of suffering will be found in Bloomfield’s songs, which he continued to publish up to the year before his death. For nature had made him only a versifier; while she made Clare a poet.