In keeping with the schedule I put forth yesterday, I present a literary piece for your perusal today.
There are few things I love so much as good English pastoralism; give me Vaughn Williams, Butterworth, Parry, and Bridge most any day, and I’ll have all the music I need to feel all the feelings of life. Which is perhaps why the pastoral is so seductive to someone like me–in its seeming simplicity, its lack of pretension, it very quietly speaks the truths of human life that we (post)moderns so eagerly try to escape: limitations, frustrations, pain, discipline…and joy, peace, quietness, and beauty, things that exist as a result of the former group, not in spite of it.
I have a similar attraction to pastoral literature, though my education in this regard is very spotty (and is thus very much like my education in pastoral music), especially with regard to the English pastoral. But the concepts of place, and peace, and discipline are always so close to my mind, especially as I grow older, especially as I become more comfortable with who and where I am, and as these are the essential concerns of the pastoral, I always become excited and wonderfully anxious when I encounter a bit of pastoralist writing. Which is what I’ve come across today, in the form of “Summer,” the second section of English poet Robert Bloomfield’s The Farmer’s Boy.
I know nothing about Bloomfield, having never heard of him before today, except for what the Encyclopedia tells me:
English poet, was born of humble parents at the village of Honington, Suffolk, on the 3rd of December 1766. He was apprenticed at the age of eleven to a farmer, but he was too small and frail for field labour, and four years later he came to London to work for a shoemaker. The poem that made his reputation, The Farmer’s Boy, was written in a garret in Bell Alley. The manuscript, declined by several publishers, fell into the hands of Capell Lofft, who arranged for its publication with woodcuts by Bewick in ‘Soo. The success of the poem was remarkable, over 25,000 copies being sold in the next two years.
Bloomfield died in 1823. Several things interest me about Bloomfield, then. First, he came from humble origins, and produced, as we shall see, poetry of real quality–even if it is not brilliant poetry, even if nothing in The Farmer’s Boy approaches Gray’s “Elegy,” it is still strong, moving, robust, challenging, and most importantly beautiful poetry. Its ostensible simplicity is its strength, the source of its complexity, as we see in pastoral work, generally. Secondly, that Bloomfield was poor and apprenticed out, and not sent to school, suggests that he was likely an autodidact. This, I am certain, is the only real kind of education one can ever have. Perhaps the autodidact never becomes a master at anything; perhaps for every Henry Adams, who was a brilliant autodidact, there are ten millions of dilettantes. I say so be it. The dilettante, the amateur, this is what we simple folk, those of us who do not expect to ever be a great man, but merely a simple person living our simple life–and thus a person who recognizes and resists the destructive siren song of hubris, and who perhaps makes life a little more worth the living–we should all strive to be like this. Bloomfield is perhaps not a great poet, but he is a good poet; more to the point, he is an amateur, he is one who loves. That love shines through in this poem. Finally, the success of Bloomfield’s poem points to the fact that popular culture can be edifying, and challenging, and point us to how different our lives and our world can be. This is as true for us as it was for Bloomfield’s day; the challenge is to work towards bringing about a popular culture of this type, and to replace the popular culture that is dominant today and was surely dominant then–one that promotes hubris, and licentiousness, and disregard for our fellow humans, and disrespects our own humanity, asking that we give it up for the fulfilment of our basest instincts, things that find cessation, only to immediately crave again.
The poem is, as I said, the second of the series that is The Farmer’s Boy. Here, we see Giles, the eponymous boy, as a mediocre worker, too enraptured with the world around him to actually accomplish the tasks set before him with any real skill or care. Yet, things are still bounteous. This is, of course, romantic myth-making of the countryside–and Bloomfield knows this. The rains fall early on, yet the harrowing still kicks up too much dust, revealing drought as still a constant companion. The ending consists of a powerful chat about the failures of the farm for small people, the possibilities of not being able to continue the work that gives one’s life its meaning. Bloomfield thus plays the realities of rural life against the myth of the pastoral, and in so doing, he creates a dreamy, beautiful world, that feels as hazy as summer itself. There is life here, there is community, there is no ostentation. There is the experience of pleasures made all the greater because of their need to be earned; the draught the maid brings is not merely there for the taking, for the ordering, but is the reward for work done, for tasks struggled through. This world is then the antithesis of modernity; it is our most joyous dream, and our most dreaded reality.