'The Muses struck a light for me, not on Parnassus, but on Shooter's-Hill' 

- Bloomfield to Mary Lloyd Baker, 23 December 1803

  

In 1806, Severndroog’s picturesque scenery and view were the inspiration for a poem by the working-class poet Robert Bloomfield. Bloomfield was from the village of Honington in Suffolk and had worked as a farmhand and as a shoemaker’s apprentice. Celebrated as a ‘Genius [...] born beneath an adverse star’ by Lord Byron, who also compared him with the Scottish, labouring-class poet Robert Burns, Bloomfield was propelled to instant fame by the publication of his poem The Farmer’s Boy (1800), which was re-published in America and translated into German, French and Italian. Known as the ‘Cow-boy’ poet because of his humble, rural origins, Bloomfield was also commissioned to write a poem in praise of Edward Jenner’s pioneering smallpox vaccine, which, aptly, was made from the cowpox virus.

 

 Robert Bloomfield.

E. W. Brayley, Views in Suffolk, Norfolk, and Northamptonshire; illustrative of the works of Robert Bloomfield, 1806.

© Jonathan Taylor.

 

Bloomfield visited Severndroog in 1803 and published his poem ‘Shooter’s Hill’ in a collection titled Wild Flowers in 1806. In the poem, Bloomfield stands at the top of the tower, relishing its view of the ‘shadows o'er the Surry-Hills’ and the ‘thousand’ ships on the Thames. However, his response to the castle was conflicted. He criticised Severndroog’s memorialisation of Sir William James’s exploits as an expensive example of ‘Vanity’. Bloomfield declared that he ‘would not that such turrets rise/ To point out where my bones are laid’ and declared that he would place his own hopes of immortality in the pursuit of ‘Virtue’, ‘Whose glorious turrets reach’ (rather higher than Severndroog’s) ‘to Heav'n’. However, Bloomfield also echoed Thelwall by observing that Severndroog’s accessibility to the public and offer of a natural retreat from the city could have health benefits. He had arrived at the castle prepared ‘Amidst fresh air to breathe or die’ following a long illness and claimed to have recovered his health in ‘The comforts of its broad cool shade’ and ‘deep'ning groves’.

 

 Title page of Bloomfield's Wild Flowers.

© Jonathan Taylor.

 

Bloomfield’s depiction of the poet retreating into, and being revived by, nature is a common theme of early nineteenth-century poetry, which ‘Shooter’s Hill’ shares with William Wordsworth’s masterpiece The Prelude. However, while Bloomfield’s poem has much in common with Wordsworth’s, it also challenges Wordsworth’s association of physical rejuvenation and poetic inspiration with Britain’s more extreme natural landscapes. Whereas Wordsworth represented the towering mountains, steep valleys and roaring cataracts of the Lake District as the sources of his inspiration and wellbeing, Bloomfield argued that the ‘humbler hills’ of the South East were just as capable of promoting health and creativity. In ‘Shooter’s Hill’, it is not the ‘mountain top’ or ‘time-worn cliff’ that restores Bloomfield, but Severndroog’s rather less daunting summit. Bloomfield had made this point shortly after visiting Severndroog in 1803, joking in a letter that the ‘Muses struck a light for me, not on Parnassus’ (the mountain home of the muses whom the Greeks credited with inspiring poetry) ‘but on Shooter’s-Hill’.

       

Bloomfield’s poems were so popular that they inspired travel guides with illustrations of the locations he wrote about, including the image of Severndroog below.

 

The Triangular Tower.

E. W. Brayley, Views in Suffolk, Norfolk, and Northamptonshire; illustrative of the works of Robert Bloomfield, 1806.

© Jonathan Taylor.

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Bloomfield

Robert Bloomfield