Kirke White, John Clare and Labouring-Class Poetry

Kirke White admired the rural poetry of the most popular poet of the day – the labouring-class former ‘farmer’s boy’ Robert Bloomfield, whose first two collections (1800 and 1802) sold over 30000 copies by 1811:[i]  ‘he is a pastoral poet’, wrote Kirke White to his brother, ‘and the simply sweet is what you are to expect from him; nevertheless, his descriptions are sometimes little inferior to Thomson’.  Bloomfield’s influence is apparent in the only book of poems that Kirke White published in his lifetime, Clifton Grove, a Sketch in Verse, with other Poems, not only in the close-up descriptions of workday life on the farm but also in the book’s very publication.   Bloomfield’s collections had come out with the firm of Vernor and Hood, after he gained the support of two literary amateurs with influence there – Capel Lofft and Thomas Hill. Lofft was a poet and a critic; Hill was the editor of The Monthly Mirror, a magazine published by Vernor and Hood. Together, these two gentlemen had shepherded the inexperienced Bloomfield’s manuscripts into print. In the wake of Bloomfield’s unprecedented success, Kirke White was their follow-up project – another labouring-class poet to launch on the public. Hill, especially, was closely involved in bringing Clifton Grove to market with Vernor and Hood. He advised Kirke White to avoid publication by subscription and helped him secure a dedication from the Duchess of Devonshire.  Unfortunately, the book was not a popular success as Bloomfield’s had been: its prospect was hampered by a hostile review in the Monthly Review (February 1804) that pedantically objected to unorthodox rhymes and condescendingly suggested that the book was a ruse to gain a poor man money – little better than a form of begging.  It was his disgust at this patronising review – and his appreciation of the poems quoted in it – that led Southey to write to Kirke White offering his sympathy and support.   Kirke White was highly appreciative but had no need of Southey’s help because he had by then secured the assistance of evangelical clerics in finding him a scholarship at Cambridge University, where he would train to become a priest.   But Southey’s help was important after Kirke White’s death: the work he performed in writing a biography and editing the manuscripts made the poet’s reputation.  The Remains came out with Vernor and Hood and went through ten editions in fifteen years with royalties going to Kirke White’s family rather than to Southey himself. Even after 1824, when other firms began to take advantage of ambiguity in the copyright law to issue rival Collected Works, it was the basis of all nineteenth century editions.

            It was active and disinterested support of the kind provided by Southey that John Clare hoped for. In his early verse, Clare views Kirke White as a labouring-class role model.

In shades obscure & gloomy warmd to sing

By natures fancied charms tho oft I be

Nipt & deprest by povertys cold sting

Still must I sing tho few to notice me

Kirk white had friends a warm & fostering spring

Was Southeys charitable stoop from fame

To help him on & tempt his muse to sing

& wi his name to guard the weakly jem

The waves of poverty tis mine to stem

Wants future threatings I wi tears can see

Theres few to praise but many to condemn

The ardess gushes of wild poesy

A labouring clown a wild unculterd stem

No Southeys hand will lend its help to me[ii]

Despite the fears expressed here, Clare was helped into book publication, just as Kirke White and Bloomfield had been.   And he was helped by a book-trade insider who had been involved in the publication process that had made these labouring-class poets into popular figures. John Taylor, his publisher, had worked for Vernor and Hood, and thus had first-hand experience of the publication and marketing of Kirke White and Bloomfield.  In publishing Clare, after first working with him in editing the manuscript for the press, Taylor was in effect repeating the process that had proved so effective for his labouring-class predecessors. Clare was the new ‘peasant poet’ or ‘farmer’s boy’.  He implicitly acknowledged this status, once the success of Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery had brought him the fame that eluded Kirke White in his lifetime, by requesting a copy of Southey’s Remains of Henry Kirke White when a well-meaning reader offered to give him books.

[i] See Tim Fulford (ed.), Editorial Introduction to The Farmer’s Boy,in The Collected Writings of Robert Bloomfield

[ii] The Early Poems of John Clare 1804-1822, ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell, vol. II (Oxford, 1989), p. 382.