Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Truth and Tradition's Mingled Stream": Robert Bloomfield's the Banks of Wye

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Truth and Tradition's Mingled Stream": Robert Bloomfield's the Banks of Wye

Article excerpt

IN AUGUST 1807, THE "SHOEMAKER POET" ROBERT BLOOMFIELD EMBARKED on a ten-day tour with wealthy friends along the river Wye and through the surrounding countryside, eventually publishing a poetic account of this journey in The Banks of Wye (1811). (1) Modeled on the fashionable journals kept by picturesque enthusiasts of their travels, the poem records Bloomfield's impressions of the spectacular scenery he witnessed and responds to the region's cultural geography-the literature, antiquarian research, social and political history, and scientific observation that had grown up around the river.

Often dismissed by scholars as Bloomfield's attempt to capitalize on the picturesque vogue, The Banks of Wye has recently been the subject of several revisionist readings, which have presented it as a more sophisticated poem, and Bloomfield as a more ambitious writer, than previously thought. (2) Bloomfield's interest in, and sympathetic representation of the Wye's laboring-class communities has received particular attention, prompting interpretations of the poem as a subversive response to the official historical record of the region, to contemporary picturesque writings, and to the influential literary tradition that had immortalized the river. (3)

Bloomfield's interest in these communities does indeed represent a shift away from the attitudes of conventional picturesque texts and those influenced by "the Romantic ideology," which tend either to ignore or condescend to a landscape's inhabitants. However, we should be wary of reading too much into Bloomfield's interest in the Wye's vernacular culture. As Bloomfield himself reminds us, "he alas! could only glean / The changeful outlines of the scene," prompting him to ask forgiveness from the locals for "the stranger's meagre line, / That seems to slight that spot of thine" (I:117-20). Bloomfield's anxieties about his potentially superficial representation of the Wye surely raise doubts over claims that he becomes "the voice of the people he encounters in the landscape." (4) More interesting, in my view, is the way Bloomfield combines these local perspectives with a number of other discourses by which the Wye's geography, history and culture could be understood.

Bloomfield describes the stories told about one of the ruined castles he visits as "truth and tradition's mingled stream" (3:51), a resonant phrase that suggests the profound influence of previous writers, historians, and tourists on how the Wye is perceived and represented by those who follow in their wake. Pursuing this watery metaphor a little further, we find that this mingled stream is characterized by discursive eddies and crosscurrents that pull Bloomfield in various directions when he comes to describe his own experiences. Although these shifts and contradictions could be read as poetic flaws-Bloomfield's inability to maintain a steady perspective on his subject-I interpret them, more constructively, as a sophisticated response to the Wye's complex cultural geography, and as experiments with alternative narrative personae other than that expected of a "peasant poet."

By the time Bloomfield undertook his tour, Wales was well established as a tourist destination for the English gentility. There were at least two distinct tours that attracted visitors: the North Wales tour, which was valued for its sublime mountain scenery and would typically take in sights such as the river Dee, Conway, Snowdon, and the famous Devil's Bridge near Aberystwyth; and the Wye Tour, which usually saw tourists travel by boat downstream from Ross to Chepstow, although this trip could be extended, as it was for Bloomfield's party, by excursions into the surrounding countryside. (5)

Bloomfield had long dreamed of visiting Wales but such a tour would ordinarily have been far beyond the means of a shoemaker and crafter of Aeolian harps, considering the expense involved in traveling by coach, hiring boats and guides, and in accommodation, as well as two weeks of lost wages. …

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