By Hugh Reid, Adjunct Research Professor
I spoke in my last blog about the ordeals, efforts, and struggles of solving the 200-year-old mysteries contained in the books held at the Carleton Special Collections which we examine in ENGL 4135. And I also described the excitement in the labour of trying to solve these mysteries and the exhilaration when, on occasion, they are unravelled.
There is another form of thrill in doing the work of the course, altogether more poignant and personal. At times, the ghosts hidden in the books speak to us (or ‘beckon’ as in the quotation from Alexander Pope in the title of this blog entry) and speak to us in a very modern, relevant, and understandable fashion. One student is working on a book of poetry surprisingly, and unusually, written by a shoemaker, Robert Bloomfield. This shoemaker-poet’s letters have only recently been transcribed and they tell of how he was able to obtain a patron to help him get his work published. They also reveal, endearingly and ingenuously, his desire to become a good poet, and his reticent avowals that his patron should not worry that he will, in any way, relax in his work. Bloomfield wrote: “All our endeavours are to get clear [that is to get out of, and stay out of, debt], and to live happy, and to hope humbly, and thereby blunt the edge of disappointments. — perhaps your Wife when she speaks of ‘doubts that I should be unsettled’ have [sic] entertained notions as to the reputation and profit too; to be coming from my book, such as never can be realized. If you yourself have doubts of my discretion, I know it is from the kindest motives, if it should bring me five pound you would be glad to hear that I had made my Wife and Children happy. Perhaps after all you only mean, for fear I should slacken my hand now at shoemaking, that I may make poetry the faster; this is a groundless fear: If I had leisure hours I should read, but in this I debar myself as much as I possibly can; the only extravagance I have been guilty of in this way is the purchase of 2 Numbers of the ‘Monthly Magazine.’” The attempt at formal, but touchingly ungrammatical and uneducated, language aside, it is just such a letter that a young author today might write to someone who is helping him, or her, to get published. “I’m not going to give up my job and I don’t spend my money frivolously, only on buying books.”
As any English Professor will tell you, many students today picture themselves as writers, and this is an admirable dream or ambition. For students with such aspirations, the English Department provides a number of Creative Writing courses which offer a forum for students to hone and enhance their writing skills. For many students the words of Robert Bloomfield are agonizingly applicable: a ghost from 200 years ago reaches out to show that along with similar hopes, he had the same concerns, worries, and apprehensions as many of the students at Carleton do today.