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John Bampfylde: the Archetypal Mad Poet

by Bertil Falk

John Bampfylde (1754-1797) is a next to unknown British poet. When The Poems of John Bampfylde (The Perpetua Press, Oxford 1988) was published in a limited edition of 300 copies with all the preserved poems, William Rees-Mogg wrote in The Independent that it would “no doubt multiply the total of Bampfylde’s readers.” Rees-Mogg had up to that point thought that he “was probably Bampfylde’s only living admirer.”

Although John Bampfylde is a minor poet, he foreshadowed Wordsworth and Coleridge and the whole lot of Romantic poets. More than anyone else, he fulfils the requirements of the archetypal mad Romantic poet: he went mad with love.

Furthermore he is definitely a modern fellow in the sense that he wrote poems against slavery, the devastation of forest land, and torture.

Let us take a look at a few sonnets:

On hearing the woods of Canon-Teign in Devon were to be cut down

Sweet were thy banks, O Teign! thy murmurs sweet,
Thy dark brown wave that brawls along the grove,
Where the lone Druid oft was wont to rove
And ’midst the Ivy-mantled Caves retreat:
Thou too hast seen, in later times, the sport
Of tilts and tournaments, when Chudleigh’s line
Rous’d many a Baron bold in arms to shine,
And claim the fairest guerdon of the Court!
But ah! no more from yonder hallow’d mould:
Lo, the base gambol, lo! the baser Lord
Barters thy broad brown oaks for filthy gold.
So may no trophy’d honors deck his board
Degenerate, — or well wrought cups unfold
The steed’s success, and ill earned joys afford!

Today, John Bampfylde would obviously have been campaigning alongside other environmentalists who want to save the rain forests and assist treehuggers. Unfortunately, this poem remained unpublished until 1988.

Whether the following poem had any impact is not easy to know, but it must have been read, for it was published in his collection Sixteen Sonnets (1778):

On hearing the Torture was suppressed
throughout the Austrian dominions, in
consequence of BECCARIA’S TREATISE on
Crimes and Punishments

Hail to the Sage divine of Milan’s plains!
Whose labours reach’d the horrors of the Cell,
Brought Mercy down from Heav’n with Man to dwell,
And curb’d the biting laws, and check’d the reins
Of Justice too severe — and, lo! the chains,
At thy command, from off the convict fell,
The Wheel appear’d no more, nor Scaffold Bell
Bade him prepare for more than mortal pains.
Oh! may thy voice pervade the nations round,
And Monarchs of their Subjects woes remind:
So shall thy praise o’er earth and seas resound,
Nor shall thy own Italia boast a name
To be compar’d with thine in future fame,
So lov’d by all the Good, so dear to Human Kind.

As Rees-Mogg suggests, the poet might have been, in our time, a supporter of Amnesty International. And here is an example of John Bampfylde’s taking a similar position concerning slavery:

On the Abbe REYNALLS’s History of the
Establishments in the East and West Indies

Friend to the wretch, great Patron of Mankind,
Born to enlighten and reform the age;
Whose energetic and immortal page,
From Nature’s laws, hath every art combin’d
Of mildest policy; whose soul refin’d,
Melts at the Slave’s big tear, with generous rage
Dares to assert his rights, his griefs assuage,
And mould to industry the savage mind.
Tutor’d by thee, the nations blest shall see
Unbounded Commerce, Wealth and Peace arise,
And Truth, and spotless Faith, and Liberty:
Nor shall thy latest moment want the meed
Of praise and joy serene, which virtuous deed
Procures from Heaven for the Good and Wise.

Abbe Reynall (1711-1796) was of course the man who once wrote: “There are so many indications of the impending storm, and the Negroes want only a chief, sufficiently courageous, to led them on to vengeance and slaughter. Who is this great man, whom nature owes to her afflicted, oppressed, and tormented children? Where is he? He will undoubtedly appear, he will show himself, he will lift up the sacred standard of liberty.”

We, who can take a look in the answer book, know that instead of one man, there were Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama.

Huddersford & Bampfylde
Mr. Huddersford and Mr. Bampfylde
Painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Having seen John Bampfylde’s progressive political ideas, let us turn to his life story, which is the canonic madly-in-love-poet story. He came from a good family but had no fortune. In London he got in touch with Sir Joshua Reynolds, who painted a portrait of Mr. Bampfylde together with his friend Mr. Huddersford.

Reynolds had a niece, the beautiful Miss Palmer. Bampfylde fell in love with her. He dedicated his collection of poems “To Miss Palmer. These sonnets which have been honored with her approbation are dedicated by her very sincere and devoted humble servant John Bampfylde.”

But when, at the age of 25, he asked her to marry him, she turned him down. John Bampfylde would not take no for an answer. He made terrible scenes and broke Sir Joshua Reynolds windows in Leicester Square. Miss Palmer, who inherited £100,000 from Sir Joshua, married a 70-year old Irish peer and became a Marchioness.

Bampfylde went down the drain, lived in poverty and became insane. At the end of his life he regained his sanity, but he was suffering from consumption and died at the age of 43 at a madhouse in Sloane Street in London.

Rees-Mogg in his review stated that Bampfylde “was a poet, who with some clumsy lines, had a real ear for the music of language and had something to say. I admire the ‘s’ and ‘th’ line, though I am not sure everyone else will.”

Roger Lonsdale, who edited The Poems of John Bampfylde has written a 25-page introduction, where all the spicy details of Bampfylde’s behavior that titillated London society are described as well as other, more calm and more tragic sides of his life. Rees-Mogg’s review, titled “The tragic victim of love who inspired the Romantic school,” was published in The Independent on May 10, 1988 and a letter to the Editor in connection with that review was published on May 16.

With the hope that John Bampfylde now has gotten one or two more admirers, let us see how he experienced Christmas, an experience he clad in the form of a sonnet.


With footstep slow, in furry pall yclad,
His brows enwreath’d with holly never-sear,
Old Christmas comes, to close the wained year;
And ay the Shepherd’s heart to make right glad;
Who, when his teeming flocks are homeward had,
To blazing hearth repairs, and nut-brown beer,
And views, well-pleas’d, the ruddy prattlers dear
Hug the grey mungrel; meanwhile maid and lad
Squabble for roasted crabs. — Thee, Sire, we hail,
Whether thine aged limbs thou dost enshroud,
In vest of snowy white, and hoary veil,
Or wrap’st thy visage in a sable cloud;
Thee we proclaim with mirth and cheer, nor fail
To greet thee well with many a carol loud.

Copyright © 2009 by Bertil Falk

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