Richard Vallance.

March 2002
Capel Lofft's "The Sports of the Field"
and its implications


Who on earth is Capel Lofft?

What a bizarrely wonderful name! If he is a poet, most of us have probably never even heard of him. I certainly never had until I accidently ran across him on Sonnet Central about a month ago. If he is a Sonneteer, that comes as a surprise. But he was, and much more than that. Read on, and you shall find your eyes opened, as I did mine.

Born on November 14th., 1751, to a prosperous family, a precocious boy, Capel Lofft cultivated early on a taste for poetry, music and natural history. By the time he was six, he had avidly devoured Spensers "Fairy Queene", no mean feat for anyone, but a considerable achievement for a mere child. While at College in Eton, he developed a keen knowledge of Latin and Greek.

Then it was off to Cambridge University, where, under the aegis of his tutor, John Jebb, Lofft zealously espoused the radical reform movement then beginning to sweep England. Indeed, Cambridge had fomented such a hotbed of radicalism towards the end of the 18th. Century that his university days would leave a lasting and deep impression on him. Here lay the solid foundation of his lifelong philosophical and strong political views. He even abandoned his studies at the stuffy, conservative Cambridge, "without taking a degree and without regret" (his own words).

Lofft was both an essayist and minor poet. From his family estate near Bury Saint Edmunds, he would correspond with eminent literary figures of his day. Following the death of his first wife, Ann Emlyn, in 1801, Lofft married the poetess, Sarah Watson Finch.

Although a passionate reformer, Lofft was of diminutive stature. He always spoke slowly and deliberately in public, and his voice was frail. This belied the strength of his convictions, which, however, are more than evident in his prose and poetry. Once he had left Cambridge, Lofft studied French Literature and history, for which he cultivated a marked fondness. In 1777, he went on to study Italian literature, which he would also avidly pursue for the rest of his life. From 1779 onwards, he was a lively participant in the Debating Societies in England.

Although frequently and often fiercely opposed by the landed gentry and the Tories, Lofft always remained undaunted and unflinchingly committed to the cause of Freedom. Indeed, the American and French Revolutions made such a profound impression on him that he, along with many other British "radicals" of his day, clamoured for immediate Reform of Parliament. Dead set against slavery, he was even granted an honourary membership in the Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia, and was an active member of the London Abolition Society. Of course, he fiercely opposed the British Crowns absurd War against the American struggle for Independence.

In the 1790s, his correspondence papers dealt at length with the Abolition of Slavery and with the progress of the French Revolution in France. Yet, after fighting dauntlessly for the cause of freedom, in the face of the failure of the Reform Movement, Lofft left England for good in 1816. He took up residence in Lausanne, Switzerland, but eventually moved to Turin, Italy. There he died in Moncalieri near Turin on May 26th., 1824.


Although Loffts own poetry was sparse and uneven, and he must by all accounts be considered a minor poet of the late 18th. Century, still he did leave us a few really remarkable pieces, amongst which we may count, "The Sports of the Field". This Sonnet strongly echoes his fervent convictions over the abusive practices and behaviour of the landed English gentry in the traditional hunt, which for Lofft was nothing but a barbaric and cruel "sport" for the amusement of the rich and idle. Let the Sonnet speak for itself!

The Sports of the Field

Sports of the field!--deadly or maiming blow

Aimed at a gentle bird!--the timid hare

From her half slumber in warm brake to scare

And drive her over the track-betraying snow

To death, by chase embittered--from the bow

The rook, not yet of strength to cleave the air,

To slaughter trembling on the nest!--to tear

The bowels of the fish deliberate, slow,

Play with the agonizing worm!--to find

Amusement when the dauntless fox is torn

By furious dogs--or when the beauteous hind,

Winged by her unavailing fears, is borne

From yells of hounds and horn--or the stag dies

With silent tear!--Thus man enjoys earth, water, skies!

Capel Lofft (1753-1824)


It goes without saying that this Sonnet translucently carries itself along on the crest of the poets fervent convictions. In light of even the sketchiest of biographical outlines, such poetry as this carries an even greater moral impact, and assumes even greater ethical value.

While such morally "didactic" poetry was rather commonplace in 18th. Century England, in this particular instance, the poet seems to have met with relative success in bridging a gap, apparent or real, between 18th. Century Classicism and 19th. Century Romantic Idealism.

Nowhere in the body of this remarkable Sonnet is its moral or didactic thesis made blatantly explicit; rather it is everywhere implicit, veiled, as it were, by the cachet of Loffts finely wrought and nuanced imagery. Everywhere we find vivid, pro-active metaphors, whose spirited impetus creates an almost unbearable tension in this sharply contrasted Sonnet.

On the one hand, Lofft presents us with Neo-Classical bucolic imagery worthy of the likes of Vergil in his "Georgics" or "Eclogues", as in:

a gentle bird!--the timid hare

From her half slumber in warm

or when the beauteous hind,

Winged by her unavailing fears, is borne

Alas, in each of these instances (of which there are only two in this otherwise wrenching Sonnet), the calm and peace of the countryside and of its "beauteous" fauna are not only framed by (pardon the pun!), but totally shattered to pieces at the merciless hands of man, who takes unrequited pleasure in the mere "sport" of the hunt for its own sake, sui genera. Make no bones about it. Capel Lofft means business. We find ourselves blatantly and deliberately confronted with such violent, almost barbaric phraseology as:
And drive her over the track-betraying snow

To death, by chase embittered--from the bow

The rook, not yet of strength to cleave the air,

To slaughter trembling on the nest!--to tear

The bowels of the fish deliberate, slow,

Play with the agonizing worm!--to find

Amusement when the dauntless fox is torn

By furious dogs--

It is this furious driving hunt, this impelled and impelling human drive for "amusement", which is like a motion picture shearing its unimpeded way straight through the once tranquil frame, now cut to pieces. The entire core of the poem is in these verses. The Sonnet almost literally has its own heart torn out.

And it is this very cruelty which lends the Sonnets bittersweet conclusion a poignancy all the more heart-rending, as we witness: From yells of hounds and horn--or the stag dies With silent tear!--Thus man enjoys earth, water, skies! It as almost as though we were reading a Sonnet by Keats or Shelley or Wordsworth. Lofft has brilliantly succeeded in his cleverly nuanced tone painting. Even an actual contemporary painting of the hunt might not have been more explicit than this in its imagery.

Poetic versus Artistic Imagery:

According to the neo-Aristotelian French literary critic and linguistic theorist, Tzvetan Todorov, whose treatise, "Introduction to Poetics" [See REF, end of review] concerns itself with the redefinition of both Classical and early Modern "accepted theories" of poetic criticism, any highly imagistic poem can indeed most effectively convey a sense of pictorial and even motion picture urgency second-to-none. Todorov states:

It is important to note that literary perspectives do not concern the readers real perception, which always remains variable, but a perception present within this work, although in a specific mode. Here again, the history of painting affords us eloquent examples

passim and he goes on to say, on the same page:

There exist various descriptions of perspective in literature: we might even say that this is the aspect most attentively studied in this (i.e. the later Twentieth) Century by poetics. [pg. 33] These observations are telling, and all the more so when we realize that this is the very practice Lofft has adapted so masterfully in his "painterly" Sonnet. But Lofft is no contemporary of ours; he was apparently a Pre-Romantic poet of the late 18th. Century. Still, it is probable Todorovs considerations may anachronistically, if obliquely, apply here.

Historical Transformations:

Are there shades of Thomas Wyatts, "Whoso List to Hunt" here? Perhaps, but only in a minimalist way. This is surely no Renaissance celebration of the poets love for his belovd. What it most decidedly portrays, however, is a powerful reflection of Loffts profound Love and Respect for Nature, which Man is systematically destroying. Sound familiar? Rachel Carson, the 20th. Century authoress of the ground-breaking 1962 environmental shocker, SILENT SPRING, would surely have wholly empathized. (In parentheses, I should note in passing that her groundbreaking book had a strong formative influence on me as an adolescent, when I read it at the age of 18 in 1963.)

On the other hand, like William Lisle Bowles, Lofft may be viewed as a late 18th. Century transitional poet, whose colourful, yet clearly emotional style was indeed paving the way for the later full-fledged Romantics. Let us, however, not deceive ourselves into thinking that ethical concerns or moral-didactic poetry was the sole purview of 18th. Century, as conceivably opposed to early 19th. Century poets. Many of the Sonnets of Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley alone exhibit the same penchant for a trenchant, often sardonic, socio-cultural critique of the society they found themselves, as inspired poets, trapped in.

To cite a few examples, with telling excerpts from verses:

William Wordsworth

England, 1802

No grandeur now in nature or in book

Delights us. Rapine, avarice, expense,

This is idolatry; and these we adore:

London, 1802

MILTON! thou should'st be living at this hour:

England hath need of thee: she is a fen

Of stagnant waters:

John Keats

Written in Disgust of Vulgar Superstition

The church bells toll a melancholy sound,

Calling the people to some other prayers,

Some other gloominess, more dreadful cares,

More hearkening to the sermon's horrid sound [1]

[1] Compare this verse with Shelley's remarkably similar one below!

Written on the Day that Mr. Leigh Hunt Left Prison

WHAT though, for showing truth to flatterd state,

Kind Hunt was shut in prison, [2] yet has he,

[2] Cf. Keats reference to a specific instance of the violation of human liberty and freedom with Shelleys more sweeping, but equally bitter, commentary on Bonaparte (below).

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

Both of the Sonnets below are to be found at:

Sonnet: England in 1819

Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,

But leech-like to their fainting country cling,

(Comment: Plus a change, plus cest la mme chose. What else is new?)

"Lift not the painted veil which those who live"

Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove

For truth, and like the Preacher found it not [1].

[1] See Keats, "Written in Disgust" (scroll back to the third example above)

Feelings of a Republican on the Fall of Bonaparte

I hated thee, fallen tyrant! I did groan

To think that a most unambitious slave,

Like thou, shouldst dance and revel on the grave

Of Liberty [2].

[2] Cf. Keats and Leigh Hunt (above)

The question is, what am I driving at? The answer is clearer than we might first have hazarded. Critics have sometimes claimed, while some have even erroneously complained, that 18th. Century so-called "Classical" poetry tended to be dry, austere and much too "moralistic", whereas it was the wont of the Romantics to focus their attention on the more subtle, more refined and elevated of human ideals.

But, like all "truths", this one is only partial. Where does one draw the line? Where does Classicism trail off, the interim transitional period to Romanticism begin to exert its subtle influences, and indeed Romanticism as such emerge? It is perhaps more in keeping with the emergent foundations of late 20th. Century and early 21st. Century literary criticism, and indeed, poetic criticism, that we revise our once cherished past notions of literary "periods" or "schools of thought" or simply put, Periods, such as: the Renaissance, the Elizabethan Era, the Classical Era, the Romantic Era, the Post-Romantic Era, the Victorian Era, the Early Modern Period, and so forth. For it is apparent that no single poet can be pegged for any "period", without prejudice to the powerful influences that earlier poets exerted upon him or her, and that he or she in turn exerted severally on later poets. This is the jumping-off point of Todorovs Theory of Poetics.

It is in this perspective that the aforementioned Sonnets of Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley begin to acquire new meaning, in the more strictly "Classical" sense. For all of them exhibit an even more marked penchant for the didactic and for ethico-socio-cultural critique than does Loffts already keenly mordant Sonnet. Some even go so far as to almost flirt with moral superiority, as for instance, Keats, "Written in Disgust of Vulgar Superstition" and certainly Shelleys, "Feelings of a Republican on the Fall of Bonaparte."

In all of the previously cited Romantic Era Sonnets, the poets are sometimes even more explicit about their condemnation of current social values than Capel Lofft is of the landed gentry and the cruelty of the traditional hunt in his, "The Sports of the Field." And yet, his Sonnet preceded all of theirs by at least a decade.

To summarize, the socio-cultural and political transitions and transformations that informed English poetry from at least as early as the 1750s to at least as late as the 1850s and Matthew Arnolds depressingly dark philosophical treatise, "Dover Beach" were nuanced and shaded in every possible way. And these nuances surfaced variously in different poets, influencing some more than others, and a few far more deeply than any of their own contemporaries.

In this respect, it may be said that Capel Lofft, being the radical reformer he was, was in fact far ahead of his time, truly auguring the "Ides of March" before they swept across Europe in historical waves, beginning with the French Revolution and continuing right through to the many national revolutions that proliferated throughout Europe from 1848 to 1850. Not unremarkably, it was during this same historical era that poetry in general and the Sonnet in particular assumed the heroic proportions they did, in keeping with the high idealism of Romanticism.

Romanticism, as such, was the History of Europe and of America in a literary nutshell, idealized and allegorized in the poetry of literally hundreds of extremely gifted and outspoken, individualistic, freedom-loving poets of the day.

And Capel Lofft was among the earliest of them.

© by Richard Vallance, February 14th., 2002


Todorov, Tzvetan.

Introduction to Poetics.

(Translation from the French by Richard Howard. Introduction by Peter Brooks).

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981. xix, 83 pp.

ISBN 0-8166-1008-8 (hardcover) 0-8166-1011-8 (paperback)

NOTE: I highly recommend this thorough-going literary and linguistic treatise on a new theory of literary fiction and poetry, elaborating and expanding on Aristotles fundamentally sound precepts, enunciated in his own Poetics some 2,400 years ago.

From the book,/ titre originel :

Todorov, Tzvetan.

"Potique", pp. 99-166 dans,

Ducrot, Oswald, et al.

Quest ce que le structuralisme?

Paris: ditions au Seuil, 1968.

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