The name of John Lofland, "The Milford Bard" is known to most Delaware book collectors, yet his works are seldom read today, and his hometown hardly acknowledges his existence. The truth is his writing has not stood up well to changing literary tastes and his personal life was sordid. However, he was one of Delaware's earliest and most prolific writers.
John Lofland was born in Milford, Del., March 17, 1798, at what is now the northeast corner of Front and North. His father, Isaac, had been born on a farm near Frederica, but moved to Milford to establish a general merchandise business. Isaac was widowed twice. He married a third time to Cynthia Virden, who lived with her father at Brown's Branch, five miles north of Milford. Some believe this was an arranged marriage meant to get the influential Isaac to support Cynthia's father for appointment as Milford schoolmaster.
John was the first born of this third marriage. A second son died at age three. A daughter, Sarah, was born in 1802 and was adored by John all his life. John's father died in 1803, leaving the widow and children well provided for. She soon married a Laurel, Del., druggist, who moved to Milford and eventually expanded his business to general merchandise.
The future Milford Bard was a slow learner at school, so his mother taught him at home. His progress continued to be slow until he mastered reading. He then discovered books and devoured all he could find. His early reading was mostly English literature, for there was little American literature and none for children. By age twelve he had left fiction behind and was reading science, theology, metaphysics, history, and mythology.
In his teens he was given access to a local scholar's library and read Voltaire, D'Alembert, Mauperitius, Rousseau, Condorcet, Volney, Hume, and Gibbon. In Lofland's own words he read and he 'awoke a skeptic.' His dinner table conversation greatly upset his religious family. At his mother's urging, he read the Bible. Afterward he said there was much truth and beauty in it, but he lacked Christian faith.
John's stepfather wanted him to become a merchant. John, with his mother' s support, chose medicine. He began study in 1815 under Dr. James P. Lofland, a cousin and successful Milford physician only five years his senior. He entered the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania in 1817.
From his teens he had constantly written both poetry and essays. He read his compositions to family and put them away. John apparently never thought of publication or at least never thought publication was possible. He may have felt medical school was the only way to get an education that would get attention from publishers.
He was a quite ordinary medical student, except that he developed a passion for the theater, further widening his literary horizons. During summer vacations in Milford, he was increasingly seen drunk in public, something not unexpected of a Philadelphia college student but quite unacceptable in a small Delaware city.
It was during college he was first called 'The Bard' by fellow students as a result of his poems and parodies of life in medical school. Just before graduation in 1820, one of these compositions attacking an unpopular professor came to the attention of the faculty. John was expelled and not given a degree. Under the laws of that day he could have practiced medicine, but he never did. Instead, he returned to Milford to pursue a literary career.
About this time, he was given laudanum, a tincture of opium, for a stomach ailment. The substance was unregulated, readily available, and had been commonly prescribed for a number of medical conditions for several hundred years. However, John became addicted. He shared this fate with such contemporaries as Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He may also have shared their manic-depressive disorder.
As John's alcohol and opium dependence became known in Milford, the father of the young woman he had courted throughout his college years tried to break off the romance. She eventually came to agree. When she married another man the next year, John went into a three-year period of isolation, never leaving home.
It was during this period that he established himself as a writer. His poems were published in The Delaware Gazette and the Saturday Evening Post. Most were melancholy, but a poem in praise of Delaware won him a wide local following. He continued to write for a number of publications after ending his self-imposed isolation and gained a nationwide reputation for his work.
In 1828 a collection of his poems was published as The Harp of Delaware by Atkinson & Alexander of Philadelphia. (The Bard's biographer, writing in 1894, indicated this was already a rare book. Even the University of Delaware's copy is listed as incomplete. However copies do appear for sale from time to time.) Lofland had spent his inheritance from his father and was deeply in debt, but the book sold well enough to end his financial troubles for some years.
He wrote for a widening circle of publications. Nor was it all poetry and prose. He apparently got caught up in the national mania for silk production, writing in the April 29, 1836, Delaware Gazette that the production of silk might be more profitable " than all the gold mines in Christendom," "the salvation of this part of the country," and the beginning of "a new era in our little State."
By this time his opium and alcohol addiction had become so bad he could seldom work. Around 1838, he suddenly appeared to have been rejuvenated. Perhaps he had learned to regulate his opium consumption as Coleridge and De Quincey had done a decade before in England.
He moved to Baltimore in 1838 to help an uncle with an agriculture textbook and remained there until 1846. Baltimore was briefly the second most populous city in the United States during this period and a vigorous center of trade and manufacturing. The Bard wrote for many Baltimore publications and became part of the local Bohemian literary culture to which Poe belonged. Long productive periods where punctuated by alcohol or opium binges and several hospital stays for detoxification.
His second collected works, The Poetical and Prose Writings of John Lofland, M.D., the Milford Bard, was published J. Murphy in Baltimore and G. Quigley in Pittsburgh in 1846. (This book and its 1853 Baltimore reissue by Murphy are comparatively easy to find.) The 587 pages of text include a biography.
In 1846, Lofland moved to Wilmington to become literary editor for The Blue Hen's Chickens, a very successful newspaper. Here he wrote melodramatic fiction set in Wilmington and along the Brandywine River. Some he claimed was based on local legend. A medical doctor used his influence with local druggists to prevent Lofland from getting opium, and gave him small doses of morphine when the craving asserted itself.
But his health was failing. What may have been tuberculosis finally killed the Milford Bard on January 22, 1849. He was buried in St. Andrew's churchyard at Eighth and Shipley in Wilmington. At his own request, there was no religious service.
Why was Lofland so lionized in his own time and so ignored today?
First, he wrote for his times. Sad and tragic tales sold well. In a period when one in three children died and many women did not survive the child-bearing years, it took real pathos in literature to bring out the hankies. Such melodrama is too much for today's reader. August H. Able, III, wrote in Reed's Delaware, A History of the First State, 1947, "Lofland shows only an industrious imitation of his contemporaries. However, by the same token, he exhibits the whole romantic formula in boldest exaggeration, like some weird pathological growth."
Second, Americans were looking for great figures. Washington and Jefferson were barely in their graves. Henry Clay was idolized, especially in Delaware, and Daniel Webster was described as godlike. The great flowering of American literature had not begun. Cooper, Emerson, Fuller, Bryant, and Hawthorne were only beginning to write. Holmes, the Alcotts, Thoreau, and Longfellow were a decade in the future. Americans wanted their own counterparts to Britain's Shakespeare, Burns, and Wordsworth.
Third, literacy was not common in the Federal period. Anyone who could string words together grammatically was welcomed by editors desperate for material. A grasp of grammar, unfortunately, does not confer a knowledge of dramatic form or an ear for poetry.
It should be mentioned that his opium and alcohol use were no bar to popularity. Few people outside his family, circle of friends, and business associates were aware of it.
A vast amount of his writing was found only in newspapers and magazines. For all practical purposes, much of this is lost forever. There were three collections, one with two editions.
The Harp of Delaware, or, the Miscellaneous Poems of the Milford Bard. Atkinson & Alexander, Philadelphia, 1828. This is very rare and hard to find.
The Poetical and Prose Writings of John Lofland, M.D., the Milford Bard … . J. Murphy, Baltimore G. Quigley, Pittsburg, 1846.
The Poetical and Prose Writings of Dr. John Lofland, the Milford Bard … . Murphy, Baltimore, 1853. Both editions are scarce and often costly.
William W. Smithers: The Life of John Lofland "The Milford Bard" with Comments and Representative Selections from His Works. W.M. Leonard, Philadelphia, 1894. This book is common and usually costs about $50.
Lofland's output was so vast and varied, it would be difficult to describe his typical writings. Two pieces in the following sampler may help give the flavor, however. One is the first and last lines of the 124-line poem "Delaware" published in the Delaware Gazette of October 18, 1825. The other is prose written during his last years in Wilmington.