Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Thomas Hardy
William Barnes (18011886)
[Born in 1801 at Rushay, near Pentridge, Dorset; educated at an endowed school at Sturminster-Newton; entered the office of Mr. Dashwood, a solicitor of that townlet, in 1814 or 1815; left in 1818 for the office of Mr. T. Coombs, Dorchester. His first printed expression in verse was in The Weekly Entertainer in 1820. He took a school at Mere, Wiltshire, in 1823; married in 1827; opened a school at Dorchester in 1835; and in 1837 entered his name as a ten-years man at St. Johns College, Cambridge. He was ordained in 1847. He gave up his school and was inducted rector of Winterborne Came in 1862, where he died October 7, 1886. His Life was published in the following year, by his daughter, Mrs. Baxter, writing under the name of Leader Scott.
Besides articles in the Gentlemans Magazine, 18311843, papers in the Retrospective Review, 18531854, and minor prose works, he published Poems in the Dorset Dialect, 1844; Poems partly of Rural Life, 1846; Hwomely Rhymes (a second collection of Dorset Poems), 1850; A Philological Grammar, 1854; A Grammar and Glossary of the Dorset Dialect, 1863; A Third Collection of Dorset Poems, 1863; and Poems of Rural Life in Common English, 1868. An edition of the three series in one volume was brought out in 1879, and a selection by the present writer in 1908.]
THE VEIL of a dialect, through which except in a few cases readers have to discern whatever of real poetry there may be in William Barnes, is disconcerting to many, and to some distasteful, chiefly, one thinks, for a superficial reason which has more to do with spelling than with the dialect itself. As long as the spelling of standard English is other than phonetic it is not obvious why that of the old Wessex language should be phonetic, except in a pronouncing dictionary. We have however to deal with Barness verse as he chose to write it, merely premising that his aim in the exact literation of Dorset words is not necessarily to exhibit humour and grotesqueness.
It often seemed strange to lovers of Barnes that he, a man of insight and reading, should have persisted year after year to sing in a tongue which, though a regular growth and not a provincial corruption, is indubitably fast perishing. He said that he could not help it. But he may have seen the unwisdom of such self-limitationat those times, let us suppose, when he appeared to be under an uncontrollable impulse to express his own feelings, and to convey an ampler interpretation of life than his rustic vehicle would carry unenlarged, which resulted in his putting into the mouths of husbandmen compound epithets that certainly no user of the dialect ever concocted out of his own brain, and subtle sentiments that would have astonished those husbandmen and their neighbours.
But though true dramatic artistry lies that way, the way of all who differentiate imaginative revelation from the blind transcripts of a reporters note-book, it was probably from some misgivings on the score of permanence that now and then he would turn a lyric in common English, and once or twice brought out a little volume so written as an experiment. As usual, the prepossessions of his cocksure critics would not allow them to tolerate what they had not been accustomed to, a new idea, and the specimens were coldly received; which seems to have discouraged him. Yet in the opinion of the present writer the ordinary language which, as a school-master, Barnes taught for nearly forty years, could soon have been moulded to verse as deftly as dialect by a man whose instinct it was to catch so readily the beat of hearts around him. I take as an example the lines (which I translate) on the husband who comes home from abroad to find his wife long dead:
The rose was dust that bound her brow,
Moth-eaten was her Sunday cape,
Her frock was out of fashion now,
Her shoes were dried up out of shape
Those shoes that once had glittered black
Along the uplands beaten track;
and his frequent phrases like that of the autumn sun wandering wan, the wide-horned cows, the high-sunned noons, the hoarse cascade, the hedgerow-brambles swinging bow.
Barnes, in fact, surprising as it may seem to those who know him, and that but a little, as a user of dialect only, was an academic poet, akin to the school of Gray and Collins, rather than a spontaneous singer of rural songs in folk-language like Burns, or an extemporizer like the old balladists. His apparently simple unfoldings are as studied as the so-called simple Bible-narratives are studied; his rhymes and alliterations often cunningly schematic. The speech of his ploughmen and milkmaids in his Eclogueshis own adopted name for these piecesis as sound in its syntax as that of the Tityrus and Meliboeus of Virgil whom he had in mind, and his characters have often been likened to the shepherds and goatherds in the idylls of Theocritus.
Recognition came with the publication of the first series of Dorset poems in 1844, though some reviewers were puzzled whether to criticize them on artistic or philological grounds; later volumes however were felt to be the poetry of profound art by Coventry Patmore, F. T. Palgrave, H. M. Moule, and others. They saw that Barnes, behind his word-screen, had a quality of the great poets, a clear perception or instinct that human emotion is the primary stuff of poetry.
Repose and content mark nearly all of Barness verse; he shows little or none of the spirit of revolt which we find in Burns; nothing of the revolutionary politics of Béranger. He held himself artistically aloof from the ugly side of thingsor perhaps shunned it unconsciously; and we escape in his pictures the sordid miseries that are laid bare in Crabbe, often to the destruction of charm. But though he does not probe life so deeply as the other parson-poet I have named, he conserves the poetic essence more carefully, and his reach in his highest moments, as exampled by such a poignant lyric as The Wife a-lost, or by the emotional music of Woak Hill, or The Wind at the Door, has been matched by few singers below the best.