In 1918 Thomas Humphry Ward published in several volumes, The English Poets. The works of the poets being introduced by another author. The works of William Barnes, the ‘Dorset Poet’ were introduced by that other Dorset poet and author, Thomas Hardy, and it is that introduction which follows.
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 Barnes’s 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 nothelp it. But he may have seen the unwisdom of such self-limitation — at 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 reporter’s 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 upland’s 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-bramble’s 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 Eclogues — his own adopted name for these pieces — is 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 Barnes’s verse; he shows little or none of the spirit of revolt which we find in Burns; nothing of the revolutionary politics of Beranger. He held himself artistically aloof from the ugly side of things — or 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.