William Barnes Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

William Barnes 1801–1886

English poet and philologist.

William Barnes is considered an outstanding regional poet, who produced highly regarded verse in the dialect of Blackmore Vale—a semi-secluded valley in the southern English county of Dorsetshire. This poetry, which preserves the speech and character of rural life in early nineteenth-century England, earned Barnes the enduring designation as "the Dorset Poet." An accomplished philologist as well as a versifier, Barnes also composed extensive linguistic, grammatical, and historical works, including several writings on Anglo-Saxon etymology which would inform his poetry. Overall, Barnes's collected poems are thought to represent a celebration of the pastoral ideals of harmony with nature and gentleness as represented by the people and language of Blackmore Vale, while his prose writing is said to offer tacit criticism of modern notions of economic, social, and scientific progress which he believed threatened to destroy the cultural traditions of the past.

Biographical Information

Barnes was born in Bagber near Sturminster Newton, the principal town in Blackmore Vale, Dorsetshire, England. His father was a relatively poor farmer, though he descended from a family of gentlemen. Barnes attended grammar school in Sturminster, and in his early teens worked for a solicitor in town. During this time he began to display varied and extensive interests: in modern and classical languages, Welsh poetry, music, mathematics, and many other subjects. In 1817, he traveled to Dorchester. There he again was employed as a solicitor's clerk and met Julia Miles, who would later become his wife. Barnes published his first book of poetry, a pamphlet of ten poems in the Queen's English entitled Poetical Pieces, in 1820, but failed to derive any significant notoriety from the work. At the age of twenty-two Barnes, looking for an increase in his wealth for marriage, traveled to Wiltshire where he became a schoolmaster in the town of Mere. He would continue as an educator for the next four decades. A higher salary allowed Barnes to marry Julia Miles in 1827. In 1835 he and his wife returned to Dorchester, where Barnes opened a small school. He continued to pursue his philological studies and write poetry, with many of

his verses appearing in the Dorset County Chronicle. Barnes then published what would become his defining collection, Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect, in 1844. He was encouraged to produce works in the national idiom as well, culminating in Poems Partly of Rural Life in National English (1846). In 1847 Barnes, now the father of seven children of whom six had survived, was ordained a deacon (later a priest) in the parish of Whitcomb. He received his degree of Bachelor of Divinity from Cambridge University in 1850. After his wife fell ill in 1852 and died, a bereaved Barnes produced several poems of love and grief that appeared in his second and third collections of dialect poetry in 1859 and 1862. During the last twenty-five years of his life Barnes retired from teaching and became the parish priest at Winterbourne Came. His literary production of this period was primarily focused on prose, particularly on philological works. In 1885 the respected Dorset novelist and poet Thomas Hardy moved near Barnes, but their friendship was brief. Barnes, by now a familiar and highly-respected figure in Dorset, died the following year.

Major Works

Barnes arranged his first poetic collection, Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect, seasonally, fitting the individual poems into spring, summer, fall, and winter sections, along with a fifth "miscellaneous" category. The work is largely comprised of portraits of country people and glimpses of rural life in the Blackmore Vale region of Dorset. The pieces in Poems of Rural Life, along with its sequels Hwomely Rhymes. A Second Collection of Poems in the Dorset Dialect (1859) and Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect. Third Collection (1862), encompass a variety of verse forms and display a considerable technical range, featuring devices used in the poetry of the medieval Welsh, Anglo-Saxons, Persians, and others. Critics observe in Barnes's eclogues, lyrics, and idylls simple, but vivid natural imagery and a pastoral sensibility. His works include several autobiographical and emotional lyrics related to his love for and loss of his wife, including "My Darling Julia" and "Wife A-Prais'd." Within his series of dialect eclogues are several which protest the neglectful treatment of Dorsetshire farmers in an age of agricultural enclosures: "The 'Lotments" and "The Common A-Took In." Another political eclogue, "The Times," an animal fable of a crow and a pig, objects both to the labor policies of the Chartists and to new agricultural laws in England, while "The Happy Daes When I Wer Young" includes a reference to the encroachment of modern science—characterized as "venom"—on the humbly faithful of Dorset. More typical of Barnes's often professed belief in universal harmony and natural beauty, his well-known poem "My Orcha'd in Linden Lea" features a content laborer wandering through a secluded orchard. The poem likewise demonstrates Barnes's eclectic technical virtuosity and demonstrates the poet's use of Welsh cynghanedd, a sound pattern of consonants later adopted by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Barnes's celebration of pastoral beauty and his nostalgia for the past are likewise seen in works such as "Zummer Stream," "Hallowed Pleäces," and one of his final poems "The Geäte a-Vallèn To."

Among Barnes's volumes on art, language, and society, Philological Grammar (1854) derives from his research and comparison of sixty languages and their essential components. Tiw; or, A View of the Roots and Stems of the English as a Teutonic Language (1862) locates approximately fifty principal English root words from provincial dialects. Barnes formulates his aesthetic theory primarily in the essay "Thoughts on Beauty and Art" (1861), which sets what is "beautiful in art … in accordance with the beautiful in nature." Barnes's prescient essay Views of Labour and Gold (1859) considers "the possible effect of the increase of great working-capitals and monopolies on the labourer's freedom or welfare."

Critical Reception

When considering his own work, Barnes expressed the belief that his dialect poems were not only about the people of Dorset, but also primarily intended for them. His Poems of Rural Life was well received locally, particularly by the Dorset County Chronicle, and by The Gentleman's Magazine, a national periodical. Despite critical approval, popular interest in his verse was lacking. Soon after his death, several of his literary acquaintances, including Coventry Patmore and fellow Dorset-native Thomas Hardy, published favorable pieces designed to increase popular awareness of Barnes's poetic accomplishments, but with limited success. By the mid-twentieth century, commentators had begun to assess Barnes's poetry more critically and to recognize the full extent of his philological research, as well as the considerable effects of these scholarly pursuits on the nature and development of his poetic output. Contemporary estimations of Barnes have continued to acknowledge the strengths of his dialect verse and to contrast these regional works with Barnes's poems in national English, which have generally been considered of inferior quality. Barnes's considerable influence on the later, more well-known poets Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson has recently been observed. Barnes has additionally been recognized for his preservationist philosophy and for his stalwart opposition to the inclusion of Latin, Greek, and French vocabulary—rather than words of Anglo-Saxon origin—in the English language.