William Barnes Essay - Critical Essays

Barnes, William


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.

Principal Works

Poetical Pieces (poetry) 1820

Orra, a Lapland Tale (poetry) 1822

Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect (poetry) 1844

Poems Partly of Rural Life in National English (poetry) 1846

Humilis Domus: Some Thoughts on the Abodes, Life and Social Conditions of the Poor, Especially in Dorsetshire (essay) 1849

Se Gefylsta, An Anglo-Saxon Delectus (linguistics) 1849

A Philological Grammar (linguistics) 1854

Notes on Ancient Britain and the Britons (history) 1858

Hwomely Rhymes. A Second Collection of Poems in the Dorset Dialect (poetry) 1859

Views of Labour and Gold (essay) 1859

"Thoughts on Beauty and Art" (essay) 1861

Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect. Third Collection (poetry) 1862

Tiw; or, A View of the Roots and Stems of the English as a Teutonic Language (linguistics) 1862

A Grammar and Glossary of the Dorset Dialect (linguistics) 1863

Poems of Rural Life in Common English (poetry) 1868

Early England and the Saxon-English (history and linguistics) 1869

A Selection from Unpublished Poems (poetry) 1870

An Outline of the English Speech-Craft (linguistics) 1878

An Outline of Rede-Craft (logic) 1880

Select Poems of William Barnes [edited by Thomas Hardy] (poetry) 1908

Select Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect [edited by William Miles Barnes] (poetry) 1909

Selected Poems of William Barnes [edited by Geoffrey Grigson] (poetry) 1950

The Poems of William Barnes. 2 vols, [edited by Bernard Jones] (poetry) 1962


Francis Turner Palgrave (essay date 1886)

SOURCE: "William Barnes and His Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect," in William Barnes of Dorset, by Giles Dugdale, Cassell and Co. Ltd., 1953, pp. 245-66.

[In the following essay, a lecture originally delivered by Palgrave in 1886 and published with brief editorial comments by Giles Dugdale in 1953, Palgrave offers his assessment of Barnes's dialect poetry and his "reasons, both why Barnes has not gained popularity, and … why he deserves it."]

Professor Palgrave began by giving an outline of William Barnes' life and then continued:

I will now first try to define the general aims and characteristics of Barnes as a poet, in as few words as...

(The entire section is 6451 words.)

Thomas Hardy (essay date 1908)

SOURCE: Preface to Select Poems of William Barnes, edited by Thomas Hardy, Humphrey Milford, 1908, pp. iii-xii.

[In the following preface to Select Poems of William Barnes, Hardy explores the unique character of Barnes's dialect poetry.]

This volume of verse [Select Poems of William Barnes] includes, to the best of my judgement, the greater part of that which is of the highest value in the poetry of William Barnes. I have been moved to undertake the selection by a thought that has overridden some immediate objections to such an attempt,—that I chance to be (I believe) one of the few living persons having a practical acquaintance with letters who knew...

(The entire section is 2260 words.)

E. M. Forster (essay date 1939)

SOURCE: "William Barnes," in Two Cheers for Democracy, Edward Arnold and Co., 1951, pp. 209-12.

[In the following essay, originally composed in 1939, Forster praises Barnes's gentle and skillful poetry.]

It is surprising that William Barnes has not been more widely worshipped. Perhaps there was a touch of pride in his gentleness, which led him to conceal himself from notoriety beneath the veil of the Dorset dialect. The veil is slight: anyone can lift it after half an hour's reading. Yet it seems to have served his purpose, and to have confined him to the audience whom he loved. He should have been a popular poet, for he writes of matters which move everyone and in a...

(The entire section is 1554 words.)

Geoffrey Grigson (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: "William Barnes: 1800-1886," in The Mint: A Miscellany of Literature, Art and Criticism, edited by Geoffrey Grigson, George Routledge and Sons Ltd., 1946, pp. 72-101.

[In the following excerpt, Grigson evaluates Barnes's collected works of poetry and speculates on the influence of his verse.]

[William Barnes's] first book was Poetical Pieces, printed for him in Dorchester in 1820—ten poems in ordinary English. He was then twenty years old, and there is nothing much to mark in these conventional album verses but their neatness, and the fact that he began to write in normal English, and for many years continued to do so. Orra: A Lapland Tale,...

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Rayner Unwin (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "The Language of Speech: Relph and Barnes," in The Rural Muse: Studies in the Peasant Poetry of England, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1954, pp. 143-64.

[In the following excerpt, Unwin investigates Barnes's philological writings and describes the "pastoral simplicity" of his dialect poetry.]

Except as a forerunner [Josiah] Relph is of little importance compared with the greatest English dialect poet, William Barnes. It happened that Barnes was born in the first year of the nineteenth century, but the dates of his life and works are singularly irrelevant in considering his poetry. He was as isolated and independent of external influence as any poet that has ever...

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William Turner Levy (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "The Dorset Poet," in William Barnes: The Man and the Poems, Longmans (Dorchester) Ltd., 1960, pp. 1-152.

[In the following excerpt. Levy discusses the importance of nature in Barnes's poetry.]


Emerson calls the sky the daily bread of the eyes, and so it and all present nature were to Barnes. He did not write of the sea nor of great mountains, for he was not familiar with them. Rather, he selected those details on which with delicacy of perception he lovingly lingered, and composed them into vignettes of unmistakable authority. They have the freshness necessary to arrest the most jaded and outrageously stimulated city dweller,...

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Bernard Jones (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: Foreword to The Poems of William Barnes. Volume 1, edited by Bernard Jones, Centaur Press, 1962, pp. 3-22.

[In the following foreword to The Poems of William Barnes, Jones surveys Barnes's life and work as a philologist and poet, particularly studying the nature of his dialect eclogues set in his native Dorset.]

Since the publication of Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect in 1844, the name of William Barnes has seldom for long dropped out of publishers' lists. New editions of this book were published in 1847, 1862 and 1866. In 1846 his Poems Partly of Rural Life in National English was brought out; in 1859 Hwomely Rhymes. A Second...

(The entire section is 7019 words.)

Philip Larkin (review date 1962)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of William Barnes," in Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces, 1955-1982, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1982, pp. 149-52.

[In the following excerpted review of The Poems of William Barnes, originally published in 1962, Larkin discusses the positive aspects of Barnes 's use of dialect in his poetry.]

It is little short of astonishing that we should have had to wait seventy-five years for the complete poems of William Barnes1. When he died in 1886, as old as the century, his work was known and admired by Tennyson, Patmore, Hardy, Allingham, Gosse, Palgrave and Quiller-Couch, and when Bridges made a characteristic sneer at 'the supposed...

(The entire section is 1150 words.)

R. A. Forsyth (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "The Conserving Myth of William Barnes," in Victorian Studies, Vol. VI, No. 4, June, 1963, pp. 325-54.

[In the following essay, Forsyth probes Barnes's theme of the preservation of rural simplicity.]

The view that a group of people hold towards their past is one of the controlling factors in their morals, religion, art, and intellectual pursuits, to say nothing of the sights, sounds, and actual feel of their daily experience.

Charles Frankel, "Explanation and Interpretation in History," in Theories of History, ed. Patrick Gardiner

I need not insist upon the social, ethical, and...

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C. H. Sisson (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "William Barnes," in Art and Action, Methuen, 1965, pp. 30-46.

[In the following essay, Sisson examines Barnes's life, his writings on language, and his poetry of rural life.]


William Barnes came of the best blood in England, being the son of a small farmer in the West Country. Like many another in that countryside, the family was "down-start"—in his own language—being an off-shoot, or so he thought, of a gentleman's family of Gillingham in Dorset. That matters little enough, one way or the other. What does matter is that Barnes came from a stock neither high nor low, grown into the country like a tree-root. All distinctions of...

(The entire section is 5112 words.)

James W. Parins (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Poetry," in William Barnes, Twayne Publishers, 1984, pp. 16-68.

[In the following excerpt, Parins explores Barnes's poetic technique and surveys his love and religious poetry, as well as his folklore verse and "homely rhymes. "]

Barnes as a Dialect Poet

Barnes established himself as a writer of dialect poetry in 1844 with the publication of Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect. Here he turned to what he knew best for the subject matter of his art—the region and people of Dorset—and used as poetic language for those subjects the only appropriate one—the local dialect. Like Robert Burns, Barnes was an originator and a...

(The entire section is 10487 words.)

Alan Chedzoy (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Poems of Rural Life: 1844-1846," in William Barnes: A Life of the Dorset Poet, The Dovecote Press, 1985, pp. 106-22.

[In the following essay, Chedzoy studies Barnes 's Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect, recounting the subject matter, technique, and critical reception of this collection.]

The culmination of Barnes's life as a poet came as early as 1844 when the Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect was first published. Though he was to write much more poetry, and was to make second and third collections of his Hwomely Rhymes, the nature and range of his art as a dialect poet was substantially established by 1844. The...

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Alan Hertz (essay date 1986-7)

SOURCE: "Exile in Eden: William Barnes's Lyrics of Romantic Encounter," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 2, Winter, 1986-87, pp. 308-18.

[In the following essay, Hertz analyzes the imagery and versification of Barnes's romantic lyric poems.]

Despite its overwhelming lushness, a poem by William Barnes often seems strangely artificial, a kind of verbal topiary. Isolated in an anthology, its self-consciously limited vocabulary and rich, stylized imagery can appear merely an eccentric and unproductive impoverishment of the medium. Seen in the proper context, however, it stands revealed as part of a large and interesting literary enterprise. The poems I call...

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Peter Levi (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Hardy's Friend William Barnes," in Celebrating Thomas Hardy: Insights and Appreciations, edited by Charles P. Pettit, Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996, pp. 68-89.

[In the following essay, Levi describes Barnes's life and the enduring power of his poetry.]

That Wessex which we call Hardy's Wessex is only an idea of course. There is something magical or fey about the maps of it that Hardy began to publish in 1895, but they do represent something real—a dialect, the boundaries of a way of life—and it was undoubtedly that deeply original, deeply provincial poet William Barnes who first established it as a literary province. Tennyson talked of Wessex dialect: he got...

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Andrew Phillips (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Society" and "Politics," in The Rebirth of England and English: The Vision of William Barnes, Anglo-Saxon Books, 1996, pp. 55-68 and 83-93.

[In the following excerpt, Phillips looks at the social and political views Barnes expressed in his poetry and prose writings.]


Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village

The enclosing of the commons robbed the country folk in England of leisure and independence, the coming of the factories took them...

(The entire section is 8404 words.)

Further Reading


Badham-Thornhill, D. G. B. William Barnes of Dorset. Beaminster, Dorset: J. Stevens Cox, 1964, 19 p.

Brief sketch of Barnes's life.

Baxter, Lucy. The Life of William Barnes: Poet and Philologist. London and New York: Macmillan and Co., 1887, 98 p.

Biography by Barnes's daughter which endeavors to explore both the scholarly and poetic sides of his character.

Colloms, Brenda. "The Rev. William Barnes: Parson, Poet and Philologist, 1801-1886." In Victorian Country Parsons, pp. 124-51. Lincoln: University of Nebraska...

(The entire section is 660 words.)