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William Barnes by Llewelyn Powys

"Good for the bider, bad for the rider," such was the curt, homely proverb by which the country people of Wessex in mediaeval times used to describe the heavy, rich, alluvial soil from which they derived their livelihood. Indeed there can be found no meadows throughout the length and breadth of England more opulent than those of Dorsetshire, and in Dorset itself none richer than those that are situated in the fertile valley of Blackmore within the green margins of which William Barnes, the dialect poet, passed his life. He was born in 1800 and died in 1886, and during this long span of years was scarcely ever out of earshot of that broad-mouthed speech, "the bold, broad Doric of England," which, as it pleased him to remember, was derived almost without change from the "Eald Seaxan." Just as the great spreading oaks and trimmed or "shrouded" elms grow indigenous and sturdy from the fecund soil of those favoured acres, so is it with his dialect poetry. Every verse, every line of it, seems to have been bathed in those lovely blue mists of dawn, "the pride of the morning," as the village people call them, which during the earlier hours of the long days of summer so frequently envelop the hedgerow trees.

William Barnes was a man of old- fashioned tastes and habits. Up to the day of his death he was accustomed to wear the eighteenth-century dress. Thomas Hardy gives us this delightful glimpse of him:

Few figures were more familiar to the eye in the county town of Dorset on a market day than an aged man, quaintly attired in capel cloak, knee breeches, and buckled shoes with a leather satchel slung over his shoulders and a stout staff in his hand .....
Every Saturday morning he might be seen trudging up the narrow South street of Dorchester till he reached the four crossways. Halting here opposite the public clock, he would pull his old-fashioned watch from its deep fob and set it with great precision to London time.

Bagbere, the little hamlet where William Barnes was born, is situated on the banks of the river Stour, and his poetry is almost entirely concerned with the fields, homesteads, straw-strewn bartons, and grassy honey-suckle-lanes, that are within walking-distance of that most lovely river. Indeed, there are many people who find it difficult to dissociate his poetry from its slowly moving waters; waters whose muddy bottoms have from the earliest days given such good harbourage to the coarser kinds of fish; to eels and leather-mouthed chub, and red-dorsal-finned roach. Of all English rivers, the river Stour is the most friendly. Along under its sweet alder-shaded pools no danger ever lurks; no evil undercurrents ever disturb its wide, cider-coloured reaches, as by wood and "drong," by park and flowering meadow, it winds its way toward the channel, with no other purpose, it would seem, than to fill with good Stour milk the heavy udders of the dairy cows that frequent the margins of its glimmering levels, where, all day long, over the flat water-lily leaves, dragon flies, red and blue, hover aslant.

"Within this gentle environment, all that is old, all that is timeworn, all that has been made sacred by human association, inspires the response of the poet: the church bells that swing in belfries where the timber is dusty with the dust of centuries"

 An’ frettén worms ha’ slowly wound, 
Droo beams the wold vo’k lifted sound  

- the doorposts of the cottages that have been chafed smooth by so many goings out and comings in; the very farm-wains whose painted shafts have had upon them the mud of so many winters, the fine pollen dust of so many summers.

In his poetry there can be found no trace of that black salt of disillusionment, bitter to the taste as the milk of dandelions or the roots of certain weeds, that seems to have become so inseparable from the work of the poets of these latter years. Never for one single moment does he suspect the world of concealing for human life, yawning gaps and ghastly insecurities ! Nothing but what may be called “natural sorrows” ever darkens the brows of the simple folk whom he portrays from the time when, as swaddled children, they are held over the “hallowed stone” of the baptismal font till the hour when their bones are laid to rest amongst those of their fathers and of the old men before them.

What if the greater part of his poetry is made up of a mere record of the varying loveliness of the passing seasons, as in recurring procession they adorn and lay bare again the ancient Wessex soil? Is it not the employment of just this faculty of unaffected poetic observation that is the very breath of consciousness to people who spend their lives in close proximity to nature?

How surely Barnes catches those vague intimations of an inexpressible beauty which trouble us anew at the coming of each spring and which are never more poignantly felt than when, on some early April morning, the “charm” of the birds, louder than could have been conceived, breaks in upon the senses of the country sleepers, lying under their coloured quilts in whitewashed cottage rooms, down in the west country! With equal ease he recovers the very sense of magical seclusion that falls upon the midnight pastures of Dorset, where, far from the hum of cities, “the sight o’cows asleep in glittren dew” can intoxicate the soul with an anguish of ecstasy almost greater than can be borne.

No one, not even Hardy, can conjure up more surely the picture of a sweltering hayfield at the time of the feast of St. Barnabas: the hard-working labourers, "Wi’ their eärms in white sieves, left an’ right,” the glittering farm-instruments, the swathes of wilting, sweet-smelling grass, the slowworms, the mice, the little green, cold-backed frogs :

Or in the day, a-vleèn drough 
The leafy trees, the whoa'se gookoo 
Do zing to mowers that do zet 
Their zives on end, an' stan’ to whet.

Again, in the following lines, has he not conveyed the exact impression of an opulent dairy-land when the first burst of June is over?

I came along, where wide-horn'd cows 
Ithin a nook, ascreen'd by boughs 
Did stan' an flip the white-hooped pails 
Wi' häiry tufts o’swingèn tails.

In half a dozen words he is often able to do what with another poet would take as many pages !

Where cows did slowly seek the brink 
O'Stour, drough zunbrunt grass, to drink.

To a west country man these. lines bring back in a single flash the very look of the familiar sun-bleached meadows when, from the white, gull-haunted cliffs of St. Alban's Head to the Mendips that overlook Glastonbury, they lie prostrate under an August sun. How unmistakably, how essentially English the old man's poems are ! - like clods dug up from an East Chaldon mead, smelling of primroses and daisies and damp island-mould. How delightful is his half-humorous belief in fairies, which takes us back once more to the snoring ploughman, the dreaming, moon-lit parks, the enamelled snake-skins, acorn cups, and cowslip-freckles of Shakespeare's homely imagination.

When William Barnes, wandering through autumn fields, looked at the haws in the hedgerows, they were “pixie pears” to him, and the toadstools under the sodden, moss-grown, beach-tree roots were “pixie stools.” In one of his poems two rustics hold discourse over one of those mysterious circles of rough herbage which one still comes upon in the eegrass of the immemorial acres that lie under the shadow of the grey, squat tower of Milton Abbey.

'But in the daytime where do vearies hide? 
Where be their hwomes, then ? 
Where do vearies bide?' 'oh! they do get away down under ground 
In hollow pleäzen where they can't be vound.'

Old words, old ditties, old, childish incantations are all dear to him. He likes to record how the children at play in the overgrown gardens of his favourite valley sing in mocking tones to the grey-white "puss moths" that they catch,

Millery, millery, dousty pole! 
How many zacks hast thee a-stole 
Vour and twenty in a peck 
Hang the miller up by's neck.

Or again:

How we - when nettles had a-stung 
Our little hands, when we wer young -
Did rub em wi' a dock, an’ zing 
Out nettl', in dock. In dock, out sting.

The very look and character of certain places in Dorset he can bring before the eyes of her exiled sons with heart-breaking vividness 

At Stalbridge, wi' its grey-wall'd park.

Sweet Be'minster, that bist-abound 
By green an' woody hills all round. 
Or with unfaltering craft he will etch in little intimate glimpses of country matters as living and realistic as the woodcuts of Thomas Bewick: 
An’ ho’ses there wi’ lwoads of grist 
Do stand an' toss their heavy heads. 

A yellow-banded bee did come, 
An' softly pitch, wi hushèn hum 
Upon a bean, an' there did sip, 
Upon a swayèn blossom's lip.
An' I do zee the f riskèn lams 
Wi swingen tails an' wooly lags 
A-playèn roun' their veedèn dams 
An' pullèn o' their milky bags. 

In many of his poems, also, we come upon the expression of that sturdy devotion for the actual soil out of which they have sprung, which time and again has enabled the simple folk of the west “to show the mettle of their pastures” in England's hour of need. 

We Do'set, though we mid be hwomely 
Be'nt asheamed to own our pleäce 
An we've zome women not uncomely 
Nor asheämed to show their feäce: 
We've a mead or two wo'th mowen 
We've an ox or two wo'th showen 
In the village.
At the tillage,
Come along an’ you shall vind 
That Dorset men don't sheäme their kind.

The primrwose in the sheäde do blow, 
The cowslip in the zun, 
The thyme upon the down do grow, 
The clote where streams do run; 
An’ where do pretty maidens grow 
An’ blow, but where the tow'r 
Do rise among the bricken tuns, 
In Blackmwore by the Stour.

In his power of portraying the pathos inherent in the transitory nature of all things human, he may be said to rival Wordsworth. He understood only too well the sorrow of a man for the woman he has lost, or a mother for her child, amongst a people whose deep natures are not easily to be comforted. It is said that he himself for nearly forty years wrote down each day in his journal the name of his dead wife. Any familiar material objects that seem to suggest at least a relative permanence are always sufficient to put his mind into a mood of sweet melancholy; a turnstile perhaps, at the end of a field path, which has swung its white arms a thousand times to let pass a beloved one who never again, either in March or November, will go by that way; or, it may be, a spreading oak tree whose knotted bark in three score years and ten has scarce added six inches to its enormous girth. Such deep rooted meditations find an easy utterance in the mellow vernacular, made up not of “hard words,” as the village people of Dorset call King's English, but of a language whose broad phrases would seem indeed to have had their origin in the heart rather than in the head. 

Reading the poetry of William Barnes is like listening to an old fashioned grace or to the singing which Izaak Walton heard on the banks of the Thames. In one of his small prose-works there is a passage that has always seemed to me to express most happily the natural piety of his mind. There is about it something of the pure, unaffected beauty that belongs to certain sentences in the works of Oliver Goldsmith. 

I had been working in my garden. The sun was just below the horizon and the dew was already on the smooth green walks bordered by sweet-smelling roses and carnations. The stillness of the evening was broken only by the whistling of a blackbird. I sat down on a rude seat I had formed beneath an old tree and, as I thought of the fruits and plants that were ripening around me, I exclaimed to myself, 'How happy if they knew it, are they that till the ground.' 

William Barnes died in a small hamlet near Dorchester; and it is in that old county town that a statue of him may be seen, at the foot of which one may read this verse, taken from his poem to the good Squire of Culver Dell:

But now I hope his kindly feäce 
Is gone to vind, a better pleäce 
But still wi’ vok a’ left behind 
He'll always be a-kept in mind.

It stands, this image of a man in whose heart no guile was to be found, confronting the familiar high street, along which he had so often made his way amid the clamour of folk and beasts come into market from the fields and grounds he knew and loved so well.

Extract taken from Thirteen Worthies by Llewelyn Powys published in 1923

See also
Dorset Dialect
In the dods or dumps
Society events