William Barnes, born in 1801, is a contemporary of Tennyson and Robert Browning, and among his four collections of poetry are lyrics to stand alongside their finest. He is almost exclusively a pastoral poet, fitting between Wordsworth and Hardy in a literary genealogy. He possibly did his reputation a disservice by writing so many poems in the Dorset dialect; he put himself forward as a regional poet. Attached to a region, with an ear for its spoken language, with an eye for its geography and botany, with a care of the names of its features, yes; but the dialect is not only a badge of region.
The marks and notation of dialect in the poem are a record of a rhythm and sound of speech that Barnes would have known to be imperiled by the century’s unification of communications and flattening of vocal perspective. They are of a place and, like all things that are exclusively of a place, are especially vulnerable to time. His decision to write in a dialect that he knew would fade has worked against his enduring as Tennyson (renewing a Classical poise of endurance) and Browning (inventing a syntax in which to recover lost voices, assisting them against time); but his writing in a language he knew to be fleeing, if not fleeting, is of the essence of what is most enduring in his poetry.
Barnes’ poetry assumes an attitude towards time that, bizarrely for a poet who is distinguished by an inconspicuous performance of traditionalism, is not quite like any other in English poetry. He gives the impression of warming himself at time’s passing, and at finding a reassuring touch in the absence of touches that time, change itself, brings.
The poetry alternates between the ideal stasis of a golden afternoon or silver evening (where pastoral labors and pleasures trade off) and the stabilizing ritualistic accounting of such moments’ fading. Where the poetry succeeds most on terms unlike those of other poets, it is in the latter mode; in the former, it offers more easily anticipated satisfactions of pastoral.
Even where Barnes comes nearest to the plaintive notes of Hardy, he chooses for himself another modality instead. Take “Jay A-Pass’d” (with an accent over the “a” in Jay; a Dorset rendering of “Joy A-Pass’d”):
When leaves, in evenèn winds, do vlee,
Where mornèn aïr did strip the tree,
The mind can waït vor boughs in spring
To cool the elem-sheäded ring.
Where orcha’d blooth’s white sceäles do vall
Mid come the apple’s blushèn ball.
Our hopes be new, as time do goo,
A-measur’d by the zun on high,
Avore our jaÿs do pass us by.
When ice did melt below the zun,
An’ weäves along the streäm did run,
I hoped in Maÿ’s bright froth to roll,
Lik’ jess’my in a lily’s bowl.
Or, if I lost my loose-bow’d swing,
My wrigglèn kite mid pull my string,
An’ when noo ball did rise an’ vall,
Zome other geäme wud still be nigh,
Avore my jaÿs all pass’d me by.
I look’d, as childhood pass’d along,
To walk, in leäter years, man-strong,
An’ look’d ageän, in manhood’s pride,
To manhood’s sweetest chaïce, a bride:
An’ then to childern, that mid come
To meäke my house a dearer hwome.
But now my mind do look behind
Vor jaÿs; an’ wonder, wi’ a sigh,
When ‘twer my jaÿs all pass’d me by.
Wer it when, woonce, I miss’d a call
To rise, an’ seem’d to have a vall?
Or when my Jeäne to my hands left
Her vew bright keys, a dolevul heft?
Or when avore the door I stood,
To watch a child a-gone vor good?
Or where zome crowd did laugh aloud;
Or when the leaves did spring, or die?
When did my jaÿ all pass me by?
The difference between Barnes and Hardy can be felt in the final stanza, in the series of questions, which are both searching and reminiscing, but not regretting. Rather, he turns over memories in his hand as he might turn over buttons kept in a drawer, searching for the one that fits, in the knowledge that one will answer. It’s hard to think that, could he find a single moment when joy left him, he would do anything with it except nod in satisfaction, pleased with having searched and succeeded in the search.
But the penultimate line belies the thought that such a single moment exists: “Or when the leaves did spring, or die?” That word “or” shifts the poem to a whimsical surrender; there’s no saying when it happened, no marker adequate; with or the phrase becomes in effect a temporal “six of one, half dozen of the other”. Once again, decidedly unlike Hardy, for whom the moment is crucial, sought, obsessed over.
For Barnes, the succession of moments, some singular, others cyclical, affords a gratifying sense of time’s passing though losses have incurred. His is the consummate pastoral fortitude, seemingly unaware–as Wordsworth is not–of the strength that sustains it.
The poem turns on Wordsworth’s key-word: “joy.” And what it does with that word is both like and unlike Wordsworth, for whom joy is an ambivalent state, a potentially excruciating intensity of pleasure to which one has not choice but to surrender. Barnes’ poetry shies from the plaintive and even strong melancholy by a tacit recognition that despite the absence of joy, happiness might remain; to be content with the past is not to demand joy from it, and to be content in the present may be possible despite joy’s no longer being possible—if not even because of it. And this even though there is something to be said for joy, something to be said for the intensity of feeling that cannot be encountered any longer.
Barnes, whose intellectual energies were devoted to philology as well as poetry, would have possessed the patient fascination that genuine scholarship demands; and something of this can be felt in the poems, which look back over the past with the murmured inward question, “I wonder…” or “Let me see more clearly”; they are moving for being recollections of feelings and occasions and places that, though not dispassionate, are possessed by a passion of curiosity that feels to be personal to an observer rather than participant in those feelings, occasions, and places.
He does not, as a consequence, deny pathos, or exhume feeling from his poems; but the poems breathe an air of speculation, wonder, curiosity even when they are saddest in their recollections. Here is “The Turnstile”:
Ah! sad wer we as we did peace
The wold church road, wi’ downcast feace,
The while the bells, that mwoan’d so deep
Above our child a-left asleep,
Were now a-zingen all alive
With tother bells to make the vive.
But up at woone place we come by,
‘Twer hard to keep woone’s two eyes dry:
On Stean-cliff road, ‘ithin the drong,
Up where, as vo’k do pass along,
The turnen stile, a-painted white,
Do sheen by day an’ show by night.
Vor always there, as we did go
To church, thick stile did let us drough,
With spreaden arms that wheel’d to guide
Us each in turn to tother side.
And vu’st of all the train he took
My wife, with winsome gait and look;
And then zent on my little maid,
A-skippen onward, overjoyed
To reach again the place of pride,
Her comely mother’s left hand zide.
And then, a-wheelin roun’, he took
On me, ‘ithin his third while nook.
And in the fourth, a-shaken wild,
He zent us on our giddy child.
By eesterday he guided slow
My downcast Jenny, vull of woe,
And then my little maid in black,
A-walken softly on her track:
And after he a-turned again,
To let me go along the lane,
He had no little boy to fill
His last white arms, and they stood still.
The recollection here is immediate, the day after the funeral, not of years long since past; but the pathos is immense and immensely affecting. The restraint by which the poem is characterized is not a strength because the sentimental is inappropriate in poetry, but because of what it enforces around the poem: a sense of audience, place, and time. Barnes has written a conversation poem about mourning; the poem is addressed to a friend, or good acquaintance, on the road or at an inn. There is, I think, no other way to make sense of the forthrightness of address, combined with the reticence of emotion. The poem is pitched then at a distance across which a reader might sympathize, without being asked to empathize on an occasion when empathy would be ill-founded, impossible perhaps.
The turnstile is a perhaps to resemble a whirligig, with Shakespeare’s “whirligigs of time” in the background. At any rate, it is suggestive of a permanence that will outlast all of the lives that it embraces in its arms; its own arms being consoling in their familiarity, but also utterly failing to console in their being inert, except by the life that passes through.
Without denying the poem’s grieving center of gravity, I would point also to the ballast it effects by a love and quiet rejoicing in what has not been lost; here again the pastoral spirit. We might think that some of the details of the wife and daughter’s gait and pace (“A-walken softly on her track” etc), their clothes, their personalities are efforts at self-distraction; and they are. We might think that they are contrasts of happiness and bereavement, and they are. But they are also lingered on because they were there, and their being there cannot but elicit Barnes’ interest, cannot but focus his attention, as all that happened does. The loss is not balanced or compensated, but it is set within these other presences, by the present act of remembering; by turning the past over in the poet’s hands.
Barnes loses himself to memory, to the presence of what has passed; in a poem describing a road, the distance between his present and the past is closed by the verse itself.
Still green on the limbs o’ the woak wer the leaves,
Where the black slooe did grow, a-meal’d over wi’ grey,
Though leäzes, a-burnt, wer wi’ bennets a-brown’d,
An’ the stubble o’ wheat wer a-witheren white,
While sooner the zunlight did zink vrom the zight,
An’ longer did linger the dim-roaded night.
But bright wer the day-light a-dryen the dew,
As foam wer a-villen the pool in its vall,
An’ a-sheenen did climb, by the chalk o’ the cliff,
The white road a-voun’ steep to the waweary step,
Where along by the knap, wi’ a high-beätèn breast,
Went the maïd an’ the chap to the feäst in their best.
There hosses went by wi’ their neck in a bow,
An’ did toss up their nose over outspringen knees;
An’ the ox, heäiryhided, wi’ low-swingen head;
An’ the sheep, little knee’d, wi’ a quick-dippen nod;
An’ a maïd, wi’ her head a-borne on in a proud
Gaït o’ walken, so smooth as an aïr-zwimmen cloud.
But the title of the poem opens that gulf: “Which Road?”. It is there before him, but he is at pains to know which it is that he sees. Absence, a loss not only of what was, but of what he can possess of what was, remains beyond the poem’s body, a title that leaves the poem curiously incomplete: if he had remembered the name or the road, it might have been titled after it. That absence does not interfere with the vivid memory, but it hovers adjacent to it, above it, so that the poem is to be felt as a triumph in recollecting so richly what cannot be recollected, after all, in its entirety.
At times, though, Barnes at his strength does resemble Hardy strongly. Take “The Wind at the Door,” a poem that one imagines Hardy might have wished he had written: