When people think of Dorchester’s literary heritage they automatically think of Thomas Hardy, the great novelist who defined an era with his bucolic tales of rural life inspired by 19th century Dorset. But Dorchester can also lay claim to another tremendously influencial figure in English literature – the poet William Barnes. You will probably have seen his statue outside St Peter’s Church on Dorchester’s High East Street, but who was this man, and what was his legacy to the literary world?
William Barnes was a farmer’s son, born in 1801 in Bagber, Dorset. He was a gifted child, and in his early teens he learned several musical instruments and studied a wide range of subjects including philosophy, history and languages. Language was of particular fascination to Barnes, and he was soon writing poetry in both standard English and in the Dorset dialect familiar to him from his upbringing.
In his twenties he ran several schools, including one in Durngate Street in Dorchester. But he never lost interest in his poetry, and Barnes’ first collection was published in 1844 under the title Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect.
He published several more works in subsequent years, and in later life became a friend and mentor to Thomas Hardy, who said of Barnes’ work “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”
Barnes sought to capture the essence of traditional Dorset life in his poetry, and central to this was his use of Dorset dialect – the particular way of speaking that had developed in the county’s rural communities over hundreds of years of relative insularity and isolation. Here is the opening stanza from his poem The Love Child:
Where the bridge out at Woodley did stride,
Wi’ his wide arches’ cool sheäded bow,
Up above the clear brook that did slide
By the poppies, befoam’d white as snow;
As the gilcups did quiver among
The white deäsies, a-spread in a sheet.
There a quick-trippèn maïd come along,-
Aye, a girl wi’ her light-steppèn veet.
Many people found Barnes’ predilection for this dialect baffling, as Thomas Hardy explained “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”. But perhaps that was the point – Barnes saw value in preserving and celebrating the unique and endangered culture of old Dorset, which he knew was slowly vanishing as the traditional way of life slowly gave way to the modern age.