This is a tale of two poets.
Today one of them, Robert Burns, will be remembered worldwide, on his birthday, in a global frenzy of haggis and dialect verse that will fan out from Scotland across North America, Dubai, Russia, Japan, Indonesia, Brazil, Nigeria and Europe.
The other poet, the Englishman William Barnes, will be largely ignored this week, as he is most weeks. The differing fates of Burns and Barnes are fascinating, because they were in many ways similar writers. Both farmer’s sons with little formal schooling, they were to become recognised in later life for their striking poetry written in the dialects of the labouring poor. Burns’s first volume was called Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect; Barnes’s was titled Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect. Both were championed by literary giants of their age, but only one of them became immortal.
William Barnes was a remarkable character: a rural boy from Dorset who became a literary figure befriended by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Thomas Hardy. He was a polymath, speaking seven languages and teaching himself mathematics, music and wood engraving. All of this was done from the Dorset village he lived in; his walks in to Dorchester to set his watch by the town clock were the closest he came to metropolitan life.
He published several volumes of poetry in the dialect of Blackmore Vale, where he grew up. The poems speak of the local landscape of elm and oak, of “eacorns” and “windvalls” and the “wedden days” of local girls. To read it now is to hear a record of a dead world, echoed &emdash; unusually &emdash; not through the language of the lettered elite, but in the speech patterns of the ordinary woman and man.
Why, we might ask, is one dialect poet now forgotten while the other is a global commodity? The simple answer is that Burns became a tool of a nationalist movement which wrapped his verse in a flag and sent it out into the world. Burns represents, perhaps, what Scottish nationalists would like their nation to be: simple, proud, close to the land, defiant, independent.
Barnes, meanwhile, is represented, when represented at all, as a twee ruralist. He wrote in a dialect which, with its “girt woak trees” and “zunzets”, is more likely to be resurrected by the Wurzels than by English nationalists. Barnes’s Dorset is long-dead &emdash; it was dying when he wrote &emdash; and, like Hardy, his words are now hazed over by a fuzz of pastoral nostalgia. The English have a deep, unexamined longing for a connection to the countryside they were expelled from centuries ago by enclosure and industry, but that longing manifests itself most commonly in comfortable ruralism. The Scots use their rural poets as political figureheads. The English use theirs to illustrate tea towels.
But could this change? William Barnes was a country poet, but he was also a man with a cause. Some of his contemporaries thought he could be a greater writer if only he would stop messing about with dialect, but Barnes replied that his dialect poems were not simply about the local people but were for them. He was trying to bring his poetry to the rural classes, and with it he was trying to bring a sense of place and history to a populace assailed by the rapid change of the Victorian era. In later life he developed a theory about what the English language would have looked like had the Norman Conquest never happened, and set up the common speech and life of the people he lived among as a bulwark against the encroaching tide of cold-hearted commerce and science that would soon destroy the rural England he knew.
In other words William Barnes was, like Rabbie Burns, a kind of grassroots dissenter who had something to say about his country and what it was becoming. Today, as the growing distance between England and Scotland leads to an ever louder conversation in England about who we are, we may find that Barnes can help us with an answer.
Who we are, as the poet could have told us, is an expression of where we are. Identity grows from place: from the land, from the places we live in and are connected to, rural or urban.
William Barnes was deeply connected to his place. He knew it intimately, spoke and wrote as its inhabitants did. He wanted an understanding of place, and an understanding of the past, to guide the future. We don’t need to wrap him in a St George’s Cross &emdash; it’s probably the last thing he would have wanted. But the English could do worse than celebrate him and his like if we are looking to define ourselves in a world that is again changing fast. Barnes Night, anyone?