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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
William Barnes (1801–1886)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
HAD he chosen to write solely in familiar English, rather than in the dialect of his native Dorsetshire, every modern anthology would be graced by the verses of William Barnes, and to multitudes who now know him not, his name would have become associated with many a country sight and sound. Other poets have taken homely subjects for their themes,—the hayfield, the chimney-nook, milking-time, the blossoming of “high-boughed hedges”; but it is not every one who has sung out of the fullness of his heart and with a naïve delight in that of which he sung: and so by reason of their faithfulness to everyday life and to nature, and by their spontaneity and tenderness, his lyrics, fables, and eclogues appeal to cultivated readers as well as to the rustics whose quaint speech he made his own.  1
  Short and simple are the annals of his life; for, a brief period excepted, it was passed in his native county—though Dorset, for all his purposes, was as wide as the world itself. His birthplace was Bagbere in the vale of Blackmore, far up the valley of the Stour, where his ancestors had been freeholders. The death of his parents while he was a boy threw him on his own resources; and while he was at school at Sturminster and Dorchester he supported himself by clerical work in attorneys’ offices. After he left school his education was mainly self-gained; but it was so thorough that in 1827 he became master of a school at Mere, Wilts, and in 1835 opened a boarding-school in Dorchester, which he conducted for a number of years. A little later he spent a few terms at Cambridge, and in 1847 received ordination. From that time until his death in 1886, most of his days were spent in the little parishes of Whitcombe and Winterbourne Came, near Dorchester, where his duties as rector left him plenty of time to spend on his favorite studies. To the last, Barnes wore the picturesque dress of the eighteenth century, and to the tourist he became almost as much a curiosity as the relics of Roman occupation described in a guide-book he compiled.  2
  When one is at the same time a linguist, a musician, an antiquary, a profound student of philology, and skilled withal in the graphic arts, it would seem inevitable that he should have more than a local reputation; but when, in 1844, a thin volume entitled ‘Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect’ appeared in London, few bookshop frequenters had ever heard of the author. But he was already well known throughout Dorset, and there he was content to be known; a welcome guest in castle and hall, but never happier than when, gathering about him the Jobs and Lettys with whom Thomas Hardy has made us familiar, he delighted their ears by reciting his verses. The dialect of Dorset, he boasted, was the least corrupted form of English; therefore to commend it as a vehicle of expression and to help preserve his mother tongue from corruption, and to purge it of words not of Anglo-Saxon or Teutonic origin,—this was one of the dreams of his life,—he put his impressions of rural scenery and his knowledge of human character into metrical form. He is remembered by scholars here and there for a number of works on philology, and one (‘Outline of English Speech-Craft’) in which, with zeal, but with the battle against him, he aimed to teach the English language by using words of Teutonic derivation only; but it is through his four volumes of poems that he is better remembered. These include ‘Hwomely Rhymes’ (1859), ‘Poems of Rural Life’ (1862), and ‘Poems of Rural Life in Common English’ (1863). The three collections of dialect poems were brought out in one volume, with a glossary, in 1879.  3
  “A poet fresh as the dew,” “The first of English purely pastoral poets,” “The best writer of eclogues since Theocritus,”—these are some of the tardy tributes paid him. With a sympathy for his fellow-man and a humor akin to that of Burns, with a feeling for nature as keen as Wordsworth’s, though less subjective, and with a power of depicting a scene with a few well-chosen epithets which recalls Tennyson, Barnes has fairly earned his title to remembrance.  4
  ‘The Life of William Barnes, Poet and Philologist,’ written by his daughter, Mrs. Baxter, was published in 1887. There are numerous articles relating to him in periodical literature, one of which, a sketch by Thomas Hardy, in Vol. 86 of the ‘Athenæum,’ is of peculiar interest.  5
 
 
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