Lawful Charm

Donald Davie

Barnes’s poems prompt no new questions about poetry, and no new convictions about it. The hoariest truths about poetry will always be new and questionable to some people, especially those (they are many) who think that poetry is a certainty-free zone from which, because ‘the wind bloweth where it listeth,’ all categorical assertions are debarred as dogmatic, as ‘prescriptive’. The most modest reassertion of principles, however time-honoured and well-attested, will fall under this ban, and so it’s to be expected that even poetry so far from challenging as Barnes’s will be found, by some, to ‘raise far-reaching questions’. Moreover, it’s widely thought that poetry by its nature has to be challenging; and so to call Barnes unchallenging will be thought to set him down as inauthentic or at best third-rate. Of course he is neither:

Come where thou climbedst, fresh and free,
The grass-beglooming apple-tree,
That, hardly shaken with my small
Boy’s strength, with quiv’ring head, let fall
The apples we lik’d most of all.
  Or elm I climb’d, with clasping legs.
   To reach the crow’s high-nested eggs,
     Come winter moss, creep on, creep on,
     And warn me of the time that’s gone.

Or where I found thy yellow bed
Below the hill-borne fir-tree’s head,
And heard the whistling east wind blow
Above, while wood-screen’d down below
I rambled in the spring-day’s glow
  And watch’d the low-ear’d hares up spring
  From cover, and the birds take wing.
     Come winter moss, creep on, creep on,
     And warn me of the time that’s gone.

In these unexciting but deeply satisfying verses (two out of eight intricately parallel stanzas), one thing that satisfies is the way the epithets – so often in more ambitious verse mere makeweights and metrical fillers – all pull their weight in conveying meaning. ‘Grass-beglooming’ of the apple-tree, ‘high-nested’ of the crow’s eggs, ‘hill-borne’ of the fir-tree, ‘lowear’d’ of the hares – not one is ‘stock’, not one redundant. Even ‘clasping’ (of legs) defines the sort of climbing the boy was forced to: not from branch to branch but hugging the tree-trunk. This is what Pound applauded in Sam Johnson’s verse: ‘the lexicographer’s weighing of the epithet’. And of course the self-educated rector of Winterbourne Came, author of A Philological Grammar and An Anglo-Saxon Delectus, was himself a lexicographer, as his sort of philologist has to be.

However, this poem, ‘Moss’, is from Poems Partly of Rural Life in National English (1846). It is good enough to make us question Alan Chedzoy’s confident assertion, on the excellent tape from Canto Publications, that Barnes’s dialect poems are plainly superior to his poems in Standard English, much as Burns in Scots is, we may well think, better and more authentic than Burns in English. One who made the comparison with Burns was Gerard Manley Hopkins, writing in 1879 to Robert Bridges. Of Barnes’s dialect poems Hopkins says: ‘A proof of their excellence is that you may translate them and they are nearly as good – I say nearly, because if the dialect plays any lawful part in the effect they ought to lose something in losing that. Now Burns loses prodigiously by translation.’ Has any one ever tested Hopkins’s contention, that Barnes can be translated out of dialect into Standard English with very little loss? Obviously it wasn’t up to Andrew Motion to make the experiment: reprinting the dialect poems, he had to reproduce the diacritical marks and phonetic spellings that Barnes insisted on in his lifetime. Yet these certainly impede the patient reader, and it’s still open to question whether he is rewarded for his pains. Hopkins wasn’t sure about this; and when he finally decided that the dialect is worth the trouble, it was on grounds that we surely can’t accept: ‘But its lawful charm and use I take to be this, that it sort of guarantees the spontaneousness of the thought and puts you in the position to appraise it on its merits as coming from nature and not books or education.’ Hardy, who knew Barnes and esteemed him, knew that ‘books or education’ had nourished him as much as any other poet. Barnes, Hardy decided, ‘really belonged to the literary school of such poets as Tennyson, Gray and Collins, rather than to that of the old unpremeditated singers in dialect’. Both Hardy and Hopkins come near to acknowledging that the dialect, and the markings of it in the text, belong to the packaging and promotion of the product, not to the product itself. This will seem outrageous to many enthusiasts for Barnes, but it’s certainly a possibility.

What’s more, our own situation in 1995 surely throws some light. We’ve got used to seeing poems written in, or drawing on, Caribbean ‘rap’ as well as Scouse or South London vernacular, and so on. Are these ‘dialect-poetry’? Not as Barnes understood the matter. For him a dialect was something autonomous, integrated and self-enclosed. Dialects and regional or ethnic idioms (though these are different phenomena, the linguisticians will tell us) seem to us extensions of Standard English, not alternatives to it. Political Correctness declares such usages ‘enrichments’, whereas sometimes surely they aren’t; but they are in any case what we must live with, inhabiting as we do a multiethnic and multicultural England such as Barnes and Hopkins never dreamed of. And this alters our sense of poets in our past. Rather than Burns, a better poet to set against Barnes is his English near-contemporary John Clare. No one, thank goodness, sells Clare to us as ‘Northamptonshire dialect-poet’; yet to their Clare: Selected Poems and Prose (1966), Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield appended a glossary of more than two hundred words and expressions. If Barnes’s Dorset poems were put into Standard English, would their glossary be any bigger? Perpetuating Barnes’s pedantries along with his poems only keeps him in the margin, whereas not much less than Clare he needs to be brought into the mainstream of not necessarily minor classics.

Of Motion’s three admirably helpful appendices in this edition, the first gives us Barnes’s ‘Dissertation on the Dorset Dialect of the English Language’ (1844). This shows how intransigent Barnes was: the Dorset dialect, he asserts, ‘is not only a separate offspring from the Anglo-Saxon tongue, but purer and more regular than the dialect which is chosen as the national speech’. This of course is merely quaint, resting on notions long exploded about purity and regularity in languages. More to the point is that Barnes repeatedly puts forward, as dialectal, usage we’d now recognise as standard. Perhaps the most striking instance is heft (‘weight, from the verb to heave’). ‘Heft’ is still an uncommon word, but whether as verb or noun it is surely now in Standard English, whereas in 1844 it wasn’t. Thus it’s clear that dialect usages were infiltrating and limbering up Standard English long before we all became multicultural. Barnes, by stubbornly distinguishing Dorset Dialect from ‘National English’, actively inhibits this process, which gives a new lease of life to some usages that originated in and as dialect. Seeking to preserve his dialect, Barnes does his best unwittingly to extinguish it. It’s not clear how we can stop him, at this date, from thus defeating his own ends. The truth is surely that a dialect is a stronger and more adaptable growth than Barnes in his anxious solicitude supposed. Particularly is this true, we may think, of pronunciation: even today, faced with a poem in any sort of English, a native of Black-more Vale does not have to be elderly to give to vowels and some consonants the pronuciation that Barnes with his pointings and eccentric spellings sought to extort from the rest of us. A dialect is something sturdier than people imagine; and so is poetry, which (if good) can survive being pronounced in a way that the author didn’t intend.