Happy Birthday Barnes
Adam Taylor
By Adam Taylor

February 2018

Happy Birthday Barnes

Dorset, and the county town of Dorchester has a rich literary history. Everyone seems to know a Hardy novel (perhaps due to an unchanging English curriculum!) but before Jude, Bathsheba and Tess there was William Barnes.

If you wander up High West Street in Dorchester, you will note an impressive bronze statue. This is William Barnes who would have celebrated his 217th birthday this week.

Best known for his dialectic poetry Barnes was born in Rushay in the Blackmore Vale in 1801 and moved to Dorchester with his wife some years on. He is best known for his poetry, mostly about rural life and often written in old Dorset dialect. His poetry was praised by his contemporaries including Lord Tennyson and Hardy, who he had tutored in his youth as well as more modern poets after his death including Sassoon and W.H Auden.

It is often commented that if some of his best work had been written in Standard English rather than the language of rural Dorset, he would have been known as one of the greatest English poets. However, this was not Barnes’s way. Barnes painted a picture of rural Dorset life in a disappearing dialect. The crude language he used may have hidden technique but demonstrated an ear for the music of dialect speech.

Barnes was not only an extraordinary poet but an extraordinary man. Although his formal education finished at 13 he continued to read widely and studied history, archaeology, philosophy, the sciences and it is believed up to 16 languages. He also learnt several musical instruments, practiced painting and engraving and went on to earn an external degree of Bachelor of Divinity at St John’s College, Cambridge and was ordained in 1850. He also opened a school in Mere and was the rector of Winterborne Came for over 20 years until his death in 1886.

Alongside his poetry, Barnes often wrote for the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ on Dorset’s history and campaigned to return England to its Saxon roots. He was also an advocate on social change and published a number of articles and pamphlets of the living conditions of the poor and the philosophy of education.

As a founding member of the Dorset Field Club which established the Dorset County Museum it is only right that you can see the life and works of the man who lived and breathed Dorset in the museums Literary Gallery in the heart of Dorchester.



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