William Barnes and Thomas Hardy

My wanderings around Europe, to Germany, France, Ireland, Wales and England are drawing to a close and in less than two weeks time, I will return hopefully to a less frozen home. It’s been an intensive experience as, besides translating, I’ve met friends and family from various stages of my life, moving back and forth in time as well as space.

In a few hours, I’ll leave the strange suburb of Elstree/Borehamwood, with its film and TV studios where seat plaques commemorating worthy folk who loved this place are likely to be cheek by jowl with information boards about Hitchcock, and where gaggles of folk hoping for a glimpse of the great cluster at the roadside, ignoring signs requesting them not to do so.

But I can breathe here, there’s a small town calm and the hotels are a fraction of the price of central London gearing up for the coronation. And there are also fast regional trains to St Pancras within easy reach of the British Library and friends in town.

But now I’m off to Dorset and have been reading Alan Chedzoy’s biography of William Barnes “The People’s Poet”, interesting as I know far more about Thomas Hardy than Barnes. Barnes wrote poetry in the Dorset dialect, which he considered to be closer to Old English than modern standard English, but which was considered by fine folk to be low and vulgar. Barnes would have liked to strip English of its Latin and Greek accretions and return it to its robust Anglo-Saxon roots so that school students would perhaps study Folk Lore rather than Civics.

More than a generation older than Hardy (1840-1928), Barnes (1801-1886) looked back to the eighteenth rather than forward to the twentieth century.  A largely self-educated polymath, his interests ranged far beyond philology writing “View of Labour and Gold” in 1859, the same year that Karl Marx produced his “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”. Despite his thoughts about the labour theory of value, Barnes was not an early socialist, not even of the utopian kind. He looked back to an imagined golden past where the wealthy established justified their privileges by pastoral care of the less well endowed, who still had access to their own modest means of production before the disruptions caused by the onward march of Mammon.

Barnes has little to say about popular resistance, devoting little or no attention to Captain Swing, the Tolpuddle Martyrs or other social turbulence in the nineteenth century. “Man of the people” is thus what the Swedes would call “a truth with modification”.

Writing later, Thomas Hardy can be critical of the stressful and sometimes dangerous effects of the introduction of agricultural machinery. And highly critical of the hypocrisy of Victorian morality (in for example, Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure) with a grim empathy for its victims. But they, as are his heroes and heroines, are tragic and/or admirable individuals expressing their aspirations and making an impression on others by their personal qualities rather than being participants in collective action.

Hardy was inspired by many events that had taken place in Dorset and there are references to the wider world but his silences are significant. There is no novel about the Tolpuddle Martyrs despite their trial taking place in Dorchester. Nor did stories about the Chartists or the agricultural crises of the later nineteenth century make an appearance in his work.

I haven’t seriously studied Barnes’ dialect poetry or Hardy’s poetical work (he wrote mostly as a poet from the beginning of the last century onwards). It’s a gap in my education. I enjoyed poetry as a sixth former but since then my diet has been almost exclusively prose. I must try to correct this but need to find an annotated version of Barnes and Hardy’s poems as I am slow to interpret and lose patience too quickly.

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