BOOK REVIEW / Labouring for the land's lost language: 'William Barnes: Selected Poems' - Ed. Andrew Motion: Penguin, 6.99 pounds

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THE BATTLE between the spoken and the written word has been going on for centuries. While speech is full of the peculiar music and idiosyncracies of the human voice, scripts are neutralised, robbed of those twists and turns. Poets, being acutely sensitive to the music of language, have often taken sides in this battle. Wordsworth and Coleridge's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, for example, suggests that the best poetry is the closest to speech. A later 19th-century poet, William Barnes, also in the Romantic tradition, undertook a one-man campaign to rid the English language of the influences that were destroying it; to get it back to the basics of the Dorset dialect, the speech that Barnes lived and breathed as a child.

Barnes was born in the Blackmoor Vale in 1801, and much of his childhood was spent in the company of an uncle and aunt who were, in his wide, childish eyes, the very epitome of wholesome rural stock: tenant farmers who lived by the rhythms of the seasons and treated their itinerant labourers like human beings. Their Dorset dialect seemed an outward expression of character. This is how he described it: 'The Dorset dialect is a broad and bold shape of the English language, as the Doric was of the Greek. It is rich in humour, strong in raillery and hyperbole, and altogether as fit a vehicle of rustic feeling and thought, as the Doric is found in the Idyllia of Theocritus.'

'National' English, on the other hand (which included the literary English of the metropolis), had lost all vitality. The principal reason for the 'weak wordiness of modern composition' was that the language had strayed too far from its Anglo-Saxon roots. The corrupting influence of the southern Mediterranean languages - Latin and French, for example - had to be resisted at all costs. After all, was not 'baby cart' an altogether better and cleaner expression than 'perambulator', that clanking, Latinate, polysyllabic monstrosity?

But theories of language are never to do with language alone. They are also, as Andrew Motion, the editor of this generous selection of Barnes' poetry, has argued elsewhere, to do with social structures. To 'get back' to the purified language of rural Dorset would also include getting back to an older and more hierarchical society, a pre-industrialised Dorset which was foundering during Barnes' own lifetime. It was all an impossible dream - and, like many dreams, tremendously vivid.

It became Barnes' lifelong endeavour to set this vanishing world in aspic in his poetry - to describe with the minutest precision, for example, how the farm labourers set about loading their furniture on to the wagon on Lady Day, the traditional removals day. He did so with a dramatic energy that never found release when he wrote in 'National English'.

In spite of the fact that Barnes, who worked for 37 years as a schoolmaster and most of the rest of his life as a clergyman, seldom left his native Dorset, he knew a little fame. Three volumes of dialect poems were published during his lifetime, and every one went into several editions. He has had his champions too - Tennyson (who was provoked by Barnes' example into writing The Northern Farmer in his own Lincolnshire dialect), Gerard Manley Hopkins (who admired and learnt from his linguistic theories) and Thomas Hardy amongst his contemporaries; Forster and Larkin in this century. Why then is he not better known?

The poems do look a little daunting on the page, bristling with speech marks and other aids to pronunciation that Barnes himself was so eager to provide. And yet, as Larkin said, it requires no more than half an hour's work to accustom oneself to the pull of his rhythms and the buck of his vigorous emphases.