#66. “Evening, and Maidens” by William Barnes

Now the shiades o’ the elems da stratch muore an muore,
Vrom the low-zinkèn zun in the west o’ the sky;
An’ the maîdens da stan out in clusters avore
The doors, var to chatty an’ zee vo’ke goo by.

An’ ther cuombs be a-zet in ther bunches o’ hiair
An’ ther curdles da hang roun’ ther necks lily-white,
An’ ther cheäks tha be ruosy, ther shoulder be biare,
Ther looks tha be merry, ther lims tha be light.

An’ the times have a-been—but tha cant be noo muore—
When I, too, had my jây under evemen’s dim sky,
When my Fanny did stan’ out wi’ others avore
Her door, var to chatty an’ zee vo’ke go by.

An’ up there, in the green, is her own honey-zuck,
That her brother trâin’d up roun’ her winder; an’ there
Is the ruose an’ the jessamy, where she did pluck
A flow’r var her buzom ar bud var her hiair.

An’ zoo smile, happy mâidens! var every fiace,
As the zummers da come an’ the years da roll by,
Wull soon sadden, ar goo vur awoy vrom the pliace
Ar else, lik’ my Fanny, wull wither an’ die.

But when you be a-lost vrom the parish, some muore
Wull come on in y’ur pliazen to bloom an’ to die;
And zoo zummer wull always have mâidens avore
Ther doors, var to chatty an’ ze vo’ke goo by.

Var da’ters ha’ marnen when mothers ha’ night,
An’ there’s beauty alive when the fiairest is dead;
As when oon sparklèn wiave da zink down vrom the light,
Another da come up an’ catch it instead.

Zoo smile on, happy mâidens! but I shall noo moure
Zee the mâid I da miss under evemen’s dim sky;
An’ my heart is a-touch’d to zee you out avore
The doors, var to chatty and zee vo’ke goo by.

So I’m really just posting this in order to drive Mia crazy when she tries to copy edit it. : )

…Okay, not really. It’s actually a kind of haunting poem when you get past the initial “what is this?” reaction to the dialect and diacritical marks–I had to transcribe the poem in Word just to get them all in. (There are still a couple that I couldn’t figure out how to make.) I’m not sure I’d be able to declaim it before a crowd of people, but I can at least get a sense of some of the music of the Dorset dialogue graphically represented here.

William Barnes (1801-1886), says Wikipedia, was both a poet and a philologist; the decision to write in the dialect of his native Dorsetshire was a conscious decision undertaken, at least in part (it seems), to demonstrate a more “pure” English language, free of the pernicious influences of Latin and Greek words. Barnes himself knew Latin, Greek, and modern languages, suggesting that a certain level of education is necessary to write as if you have none. (John Clare would be an instructive comparison here–someone who actually was an uneducated peasant poet rather than someone writing as if he were one. Not that I’m going all essentialist and authenticity on you, but you know what I mean.) Barnes gets seven poems in the OBVV, compared to two in the more contemporary Penguin Book of Victorian Verse–and the two in that collection are not in this one.

I’m intrigued by the claim on the Wiki page (which I’m going to assume comes from the book cited at the bottom, namely The Rebirth of England and the English by Andrew Philips, sadly available only in snippet view on GoogleBooks) that Barnes’s project of purging Latin and Greek roots from English in favor of a more robust Anglo-Saxon language had a class element to it–that is, it would be easier for someone without a classical education to understand what a photograph was if we called it a “sun-print” or that “botany” would be more intelligible as “wortlore.” It recalls for me William Godwin’s view in The Enquirer (1797) that it’s important to study etymology so that you can’t be made to look stupid by not knowing all the things that your own words could possibly mean. So I wonder if part of Barnes’s argument could be something like an attempt to bring the power of words back to the people.

The study of etymology of course doesn’t save the title chararcter of Godwin’s Caleb Williams, nor does it save Godwin when he publishes the Memoir of Mary Wollstonecraft. And I’m too much of a Derridean (yes, there, I said it) not to know all the different ways that words and signs can break from their context and come back to twist themselves around a misunderstanding and bite us in our discursive ass. But I do think that it occasionally makes for pretty poetry. The more I think about “Evening, and maidens,” the more I like it. The repetition of the line about standing outside of their “doors, var to chatty an’ zee vo’ke goo by” gives it a comforting lilt, even as the expression of loss remains poignant. It may not break new ground in themes in English poetry, but perhaps it doesn’t have to.

At the same time, what do we make of  a classically-educated poet’s decision to write in dialect–especially when that decision does seem to assume a spoken language superior to a written one yet approximated and kept alive through writing? This is hardly an issue specific to the Victorian period, but I’m surprised that it really has yet to be studied systematically within this context, given the recent attention to subjects like the Spasmodic school and Victorian meters.  I could very much see Victorian dialect poetry (or some better name for it) becoming the next big thing in the field, and if it does I hope that it’s not carried out just on a historical and material level but that it’s also used to think some of the theoretical implications of this kind of project–not in a specifically Derridean way necessarily, but perhaps as an extension or development of a book like Eric Griffiths’ The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry, one of my all-time favorite critical texts.