In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section William Barnes

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Editions
  • Biography
  • Dialect
  • Pastoralism and the Poetry of Place
  • Social Awareness

Victorian Literature William Barnes
Martin Dubois
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0123


A writer of exceptionally diverse interests and enthusiasms, William Barnes (b. 1801–d. 1886) is now best known as a dialect poet and philologist. Barnes spent almost all of his life in his native Dorset, where he worked as a solicitor’s clerk and later as a schoolmaster before being appointed rector of the parish of Winterborne Came in 1862. Poems of Rural Life, in the Dorset Dialect: With a Dissertation and Glossary appeared in 1844, followed by Poems, Partly of Rural Life (in National English) in 1846, Hwomely Rhymes: A Second Collection of Poems in the Dorset Dialect in 1859, Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect, Third Collection in 1862, and Poems of Rural Life in Common English in 1868. The three collections of dialect poems were brought together in one volume in 1879 under the general title Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect. Barnes, in his philological writings, proposed that English should be purified of Latin, Greek, and French influence and return to its native Anglo-Saxon roots. Important works here are A Philological Grammar (1854) and Tiw: Or, a View of the Roots and Stems of the English as a Teutonic Tongue (1862). Though Barnes’s campaign for linguistic purism was occasionally a lonely one, his poems won him a wide appreciation among his contemporaries, with Alfred Tennyson and Gerard Manley Hopkins among those who wrote admiringly of his work. Barnes has traditionally been seen as pursuing a gently archaic vision of rural life in his poetry, more or less disconnected from the poverty and social unrest experienced in Dorset in his own lifetime. Recent criticism has, however, challenged that perception, suggesting that Barnes’s dialogue poems—his “eclogues”—reveal a high degree of social awareness.

General Overviews

Barnes’s status as a minor poet (a classification often lamented in criticism of his work) means that general studies of his work are relatively few in number. Only one full-length study of the poetry—the writing for which Barnes is now best known—has appeared. Motion 2001 and Van-Hagen 2007 are good starting points for those approaching the study of Barnes for the first time. Parins 1984 is not widely available, but it offers a more in-depth introduction to both the poetry and prose. Phillips 1996 provides a useful perspective on Barnes and religion. Grigson 1950, Larkin 1983, and Sisson 1978 are all widely cited as exemplifying the traditional view of Barnes as a poet of idealized rural contentment and harmony. A more recent perspective is provided in Austin and Jones 2002, which emphasizes Barnes’s poetic craft.

  • Austin, Frances, and Bernard Jones. The Language and Craft of William Barnes, English Poet and Philologist (1801–1886). Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2002.

    A solid general survey, this is the first (and, as yet, only) full-length study of Barnes’s poetry, and is focused mainly on questions of technique and language.

  • Grigson, Geoffrey. “Introduction.” In Selected Poems of William Barnes. Edited by Geoffrey Grigson, 1–30. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950.

    A lively account of Barnes’s work, which has guided much subsequent criticism, even if the claim that “there are not art-and-society reasons for urging that Barnes should be read” is now disputed.

  • Larkin, Philip. “The Poetry of William Barnes.” In Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces, 1955–1982. By Philip Larkin, 149–152. London: Faber and Faber, 1983.

    A reprinted version of a much-cited review of Barnes 1962 (cited under Editions), notable for its remarks on Barnes’s use of dialect.

  • Motion, Andrew. William Barnes. Laurie Lee Memorial Lecture 2. Cheltenham, UK: Cyder, 2001.

    A lucid and balanced account of Barnes’s life and work, including some shrewd remarks on the estranging effect of Barnes’s use of dialect. An abbreviated version of this lecture also serves as an introduction to Barnes 2007 (cited under Editions).

  • Parins, James W. William Barnes. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

    Considers both Barnes’s poetry and his prose writings. A helpful starting point.

  • Phillips, Andrew. The Rebirth of England and English: The Vision of William Barnes. Hockwold-cum-Wilton, UK: Anglo-Saxon, 1996.

    Makes no claim to scholarly objectivity in its praise for Barnes’s vision of English life, but significant nonetheless for its unusual attention to Barnes’s religious thought.

  • Sisson, C. H. “William Barnes.” In The Avoidance of Literature: Collected Essays. Edited by Michael Schmidt, 192–201. Manchester, UK: Carcanet, 1978.

    An influential reading of Barnes, of the kind now challenged by recent criticism. Sisson posits that Barnes was consciously antiquated in his writing and thought, “a figure of the sixteenth century rather than the nineteenth” (p. 195).

  • Van-Hagen, Stephen. “William Barnes.” In The Literary Encyclopedia. Edited by Robert Clark. 2007.

    A concise introduction to Barnes’s life and work, which emphasizes the significance of Barnes’s nonpoetic writing.

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