- William Barnes's Dialect Poems: A Pronunciation Guide by T. L. Burton
William Barnes was one of the great nineteenth-century autodidacts. Leaving school at thirteen, he taught himself many languages, learned to play three instruments, and wrote prodigiously. He had a particular interest in the history of the English language and its dialects but his poems in Dorsetshire dialect provide his principal claim to fame: the first was published in a local newspaper in 1834 and was followed by many others, including three collections. Barnes established himself as a major minor poet, carefully reproducing Dorset dialect in two different kinds of phonetic spelling.
Thomas Burton's book addresses a particular problem, namely, how to pronounce Barnes's poems. To this end, he provides a detailed account of the realization of the twenty main vowels of English in Barnes's Dorset dialect; a similar treatment of consonants (including iconic features of west country dialects such as 'z' for Standard English 's'); line-by-line commentary on three poems; and phonetic transcriptions of eighteen poems. There are also three appendices containing Barnes's own writing about Dorset dialect and his specimen of Winterborne Came local speech, a table of key rhymes, and an index verborum, as well as an audio CD of readings and a map. Thus we have a whole box of tools with which to unlock the pronunciation Barnes intended for his poems - essential for reading his work since all his poetry is rhymed. [End Page 320]
Burton's book draws on an enormous amount of detailed research, consulting specific studies of Dorset dialect (including Barnes's own), general works on English pronunciation, and general dialect surveys such as the monumental work of A. J. Ellis and later The Survey of English Dialects. All of this material has been mastered and expertly deployed; yet for such a technical subject it is all immensely readable. The value of this excellent book lies both in the intrinsic interest of the subject and in introducing us to the full enjoyment of a very fine poet. It is easy to forget just how important dialect poetry was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although we have only to think of Burns to realize what dialect poets were able to achieve. Barnes is an important part of this tradition and this book makes it possible for us to enjoy the aural subtleties of his work for the first time, perhaps, since his lifetime.