- Aural Community and William Barnes as Earwitness
Central to the dialect poetry of William Barnes (1801–1886) is an evocation of emotion that criticism has for half a century struggled to explain, a discomfiting burden of feeling. Writing in the Oxford Handbook of Victorian Poetry, Marcus Waithe offers an alternative to viewing Barnes as a poet hindered by emotion by arguing that what has been labeled the “sentimentality” of his poetry is in fact the expression of an animating anxiety. There is a tension, Waithe argues, between Barnes’s work as a writer and his identity as a member of a rural community where manual work, not poem making, is the common labor. “He cannot step away, into the world of the squire, but neither is he free to lend a hand in the fields,” Waithe says, and this tension manifests itself in emotion.1
Waithe’s thought is persuasive, and my consideration of Barnes likewise originates with an interest in the emotion of his poems; but my argument differs, because I find there is more to say about Barnes’s dialect poetry in relation to dominant views of dialect in Victorian culture. My assertions arise from two observations: first, Barnes’s poems have a complicated relationship with broader Victorian discourse about dialect. Barnes was involved in such discourse—like many a clergyman in his time, he joined the English Dialect Society, and his work in dialectology has been increasingly well explored—but the operations of his poems, which are my central concern, reveal a dissenting relationship with it.2 Second, Barnes’s poems frequently represent experiences of listening and invite readers to have such experiences, a preoccupation seldom remarked in criticism.
The term “earwitness” is meant to encapsulate these observations and connect them to the burden of feeling in Barnes’s work. Barnes’s dialect poems, I suggest, assert the dynamism and legitimacy of a community defined by the sounds of its speech—of, that is, an aural community—and this assertion emerges precisely in representation of emotional experience as it connects to acts of listening. Through such representation, his poems challenge a Victorian conception of regional dialect that denuded it of complex, contemporary emotional resonance and regarded it instead as a series of specimens. To help [End Page 433] show how the listening and feeling in Barnes’s poems articulate this challenge, I draw on the work of another dialect speaker and inveterate listener, the little-known Thomas Hallam (1819–1895), who roamed England creating records of its aural communities. Hallam’s work contributed to the scholarship of such philologists as Walter Skeat and Alexander John Ellis, both of whom published on dialect,3 but his archives reveal a preoccupation that those scholars did not share: a dilation on the mockery and embarrassment experienced by dialect speakers and on the life stories of his informants—on, in short, the experiential aspects of living dialect communities.
Thus, Barnes and Hallam, an unusual poet and an unusual dialectologist, have in common an orientation against what I call a specimen-attitude toward English dialect that dominated within Victorian culture and an orientation toward earwitnessing.4 Barnes’s poetry, like Hallam’s work as an itinerant listener, articulates an important late-Victorian argument for local aural communities being not bygone sites in need of preservation but socially dynamic, creative, and emotionally formative worlds. To borrow the words of Daniel Fisher writing on “local sounds” in the South American Andes, Barnes’s poetry, as a written testament to aural community, is “intricately involved with the production and elaboration of place-based notions of identity and agency”; its “synaesthetic, place-making engagements” emerge through its investment in feeling and listening.5
It will be useful to explore how feeling, sound, and meditation on sonic experience figure in the “place-making” of several dialect poems by Barnes. “The Wind up the Stream,” accomplishing a shift from rural sight to disclosure of feeling in just ten lines, is a primer for emotional revelation in Barnes that shows the intricate interdependencies of sound, feeling, and place for the poet. In one sense, the poem is simple. It draws for eight lines an image...