Whose Poet?


“’William Barnes, you say? What possible relevance could he have today?’ ‘Well, I suppose people who like Dorset might be interested, or some local historian or Wessex regionalist, but as for me…’. So goes the reasoning of many. It is false reasoning…”
Fr Andrew Phillips (2003), in the foreword to a reprint of Barnes’ Views of Labour and Gold

Nice piece in the (London) Guardian yesterday about William Barnes. Nothing about Wessex though, the place that Barnes himself revived in 1868, after centuries when the word was seemingly only used by historians.

The journalist seems to think that Barnes can be promoted as the English equivalent of Robert Burns. The Wessex equivalent, fine, with Barnes Night (22nd February) an established tradition in parts of Dorset and now spreading further afield. But a national poet for England? A poet who wrote in the Wessex dialect? No doubt the London hacks will all want his poems translated first before they read them. Can’t be having them in wurzelly, ‘inaccessible’ language now, can we? Dorset dialect is dead, implies the article. Maybe, in the trendy parts where hacks hang out. They really do need to mix a bit more.

Perhaps national poet isn’t too far-fetched. For Fr Phillips, Barnes “is someone of whom not only Wessex should be proud, but all England, and indeed one whose vision is today of global importance.” Yet we do think Wessex is something other than just another name for England. East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria are not fictional places whose inhabitants have no legitimate opinions, nor great poets of their own to proclaim. Besides, to see Barnes purely as a poet would be to belittle the man, who should be remembered for many talents.

Views of Labour and Gold, first published in 1859, is a treatise on political and moral economy that deserves to be read everywhere, but especially in Wessex, from where its wisdom arose. It speaks prophetically against the powerbrokers in London and beyond, of ‘Saxon Economics’, and reminds us that work and money are our servants, not our masters. It’s not just for fans of Dorset, or local historians, but definitely for Wessex Regionalists too.

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