The previous William Barnes poems I have featured, ‘Woak Hill’ and ‘The Wife A-Lost’, were clearly autobiographical, relating to the loss of his beloved wife Julia; I don’t know whether this one also is – I can’t find out anything about Barnes having lost a son – or whether it is merely empathetic of another’s distress. Whatever the case, it shows again his gift for the homely yet poignant elegy. I feel that Barnes, while enjoying the affection and admiration of many fellow poets including Hardy, Auden and Larkin, has nonetheless been a bit sidelined over the years. Some of this may be down to his use of dialect, but more of it, perhaps, to a tendency among the public to feel that poets should, like Lord Byron, be mad, bad and dangerous to know, or that at the very least they should have the good grace to die young. Barnes was sane, good and quite safe to know, and he lived to be eighty-five.
Note: I think any difficulties with the spelling largely disappear if you read the poem aloud, but for anyone having difficulty I append a version with the spelling standardised.
Ah! sad wer we as we did peäce
the wold church road, wi’ downcast feäce,
the while the bells, that mwoaned so deep
above our child a-left asleep,
wer now a-zingen all alive
wi’ t’other bells to meäke the vive.
But up at woone pleäce we come by,
t’wer hard to keep woone’s two eyes dry
On Steän-cliff road, ’ithin the drong,
Up where as v’ok do pass along,
The turnen stile, a-painted white,
Do sheen by day an’ show by night.
Vor always there, as we did goo
To church, thik stile did let us drough,
Wi’ spreaden earms that wheel’d to guide
Us each in turn to tother zide.
An’ vu’st ov all the train he took
My wife, wi’ winsome gait an’ look;
An’ then zent on my little maid,
A-skippen onward, overjaÿ’d
To reach ageän the pleäce o’pride,
Her comely mother’s left han’ zide.
An’ then, a-wheelen roun’, he took
On me, ’ithin his third white nook.
An’ in the fourth, a sheäken wild,
He zent us on our giddy child.
But eesterday he guided slow
My downcast Jenny, full o’ woe,
An’ then my little maid in black,
A-walken softly on her track;
An’ after he’d a turn’d ageän,
To let me goo along the leäne,
He had noo little buoy to vill
His last white eärms, an they stood still.
…. and in standardised spelling:
Ah! sad were we as we did pace
the old church road, with downcast face,
while the bells, that moaned so deep
above our child we’d left asleep,
were now a-singing all alive
with other bells to make the five.
But at one place as we came by,
‘twas hard to keep one’s two eyes dry.
On Stone-cliff road, within the throng,
Up where the people pass along,
The turning stile, a-painted white,
Does shine by day and show by night.
For always there, as we did go
To church, this stile did let us through,
With spreading arms that wheeled to guide
Us each in turn to t’other side.
And first of all the train he took
My wife, with winsome gait and look;
And then sent on my little maid,
A-skipping onward, overjoyed
To reach again the place of pride,
Her comely mother’s left hand side.
And then, a-wheeling round, he took
On me, within his third white nook.
And in the fourth, a-shaking wild,
He sent us on our giddy child.
But yesterday he guided slow
My downcast Jenny, full of woe,
And then my little maid in black,
A-walking softly on her track;
And after he had turned again,
To let me go along the lane,
He had no little boy to fill
His last white arms, and they stood still.