Week 257: The Turnstile, by William Barnes

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.

The Turnstile

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.

William Barnes

…. and in standardised spelling:

The Turnstile

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.

William Barnes

Week 176: The Wife A-Lost, by William Barnes

This can be viewed as a companion piece to Barnes’s ‘Woak Hill’ (see week 31), and in my view takes its place alongside that as one of the most moving poems of marital bereavement in the language. Again, it is important not to be put off by Barnes’s attempts at dialect spelling: if you listen to the poem in your head, hearing perhaps just the ghost of a Dorset accent, I think any problems melt away.

The Wife A-Lost

Since I noo mwore do zee your feäce,
Up steäirs or down below,
I’ll zit me in the lwonesome pleäce,
Where flat-bough’d beech do grow;
Below the beeches’ bough, my love,
Where you did never come,
An’ I don’t look to meet ye now,
As I do look at hwome.

Since you noo mwore be at my zide,
In walks in zummer het,
I’ll goo alwone where mist do ride,
Drough trees a-drippèn wet;
Below the rain-wet bough, my love,
Where you did never come,
An’ I don’t grieve to miss ye now,
As I do grieve at hwome.

Since now bezide my dinner-bwoard
Your vaïce do never sound,
I’ll eat the bit I can avvword,
A-yield upon the ground;
Below the darksome bough, my love,
Where you did never dine,
An’ I don’t grieve to miss ye now,
As I at hwome do pine.

Since I do miss your vaïce an’ feäce
In praÿer at eventide,
I’ll praÿ wi’ woone sad vaïce vor greäce
To goo where you do bide;
Above the tree an’ bough, my love,
Where you be gone avore,
An’ be a-waïtèn vor me now,
To come vor evermwore.

William Barnes

Week 31: Woak Hill, by William Barnes

Woak Hill

When sycamore leaves wer a-spreadèn
    Green-ruddy, in hedges,
Bezide the red doust o’ the ridges,
    A-dried at Woak Hill;

I packed up my goods all a-sheenèn
    Wi’ long years o’ handlèn,
On dousty red wheels ov a waggon,
    To ride at Woak Hill.

The brown thatchen ruf o’ the dwellèn,
    I then wer a-leävèn,
Had shelter’d the sleek head o’ Meäry,
    My bride at Woak Hill.

But now vor zome years, her light voot-vall
    ‘S a-lost vrom the vloorèn.
Too soon vor my jäy an’ my childern,
    She died at Woak Hill.

But still I do think that, in soul,
    She do hover about us;
To ho vor her motherless childern,
    Her pride at Woak Hill.

Zoo–lest she should tell me hereafter
    I stole off ‘ithout her,
An’ left her, uncall’d at house-riddèn,
    To bide at Woak Hill–

I call’d her so fondly, wi’ lippèns
    All soundless to others,
An’ took her wi’ aïr-reachèn hand,
    To my zide at Woak Hill.

On the road I did look round, a-talkèn
    To light at my shoulder,
An’ then led her in at the door-way,
    Miles wide vrom Woak Hill.

An’ that’s why vo’k thought, vor a season,
    My mind wer a-wandrèn
Wi’ sorrow, when I wer so sorely
    A-tried at Woak Hill.

But no; that my Meäry mid never
    Behold herzelf slighted,
I wanted to think that I guided
    My guide vrom Woak Hill.

William Barnes

The beloved wife of the Dorset poet William Barnes died in early middle age, leaving him with several young children. The Dorset dialect may make it look odd at first, but I think that in its aching purity of loss this poem along with his ‘The Wife A-lost’ are two of the great poems of grief in our language.