William Barnes (1800-1886), the Dorsetshire poet, was born on the 22nd of February 1800, at Rushay, near Pentridge in Dorset, the son of John Barnes and Grace Scott, of the farmer class. He was a delicate child, in direct contrast to a strong race of forebears, and inherited from his mother a refined, retiring disposition and a love for books. He went to school at Sturminster Newton, where he was considered the clever boy of the school; and when a solicitor named Dashwood applied to the master for a quick-witted boy to join him as pupil, Barnes was selected for the post. He worked with the village parson in his spare hours at classics and studied music under the organist. In 1818 he left Sturminster for the office of one Coombs at Dorchester, where he continued his evening education with another kindly clergyman. He also made great progress in the art of wood-engraving, and with the money he received for a series of blocks for a work called Walks about Dorchester, he printed and published his first book, Orra, a Lapland Tale, in 1822. In the same year he became engaged to Julia Miles, the daughter of an excise officer. In 1823 he took a school at Mere in Wiltshire, and four years later married and settled in Chantry House, a fine old Tudor mansion in that town.
The school grew in numbers, and Barnes occupied all his spare time in assiduous study, reading during these years authors so diverse in character as Herodotus, Sallust, Ovid, Petrarch, Buffon and Burns. He also began to write poetry, and printed many of his verses in the Dorset County Chronicle. His chief studies, however, were philological; and in 1829 he published An Etymological Glossary of English Words of Foreign Derivation. In 1832 a strolling company of actors visited Mere, and Barnes wrote a farce, The Honest Thief, which they produced, and a comedy which was played at Wincanton. Barnes also wrote a number of educational books, such as Elements of Perspective, Outlines of Geography, and in 1833 first began his poems in the Dorsetshire dialect, among them the two eclogues "The 'Lotments" and "A Bit o' Sly Coorten," in the pages of the local paper. In 1835 he left Mere, and returned to Dorchester, where he started another school, removing in 1837 into larger quarters. In 1844 he published Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect. Three years later Barnes took holy orders, and was appointed to the cure of Whitcombe, 3 m. from Dorchester. He had been for some years upon the books of St John's College, Cambridge, and took the degree of B.D. in 1850. He resigned Whitcombe in 1852, finding the work too hard in connexion with his mastership; and in June of that year he sustained a severe bereavement by the death of his wife.
Continuing his studies in the science of language, he published his Philological Grammar in 1854, drawing examples from more than sixty languages. For the copyright of this erudite work he received £5. The second series of dialect poems, Hwomely Rhymes, appeared in 1859 (2nd ed. 1863). Hwomely Rhymes contained some of his best-known pieces, and in the year of its publication he first began to give readings from his works. As their reputation grew he travelled all over the country, delighting large audiences with his quaint humour and natural pathos. In 1861 he was awarded a civil list pension of £70 a year, and in the next year published Tiw, the most striking of his philological studies, in which the Teutonic roots in the English language are discussed. Barnes had a horror of Latin forms in English, and would have substituted English compounds for many Latin forms in common use. In 1862 he broke up his school, and removed to the rectory of Winterborne Came, to which he was presented by his old friend, Captain Seymour Dawson Damer. Here he worked continuously at verse and prose, contributing largely to the magazines.
A new series of Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect appeared in 1862, and he was persuaded in 1868 to publish a series of Poems of Rural Life in Common English, which was less successful than his dialect poems. These latter were collected into a single volume in 1879, and on the 7th of October 1886 Barnes died at Winterborne Came. His poetry is essentially English in character; no other writer has given quite so simple and sincere a picture of the homely life and labour of rural England. His work is full of humour and the clean, manly joy of life; and its rusticity is singularly allied to a literary sense and to high technical finish. He is indeed the Victorian Theocritus; and, as English country life is slowly swept away before the advance of the railway and the telegraph, he will be more and more read for his warm-hearted and fragrant record of rustic love and piety. His original and suggestive books on the English language, which are valuable in spite of their eccentricities, include: - Se Gefylsta: an Anglo-Saxon Delectus (1849); A Grammar and Glossary of the Dorset Dialect (1864); An Outline of English Speech-Craft (1878); and A Glossary of the Dorset Dialect (Dorchester, 1886).
See The Life of William Barnes, Poet and Philologist (1887), by his daughter, Lucy E. Baxter, who is known as a writer on art by the pseudonym of Leader Scott; and a notice by Thomas Hardy in the Athenaeum (16th of October 1886).