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date: 28 March 2020

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines the poetry of William Barnes in the light of his portrayals of rural people labouring in the fields. Barnes’s social position was unusual in this respect: while his vocation as a schoolteacher and priest meant that he could never be a ‘peasant poet’, his humble origins in rural Dorset ensured a personal connection unusual in the gentleman observer. This combination of distance and intimacy generated anxieties that run through the subjects and rhythmical effects of his poems. Discussion focuses on the tension between the poetry’s insistent validation of field labour and the failure to provide a ‘viewing position’ that does not require us to be part of the working party or a resident of the village. While this discrepancy is never vocalised, it is something the reader cannot ignore, notwithstanding the pleasant spectacle. In answer to critics who have charged Barnes with sentimentality, it is claimed that these poems are in fact most unsettling when they are at their most idyllic.

Keywords: William Barnes, peasant poet, field labour, idyllic

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