1871 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bernard Barton

S. C. Hall, "Bernard Barton" in A Book of Memories: Great Men and Women of the Age, from personal Acquaintance (1871) 180-82.



It may be "fitting" to associate with that of Amelia Opie the name of Bernard Barton, merely, however, because he also was of the Society of Friends. As dear Amelia Opie felt bound to eschew fiction after she donned the sober garb of drab or grey, so the Quaker-poet had serious misgivings whether it might not be a crime in one of his "persuasion" to write, or at all events to print, poetry. He consulted Southey, who could see in it no wrong at all. He referred his scruples to Byron, who bade him continue to court the Muses. Of others he asked advice, but followed his own natural bias, being "inclined to think that poetry might be composed with strict consistency, and by no means in opposition to our code, and yet not be exclusively religious." Some of the "Friends," however, thought otherwise. By one of them he was severely reproved for using the word "November" in poetry.

He sought the counsels of friends concerning his project of abandoning the desk and trusting for bread to the issue of his pen. Among others, Charles Lamb quoted his own example, that "desks were not deadly" — that anything was better than dependence on publishers; while Byron reminded him of the common lot of those whose sole dependence was literature "Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail."

The warning of Charles Lamb to Bernard Barton may serve its sacred purpose now as it did then; for there are many who foolishly fancy a career of letters must be a successful one. These are the words of the gentle essayist:—

"Throw yourself on the world without any rational plan of support, but what the chance employ of booksellers would afford you!!! Throw yourself rather from the steep Tarpeian rock — slap, dash, headlong upon iron spikes.... Come not within their grasp. I have known many authors want for bread, some repining, others enjoying the blest security of a counting-house, all agreeing they had rather have been tailors, weavers — what not? than the things they were. I have known some starved, some go mad, one dear friend 'dying in a workhouse.' Oh, you know not — may you never know — the miseries of subsisting by authorship!"

So worthy Bernard Barton — having first tried trade and not liking it — remained a banker's clerk at Woodbridge, a position which he wisely kept during forty years, not quite contented with his lot, but cheerful, easy, and comparatively happy, in "Health, peace, and competence."

He was, however, helped up "the steep" by a subscription among friends who saw and feared no evil in the poet's messages from the Muses. It enabled him to buy the house in which he lived — a house where had dwelt the mother of the wife he lost in giving birth to an only child. It was old-fashioned, and so suited the poet well, and was wildly overgrown with trees, one of which, a tall poplar, "mother stuck there a twig" when he brought her home a bride. Let us hope that it may be growing still — a poet's memory and monument.

In advanced age his circumstances were rendered comfortable by an annual pension of 100, obtained for him by Sir Robert Peel.

I recall him in his broad-brim hat and Quaker-cut coat as he walked the streets of London; a tall man, with a complexion gathered, not from the counting-house, but from rural walks through "the valley of Fern," by the banks of his "favourite Deben." His expression had, I thought, more of the keenness of the man of business than the visionary fancies of the poet. His mouth was close and "mercantile," but his eyes were gentle, generous, and kindly. Assuredly, however, he seemed country-born, country-bred, and with country manners — they were neither rude nor coarse. His daughter is justified in saying he had "a happy frankness of nature," and was a pleasant companion, with a general flow of good spirits, with much of the prudence, sound sense, and "rationality" of the "Friends," mixed with the cordiality and outward as well as inward sympathy they are too frequently educated to repress.

He was born in London on the 31st of January, 1784, and died at Woodbridge on the 19th of February, 1849. He was but a few days old when his mother died, but in his father's second wife he had a friend so loving and true, that he did not know she was not his own mother until he learned the fact when a boy at a boarding-school.

His simple poetry illustrates the homely joys and domestic virtues: it is full of feeling and fancy; by no means of the highest class, but easily comprehended by the mind and the heart. A letter I received from him in 1845 may be given as an illustration of his character; it accompanied a little volume entitled "Household Verses:"—

"For the book thus forwarded to thee I do not feel called upon to say much. I expect it will be thought tame and insipid by many. But I am a lover of the quiet household virtues — can breathe most freely in that purer atmosphere in which they live, move, and have their being; and have felt restrained, not less by my taste than by my religious creed, from seeking to gain popularity by the use of those exciting stimulants so much in vogue of later years with the followers of the Muses. To those who can analyse and appreciate the deep, still under-current of thought and feeling which home and every-day life affords, I do not think my subjects, or mode of treating them, will be insipid; others I can hardly hope to please, so if I must suffer for my somewhat unfashionable predilections, I shall have the comfort of knowing they are hearty, though homely, and sincere, though simple."

His daughter (and she is not the only witness) bears testimony to "his genuine piety to God, good-will to men, and cheerful, guileless spirit which animated him, not only while writing in the undisturbed seclusion of the closet, but through the walk and practice of daily life." Though town born and bred, he loved nature with intense love; "earth, and sky, and water, trees, fields, and lanes;" and above all, the human face divine. Memory and fancy made his little study full of life, peopling its silent walls with nature's cherished charms.