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Alfred H. Miles, ed. The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.

By Critical and Biographical Essay by Alfred H. Miles

Bernard Barton (1784–1849)

BERNARD BARTON, the Quaker poet, was born at Carlisle on the 31st of January, 1784. He was educated at the Quaker school at Ipswich, and afterwards apprenticed to a shopkeeper at Halstead, in Essex. He first settled at Woodbridge, Suffolk, where he married the daughter of his employer, who died nineteen months later in giving birth to a daughter. Seeking new associations he removed to Liverpool, and became a tutor in a private family, but returned after a year’s absence to Woodbridge, and became a clerk in the bank of Messrs. Alexander and Co., continuing in the same service until his death forty years afterwards. Like many others who have felt the promptings of authorship while engaged in commercial pursuits, Bernard Barton longed for emancipation from the “dry drudgery at the desk’s dead wood,” and at one time contemplated the pursuit of literature as a profession. A declaration of this intention drew from Charles Lamb, with whom he kept up long and pleasant correspondence, the following strong and characteristic remonstrance: “Throw yourself upon the world, without any rational plan of support beyond what the chance employ of booksellers would afford you!!! Throw yourself rather, my dear sir, from the steep Tarpeian rock slap dash headlong upon iron spikes. If you have but five consolatory minutes between the desk and the bed, make much of them, and live a century in them, rather than turn slave to the booksellers…. Oh, you know not—may you never know—the miseries of subsisting for authorship! ’Tis a pretty appendage to a situation like yours or mine; but a slavery worse than all slavery to be a bookseller’s dependant…. Keep to your bank, and the bank will keep you. Trust not to the public: you may hang, starve, drown yourself for anything that worthy personage cares. I bless every star that providence, not seeing good to make me independent, has seen it next good to settle me upon the stable foundation of Leadenhall. Sit down, good B.B., in the banking office. What! is there not from 6 to 11 P.M., six days in the week, and is there not all Sunday? Fie, what a superfluity of man’s time, if you could think so! Enough for relaxation, mirth, converse, poetry, good thoughts, quiet thoughts. O, the crunching, torturing, tormenting thoughts that disturb the brain of the unlucky wight who must draw upon it for his daily sustenance! Henceforth I retract all my first complaints of mercantile employment—look upon them as lovers’ quarrels. I was but half in earnest. Welcome dead timber of a desk that gives me life. A little grumbling is a wholesome medicine for the spleen, but in my inner heart do I approve and embrace this our clever, but unharassing, way of life. I am quite serious. Yours Truly, C. LAMB.”

Well had it been for many a poet since Bernard Barton’s time if he had been counselled as wisely, and had as wisely taken counsel. In 1824 he was offered a presentation of £1,200 by his admirers of the Society of Friends, and felt some hesitation in accepting it. Again he consulted Lamb, who counselled him to take it, but not to allow it to wean him from his business appointment. Late in life he received a civil list pension of £100, granted him by Sir Robert Peel. He died on the 19th of February, 1849, after but two days’ absence from his post.

Bernard Barton’s was a quiet muse. The Edinburgh Review said: “The staple of the whole poems is description and meditation—description of quiet home scenery, sweetly and feelingly wrought out; and meditation, overshadowed with tenderness, and exalted by devotion—but all terminating in soothing and even cheerful views of the conditions and prospects of mortality.” The Quaker poet wrote, in fact, what may be described without disparagement as Quaker poetry, sober, sensible, and modest, if withal formal homely and drab. His principal books were “Metrical Effusions” (1812); “Poems” (1820); “Napoleon and Other Poems” (1822); “Poetic Vigils” (1824); “A Widow’s Tale and Other Poems” (1827); “A New Year’s Eve and Other Poems” (1828); “The Reliquary” (1836); and “Household Verses” (1845). His Memoirs and Letters, with a selection of his verse, were published in 1849, and occasion was taken to revise some of his poems, reducing their length, and removing the too obvious and long-drawn-out moral with which he was apt to weight his poems with weariness. This was precisely what his poems needed. He wrote easily and without revision, and aimed at morality rather than poetry, with the result that he produced a large quantity of prosy verse. The following stanzas are all that survive in the final volume of the original ten-stanza poem:—

  • The Stream
  • It flows through flow’ry meads,
  • Gladdening the herds that on its margin browse;
  • Its quiet bounty feeds
  • The alders that o’ershade it with their boughs.
  • Gently it murmurs by
  • The village churchyard, with a plaintive tone
  • Of dirge-like melody,
  • For worth and beauty modest as its own.
  • More gaily now it sweeps
  • By the small school-house, in the sunshine bright
  • And o’er the pebbles leaps,
  • Like happy hearts by holiday made light.
  • The following sonnet was commended by Charles Lamb in a letter acknowledging the receipt of the volume in which it first appeared.

  • To a Grandmother

    (“Old age is dark and unlovely.”—OSSIAN.)
  • O say not so! A bright old age is thine;
  • Calm as the gentle light of summer eves,
  • Ere twilight dim her dusky mantle weaves;
  • Because to thee is given, in thy decline,
  • A heart that does not thanklessly repine
  • At aught of which the hand of God bereaves,
  • Yet all He sends with gratitude receives;—
  • May such a quiet, thankful close be mine!
  • And hence thy fireside chair appears to me
  • A peaceful throne—which thou wert form’d to fill;
  • Thy children, ministers who do thy will;
  • And those grandchildren, sporting round thy knee,
  • Thy little subjects, looking up to thee,
  • As one who claims their fond allegiance still.
  • The poems in the following selection are given in their abbreviated form in cases where abbreviations have been made.