Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Barton, Bernard
BARTON, BERNARD (1784–1849), poet, was born of quaker parents at Carlisle on 31 Jan. 1784, his mother dying a few days after his birth. His father, a manufacturer, married again in Bernard's infancy, removed to London, and finally engaged in malting business at Hertford, where he died in the prime of life. The widow and children afterwards resided at Tottenham. Bernard was sent to a quaker school at Ipswich, and at the age of fourteen was apprenticed to a shopkeeper, of the name of Jesup, at Halstead in Essex. After eight years service he removed to Woodbridge, married his employer's daughter (1807), and entered into partnership with her brother as coal and corn merchant. In the following year his wife died in giving birth to a daughter, whereupon Barton abandoned business and became tutor in the family of Mr. Waterhouse, a Liverpool merchant. After staying a year in Liverpool, where he made the acquaintance of the Roscoe family, he returned to Woodbridge, and received a clerkship in Messrs. Alexander's bank—employment which he held for forty years until within two days of his death.
In 1812, Barton published his first volume of verses, 'Metrical Effusions,' and began a correspondence with Southey. About this time he addressed a copy of complimentary verses to the Ettrick Shepherd, who hastened to respond in grateful and flattering terms. Hogg had written a tragedy, which he was anxious to see represented at a London theatre, and, not knowing how to proceed in the matter, solicited the assistance of the quaker poet, who in great perplexity applied to the amiable Capel Lofft, and by that gentleman's advice the scheme was dropped. In 1818 appeared the 'Convict's Appeal,' a protest in verse against the severity of the criminal code of that day. The pamphlet bears no name on the title-page, but the dedication to James Montgomery is signed 'B. B.' In the same year Barton published by subscription 'Poems by an Amateur;' and two years afterwards he found a publisher for a volume of 'Poems' which received some praise from the critics and reached a fourth edition in 1825. 'Napoleon and other Poems' (dedicated to George IV), and 'Verses on the death of P. B. Shelley,' appeared in 1822.
It was at this time that Barton began a correspondence with Charles Lamb. The freedom with which the quakers had been handled in the 'Essays of Elia' induced Barton to remonstrate gently with the essayist. Charmed with his correspondent's homely earnestness and piety, Lamb was soon on terms of intimacy with the quaker poet, for nobody loved more than Lamb the spirit, apart from the observances, of quakerism. Shortly after making Lamb's acquaintance, Barton contemplated resigning, his appointment at Woodbridge and supporting himself by his literary labours. Lamb, to whom he communicated the project, advised him strongly against such a course. 'Keep to your bank,' wrote Lamb, 'and the bank will keep you.' Southey gave similar advice. Meanwhile his literary work was beginning to tell upon his health. In his letters to Southey and Lamb he complained that he was suffering from low spirits and headache, and again his friends were ready with their advice—Lamb rallying him banteringly, and Southey seriously counselling him to keep good hours and never to write verses after supper. At this time his pen was very active, and he gained both pleasure and profit from his labours. 'The preparation of a book,' says his biographer, Edward Fitzgerald, 'was amusement and excitement to one who had little enough of it in the ordinary course of daily life: treaties with publishers—arrangements of printing—correspondence with friends on the subject—and, when the little volume was at last afloat, watching it for a while somewhat as a boy watches a paper boat committed to the sea.'
In 1824 some members of the Society of Friends showed their respect for the poet in a tangible form by raising the sum of twelve hundred pounds for his benefit. The originator of the scheme was Joseph John Gurney, at whose death in after-years the poet composed a copy of memorial verses. Barton hesitated about taking the money, and asked the advice of Charles Lamb, who wrote that his opinion was decisive for the 'acceptance of what has been so honourably offered.' The money was invested in the name of a Mr. Shewell, and the yearly interest was paid to Barton. Though placed in somewhat easier circumstances by the bounty of his friends, Barton did not at all relax his literary labours. In 1826 he published a volume of 'Devotional Verses,' and 'A Missionary's Memoir, or Verses on the Death of J. Lawson.' These were followed by 'A Widow's Tale and other Poems,' 1827, and 'A New Year's Eve,' 1828. After the publication of the latter poem he seems to have taken a long spell of rest; or perhaps the public was growing too fastidious to relish the quaker poet's homely verses. His next appearance was in 1836, when he joined his daughter Lucy in the publication of 'The Reliquary, with a Prefatory Appeal for Poetry and Poets.' Then followed another long period of silence, broken in 1845 by the appearance of 'Household Verses.' This volume, dedicated to the queen, attracted the notice of Sir Robert Peel, who on leaving office procured for the poet a pension of 100l. a year. During all these years Barton seldom left Woodbridge. He had paid occasional visits to Charles Lamb, and once or twice went down into Hampshire to see his brother His holidays were sometimes spent under the roof of his friend, W. Bodham Donne, at Muttishall, Norfolk. Here his delight was to listen to the conversation of Mrs. Bodham, an old lady who in her youth had been the friend of Cowper. In later life Barton grew more and more disinclined to take exercise. He liked to sit in his library and enjoy the prospect through the open window, or, if he started with any friends for a walk, he would soon stretch himself on the grass and wait for his friends' return. Though his sedentary habits affected his health, he was never painfully ill, and always kept a cheerful spirit. In 1846 he made a short stay at Aldborough for the benefit of his health, and on returning to Woodbridge printed privately a little collection of poems entitled 'Seaweeds gathered at Aldborough, Suffolk, in the Autumn of 1846.' Some other trifles remain to be mentioned: 1. 'A Memorial of J. J. Gurney,' 1847. 2. 'Birthday Verses at Sixty-four,' 1848. 3. 'A Brief Memorial of Major E. Moor,' Woodbridge, 1848. 4. 'On the Signs of the Times,' 1838. 5. 'Ichabod,' 1848. On 19 Feb. 1849, Barton died after a short illness and with little suffering. In the same year his daughter Lucy published a selection of his letters and poems, and Edward Fitzgerald (the distinguished translator of 'Omar Khayyam' and 'Calderon'), afterwards her husband, contributed a biographical introduction. In the 'Athenæum' obituary notice it is stated that he left much fugitive verse in manuscript.
Bernard Barton is chiefly remembered as the friend of Lamb. His many volumes of verse are quite forgotten. Even the scanty book of selections published by his daughter contains much that might have been omitted. He wrote easily—too easily—and never troubled to correct what he had written. But all his work is unaffected; nor are there wanting occasional touches of deep and genuine pathos. In his devotional verses there is a flavour of old-world quaintness and charm, recalling homely George Herbert's 'Temple;' and in other lyrics Edward Fitzgerald found something of the 'leisurely grace' that distinguishes the Greek Anthology. Free from all tinge of bigotry, simple and sympathetic, Bernard Barton won the esteem and affection of a large circle of friends, young and old, orthodox and heterodox.
[Poems and Letters of Bernard Barton, selected by Lucy Barton, with a biographical notice by E[dward] F[itz] G[erald], 1849; Lamb's Letters; Davy's MS. Suffolk Collections in the British Museum Addit. MS. 19117.]