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Transience, Quaker Poetics and 'Softer Grace': Bernard Barton's 'A Day in Autumn'

'Who has not heard of Bernard Barton,' wrote poet laureate, Robert Southey in the pages of the Quarterly Review in 1831. The answer to the rhetorical question was, of course, meant to be virtually no-one - for the Quaker literary culture of which Barton was a part was so surprisingly vibrant that 'the poems of [fellow Quaker writers] Mary and William Howitt are known to all lovers of poetry'.

Of course, in age where Southey himself is a writer for specialists, the Howitts and Barton are forgotten. Unlike the American 'Quaker poet', John Greenleaf Whittier, there are no perennial school-taught verses to give the British 'Quaker poet' (for Barton needed no other appellation in the periodical press of the time) a prolonged posterity.

Yet this is the corner of nineteenth-century literary culture that I'm currently spending an enjoyable time rooting about within. So here's a reading of Barton's 'A Day in Autumn' (full text link here; original print here): published in an 1820 quarto and then included within his 1824 Poetic Vigils.

What immediately struck me was the text's temporalities: that is, the sheer complexity of them. Barton is, in the main, not a poet given to complexity. But quite a lot is going on from the very beginning here. The autumn day is embedded as a memory, which emerges like a fragment through the abrupt quotation of Southey that opens the poem, a memory beckoned in the expectation of ageing. In the first stanzas alone, the autumnal is a tone spread across the actual seasonality of the landscape, the metaphorical 'ages of man', as well as different types of poetry (songs of Flora, the bleak music of winter). This is entirely apposite, of course, since the poetics of autumn are the most fundamentally involved in a reflection on transience: Keats is, naturally, the supreme example.

The passing of a moment occurs in several different registers across the poem. The main events of the poem, such as they are, concern a rural meal, an idyll pressured and repeatedly strongly by 'the last hour, spent ere we bid adieu'. At the heart of this narrative lies a Bible reading of the woman from Bethany passage, which concludes with a distinctly Quaker-like 'pause of silence, eloquent appeal / To hearts awake, affections well-dispos'd' - but this is immediately broken by sociability and the playing of children. The conversation turns to poetry and literature, and after defending the value of modern verse (notably Wordsworth), Barton shifts into another reflection on transience, this time concerning literary fame and posterity:
Thou [poetry] hast granted all
I could expect in life; yet, when I must
Return to nature's chill original
That portion of me which is form'd of dust,
When I go down to darkness! take in trust
Some scatter'd fragments of my transient Name!
However, having appositely registered poetry as the best organ of feeling, it becomes clear that there is a poetry to feeling, so that poetic souls may exist without actually writing verse: 'Conscious, while soft emotions round them throng, / Of more than language ever can convey; / Their thoughts are poetry!' This positions the final third of 'A Day in Autumn' as a exploration of permanence, fleetingness and memory in broader affective terms, from the beauty of landscape to human relations: 'soothing visions...they rise, they shine, they set'.

I want to note two things about this approach to time, where the evocation of the autumnal day is a loose centre around which several narratives of transience are organised - although not in any systematic way.

Firstly, there is a kind of meta-transience here involved in the writing itself: as Barton muses on the passing of one type of time, his meditations themselves pass over into new ones. At least one stanza itself thematises this transient mode of composition: 'I took my pen up, in no formal fit, / The feelings of a few bright hours to scan; / And as they rise I trace their course as best I can.' Thinking and representing the mobility of time is itself temporally mobile.

Secondly, whilst Barton marks the passing of moments with elegiac resonance - notably, of course, the day in autumn itself - he continually resists any attempt to transcendentalise those moments. The best way to put it might be that the poem figures moments as delicate pauses, graceful imprints on the memory - not radical epiphanies. For instance, n a stanza reminiscent of Charles Lamb's analysis of silent worship at Quaker meeting-houses, Barton both evokes but distances the scene from the holy solitude of religious retirement:
Though such a scene, and such a morning might
Have suited well the contemplative tone
Of some secluded, saintly, anchorite,
Whose dreams had peopl'd it with phantoms bright:
I could not wish them, for around me were
Beings more real; who, in my delight,
Appreciating its source, were pleas'd to share,
When we stood still to gaze
This technique of a modest withdrawal from the high, sublime or majestic to quiet but tender reserve- a kind of litosis - is absolutely characteristic of Barton's entire aesthetic, and arguably the most Quaker thing about his work. And it finds itself iterated across 'A Day in Autumn': the repeated deflationary litosis of moments that otherwise stand forward from the flow of time. In pondering his own literary posterity, he wishes for the 'softer ties' of gentle memorial rather than 'laurels o'er my turf'. The Orwell is self-consciously cited as less 'romantically wild' than other English landscapes, but 'seldom has storm lower'd, or sunshine smil'd, / Upon a stream whose features could supply / With harvests passing thine a poet's a quiet eve.'

The conclusion, broadly put, is that transience is to be negotiated not through crystallising the splendour of the instant, but rather the slower or lesser beauty:
Thus in the deepest, strongest facination
Beauty can boast, in woman's lovely face;--
Charms there may be that waken admiration,
When first beheld, that have no dwelling-place
On memory's tablet; while on it we trace
Features less perfect, and less mark'd at first,
But made indelible by softer grace;--
Too unobtrusive all at once to burst
Upon the gazer's soul: -- once known, for ever nurs'd
In a sense, the logic is Wordsworthian, at least insofar as Wordsworth concludes The Prelude by rejecting 'extraordinary calls' in favour of the 'least suggestions' of life (XIII.101, 91). Moments that pass with a 'softer grace' belong to a flow of time, and offer some sort of mediation between transience and intimations of something permanent. Barton's ultimate aim in the poem is to usher his reader into the closing stanzas on Night (he is a poet frequently drawn to nocturnes) with the understanding that 'softer grace' can operate even in the after, when time (or day) has gone. Hence, 'The day is over: -- it is night, dark night! / But such as should succeed a day so fair. / Nought is there in its darkness to affright'. Heading towards a final stanza overlaying a divine timescale across the whole poem, the text's final response, I suppose, is that every beauty has its time, and every beauty lies within time: 'Can language paint, can poetry disclose, / The magic of thy silence, dews, and stars?' By privileging no moment - and finding grace in the matin, the sunlit afternoon, the evening farewell and even the stretches of the night (by extension too, the spring, the autumn, the winter...) - Barton attempts his own acceptant poetics of transience.

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