Dialect in Poetry

Before the standardisation of English some of the most popular texts such as ‘Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight’ were written in dialect.

Writing poetry in local dialogue was traditional before the growing standardisation of English, which principally came about with the development of the printing press in the 15th Century and subsequent development of dictionaries. Some of the most popular texts before this period were those written in dialect, such as ‘Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight’ a late Fourteenth Century long poem written in what is believed to be a North Lancashire dialect.

List! wen Arthur he was King,
He had all att his leadinge
   The broad Ile of Brittaine.
England and Scottland one was,
And Wales stood in the same case,
   The truth itt is not to layne.’ – ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’

After this period, writing a poem in a dialect that was not standard English became a statement, a refusal to participate in the norms, a way of standing up for the ever-shrinking differences between regions and places.

Re-establishing Identity

Dialect therefore becomes a way of representing the marginalised, and of reclaiming an ever-narrowing space. Typically, it therefore becomes used by members of groups, societies or even countries that stand outside of standardisation. Amongst the most famous poets who wrote in a kind of dialect are Irish poets, such as J.M. Synge.

It isn't that I haven't prayed for you, Bartley, to the Almighty God. It isn't that I haven't said prayers in the dark night till you wouldn't know what I'd be saying; but it's a great rest I'll have now, and it's time surely. It's a great rest I'll have now, and great sleeping in the long nights after Samhain.’ – J.M. Synge ‘Riders to the Sea’

Seamus Heaney, emerging out of the traditions of writers such as J.M. Synge, also uses dialect as a way of re-establishing Irish identity.

‘Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux  
Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice,  
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise  
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize  
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.  
L’Etoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène  
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay  
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous  
And actual, I said out loud, ‘A haven,’  
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky  
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.’ – ‘Glanmore Sonnets VII’

Heaney’s ‘Glanmore Sonnets’ are about Irish words, and their sounds, and how these sounds echo the landscape that they have emerged out of, voice and gale merge together to create that ‘strong gale-warning voice’.

Of course, most famous of all for his poems in dialect is Robbie Burns, and his Scots poems.

‘Here’s a health to them that’s awa,
Here’s a health to them that’s awa;
And wha winna wish gude luck to our cause,
May never gude luck be their fa’!
It’s gude to be merry and wise,
It’s gude to be honest and true;
It’s gude to support Caledonia’s cause,
And bide by the buff and the blue.’ – ‘Here’s a health to them that’s awa’ – Robert Burns

Something strange happens, however, in the 19th Century, after Wordsworth publishes his famous preface to Lyrical Ballads.

The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect – Wordsworth Preface to Lyrical Ballads

A result of Wordsworth’s proposition in favour of writing in dialect subsequently creates a clash between those who are writing in a dialect or speech-pattern which is their own, and those who are mimicking it, attempting to access a sense of the ‘language really used by men’, but not themselves. This opposition gives rise to some of the most complicated language and cross-author relationships of Literature. One such writer is America’s William Faulkner, who often mimics the patterns of 1860s Southern African-American speech in his early 20th Century novels, such as ‘The Sound and the Fury’. In this case, representing specific ways of speaking that aren’t regarded as ‘standard’ becomes, not so much a way of rebelling against the restrictions of what is held to be standard English, and pushing for greater representation, as a way of showing ‘Otherness’ and, perhaps, re-marginalising it.

‘I got de ricklickshun en de blood of de Lamb!’ – ‘The Sound and the Fury’

The growing popularity of dialect writing leading up to and coming after Wordsworth’s ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’   can be traced alongside a growing awareness of the working man in Britain, as the growing power of the industrial revolution gave rise to a series of uprisings, new movements such as Chartism and increased movement of the working classes. 

One such of these poems written in a dialect not the poet’s own is Tennyson’s ‘The Northern Farmer: New Style’, written in the Lincolnshire dialect of his birth county.

‘Dosn't thou 'ear my 'erse's legs, as they canters awaäy?
Proputty, proputty, proputty—that's what I 'ears 'em saäy.
Proputty, proputty, proputty—Sam, thou's an ass for thy paaïns:
Theer's moor sense i' one o' 'is legs, nor in all thy braaïns.’ – ‘The Northern Farmer: New Style’

Tennyson therefore joins a long and complicated literary tradition through this poem, one that continually treads a complicated line between representing and failing to represent through language, a problem that continually plagues poetic and literary output today, and will continue to plague it, as language on paper can never move and shift with the speed and complexity of the spoken word.

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