The poems ‘Northern Farmer: Old Style’ and ‘Northern Farmer: New Style’ were written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1864-65. Both are experiments in the use of Lincolnshire dialect, Lincolnshire being the county of Tennyson’s birth.
The two farmers depicted in the poems show old attitudes and new towards land, class, farming and money. The old style farmer is slowly dying but he clings tenaciously to tradition and displays an obstinate, almost religious devotion to the land he loves and has spent his life working. He also retains an unquestioning but slightly grudging respect for social rank as seen in his references to the ‘squoire’ and the ‘quoloty’. The new style Northern farmer is more go-ahead, and forward-looking. He has money and advancement on his mind and is driven by the word ‘property’ which appears to echo in the very sound of his pony’s hooves on the roadway:
Doesn’t thou ‘ear my ‘erse’s legs, as they canters away?
Proppurty, proppurty, proppurty – that’s what I ‘ears ‘em saay.
In Alfred Lord Tennyson, a memoir by his son, published in 1898, Hallam Tennyson recalls the origins of the two poems. The first was founded upon the dying words of a farm-bailiff, subsequently related to Tennyson by a great uncle: ‘God A’mighty little knows what He’s about, a-taking me. An Squire will be so mad an’ all’. The New Style poem similarly had its origins in a single sentence which caught Tennyson’s imagination, this time from a local farmer: ‘When I campers my ‘earse along the ramper (highway) I ‘ears ‘proppurty proppurty proppurty’. Again the single line became the basis for the entire character and the whole poem. Tennyson was fond of telling his family stories in a broad Lincolnshire dialect – once proudly proclaiming that:
The Lincolnshire dialect poems are so true in dialect and feeling, that when they were first read in that county a farmer’s daughter exclaimed: “That’s Lincoln labourers’ talk, and I thought Mr Tennyson was a gentleman”.
The pages shown here have been taken from a volume of Tennyson’s works and contain manuscript additions in Tennyson’s own hand. The annotations strengthen the Lincolnshire dialect rendering the poems ever-closer to the landscape, traditions and characters of the county of his birth.