Thomas Hardy wrote poetry in England during the early 1900s. His poem, "Friends Beyond," explores the significance of using vernacular language in poetic form, as well as what different dialects convey about social status. In this work, Hardy emphasizes concerns about written vernaculars and how the variety of forms of a given language (in this case, English) can be used to express specific connotations that pertain to a certain group of individuals or to a particular location. The social implications of certain dialectal terms would be left unnoticed if it were written formally in standard, academic English. Generally, vernacular languages are spoken, rather than written, because the standard dialect of a language is stereotypically seen as more sophisticated and therefore socially superior to nonstandard linguistic forms. By using different vernaculars in a single poem, Hardy shows how dialects are connected with specific locations and social groups, as well as how the vernaculars can reflect issues about class and socioeconomic status.
"Friends Beyond" begins with the narrator stating that several individuals have all died and "lie in Mellstock churchyard now" as equals (Hardy 182). In the grave, the hierarchical social differences between "William Dewy," "the Squire," "Farmer Ledlow," "Lady Susan," and all the others become insignificant because everyone inevitably ends up on the same level, six feet under ground (182). This "group of local hearts and heads" "whisper" to the narrator from "beyond" the grave, telling him how they are all apathetic about what happens in the world now that they are no longer a living part of it (182). The thoughts and desires of these dead people combine as a framework for the location's identity. However, these individuals speak to the narrator in different dialects, which is representative of their social standing. The people with prestigious titles attached to their names, such as Lady Susan and the Squire, speak in a standard English dialect, signifying their sophistication. The Squire and Lady Susan both begin their statements with "you may" and then convey how the value of materialistic goods, such as Lady Susan's "rich brocades" and the Squire's "manse," no longer matters to them (183). On the other hand, the less prestigious individuals, like Farmer Ledlow and William Dewy, speak in a nonstandard vernacular. Instead of beginning with "you may" as Lady Susan and the Squire did, Dewy and the Farmer say "ye mid," which exemplifies a distinction between upper society and the lower working class (183). Though the use of different vernaculars separates the individuals by socioeconomic status, the people unite into a single representative group of the location as their voices combine in the poem. When they all speak in unison, saying "we've no wish to hear the tidings, how the people's fortunes shift," they revert to using standard English (183). Just as all the individuals are made equal in death with regards to social class, their group identity is further solidified with the removal of dialectal differences. The Squire, Lady Susan, Farmer Ledlow, and William Dewy all achieve equal status through the use of stereotypically more sophisticated language rather than the less prestigious vernaculars.
The amalgamation of dialects in Hardy's poem presents a useful poetic form, signifying the relations between vernaculars and the implications that these different linguistic styles have on social class. By writing in a variety of dialects, Hardy is able to use certain terms and phrases that would otherwise not be used in standard English poetry. Being able to compose the phrase spoken by the farmer, "ye mid zell my favourite heifer," and juxtaposing it to Lady Susan's "you may have my rich brocades," allows Hardy to use language in a way that inculcates a sense of disparity in society without explicitly stating the means of separation (Hardy 183). Hardy shows the social distinctions between these individuals, as well as how they are connected, through his use of language, rather than blatantly telling the reader what his poem implies. In this way, he is able to use all the available sources of the English language and can present his message in his own poetic style.
Hardy, Thomas. Selected Poems. ed. David Wright. London: Penguin, 1978.