Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by Ronda Cooper, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
John Barr was born on 24 October 1809 at Paisley, Renfrewshire, Scotland, the son of a manufacturer, James Barr, and his wife, Rebecca Barr. He was educated at a parish school before entering the engineering trade, eventually establishing the firm Barr and McNab, which took on large shipbuilding contracts on the Clyde. On 11 April 1844, at Paisley, he married Mary Jamieson Lamb; they had at least two daughters and two sons. The closure of the firm following contract failures decided the Barrs on emigration, and in 1852 they sailed for New Zealand on the Dominion, arriving at Port Chalmers on 28 September. They settled on a farm at Halfway Bush, Wakari, later moving to a property at Kaihiku which they named Craigielee. About 1861 Barr sold the farm and retired to Dunedin.
From the time of his arrival in the colony Barr enjoyed a successful career as a poet, and achieved some eminence in Otago society. He was made laureate to the Caledonian Society of Otago, inaugurated the Burns Club, and gave frequent public readings of his verse at social and civic events. His work featured regularly in the Otago Witness and the Saturday Advertiser, and in 1861 was published in the collection Poems and songs, descriptive and satirical. The book was very popular, and was reprinted with additional material in 1874. John Barr died at Dunedin on 18 September 1889.
Barr's Poems and songs are characterised by a strong Scottish identity, immediately evident in the language: 'I sit me doun to write a sang / In hamely Scottish jingle; …I sing o' glens and clay-built cot, / Of lassies leal and kind'. His forms and themes are as traditional as his vocabulary. Written within the iambic rhythms and formal patterns of ballad structures, the poems employ a range of familiar sentiments from popular poetic tradition, winning contemporary audiences with 'the richest Scotch, perfect versification, and much sweetness.'
Barr was a popular performer at public occasions, and much of his work was consciously public poetry, an expression of community identity and achievement. Pride in Otago's progress is a recurrent theme, sometimes developing into doughty patriotism, or focusing warmly on the good-heartedness of the poet's fellow colonists. Barr returns regularly to the conventional virtues of honour, loyalty and the rewards of hard labour. The preface to Poems and songs includes a wry reference to his own experience of establishing a farm, and there is an attractive authenticity in his writing on work, which is enhanced by his regular ballad rhythms and vivid colloquial language: 'For either I'm mawin', or thrashin', or sawin', / Or grubbin' the hills wi' the ferns covered fairly. / Grub away, tug away, toil till you're weary, / Haul oot the toot roots and everything near ye.'
Barr's enthusiasm for the potentials of the new colony is often grounded in a grim retrospection. The majority of his references to Home focus on the oppressiveness and injustices of the rigid class system he had left behind. A strongly egalitarian idealism emerges: 'Nae mair the laird comes for his rent, / When I hae nocht to pay, sirs. / Nae mair he'll tak me aff the loom, …To touch my hat, and boo to him'; and there are sharp contrasts between the helpless poverty of the British working classes and the prosperity of the settlers' lives: 'There's nae place like Otago yet, / There's nae wee beggar weans, / Or auld men shivering at our doors, / To beg for scraps or banes.'
Barr generously celebrated the new world for its democratic freedoms and the food on its tables, but was also critical of its shortcomings. Many poems are stringent satires or moral pieces in which he targets corruption and venality with ruthless accuracy. He is particularly vehement in his scrutiny of the snobbery and hypocrisies of the Dunedin gentry. 'Fy let us a' to the dinner' is a scathing summation of the falseness of this society: 'We'll boast o' our high moral standin' – / The workin' folk keept out o' view, / An' then we will toast ane anither / Wi' "Claw me an' I will claw you." ' In the satirical dialogue 'Crack between Mrs Scandal and Mrs Envy' he makes a sustained attack on the viciousness and vanity of society gossips, while nagging wives and drunken, worthless husbands are also picked out for attention in traditional moral pieces.
Barr's success is in his focus on the tangible realities of his community, whether giving praise or stern criticism. The poetry is less effective when he turns to the abstractions of popular romance; a series of rather coy courting poems lacks the impetus of other work, although clearly calculated to please contemporary sensibilities. Similarly, his landscape pieces consist entirely of the clichés and patterns of established convention.
The tastes of his immediate audiences were well satisfied by this material, however, and their Presbyterian ethics quickened by his social commentary. The enormous popularity of Barr's writing is reflected in the praises and honours regularly awarded him. When the Caledonian Society presented him with a gold medal in 1868 the rhetoric was fulsome, insisting on his 'genius' and asserting that 'the mantle of Burns had fallen upon [his] shoulders'. As the poet laureate of early Otago, Barr provides a direct reflection of the ideals, attitudes and popular judgements current in Dunedin in the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s.