Cherry-lipt Adonis in his snowie shape,
Might not compare with his pure ivoric white,
On whose faire front a poet’s pen may write,
Whose roseate red excels the crimson grape,
His love-enticing delicate soft limbs,
Are rarely fram’d t’entrap poore gazine eies:
His cheeks, the lillie and carnation dies,
With lovely tincture which Apollo’s dims.
His lips ripe strawberries in nectar wet,
His mouth a Hive, his tongue a hony-combe,
Where Muses (like bees) make their mansion.
His teeth pure pearle in blushing correll set.
Oh how can such a body sinne-procuring,
Be slow to love, and quicke to hate, enduring?
Barnfield, Sonnet 17, Cynthia, Printed for Humfrey Lownes, London, 1595
Born in the village of Norbury in the Borough of Stafford at the beginning of June in 1574, Richard Barnfield was an English poet. Best known for his poem “As It Fell Upon a Day”, he is the only Elizabethan male poet, apart from Shakespeare, to address love poems to a man.
The son of a gentleman, Richard Barnfield was brought up in the county of Shropshire at The Manor House in Edgmond. After his mother’s death in 1580, his upbringing was supervised by his aunt Elizabeth Skrymsher. As a youth, Barnfield was deeply influenced by the ancient Roman poet Virgil’s work and the contemporary poet Sir Philip Sidney’s 1591 “Astrophel and Stella” which popularized the use of sonnet sequence.
Barnfield studied at Brasenose College, Oxford, beginning in November of 1589 and received his degree in February of 1592. However, he did not stay to earn his Masters degree as was the custom. It is believed Barnfield relocated to London circa 1593 and was sufficiently wealthy to live a life as a writer without the struggle his contemporaries endured. At the age of twenty-one in November of 1594, he anonymously published “The Affectionate Shepherd”, a volume of romantic six-line stanzas. This collection, basically a paraphrase of Virgil’s second Eclogue, was successful; however, it was controversial for its time from a moral point of view due to its openly homosexual references.
In January of 1595, Richard Barnfield published his second collection, “Cynthia, with Certain Sonnets, and the Legend of Cassandra”. This volume had a signed preface dedicated to William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby. In the preface, Barnfield distanced himself from the homoeroticism in his previous work by saying he was imitating Virgil. Though still containing references both explicit and homoerotic, this collection is an early study of both Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser’s work. In addition to a twenty-sonnet sequence, the volume included the poem “Cynthia” written in the fixed verse form invented by Spenser for his epic poem “The Faerie Queen”.
Barnfield’s third and final book of poetry, written when he was twenty-four, was the 1598 “The Encomion of Lady Pecunia”, a work of six-line stanzas in praise of money. Though its contents registered a decline in poetic quality, there is an early celebration of Shakespeare inside, entitled “A Remembrance of Some English Poets”, which celebrates the English poet alongside such Elizabethan poets as Spencer, Michael Drayton and Samuel Daniel. Originally attributed to Shakespeare, Barnfield’s “If Music and Sweet Poetrie Agree” and “As It Fell Upon a Day” are also in this third volume.
Richard Barnfield’s last appearance in print was a 1605 reprint with updates of his “Lady Pecunia”. Little is known of his life from this date until his death in 1620 at the age of forty-six in Shropshire, a county in the West Midlands region of England. Having become less important than his more famous contemporaries, Barnfield’s work was neglected for a long time; however, the current age has been kinder to his reputation. The fact that his poetry was mistaken for Shakespeare’s work is a testament to Barnfield’s ability. His sonnet sequences are often referenced currently as examples of homoerotic poems of the period.
“The Affectionate Shepherd” and “Sonnets” were published in 1998 and 2001 as limited-edition art books with illustrations by Welsh artist Clive Hicks-Jensen. The publishing press was Old Stile Press in Catchmays Court, Monmouthshire, England.
Note: An excellent article by Ed Simon, entitled “Richard Barnfield: The Rival Poet’s Lover”, examines Barnfield and his admiration for fellow renegade poet Robert Greene. This extensive and informative article can be found at the online “The Fortnightly Review” located at: https://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/2016/04/richard-barnfield/
A discussion of Richard Barnfield’s twenty sonnets in his 1595 “Cynthia” can be found at the online “Mencuneutics” site located at: https://eshuneutics.blogspot.com/2009/10/sonnets-of-richard-barnfield.html