Richard Barnfield

(1574-1627)

Biography of Richard Barnfield

Richard Barnfield poet

Richard Barnfield (1574–1627) was an English poet.

Barnfield was born at Norbury, Staffordshire, and brought up in Newport, Shropshire. He was baptized on 13 June 1574, the son of Richard Barnfield, gentleman. His obscure though close relationship with William Shakespeare has long made him interesting to scholars. In November 1589 Barnfield matriculated at Brasenose College, Oxford, and took his degree in February 1592. He performed the exercise for his masters gown, but seems to have left the university abruptly, without proceeding to the M.A.

It is conjectured that he came up to London in 1593, and became acquainted with Watson, Drayton, and perhaps with Edmund Spenser. The death of Sir Philip Sidney had occurred while Barnfield was still a school-boy, but it seems to have strongly affected his imagination and to have inspired some of his earliest verses. In November 1594, in his twenty-first year, Barnfield published anonymously his first work, The Affectionate Shepherd, dedicated with familiar devotion to Penelope Rich, Lady Rich. This was a sort of florid romance, in two books of six-line stanzas, in the manner of Lodge and Shakespeare, dealing at large with the complaint of Daphnis for the love of Ganymede. As the author expressly admitted later, it was an expansion or paraphrase of Virgil's second eclogue Formosum pastor Corydon ardebat Alexim.

Although the poem was successful, it did not pass without censure from the moral point of view because of its openly homosexual content. Two months later, in January 1595, Barnfield published his second volume, Cynthia, with certain Sonnets, and the legend of Cassandra, and this time signed the preface, which was dedicated, in terms which imply close personal relations, to William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby. In the preface Barnfield distances himself from the homoeroticism of his previous work, writing that some readers "did interpret The Affectionate Shepherd otherwise than in truth I meant, touching the subject thereof, to wit, the love of a shepherd to a boy". He excuses himself by saying he was imitating Virgil. The new collection, however, also contained poems which were "explicitly and unashamedly homoerotic, full of physical desire", in the words of critics Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson. The book exemplifies the earliest study both of Spenser and Shakespeare. Cynthia itself, a panegyric on Queen Elizabeth, is written in the Spenserian stanza, of which it is probably the earliest example extant outside The Faerie Queene.

Some claim that Barnfield now married and withdrew to his estate of Dorlestone (or Darlaston), in the county of Stafford, a house romantically situated on the River Trent, where he henceforth resided as a country gentleman. In 1605 his Lady Pecunia was reprinted, and this was his last appearance as a man of letters. It is further claimed that his son Robert Barnfield and his cousin Elinor Skrymsher were his executors when his will was proved at Lichfield; his wife, therefore, doubtless predeceased him. Barnfield, it has been supposed, died at Dorlestone Hall, and was buried in the neighbouring parish church of St Michaels, Stone, on 6 March 1627. However it now appears that this death was in fact his father, and that Richard Barnfield had died a few years earlier.

He was for long neglected; but his poetry is clear, sweet, and musical, although lacking in range and extremely derivative. The sonnet sequence, in particular, can be read as one of the more obviously homoerotic sequences of the period. His gift indeed is sufficiently attested by work of his having passed for that of Shakespeare, albeit for only one ode. The Affectionate Shepheard and the Sonnets appeared as limited-edition artist's books in 1998 and 2001, illustrated by Clive Hicks-Jenkins and produced by the Old Stile Press.

Barnfield's Lady Pecunia and The Complaint of Poetry were used as sample texts by the early 17th-century phonetician Robert Robinson for his invented phonetic script.

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An Ode

As it fell upon a day
In the merry month of May,
Sitting in a pleasant shade
Which a grove of myrtles made,
Beasts did leap and birds did sing,
Trees did grow and plants did spring;
Every thing did banish moan,
Save the nightingale alone.
She, poor bird, as all forlorn,

[Hata Bildir]