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Barnfield, Richard (1574-1620?)  

Richard Barnfield, who wrote two volumes of verse, was born in Norbury, Staffordshire, in 1574. Barnfield took a degree at Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1592, and remained at Oxford for the M.A., but left without completing the degree. Between 1594 and 1598 he published four volumes of poetry, then disappeared into English history, apparently writing no poetry after the age of twenty-four.

The first biographical material on Barnfield is dated 1813, almost two centuries after his death. Although his nineteenth-century biographer, Alexander Grosart, claimed that Barnfield married, there is in fact no evidence of the marriage. The will of a Richard Barnfield, which mentions both a son Robert and a granddaughter Jane, may be the will of the poet's father. Andrew Worrall has discovered that the poet was disinherited twice by his father in favor of a younger brother. It is now believed that the poet died in obscurity, probably a bachelor, either in 1620 or 1626.

Barnfield's reputation as a homoerotic poet rests on two of his volumes: The Affectionate Shepheard (1594) and Cynthia, with Certaine Sonnets (1595).

The title poem of the earlier book concerns a shepherd named Daphnis who loves a boy named Ganymede. Offering the boy unlimited pastoral delights, Daphnis finds his love unreturned because Ganymede is interested in a woman (Guendolen). The poem is dedicated to Penelope Devereux, immortalized by Sir Philip Sidney in Astrophil and Stella, but attempts to prove that she is parodied in the poem have not been convincing. Daphnis is indeed Barnfield because the poet identifies himself as such, but attempts to identify the character Ganymede have been unsuccessful.

In the preface to Cynthia, with Certaine Sonnets, Barnfield defends Daphnis's homoerotic love, and explains that he was attempting in The Affectionate Shepheard to imitate Virgil's second eclogue. Some critics believe that Barnfield was thus trying to explain away the homoeroticism of the shepherd for the boy, but they then have to contend with the homoerotic sonnets that are printed in the Cynthia book.

These sonnets are, if anything, even more insistently homoerotic and frustrated in tone than the earlier Daphnis pastoral. Within the twenty sonnets, not once does the boy give any indication that he is interested in the narrator. The poems are within the traditional sonnet mode of unattainable love that reaches back to Petrarch, and are symptomatic of the problems involved in identifying homosexual identity within a specific historical context.

Contemporary reaction to Barnfield's poetry began one year after the publication of The Affectionate Shepheard with a notice by Henry Chettle that the poem was receiving praise. Then Francis Meres in 1598 named Barnfield alongside Spenser and Sidney as among the best writers of pastoral.

Early nineteenth-century critics disdained the verses as perverse, and since that time Barnfield has ridden the rocky road of critical whim. Even at the end of the twentieth century, critics were still misreading the Barnfield poems and finding them distasteful. For example, the only book-length study of the poet, Richard Barnfield, Colin's Child, by Harry Morris, refers repeatedly to Barnfield's homoeroticism as "unnatural."

One excellent assessment of Barnfield, however, was done by Montague Summers, who, in his preface to a 1936 edition of Barnfield's poems, sets them within a context of homoerotic pastoral verse going back to the classics.

Among modern critics, Gregory Bredbeck has championed Barnfield as having a special Renaissance voice able both to make sense of and to disavow it. Bruce Smith, on the other hand, finds Barnfield's lyrics campy and pornographic experiments with self-absorption in what Smith calls "the soft side" of pastoral poetry.

Klawitter's 1990 edition of the poems contains extensive notes and an introduction appreciative of Barnfield's talents. The Affectionate Shepherd, a volume of seventeen essays devoted to the poet and his poetry, appeared in 2001.

George Klawitter


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Barnfield, Richard. The Complete Poems. George Klawitter, ed. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1990.

Borris, Kenneth and George Klawitter, eds. The Affectionate Shepherd. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2001.

Bredbeck, Gregory W. Sodomy and Interpretation: Marlowe to Milton. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Giantvalley, Scott. "Barnfield, Drayton, and Marlowe: Homoeroticism and Homosexuality in Elizabethan Literature." Pacific Coast Philology 16 (1981): 9–24.

Morris, Harry. Richard Barnfield, Colin's Child. Tampa: Florida State University Studies (no. 38), 1963.

Smith, Bruce R. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Worrall, Andrew. "Richard Barnfield: A New Biography." Notes and Queries n.s. 39 (Sept. 1992): 370-371.


    Citation Information
    Author: Klawitter, George  
    Entry Title: Barnfield, Richard  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated February 4, 2002  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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