John Barclay (1582-1621), Scottish satirist and Latin poet, was born, on the 28th of January 1582, at Pont-à-Mousson, where his father William Barclay held the chair of civil law. His mother was a Frenchwoman of good family. His early education was obtained at the Jesuit College. While there, at the age of nineteen, he wrote a commentary on the Thebaid of Statius. In 1603 he crossed with his father to London. Barclay had persistently maintained his Scottish nationality in his French surroundings, and probably found in James's accession an opportunity which he would not let slip. He did not remain long in England, where he is supposed to have published the first part of his Satyricon, for in 1605 when a second edition of that book appeared in Paris, he was there, having already spent some time in Angers, and being now the husband of a French girl, Louise Debonaire. He returned to London with his wife in 1606, and there published his Sylvae, a collection of Latin poems. In the following year the second part of the Satyricon appeared in Paris. Barclay remained on in London till 1616. In 1609 he edited the De Potestate Papae, an anti-papal treatise by his father, who had died in the preceding year, and in 1611 he issued an Apologia or "third part" of the Satyricon, in answer to the attacks of the Jesuits and others who were probably embittered by the tone of the earlier parts of the satire.
A so-called "fourth part," with the title of Icon Animorum, appeared in 1614. James I. is said to have been attracted by his scholarship, but particulars of this, or of his life in London generally, are not available. In 1616 he went to Rome, for some reason unexplained, and there resided till his death on the 15th of August 1621. He appears to have been on better terms with the Church and notably with Bellarmine; for in 1617 he issued, from a press at Cologne, a Paraenesis ad Sectarios, an attack on the position of Protestantism. The literary effort of his closing years was his best-known work the Argenis, completed about a fortnight before his death, which has been said to have been hastened by poison. The romance was printed in Paris in the same year.
Barclay's contemporary reputation as a writer was of the highest; by his strict scholarship and graceful style he has deserved the praise of modern students. The Satyricon, a severe satire on the Jesuits, is modelled on Petronius and catches his lightness of touch, though it shows little or nothing of the tone of its model, or of the unhesitating severity and coarseness of the humanistic satire of Barclay's age. The Argenis is a long romance, with a monitory purpose on the dangers of political intrigue, probably suggested to him by his experiences of the league in France, and by the catholic plot in England after James's accession. The work has been praised by all parties; and it enjoyed for more than a century after his death a remarkable popularity. Most of the innumerable editions are supplied with a key to the characters and names of the story. Thus Aneroëtus is Clement VIII; Arx non eversa is the Tower of London; Hippophilus and Radirobanes are the names of the king of Spain; Hyanisbe is Queen Elizabeth; Mergania, by an easy anagram, is Germany; Usinulca, by another, is Calvin. The book is of historical importance in the development of 17th century romance, including especially Fénelon's Télémaque. Ben Jonson appears, from an entry at Stationers' Hall on the 2nd of October 1623, to have intended to make a translation.
Barclay's shorter poems, in two books, were printed in the Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum (Amsterdam, 1637, i. pp. 76-136). In the dedication, to Prince Charles of England, he refers to his earlier publication, the Sylvae.
The best account of Barclay is the preface by Jules Dukas in his bibliography of the Satyricon (Paris, 1889). This supersedes the life in Bayle's Dictionary, which had been the sole authority. A "fifth part" of the Satyricon appears in most of the editions, by Alethophilus (Claude Morisot). For the Argenis, see the dissertations by Léon Boucher (Paris, 1874), and Dupond (Paris, 1875). The Icon Animorum was Englished by Thomas May in 1631 (The Mirrour of Mindes, or Barclay's Icon Animorum). Barclay's works have never been collected.