Richard Barnfield (1574-1627), English poet, was born at Norbury, Staffordshire, and baptized on the 13th of June 1574. His obscure though close relationship with Shakespeare has long made him interesting to students and has attracted of late years further attention from the circumstance that important discoveries regarding his life have been made. Until recently nothing whatever was known about the facts of Barnfield's career, whose very existence had been doubted. It was, however, discovered by the late Dr A. B. Grosart that the poet was the son of Richard Barnfield (or Barnefield) and Maria Skrymsher, his wife, who were married in April 1572. They resided in the parish of Norbury, in Staffordshire, on the borders of Salop, where the poet was baptized on the 13th of June 1574. The mother died in giving birth to a daughter early in 1581, and her unmarried sister, Elizabeth Skrymsher, seems to have devoted herself to the care of the children. In November 1589 Barnfield matriculated at Brasenose College, Oxford, and took his degree in February 1592. He "performed the exercise for his master's 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 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, Lady Rich. This was a sort of florid romance, in two books of six-line stanza, 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 Alexin."
This poem of Barnfield's was the most extraordinary specimen hitherto produced in England of the licence introduced from Italy at the Renaissance. Although the poem was successful, it did not pass without censure from the moral point of view. Into the conventional outlines of The Affectionate Shepherd the young poet has poured all his fancy, all his epithets, and all his coloured touches of nature. If we are not repelled by the absurd subject, we have to admit that none of the immediate imitators of Venus and Adonis has equalled the juvenile Barnfield in the picturesqueness of his "fine ruff-footed doves," his "speckled flower call'd sops-in-wine," or his desire "by the bright glimmering of the starry light, to catch the long-bill'd woodcock." Two months later, in January 1595, Barnfield published his second volume, Cynthia, with certain Sonnets, and this time signed the preface, which was dedicated, in terms which imply close personal relations, to William Stanley, the new earl of Derby. This is a book of extreme interest; it 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. This is followed by a sequence of twenty sonnets, which have the extraordinary interest that, while preceding the publication of Shakespeare's sonnets by fourteen years, they are closer to them in manner than are any others of the Elizabethan age.
They celebrate, with extravagant ardour, the charms of a young man whose initials seem to have been J. U. or J. V., and of whom nothing else seems known. These sonnets, which preceded even the Amoretti of Spenser, are of unusual merit as poetry, and would rank as high in quality as in date of publication if their subject-matter were not so preposterous. They show the influence of Drayton's Idea, which had appeared a few months before; in that collection also, it is to be observed, there had appeared amatory sonnets addressed to a young man. If editors would courageously alter the gender of the pronouns, several of Barnfield's glowing sonnets might take their place at once in our anthologies. Before the publication of his volume, however, he had repented of his heresies, and had become enamoured of a "lass" named Eliza (or Elizabeth), whom he celebrates with effusion in an "Ode." This is probably the lady whom he presently married, and as we find him a grandfather in 1626 it is unlikely that the wedding was long delayed.
In 1598 Barnfield published his third volume, The Encomion of Lady Pecunia, a poem in praise of money, followed by a sort of continuation, in the same six-line stanza, called "The Complaint of Poetry for the Death of Liberality." In this volume there is already a decline in poetic quality. But an appendix of "Poems in diverse Humours" to this volume of 1598 presents some very interesting features. Here appears what seems to be the absolutely earliest praise of Shakespeare in a piece entitled "A Remembrance of some English Poets," in which the still unrecognized author of Venus and Adonis is celebrated by the side of Spenser, Daniel and Drayton. Here also are the sonnet, "If Music and sweet Poetry agree," and the beautiful ode beginning "As it fell upon a day," which were until recently attributed to Shakespeare himself. In the next year, 1599, The Passionate Pilgrim was published, with the words "By W. Shakespeare" on the title-page. It was long supposed that this attribution was correct, but Barnfield claimed one of the two pieces just mentioned, not only in 1598, but again in 1605. It is certain that both are his, and possibly other things in The Passionate Pilgrim also; Shakespeare's share in the twenty poems of that miscellany being doubtless confined to the five short pieces which have been definitely identified as his.
In the opinion of the present writer the sonnet beginning "Sweet Cytherea" has unmistakably the stamp of Barnfield, and is probably a gloss on the first rapturous perusal of Venus and Adonis; the same is to be said of "Scarce had the sun," which is aut Barnfield, aut diabolus. One or two other contributions to The Passionate Pilgrim may be conjectured, with less confidence, to be Barnfield's. It has been stated that the poet was now studying the law at Gray's Inn, but for this the writer is unable to discover the authority, except that several members of that society are mentioned in the course of the volume of 1598. In all probability 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 he reprinted his Lady Pecunia, and this was his latest appearance as a man of letters. 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 died at Dorlestone Hall, and was buried in the neighbouring parish church of St Michael's, Stone, on the 6th of March 1627. The labours of Dr Grosart and of Professor Arber have thrown much light on the circumstances of Barnfield's career. He has taken of late years a far more prominent place than ever before in the history of English literature. This is due partly to the remarkable merit of his graceful, melodious and highly-coloured verse, which was practically unknown until it was privately printed in 1876 (ed. Grosart, Roxburghe Club), and at length given to the public in 1882 (ed. Arber, English Scholars' Library). It is also due to the mysterious personal relation of Barnfield to Shakespeare, a relation not easy to prove in detail, as it is built up on a great variety of small indications. It is, however, obvious that Barnfield warmly admired Shakespeare, whose earliest imitator he may be said to have been, and that between 1595 and 1600 the younger poet was so close to the elder that the compositions of the former could be confused with those of the latter. Barnfield died, as a poet, in his twenty-fifth year. Up to that time he had displayed a talent which, if he had pursued it, might have placed him very high among the English poets.
As it is, he will always interest a certain number of readers as being, in his languid "Italianate" way, a sort of ineffectual Meleager in the rich Elizabethan anthology.
Besides the editions already cited, The Affectionate Shepherd was edited by Mr J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps for the Percy Society (Early English Poetry, vol. xx.); The Encomion of Pecunia and some other poems by J. Boswell (Roxburghe Club, 1816); and by J. P. Collier in Illustrations of Old English Literature (vol. i., 1866).