1834 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Barnabe Barnes

Robert Aris Willmott, in Lives of Sacred Poets (1834) 15-18.



The admirers of Southwell's poetry will not withhold their sympathy from the Divine Centurie of Spiritual Sonnets, by his contemporary BARNABE BARNES. This little collection of poems, originally published in 1595, has been reprinted by Mr. Park in his Heliconia, but, owing to the very expensive form of the work, without adding much to their popularity. Barnes, upon whom the flattery of friendship bestowed the appellation of Petrarch's scholar, while it elevated him to an equality with Spenser, was the subject of frequent satire during his life. Few particulars of his history have been preserved. He was a younger son of Dr. Richard Barnes, Bishop of Durham, and was born about the year 1569. At the age of seventeen he became a student of Brazen-nose College, Oxford, but left the university without a degree. "What became of him afterwards," says Wood, "I know not." He appears, however, to have accompanied the expedition sent to France by Elizabeth, in 1591, under the command of Devereux, Earl of Essex. He was then in his twenty-second year, and he probably remained in that country until 1594.

Nash accuses him of running away from battle, and of subsequently disgracing himself still more, by robbing a nobleman's steward of a gold chain. But these charges rest upon no foundation, and were probably the result of malignity on the part of Nash, who remembered that Barnes had sided with Gabriel Harvey in one of the numerous quarrels which, at that period, agitated, in no very decorous manner, the literary public.

The sonnets, we are told by the author, were composed during his travels in France, and seem to have been viewed by him in the light of religious exercises. He speaks of them as "prescribed tasks." No person can read them, I think, without feeling his thoughts calmed, and his faith strengthened. The piety of the writer does not chill us with the austerity of its features; it is humble, joyful, and confident. In the ninety-second sonnet he says, alluding to the earnestness of his devotion, "On my soul's knees I lift my spirit's palms." And this prayer may incline the reader to acknowledge the truth of the assertion.

O benign Father! let my suits ascend
And please thy gracious ears from my soul sent,
Even as those sweet perfumes of incense went
From our forefathers' altars, who didst lend
Thy nostrils to that myrrh which they did send,
Even as I now crave thine ears to be lent.
My soul, my soul is wholly bent
To do thee condigne service and amend
To flee for refuge to thy wounded breast,
To suck the balm of my salvation thence,
In sweet repose to take eternal rest,
As thy child folded in thine arms defence.
But then my flesh, methought by Sathan fir'd,
Said my proud sinful soul in vain aspir'd.

If Ben Jonson, as we are told by Drummond, "cursed Petrarch for redacting verses into sonnets," which he compared to that "tyrant's bed where some who were too short, were racked, others, too long, cut short," the sonnets of Barnes could not have escaped his censure. They are written with an almost constant adherence to the returning rima of the Italian sonetto, but Barnes frequently continues the sense beyond the termination of the line — a practice considered by Warton deserving of commendation.

When Dr. Bliss published his edition of Anthony Wood's Athenae Oxonienses, the following address to Content was the only poem by Barnes with which he was acquainted, but it certainly justified his desire to know more.

Ah! sweet Content, where is thy mild abode?
Is it with shepherds and light-hearted swains,
Which sing upon the downs and pipe abroad,
Leading their flocks and calling unto plains!
All sweet Content, where dost thou safely rest?
In heaven with angels which the praises sing
Of Him that made, and rolls at his behest,
The minds, and parts of every living thing!
Ah! sweet Content, where doth thine harbour hold?
Is it in churches with religious men
Which praise the Gods with prayers manifold,
And in their studies meditate it then?
Whether thou dost in heaven or earth appeare,
Be where thou wilt, thou wilt not harbour here.

The last couplet is sweetly pathetic.

I cannot refrain from adding one more sonnet; to all, save the antiquarian in poetical literature, Barnes will be a new poet.

Unto my spirit lend an angel's wing,
By which it might mount to that place of rest,
Where paradise may me relieve opprest:
Lend to my tongue an angels voice to sing
Thy praise my comfort; and for ever bring
My notes thereof from the bright east to west;
Thy mercy lend unto my soul distrest,
Thy grace unto my wits; then shall the sling
Of Righteousness that monster Sathan kill,
Who with dispair my dear salvation dared,
And, like the Philistine, stood breathing still
Proud threats against my soul; for heaven prepared,
At length I like an angel shall appear,
In spotless white an angel's robe to wear.