1887 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Richard Barnfield

George Saintsbury, in History of Elizabethan Literature (1887; 1909) 117-18.



It is my own opinion that the actual poetical worth of Richard Barnfield, to whom an exquisite poem in The Passionate Pilgrim, long ascribed to Shakespere, is now more justly assigned, has, owing to this assignment and to the singular character of his chief other poem, The Affectionate Shepherd, been considerably overrated. It is unfortunately as complete if not as common a mistake to suppose that any one who disdains his country's morality must be a good poet, as to set down any one who disdains it without further examination for a bad one. The simple fact, as it strikes a critic, is that "As it fell upon a day" is miles above anything else of Barnfield's, and is not like anything else of his, while it is very like things of Shakespere's. The best thing to be said for Barnfield is that he was an avowed and enthusiastic imitator and follower of Spenser. His poetical style (we might have included the short series of sonnets to Cynthia in the division of sonneteers) was all written when he was a very young man, and he died when he was not a very old one, a bachelor country-gentleman in Warwickshire. Putting the exquisite "As it fell upon a day" out of question (which, if he wrote it, is one of the not very numerous examples of perfect poetry written by a very imperfect poet), Barnfield has, in no extraordinary measure, the common attributes of this wonderful time — poetical enthusiasm, fresh and unhackneyed expression, metrical charm, and gorgeous colouring, which does not find itself ill-matched with accurate drawing of nature. He is above the average Elizabethan, and his very bad taste in The Affectionate Shepherd (a following of Virgil's Second Eclogue) may be excused as a humanist crotchet of the time. His rarity, his eccentricity, and the curious mixing up of his work with Shakespere's have done him something more than yeoman's service with recent critics.