1880 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Richard Barnfield

Thomas Humphry Ward, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 1:474-75.



Barnfield is a poet whose personality has only of late years emerged into something like distinctness, his best poems having till recently had the honour of bearing Shakespeare's name. The reprint of The Affectionate Shepherd by Mr. Halliwell in 1845, from the almost unique copy in Sion College Library, first made Barnfield known to modern readers; about the same time doubts began to arise concerning the authorship of the poems in The Passionate Pilgrim; and lately, in 1876, Mr. Grosart was able to print for the Roxburghe Club the complete poems, together with a number of facts about Barnfield's family and a few about his life. Of the latter we only learn that he belonged so a good Staffordshire family; that he became a member of Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1589; that on leaving Oxford he passed several years in London, apparently as a member of that literary circle of which Lady Rich, Sidney's Stella, was the centre; and that after 1605 he disappeared, probably retiring like Shakespeare to his country home, but unlike him sending forth no poetic utterance into the world.

The oddity of Barnfield's principal performance, The Affectionate Shepherd, is best captained by the date of its composition. He was not twenty when he wrote it; and we are thus more inclined to tolerate both the sentiment (it is an elaborate expansion of Virgil's second eclogue), and the boyishness and incongruities which mar the execution. It is strange enough that such a poem should be dedicated to a lady (Lady Rich); stranger still that it should open with what must have read like a caricature of that lady's own love-story; strangest of all that Daphnis, after displaying all his Arcadian blandishments in vain through a hundred stanzas, should turn moralist and flood the obdurate Ganymede with "lere I learned from a Beldame Trot" — didactic "leer," of which these lines are a fair example:—

Be patient in extreame adversitie,
Man's chiefest credit growes by dooing well,
Be not high minded in prosperitie,
Falshood abhorre, no lying fable tell,
Give not thyselfe to sloth, the sinke of shame,
The moath of Time, the enemie to Fame!

Yet the poem has qualities which mark it out from the mass of Elizabethan pastoral. It has fluency, music, colour. Barnfield combines in it a mastery of euphuistic antithesis with a real knowledge of the country and its sights and sounds; its "scarlet dyed carnation bleeding yet," its "fine ruffe-footed Doves," its "curds and clowted creme," the "lyme-twigs and fine sparrow calles" for the birdcatcher, the "springes in a frostie night" that take the woodcock. It is to be regretted that this eye for nature, this fine ear and honeyed tongue, were pressed into the service of a design too artificial and too alien from the common feeling of mankind.

There is nothing of this sort to say against the well-known Ode which we here quote, and which is indeed in no respect unworthy of the great name to which it was so long attributed. From its happy union of ethical matter and fanciful form, from its strongly personal note, is ranks among the most interesting of the productions of the lesser Elizabethans.