RICHARD BARNFIELD, THE FORGOTTEN homosexual sonneteer, entered literary consciousness in 1593 as an admirer of another lettered renegade, that of the late, great, dissolute Robert Greene. Barnfield was sixteen years younger than Greene, and indeed he doesn’t enter the stationer’s register as a printed author until a year after the elder writer’s death. It’s not known if they met or not, though it was certainly possible in the small literary world that was Elizabethan London (where it is known that Barnfield did meet Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, and, of course, Shakespeare). With Greene’s body scarcely room-temperature, Barnabe Rich penned a scurrilous pamphlet titled Greene’s News from Both Heaven and Hell. The content is largely predictable from the title, and young Barnfield responded a year later with a defense of his fellow bohemian, titled Greene’s Funeral.
The former pamphlet is a moralistic, denunciatory condemnation of Greene and his lifestyle, one which charges him with his own early death, and detests the lifestyle he lived and his writing which was produced from it. As is the nature of scolds, moralizers, pedants, and puritans everywhere it took a masochistic happiness in its own schadenfreude, proving that Aquinas was correct when he said that one of the chief joys of heaven was being able to enjoy the suffering of those in hell. The two pamphlets are often paired together, and indeed since textual scholarship can be an ambiguous science, there has been some scholarly uncertainty as to who should properly be attributed authorship of either essay. The evidence that Rich wrote the first pamphlet and Barnfield the latter is inexact. Indeed it has been suggested that the same author actually wrote both, first the diatribe against Greene and then his defense. There is historical precedence for this sort of thing; for example the so-called “War of the Theaters” between Jonson and Thomas Dekker was largely concocted for marketing purposes. It’s certainly possible that a canny professional writer in the 1590s would be willing to spread the literary disease of Greene’s News from Heaven and Hell and to then sell its cure in the form of Greene’s Funeral. One imagines that confidence man that he was, Greene may have even appreciated the gambit, yet the evidence that we do have does seem to indicate separate authors.
Barnfield’s work has received little respect over the years. In 1911 A.J. Bell, of the University of Victoria demonstrated the propensity towards snarky aesthetic critique which characterized the scholarship of his era when he wrote “For Greene’s Funeral less can be said, and it must be confessed that the pamphlet is almost entirely without literary value,” adding that its only virtue is “the merit of brevity.” And yet Bell also points out that “apart from the writings of Nashe, [it is] almost the only attempt in defense of Greene.” Whatever the artistic values of Greene’s Funeral it has historical importance in this, especially in terms of identifying a generic classification for the transgressive poets of the English Renaissance. If it’s correct that Barnfield is the author of Greene’s Funeral (and the initials listed on the printing seem to verify this) than it’s a biographical thread of admiration and acknowledgement between one underappreciated poet who was influenced by another. Indeed it indicates a shadow canon, a transgressive, alternative, marginalized collection of writers pushed to the edges of English society. They were both members in a sort of fraternity of the outcaste. For if Barnfield was looking for another poet to read and take as sort of a symbolic mentor, Greene would be an exemplary figure. That Greene’s Funeral, whatever its actual literary quality, is the only defense of Greene, and that it is most likely by Barnfield, evidences that the young poet was aware of his own threatened identity, and his status as someone as likely to be persecuted as the dead pamphleteer was. What Barnfield may have seen in Greene was a subversive compatriot, a fellow penitent at the limits of English society.
IT’S NOTABLE THAT otherwise the influence of Greene on Barnfield seems negligible. Indeed despite Dr. Bell’s sarcastic estimation of the literary worth of Greene’s Funeral, Barnfield has long been acknowledged as a generally superior poet. No less a critic than C.S. Lewis wrote in his magisterial English Literature in the Sixteenth-Century that Barnfield deserved to be categorized alongside Shakespeare as a master-poet, even if Lewis’ conservative politics couldn’t abide the poet’s sexuality. This is how critics have traditionally handled Barnfield; he has in some sense endured as a faint murmur in scholarship, from his own day where he was respected as a Renaissance humanist poet, till the present when there has been a resurgence in interest in him. Recent scholarship has resuscitated interest with the poet, on his own terms.
Anthologies, such as The Affectionate Shepard: Celebrating Richard Barnfield, compiled by Kenneth Boris and George Klawitter, have introduced the author as a subject for critical analysis and appreciation, even if he has yet to permeate the more general consciousness. Barnfield has often constituted a sort of trade-secret among scholars, a poet who on technical acumen alone deserved to have his sonnet sequence included alongside those of canonical writers like Sidney and Shakespeare, but for whom the blatant homoerotic content all but precluded him from inclusion. In 1594, the same year that Greene’s Funeral was printed, Barnfield’s first major work was also published, The Affectionate Shepherd. He was only 21 years at the time, but had clearly absorbed the conventions of the pastoral mode which was so popular, accounts of shepherds living bucolic lives that are contrasted with the deprivations and decadence of the city. In The Affectionate Shepherd. Barnfield celebrated the love between the Trojan nymph Daphnis, and the hero Ganymede.
Classically educated Britons were not unfamiliar with the conventions of homoeroticism inherited from Greek and Roman literature. Though sodomy itself was a capital crime (if rarely proven) it was understood that these tropes were utilized as a fictional conceit, a perhaps at times winking understanding that the content of these works couldn’t possibly be endorsing actual sexual love between men in the contemporary world. They merely reflected an idealized version of a pagan past which had long since disappeared. Yet something in The Affectionate Shepherd disquieted both author and audience enough that Barnfield felt the need to explain in the preface of his next collection that some “did interpret The Affectionate Shepherd otherwise than in truth I meant, touching the subject thereof, to wit, the love of a shepherd to a boy.” Yet while protesting that the subject of his book wasn’t personal or advocating for such love, the preface from which these denials emanated was for Cynthia, with certain Sonnets, and the Legend of Cassandra where his enthusiastic dedication to William Stanley, the sixth Earl of Derby, only increased suspicions that Barnfield himself had personally known such love.
BARNFIELD HAS ALWAYS existed in an awkward position in literary criticism concerning the period. In his own era as well as in subsequent ones he developed a reputation as truly talented and exemplary. His works like Cynthia, The Encomian of Lady Pecunia, and The Passionate Pilgrim have been singled out for admiration and praise. Indeed the highest honor that can be given to a poet of this period was bestowed like laurel leaves upon his brow with the misattribution of two of his sonnets to Shakespeare, something that endured well into the twentieth century. Yet the rampant homophobia and conservatism of the official guardians of what is acceptable poetry ensured that Barnfield’s name always had to have an asterisks by it. This stigma has in part been removed in our own day, as literary critics have rediscovered Barnfield, and attempted to rehabilitate his besmirched name, not just in spite of his homosexuality, but in part because of it. But before we can understand why Barnfield has been read as gay, and whether that’s legitimate or not, it’s first necessary to understand how a category like “homosexuality” operated in the early modern period.
It’s impossible that Barnfield would have regarded himself as necessarily “gay,” and certainly not as “homosexual.” It wasn’t until 1886 that the German doctor Richard von Kraft-Ebing introduced the second term as a description of men and women who are attracted to their own gender. It marked a transition in society’s understanding of same-sex desire. Prior to the advent of the term “homosexuality,” gay sex was thought of as something that individuals did, after the introduction of the term it became an intrinsic part of one’s individual identity, a sort of immutable essence that we think of as an orientation. Any casual perusal of the historical record demonstrates that sex between men was common from antiquity onward, but the classification of individuals who had homosexual sex as “gay” is largely a modern convention. It’s unclear whether Barnfield’s homoerotic verse should be taken as evidence that he actually had sex with men, though there were men who obviously did have sex with other men.
But Barnfield would not have thought of himself as having a gay identity in the same way that someone in the modern world might. In short, though homosexuality is universal and has existed as long as people have, how culture interprets it (in both negative and positive ways) is contextual. Foucault charted how attitudes towards sexuality have shifted in his landmark 1976 The History of Sexuality, and this performative aspect of gender identity was explicated by the philosopher Judith Butler in her 1990 Gender Trouble. Queer theorists have argued that gender, as a category distinct from biological sex, is in large part performative and defined by the social constructions of a given culture. When using this theoretical distinction to examine Barnfield’s era we see a society that did not understand homosexuality as a hard-and-definite identity that was to be contrasted with heterosexuality, but rather they identified a variety of prohibited sexual practices that they classified as “sodomy.” The historical irony is that though these practices were technically a crime (and people certainly suffered for them, especially if they lacked the social capital to protect themselves) the literary conventions of the Renaissance (especially their admiration for the classical past) condoned a fairly liberal expression of male same sex desire as long as it was subtly couched in the language of the Greek and Roman past.
FOR TEACHERS OF Renaissance literature who wish to focus on gender in the period Barnfield is perhaps the most literal example of homosexual desire, but he is not the only one. Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 masterpiece Edward II depicts the unsubtle erotic love between the medieval king and his male love Gaveston. Though the play concludes with Edward’s execution by being sodomized to death with a red hot poker, the drama is surprisingly ambivalent about the king’s predilections. Indeed his downfall is not caused by his homosexual desire, but rather by misplaced trust in his counsellors (including the queen). As he wrote in that play “The mightiest kings have had their minions” for even “Great Alexander loved Hepahestion.” Marlowe himself has been identified as homosexual, with his roommate the fellow playwright Thomas Kyd sometimes assumed to be his lover. Indeed the notorious Baines letter which accused Marlowe of atheism among other capital offenses also claimed that the playwright had uttered, “All they that love not tobacco and boies [boys] are fools,” though it’s worth pointing out that the variable orthography of the period leaves the second noun open to a possible interpretation of actually being the word “booze.” Indeed Shakespeare’s sonnets have been noted for their potential homosexual themes, with the narrator extolling the beauty of the fair youth to whom a substantial bulk of that sequence is dedicated. That famous sonnet cycle has a number of unnamed characters, including a so-called “rival poet,” who because of the implied homoerotic content in Shakespeare’s poetry is sometimes identified as Barnfield.
If homoerotic content was not an uncommon convention in the literature of the period, then why has Barnfield been signaled out for particular censure, especially if so-many scholars agreed to the artistic quality of his work? In Edward II the monarch’s erotic attractions are veiled through the distance of history, in Shakespeare there may be indication of same-sex attraction, but there is never any sex between men and the language of desire is muted and subtle (all the better to engage plausible deniability). Indeed the nature of the poetic persona allows the narrator of Shakespeare’s sonnets to not be autobiographical at all, simply a character created by the author. Yet in Barnfield’s sonnet sequence we have something new in English literature, and that is an unabashed and full-throated expression of male homosexual desire written in an unequivocal first person. Though Barnfield (unsuccessfully) defended his poems against the accusation of them promoting sodomy, the verse itself is seemingly a proud (if at times heartbreaking) expression of the love between men in the seventeenth-century.
Critics have historically been so flummoxed and disturbed by Barnfield’s corpus that they’ve gone to great lengths to explain away the homosexual content of his work before finally deciding to simply ignore it all together. Though Marlowe was a life-long bachelor who lived with another man, and though his writing would seem to indicate some familiarity with same-sex desire, nothing in his work approaches the sheer literalness of Barnfield. And though there are convincing reasons to see Shakespeare’s sonnets as in some sense homoerotic, the bard was himself married. In a similar way, literary historians tried to concoct a sort of domestic respectability for Barnfield that would help explain away the gay eroticism of his sonnets as simply fictional artifice. They point to the records which indicated a “Richard Barnfield” had married a younger woman and retired to the life of a respectable country gentleman in Staffordshire. These records demonstrate that he died contentedly married in 1627, attended by wife and surrounded by bourgeois hearth and home. For scholars of a certain disposition it would go a long way to casting doubt on the aspersions that Barnfield was in some sense a gay man, but unfortunately for them subsequent investigation has revealed that the “Richard Barnfield” mentioned in these accounts was actually the poet’s father. Barnfield himself died seven years before, very much a bachelor.
BARNFIELD’S POETRY HAUNTS, not just because of his talent which has been traditionally ignored, but because he supplies a quiet voice to a community of men denied theirs. Homosexual men of the period lacked a vocabulary to speak of their rights, and were buffeted by the oppressions of church and state. The literature of the time was too toothless to fully express that love, yet Barnfield courageously speaks of his frustrations and sorrows. His posterity was ruined because of it. Take as an example his “Sonnet 8:”
Sometimes I wish that I his pillow were,
So might I steale a kisse, and yet not seene,
So might I gaze upon his sleeping eine,
Although I did it with a panting feare:
But when I well consider how vaine my wish is,
Ah foolish Bees (thinke I) that doe not sucke
His lips for hony; but poore flowers doe plucke
Which have no sweet in them: when his sole kisses,
Are able to revive a dying soule.
Kisse him, but sting him not, for if you doe,
His angry voice your flying will pursue:
But when they heare his tongue, what can controule,
Their back-returne? for then they plaine may see,
How hony-combs from his lips dropping bee.
He writes “Sometimes I wish that I his pillow were, /So might I steal a kiss, and yet not seen, /So might I gaze upon his sleeping eye.” The theme of unrequited love was certainly known to the early modern poet, if not defined by it. One thinks of Petrarch and his Laura, an example reflected in myriad lyric poems. But the male pronoun makes it clear that it is not a Laura for whom Barnfield pines. It continues with “Although I did it with a panting fear;/But when I well consider how vain my wish is.” It’s hard not to read this fear as that of the social sanction which forbids expression of this love to the beloved. It is the poet Thomas Wyatt’s echo of Christ’s “Noli me tangere” but with the added poignancy that consummated love is not just forbidden, but desire as well. Barnfield’s sonnet 16 begins, “Long have I long’d to see my love again, /Still have I wished, but never could obtain it;/Rather than all the world (if I might gain it).” He continues with, “Yet in my soul I see him every day… Sometimes, when I imagine that I see him, /(As love is full of foolish fantasies)/Weening to kiss his lips, as my love’s fees,/I feel but air; nothing but air to be him.”
It’s tempting to read these poems as autobiographical, and of course this tendency should be embraced carefully, especially in the early modern period. Barnfield no longer has the agency to define himself; we must be careful to not pull him from a closet he didn’t necessarily know he was in. And Barnfield himself at least initially connected the homoerotic language to those same classical conventions one sees in Marlowe and Shakespeare. I do not mean to imply that the unrequited love in a Barnfield sonnet is somehow more tragic than that in a Wyatt verse. Yet it’s hard not to feel some of the desperation and secrecy of gay men of Barnfield’s era in these lyrics, which adds a level of pathos that sometimes isn’t as immediate in more canonical works.
THIS IS MOST clearly seen in his poignant and wrenching sonnet which begins “Sighing, and sadly sitting by my love,/He asked the cause of my heart’s sorrowing.” The very first line indicates everything that is fascinating about Barnfield, and the depth of his poetic ability. The line is largely iambic pentameter, but he begins with a trochaic substitution, which propels it forward with a sense of immediate urgency (much as the first line of Shakespeare’s Richard III does a similar thing). In a lesser poet the alliteration could be impotent, but in Barnfield’s hand it reminds us both of the English language’s special gift at alliteration, as well as pushing the line forward with that sense of sweaty-palmed nervousness. This tension is heightened because the poem indicates that the narrator is by his love’s side, and that this man is unaware of the speaker’s feelings for him. That it is the unconsummated love between the narrator and the beloved which is the origin of this melancholy is confirmed starting in live five when Barnfield writes, “Compelled (quoth I), to thee will I confess, /Love is the cause, and only love it is/That doth deprive me of my heavenly bliss. /Love is the pain that doth my heart oppress.” When the poem opens we only know that the narrator is in sorrow and that he is by the side of his beloved. If we are to understand the narrator as equivalent to author than we also know that both individuals are men. And while we may suspect that the cause of Barnfield’s sadness is love, this isn’t confirmed until the beginning of line five. The unprecedented brilliance of the poem is in the ninth line, which reads “And what is she (quoth he) whom thou dost love?” It is not irrelevant whether we interpret the narrator as literally being Barnfield or not, it is now impossible to read this poem as being written under a feminine persona, this is a male narrator who is writing about his unstated love for another man. Something about the friend’s gentle confusion is almost unspeakably sad.
Barnfield, or his narrator, or both, answers the interrogative with, “Look in this glass (quoth I), there shalt thou see/The perfect form of my felicity./When, thinking that it would strange magic prove,/He opened it, and taking off the cover,/He straight perceived himself to be my lover.” The possibility of a romantic or sexual relationship between these two friends is so inconceivable to the beloved that he initially finds the possibility that this is a magic mirror which will reveal some woman’s face more likely than this being an awkward fumble of the narrator trying to confess his own love for his friend.
But an ambiguity at the end does allow for the possibility of a sort of magic, if perhaps a wishful romantic alchemy. When the friend peers into the mirror, “He straight perceived himself to be my lover.” The last word is ambiguous, “beloved” would be more technically appropriate, even if it would alter the correct meter of the line. But if the friend perceives himself to be the narrator’s “lover,” does that imply that the mirror has somehow bewitched him? In the sixteenth-century the word “lover” was sometimes used to be connote intense friendship (as with David and Jonathan in translations of the Bible from that time), but the melancholic love-sickness seems to preclude that possible meaning here. In terms of meter and rhyme scheme it is written in the exact structural conventions of a Petrarchan sonnet, which as a genre takes unrequited romantic love as its major theme, as such the poem seems undeniably to be about homosexual romance. The concluding line of the sonnet allows for the possibility that the friend could still be transformed into a lover.
The emancipatory potential of Barnfield’s verse is that the possibility of consummated same-sex love is implied, the poignancy is that it requires the almost supernatural to be made possible. Without further historical evidence it’s impossible to know if like Edward with his Gaveston, Barnfield himself had romantic companionship, or if these thoughts were all theoretical. But if we’re to celebrate Shakespeare for turning the conventions of Petrarchism on its head when he celebrated the Dark Lady as opposed to the standard fair woman of lyrical convention, than Barnfield equally deserves to be celebrated for the still-more radical attempt to write love poetry to a man, as a man.
*This essay was originally published at the Fortnightly Review
Ed Simon is a PhD candidate in English at Lehigh University where he studies trans-Atlantic early modern literature and religion. He is a frequent contributor at a number of different sites, and can be followed at edsimon.org and on Twitter @WithEdSimon.