RICHARD BARNFIELD, English poet, born (d: 1620); There are, as everyone knows, certain inseparable teams: Gilbert & Sullivan, Cheech and Chong, bagels and lox, ham and eggs, Sodom and Gomorrah. In classical mythology, as in ballet, there are Daphnis and Chloë, the Greek shepherd and his lady love – Daphnis and Chloë, as inseparable as yin and yang, gin and tonic, Ron and Nancy.
Not in Richard Barnfield, however. His Affectionate Shepherd (1594) scandalized Renaissance England by describing in florid detail the love of Daphnis and Ganymede, just a couple of guys, foolin’ around. What the fuss was all about is difficult to say since, in the absence of Chloë, Daphnis never exercised his shepherdly option of making it with his favorite sheep, choosing a boy instead. “If it be a sin to love a lovely lad,” wrote Barnfield, “Oh, then sin I.” He was not quite twenty-one when he wrote the poem. His obscure though close relationship with Shakespeare has long made him interesting to students.
Richard Barnfield was born in Staffordshire, England. In his youth, he was deeply influenced by Virgil’s work and the 1591 publication of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, which popularized the sonnet sequence. Best known for his poem “As it fell upon a day,” Barnfield is the only Elizabethan male poet apart from Shakespeare—whom he admired—to address love poems to a man.
Little is known about Barnfield’s life and career, but it is thought that his maternal aunt raised him and his sister after his mother died during childbirth. In 1592 he graduated from Brasenose College, Oxford. At the age of twenty-one he published his first two books, The Affectionate Shepherd (1594) and Cynthia (1595), both addressed to “Ganymede.” Originally published anonymously, The Affectionate Shepherd expands upon Virgil’s second eclogue, and its homoerotic themes made Barnfield’s poems controversial for his time.