Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Barnfield, Richard
BARNFIELD, RICHARD (1574–1627), poet, was the son of Richard Barnfield, gentleman, and Maria Skrimsher, his wife. He was their eldest child, and was born at Norbury, Shropshire, where he was baptised on 13 June 1574. His mother died in childbirth when he was six years old, and he was brought up under the care of his aunt, Elizabeth Skrimsher. He entered Brasenose College, Oxford, on 27 Nov. 1589, and took his B.A. degree on 5 Feb. 1592. At Oxford he was apparently rusticated for a time. According to an old register of Brasenose College, Barnfield was permitted on 19 March 1591 to return to college on condition of delivering a declamation publicly in the hall within six weeks, or of paying in default 6s. 8d. He formed an intimate friendship with Thomas Watson, the poet, and later on with Drayton and Francis Meres, who quotes a distich by ‘my friend master Richard Barnefield’ in praise of James VI of Scotland, in his ‘Palladis Tamia,’ 1598 (p. 629). In November 1594 Barnfield published his first volume, ‘The Affectionate Shepherd,’ a series of gracefully written variations on the second eclogue of Virgil. This book was dedicated to the famous Penelope, Lady Rich [q. v.] In January of the ensuing year, he published another volume, ‘Cynthia, with certain Sonnets, and the Legend of Cassandra.’ This was followed, in 1598, by a third volume, consisting of four thin pamphlets in verse, bound together, ‘The Encomion of Lady Pecunia,’ ‘The Complaint of Poetry,’ ‘Conscience and Covetousness,’ and ‘Poems in divers Humours.’ In the last of these are found the pieces (the sonnet ‘If music and sweet poetry agree,’ and the ode ‘As it fell upon a day’) which appeared in the ‘Passionate Pilgrim’ in 1599, and were long attributed to Shakespeare. A copy of an edition of this volume, without a title-page, in Malone's collection at the Bodleian library, contains some additional verses. After this publication Barnfield disappears from sight. He seems to have settled down as a country gentleman; his mansion was Darlaston, in the parish of Stone, Staffordshire, and we learn from his will, dated 26 Feb. 1626–7, and from the inventory of his goods, that he was in affluent circumstances. He was buried in the church of St. Michael's, Stone, on 6 March 1627, at the age of fifty-three.
The writings of Barnfield have always been excessively rare. Of his three books, and of the second edition of the third, published in 1605, only five original copies in all are known to exist. All his best early pieces, and especially his sonnets, are dedicated to a sentiment of friendship so exaggerated as to remove them beyond wholesome sympathy. Even in the Elizabethan age, when great warmth and candour were permitted, the tone of these sonnets was felt to be unguarded. It is only of late that something like justice has been done to the great poetical qualities of Barnfield, to his melody, picturesqueness, and limpid sweetness. That he had some personal relations with Shakespeare seems almost certain, and the disputed authorship of the particular pieces mentioned above has attracted students to Barnfield's name. It is no small honour to have written poems which every one, until our own day, has been content to suppose were Shakespeare's. A curious manuscript in cipher in the Bodleian Library (MS. Ashmol. 1152, xii.) dated 1605, contains Barnfield's ‘Lady Pecunia,’ ‘Conscience and Covetousness,’ ‘Complaint of Poetry,’ and a ‘Remembrance of some English Poets, viz. Spenser, Daniel, Drayton, and Shakspeare.’[Warton was the first critic to draw attention to Barnfield's merits. The ‘Lady Pecunia’ volume was reprinted in 1816, part of the ‘Cynthia’ volume in 1841, and the ‘Affectionate Shepherd’ in 1842. The complete poems were first edited in 1876, by Dr. Grosart, for the Roxburgh Club, with a memoir, in which the facts of the poet's life were first made public. In 1882 they were again reprinted by Mr. Edward Arber. A common-place book which is attributed to Barnfield was found among the Isham MSS., and is reproduced in the edition of 1876. See Bliss's annotated copy of Wood's Athenæ (i. 684), in the Bodleian Library.]