Among the London poets of the 1590s, pastoral epithets were established and shared: Spenser as Colin, Drayton as Rowland, and Barnfield as Daphnis. Leo Daugherty has argued convincingly that the Ganymede spoken of by Barnfield/Daphnis was none other than William, Sixth Earl of Derby, who inherited the poetic title on the death of his brother, Ferdinando (William Shakespeare, Richard Barnfield and the Sixth Earl of Derby (p.13). The family’s heraldic crest bears an eagle to connect them to the Ganymede myth. The Derby family were closely connected to hermetical movements in the C16, most noticeably to Dr John Dee, who had been the astrological and political advisor to Elizabeth I. Though Barnfield dedicates Cynthia to William, saying “small is the gift”, he must have been aware of how large was the connection. By linking Cynthia to the Sixth Earl, he connects the book to Ganymede (his love) and hermetic political movements in Elizabethan England—which is where the poetical vision begins.
“Cynthia” is composed around an elaborate conceit that Peele had used in The Arraignment of Paris (1584). At the close of his dramatic masque (performed in front of the Queen), Majestie (Juno/Hera), Love (Venus/Aphrodite), Vertue (Minerva/Athene) refuse the golden ball/orb of power and present the gift to Elizabeth. (In Astraea, pp.63-4, Yates notes Barnfield’s imitation of this theme). This poetic conceit was also visually present in a painting by Eworth (1569) hung at Whitehall Palace.
Using hermetical number symbolism, Stanzas 1-15 of “Cynthia”, form a ladder of ascent (as in The Psalms) that culminate in a vision of the triple-formed Elizabeth, the Spenserian Faerie Queene who possesses Power, Loveliness and Wisdom. Stanza 16 celebrates Elizabeth as the Sun and Stanza 17 as a “peerelesse Prince”. Unlike the visual conceit of Eworth, Barnfield dwells on the androgynous nature of Elizabeth who is both the Idea of physical pulchritude in woman and of mental wisdom in men. Such is an orthodox Spenserian view (Britomart, Belphoebe, and even Una in whom Sylvanus see his youthful male beloved, Cyparissus). “Cynthia” is a vision of political order in the key of chastity. The twenty sonnets that follow are homoerotic, but also in the key of Virgo. This is introduced by the Latin emblem for the whole volume: Quod cupio, nequeo, “What I desire, I cannot have.”
In taking the pseudonym, Daphnis, Barnfield draws upon classical Greek myth. He is the male laurel, Apollo’s tree, a shepherd son of Hermes, who offended Eros and Aphrodite and was consequently cursed with unrequited love. He is the homoerotic poet whose desire cannot be consummated. His Ganymede isn’t the Ganymede of traditional mythologizing, but a beautiful boy, as Sonnet 9 explains, whom was created by Diana and Venus—a contained lover wholly “to chastity inclinde.” The twenty sonnets place homoerotic desire in the context of a world where they cannot be physically realised, yet, as Neo-Platonism claimed, they allow for a poetic birth out of chastity (just as Elizabeth’s reign as Gloriana was born from her chastity).
The “Ode” that follows the two sequences describes the death of Daphnis. He abandons Ganymede for a triple-formed Eliza (Beauty, Majesty and Wisdom). It is a surrender to Elizabethan times, one that requires he give up a fanciful desire for Ganymede (homoeroticism) for what love commands: heterosexuality. His acceptance of that Idea leads to a broken heart. Using the pastoral mirror of The Golden Age, the Daphnis poems, in Cynthia, are an exploration of same sex desire in Elizabethan England.