Reading habits are changing, as Alberto Mangual observes in The Traveller, the Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor. The World Wide Web takes the reader on a journey of many roads, often at speed...and (I would add) frequently down the same paths with repeat information. One of the problems with the World Wide Web is the ease of reproduction: material is copied and pasted from one site to another such that errors multiply. Like Spencer's wandering Red Cross Knight, the reader finds that killing Error does not stop the spawning. Before attempting to review Barnfield's Cynthia, it is necessary to remove some of the misconceptions about the author and his work in general. Nothing new, I know will be said, but it is best to be on solid ground as regards biography and influences.
Richard Barnfield was baptised on June 13th, 1574, in Norbury, Staffordshire. As with Shakespeare, his date of birth is not known. Little time, however, passed between birth and baptism in the C16. Infant mortality was high, so parents were eager to have their child ready for Heaven. Two days intervened in the case of Elizabeth I. Richard Barnfield would have been born somewhere around June 10th, 1574. Astrologically, this would have made him a Gemini. As a follower of Spenser, who was well aware (as any learned person in Elizabethan England) of hermetical matters, Barnfield was born under the sign of the androgyne and twins. I would not wish to make too much of this fact, but it should be kept in mind as a reader considers Barnfield's concern with twinning and male to male love.
Two dates are given (across the internet) for Barnfield's death, 1620 and 1627. 1620 is correct. As Worrall pointed out in Notes and Queries (1992, pp. 170-1), the 1627 will, taken as evidence of Barnfield's death, was Barnfield's father's will. That same will has been used to create a certain prejudice against Barnfield: he married, had a son, Robert, and his poems, therefore, are little more than a literary pastoral game by a heterosexual poet. Not so. It should be added, as regards this line of prejudice, that even if Barnfield had married it would not have meant that the poetry was automatically some kind of posturing. Heterosexual marriage, then as now, was and is a convention that "gay" men undertake. Interestingly, the prejudice is forgotten when it comes to Shakespeare. He married, had two daughters and one son, yet The Sonnets are readily taken as masterpieces of male to male sexuality.
The Poetry Foundation has this to say about Barnfield: [he] "published Cynthia, modelling his collection—which includes a 20-sonnet sequence—after the poems of Spenser and Shakespeare." The mention of the "20-sonnet sequence" intimates an influence from Shakespeare's sonnets. Across the internet, there are many discussion that connect Barnfield's sonnets with those of Shakespeare. Such is unlikely. Recent discoveries have linked the Dark Lady of The Sonnets to Lucy Negro who was a prostitute-actor, notably mentioned in the 1594 Christmas entertainments. Her reputation spread through the rest of the decade. Prior to this connection, critics attributed sonnets 127-54 to the middle of the 1590s. Now, this seems to be likely. This only suggests a date of composition for these sonnets-- it doesn't suggest an audience date. Certainly, Shakespeare's "sugared-sonnets" were circulating among a literary elite in 1598, as Mere's mentions them. But The Sonnets were largely unknown until 1609. The idea that Barnfield was a diluter of Shakespeare is simply incorrect. If anything, Shakespeare built on Barnfield's work, so the influence works in the opposite direction to what is assumed across the internet. On a simple technical note, Barnfield's sonnets are not Shakespearean sonnets: use a different rhyme scheme and do not show the characteristic octet/sestet split. If Barnfield accessed any Shakespeare beyond the early plays, it would have been Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. The strongest influence on Barnfield is Spenser; and this shows in Cynthia.
Barnfield was 20 years old when he wrote and published Cynthia, which opens with two sections that are drawn together in a third poem, "An Ode". "Cynthia" is a sequence of twenty Spenserian stanzas spoken by Barnfield's pastoral persona, Daphnis. The sonnets, as already said, number twenty and record Daphnis's love for Ganymede. "An Ode" describes how an unmentioned person finds Daphnis broken-hearted for his love of "a lasse" more beautiful than Ganymede. Numbers were often used to carry silent meanings in Renaissance poetry and the double use of twenty represents Barnfield, aged 20, split, like a halved androgyne, between two different visions. But before those visions are looked at, it is useful to set a context for the volume by discussing the framing of the poetry.
Cynthia opens with an address to the reader. The author is Barnfield. He begins by acknowledging The Affectionate Shepherd (1594) as his work, disowns "two Books" that have been wrongly attributed, and then refers to licentious interpretations of his work. It has been said that Barnfield apologises for his "interested representation of homoerotic desire" (Norton, Rictor, "Pastoral Homoeroticism, p.6). In truth, Barnfield simply disassociates himself from the wrong readings (not stated overtly) and evokes classical precedent as his defence: Virgil's Eclogue II. At the close of his address. Barnfield makes it clear that the model for “Cynthia” is Spenser and his returning to Spenser is worth some careful thought.
As a student of Spenserian pastoral, Barnfield would have known the controversy surrounding E.K.'s gloss on the homoerotic element of the "January" eclogue in The Shepherd's Calendar (1579). Colin explains that he does not love Hobbinol, though Hobbinol loves him, and he is devoted to Rosalind. A mere two lines of unsensual verse
It is not Hobinol, wherefore I plaine.
Albee my loue he seeke with daily suit
(Ianvarie, ll 55-56)
caused E.K to hear pederasty and defend Spenser, mainly via Plato. Rictor Norton repeatedly points out (in articles across the net and in print) that Webbe heard a similar note in the "June" eclogue and this caused him to sneer, in A Discourse of English Poetrie (1586), at Spenser's familiarity with Italian sodomy. If this were true, Spenser would be a dangerous model for Barnfield to use. In fact, in his Discourse, Webbe repeats that others have said that Spenser used "unsavoury love" in "June" and was aware of Italian sodomy, but all he hears in the eclogue is old friendship sacrificed to heterosexual love, as often happens to young men. By making “Cynthia” into "the first imitation of the verse of that excellent Poet Maister Spenser", Barnfield is consciously making a connection with the homoerotic element in English pastoral. And it is English pastoral, nor Virgilian Latin/Roman/Italian pastoral because Cynthia continues the imperial theme of Elizabethan England. There is no accident in how Spenser selects Spenser’s dangerous “April” eclogue as a major source. In this eclogue Hobbinol refers openly to his love for Colin, "on him was all my care and ioye" (l.23) and then sings, in Colin's absence, one of Colin's harmonius "lays". Hobbinol, the beloved, recreates his love with a song of "Eliza, Queene of Shepherdes all" ("April", l.34). Spenser sets Hobbinol’s nature inspired love of Colin as the context for a divine vision of Elizabeth I’s reign. This connection is revived in Cynthia. The first poem, “Cynthia” uses the Spenserian Stanza to overtly link Barnfield’s work with the political vision of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590), Books 1-3. The twenty sonnets show, as Spenser did with Colin and Hobbinol, the natural love connected to that political vision. Golden Age pastoral is used by Barnfield to connect the love of men to natural order, not unnatural lust.