One of the lesser known poets of the 16th century, Richard Barnfield was born in 1574 in Staffordshire and has been mostly of interest to literary academics because of his curious relationship with William Shakespeare. Born into a reasonably affluent family for the time, Barnfield is thought by some to be a prime contender for the identity of the rival poet that was mentioned in a number of Shakespearean sonnets.
Although not much is known about his early life, he did attend Oxford and obtained his degree but did not go onto to complete a Masters which was the general trend at the time. Instead, he headed to London and become friends with some of the leading literary figures of the day including Drayton and Spenser. It was thought that he was sufficiently wealthy enough to live the life of a writer without enduring the struggles of daily existence that many of his contemporaries did.
His first poetical work was published at the age of just 21 and was an overly, and in parts homoerotic, romantic verse under the title of The Affectionate Shepherd. It gained a certain amount of popularity but was in part censured because of the homosexual references something which he addressed with a denial in his second work Cynthia, with certain Sonnets, and the legend of Cassandra.
In this particular collection you can certainly feel the influence of writers such as Shakespeare and there are a number of poems that also used the then popular Spenserian stanza. Having written a preface that apologized for the homoerotic nature in his previous work, critics of the day were quick to point out that many of the poems in Barnfield’s second collection contained just as many references.
Barnfield published his third collection in 1598, The Encomion of Lady Pecunia, but there is some sense that his poetic ability was beginning to wane at this point, even though he was only in his mid-twenties. His relationship to Shakespeare is fueled by the publication in 1599 of a work, The Passionate Pilgrim, which was initially attributed to the great bard.
The book contains some 20 poems and Barnfield claimed that two of the works were penned by himself and this has later been supported by academic studies of the collection. In fact, only five of the poems are generally thought to have been written by Shakespeare.
Although over time Barnfield’s work became less important than his more famous contemporary, the fact that his poetry was mistaken for Shakespeare’s is perhaps some testament to his ability.
Never short of money, Barnfield published his last work in 1605, a reprint of Lady Pecunia with updates, and after that disappeared largely from public view. He is thought to have returned to Staffordshire where he lived out the rest of his life as a country gent. Barnfield died at the age of about 45 in 1620.