Thursday, August 23, 2007

Obscure Elizabethan Poets

I love Richard Barnfield more than you can possibly know. Author of two books of poetry, The Affectionate Shepherd and Cynthia (available in one nifty volume from Amazon), he is sadly neglected in the shadow of such giants as Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Johnson. He is also, as far as I can tell, the only poet of his time to publish blatantly homoerotic and sometimes even sexually explicit verses. From The Affectionate Shepherd (absolutely not to be confused with Marlowe's The Passionate Shepherd to his Love):

Oh would to God he would but pitty mee,
That love him more than any mortall wight;
Then he and I with love would soone agree,
That now cannot abide his Sutors sight.
O would to God (so I might have my fee)
My lips were honey, and thy mouth a Bee.
Then shouldst thou sucke my sweet and my faire flower
That now is ripe, and full of honey-berries:
Then would I lead the to my pleasant Bower
Fild full of Grapes, of Mulberries, and Cherries;
Then shouldst thou be my Waspe or else my Bee,
I would thy hive, and thou my honey bee.

Barnfield: Subtle As A Frying Pan To The Face.

"Fee" refers to come, one term in an extensive collection of Elizabethan erotic puns (coin, purse, treasure (famously seen in Shakespeare's sonnet 20), spending, the last of which is still in common use). Bees and honey as references to sex with boys are at least as old of the Romans; Catullus calls his boyfriend Iuventius "mellitus", or honeylike. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, writing in the 19th century, uses "my little bee" as a reference to a boyfriend.

Sonnet 11, from Cynthia:
Sighing, and sadly sitting by my Love,
He ask'd the cause of my hears sorrowing,
Conjuring me by heavens eternall King
To tell the cause which me so much did move.
Compell'd: (quoth I) to thee will I confesse,
Love is the cause, and only love it is
That doth deprive me of my heavenly blisse.
Love is the paine that doth my heart oppresse.
And what is she (quoth he) whom thou do'st love?
Looke in this glasse (quoth I) there shalt thou see
The perfect forme of my faelicitie.
When, thinking that it would strange Magique prove,
He open'd it, and taking off the cover,
He straight perceav'd himselfe to be my Lover.

Also, I totally lied. Ganymede is mentioned in Barnfield's sonnets several times- sometimes in the same context as The Affectionate Shepherd and clearly a specific boy, sometimes in a double reference to the myth and a boy simultaneously. In at least one case, "ganymede" is used as a noun for an admired boy: "Two stars there are in one faire firmament, (Of some intitled Ganymedes sweet face)..."

The poetry itself is not the only reason Barnfield is special: his books, with these poems, were published in London in 1594 and 1595 (respectively) without fuss or outrage related to their content. There was some furor over his choice of dedication, the Lady Penelope Ritch, but in the preceding note for Cynthia he says, "...the last Terme there came forth a little toy of mine, intituled, The affectionate Shepheard: In the which, his Country Content found such friendly favor, that it hath incouraged me to publish my second fruites." More research needs to be done to decipher the common attitudes that inspired this peaceful addition to the queer canon.

In unrelated news, Erastes would like me to do reviews of gay historical fiction for his collaborative blog Speak Its Name. I plan to start off with Jamie O'Neill's At Swim, Two Boys. Keep a lookout, and wish me luck!


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