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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XII. The Elizabethan Sonnet

§ 13. Richard Barnfield

The most accomplished of Drayton’s disciples was Richard Barnfield, who dubs Drayton, “Rowland my professed friend.” His endeavours are noteworthy because they aim at a variation of the ordinary sonneteering motive. The series of twenty sonnets which Barnfield, in 1595, appended to his Cynthia, a panegyric on queen Elizabeth, are in a vein which differentiates them from those of all the poets of the day save Shakespeare’s sonnets. Barnfield’s sonnets profess to be addressed, not to the poet’s mistress, but to a lad Ganymede to whom the poet makes profession of love. But the manner in which Barnfield develops his theme does not remove his work very far from the imitative products of his fellow sonneteers. As he himself confessed, his sonnets for the most part adapt Vergil’s second Eclogue, in which the shepherd Corydon declares his affection for the shepherd boy, Alexis. Barnfield had true power of fervid expression, which removes him from the ranks of the poetasters. But his habit of mind was parasitic. He loved to play with classical conceits. His sonnets, despite divergences from the beaten path in theme, pay tribute in style and construction to the imitative convention.

The collections of sonnets by Barnabe Barnes, and by Giles Fletcher, by William Percy, William Smith, Bartholomew Griffin and Robert Tofte merit briefer notice. They reflect, with fewer compensations than their better known contemporaries, the tendencies to servility. All but Fletcher were young men courting the muse for the first time, who did not pursue her favours in their adult years. They avowed discipleship to Sidney or to Spenser, to Daniel or to Drayton, and took pleasure in diluting their master’s words with clumsy verbiage drawn from the classics or from contemporary poetry of the continent. Rarely did they show facility or individuality, and, still more rarely, poetic feeling.