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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Sonnet 16 - Richard Barnfield

Long have I long'd to see my love againe,
Still have I wisht, but never could obtaine it;
Rather than all the world (if I might gaine it)
Would I desire my love's sweet precious gaine.
Yet in my soule I see him everie day,
See him, and see his still sterne countenaunce,
But (ah) what is of long continuance,
Where majestie and beautie beares the sway?
Sometimes, when I imagine that I see him,
(As love is full of foolish fantasies)
Weening to kisse his lips, as my love's fees,
I feele but aire: nothing but aire to bee him.
Thus with Ixion, kisse I clouds in vaine:
Thus with Ixion, feele I endles paine.


A tortured account of separated lovers, Barnfield's Sonnet 16 is most notable for the clarity of its images and its homoeroticism, which was controversial in his day (1574-1627).  The premise of the poem is that two lovers are separated, not by chance, but by the action of the narrator.  We can safely infer that he has lost his love's favor, because more than gaining all the world, the narrator "desire[s] my love's sweet precious gaine."  He has lost the favor and love of his beloved, and is in hell because of it.  He imagines his "sterne countenaunce" (stern countenance) and longs for him.  He has "foolish fantasies" in which he sees his love, and makes as if to kiss his lips, and when he awakes from these flights of fancy, he feels "but aire."

Further contributing to the idea that the narrator is fundamentally responsible for this schism of love is the comparison of himself with Ixion.  Ixion, in Greek mythology, was king of the Lapiths, and a son of Ares.  He is infamous for murdering his father-in-law, and the act defiled his soul, driving him mad.  He is the first to kill his kin in Greek myth, a sort of Cain figure.  Zeus however, pitied him, and invited him to Olympus.  There, Ixion lusted after Hera.  Zeus created a cloud in the shape of Hera, with which Ixion coupled ("Thus with Ixion, kisse I clouds in vaine").  Afterwards, Ixion was expelled, struck with a thunderbolt, and strapped by Hermes to a burning wheel for all eternity ("Thus with Ixion, feele I endles paine").

Barnfield attributes his lover's desertion of him to his own failings and faults, perhaps infidelity or violence, given the comparison to Ixion.  The homoeroticism of the poem is obvious, and seems to cross squarely into a territory of erotic love and lust.  Homoeroticism, or more accurately, homosocial love was common between men in the Renaissance period, but this seems to imply an actual physical relationship, rather than just extolling another man's beauty and virtue, and was common in the homosocial love writings of the day.  Today, it is not scandalous, but a touching account of a lover's pain and self-loathing.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, but not quite right in a number of ways. On a biographical note, Barnfield died in 1620. I enjoyed your understanding of the Ixion myth. The Elizabethan pun on "fees" as "intercourse" supports your reading of the cloud image.I really enjoyed your close reading. But there is nothing in the poem to suggest that the distance between the lover and the beloved is a consequence of some evil action. The "premise" isn't there. The speaker, Daphnis, never lost the favour of his love because he never had it in the first place. Barnfield does not attribute his lover's distance to either infidelity or violence. The gap is caused by the loved boy's
    chastity. You are right about the dangerous homoeroticism of the poem: Daphnis longs to physically touch, but sex for him is all metaphor, a cloud fantasy, as you illuminatingly see.

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