Monday, April 30, 2018

Sonnet 17 - Richard Barnfield

Cherry-lipt Adonis in his snowie shape,
     Might not compare with his pure ivorie white,
     On whose faire front a poet's pen may write,
Whose roseare red excels the crimson grape,
His love-enticing delicate soft limb,
     Are rarely fram'd t'intrap poore gazine eies:
     His cheeks, the lillie and carnation dies,
With lovely tincture which Apollo's dims.
His lips ripe strawberries in nectar wet,
     His mouth a Hive, his tongue a hony-combe,
     Where Muses (like bees) make their mansion.
His teeth pure pearle in blushing correll set.
     Oh how can such a body sinne-procuring,
     Be slow to love, and quicke to hate, enduring?

Richard Barnfield, whose sonnets I have looked at before, is an Elizabethan poet whose work is most notable for its overt homoerotic themes.  He is the only poet, apart from Shakespeare, to address love sonnets to another man, and it's hard not to read them in a sexual, romantic light.  This was controversial for the day, and certainly stands out today when compared with the poems of his contemporaries.

More than the homoeroticism though, Barnfield's sonnets stand up today because of their direct beauty.  They also make great use of Classical myth and characters to relate to the narrator's present situation.  In his Sonnet 16, which I looked at four years ago, the narrator compares himself to Ixion.  Here, the narrator compares the object of his admiration, referred to only by third person pronouns, to Apollo, and shockingly, Apollo comes up short in comparison with this mystery man.  It is worth noting that in Greek mythology, Apollo had many lovers, both male and female.  It makes the comparison to Apollo more apt and grounds the potentially damning (at the time) homosexuality in a learned, Classical tradition, making it safer to express.

While Apollo is "cherry-lipt [lipped]" and is "snowie" in complexion, Barnfield's love object is "pure ivorie white."  The whole poem is a series of comparisons between the features of this lover, and ways in which Nature and even deities (Apollo) fall short of his great beauty.  The comparisons themselves are lush and inventive, and overtly sexual.  One of my favorite lines is, "His love-enticing delicate soft limbs, / Are rarely fram'd t'intrap poore gazine eies."

That line is worth breaking down a bit, due to non-standard spellings and abbreviations that are unfamiliar to the modern eye.  The first line is easy enough.  His delicate, soft limbs, are enticing.  The following line, broken down further, and translated a bit, would read, "are perfectly framed to draw and hold poor gazing eyes."  Taken together, we get a line to the effect of, "His limbs are so delicate and soft, so enticing, that they are uniquely perfectly set to draw in my poor, gazing eyes."  The narrator cannot help but look at his love's perfect shape.  There's almost an element of guilt to it, drawing in his "poore gazine eies." 

I also love the thought of the lover's mouth as a hive to which Muses flock like bees.  It's such perfection that Muses can't help but buzz around him, inspired to write and praise him.  The real turn of the poem comes in the last two lines, however.  "Oh how can such a body sinne-procuring, / Be slow to love, and quicke to hate, enduring?"

Here, procuring means to persuade something.  So, "How can a body, his body, that persuades me so strongly to sin, be slow to love, and quick to hate?"  This last couplet gives us the sense that Barnfield expressed his love, and perhaps was rebuffed.  His love wasn't returned, but his scorn was earned, and the scorn endures, while the love has not started.  I could be reading it incorrectly, but I feel that is the most likely scenario, given the effusive praise earlier in the poem, and the exhortation "Oh" to start the couplet.  It is a frustrated love sonnet, as are so many sonnets.  It sets it apart that the love object is a man, but in all other aspects, it's a wonderful example of a typical Elizabethan love sonnet.

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