Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction

Just read Barfield’s Poetic Diction, originally published in 1928, when he was 30. This Weslyan University Press edition has a 1973 Foreword by Howard Nemerov, as well as an original 1928 Preface, and 1952 Preface and a 1972 Afterword all by Barfield.

I can see why people recommended I look at Barfield after Pirsig, Northrop and Lakoff. One particular angle of my own thesis is strongly re-inforced. Knowledge is about evolutionary psychology (spooky to pick up the Pinker link below at this precise moment). This is evident in etymology and in figures of speech of all kinds. Metaphor one way or another is the main component of this development of knowledge and meaning. Some extracts that resonated …

Evoking Maitland, he says [Quote p29] If law is the point where life and logic meet, perception is the point where life and imagination meet. [Uquote]

Paralleling the Maslow / Pirsig ideas of layers of value, he refers to the idea that vestigial layers have “hygiene” value in supporting higher layers once their own function is fulfilled. [Quote p30] … the historical function of logical method has not been to add to the sum of knowledge. It has been to engender subjectivity – self-consciousness. Once this has been achieved …. there is no more that logic can do …. its surviving function is to prevent relapse. [Unquote]

Evoking Pirsig and Northrop, [Quote p61] The cause of [the disproportionately small historical interest in the connection between language and thought] is to be found in the fact that western philosophy from Aristotle onwards is itself a kind of offspring of logic.[Uquote]

Accepting for a moment that the subject is poetry (or poesis), where good = “pleasing” = aesthetic quality, it is interesting to note the recurring references to dynamism being the key. He uses the electrical dynamo analogy from the outset – no motion no potential output – to back-up the idea that poesis relies on novelty, juxtaposition, creativity, synthesis of new meaning, often by metaphorical means. Interesting to note that even “archaism” – going backwards etymologically, invoking lost words or lost meanings of current words, is equally creative. Right in the final concluding paragraphs, Movement. is the single word sentence that jumps off the page. Poetry, said Coleridge, is the best words in the best order, in other words, best language – ie Highest Quality.

On the active / passive, transitive / intransitive theme. [Quote p55/57] This ability to recognise significant resemblances and analogies, considered as in action, I shall call knowledge; considered as a state … I shall call it wisdom. …. With this expansion (knowledge) may remain something of a peramanent possession (wisdom), my aesthetic pleasure will still …. only accompany the actual moment of expansion [of consciousness] [Unquote]

[Quote p63] One of the first things even an amateur student discovers is that every modern language is apparently nothing but a tissue of petrified metaphors. [Unquote]

[Quote p132] Process is the making of meaning …. There is really no end to the secrets hidden behind single words …. Meaning itself can never be conveyed from one person to another – words are not bottles [See Lakoff’s rant on the conduit metaphor] [A book on the subject of meaning which discounts metaphor as non-scientific] is somehow horribly tragic … indeed the book is a ghastly tissue of empty abstractions. [Unquote]

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