REVIEW

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Review:

Owen Barfield: Poetic Diction

 
©1927; 2d ed. 1951; 3d ed. 1973
– July 21, 2014

First, there is something slightly misleading about the title of this book. Yes, the book is about poetic diction; but, it is far more about poetic language encompassingly. Which is the intent of Barfield: he takes the approach, and walks it well, that general ideas about poetic diction cannot be found by turning first to specific examples. (Though, his use of specific examples is very effective.) Rather, it is best to start broadly and work inward so that general principles can be discovered in those broader fields in which they operate. As such, the first half of this book is primarily an entry into the discourse on the origin of language, with that the nature of language, and with that the nature of poetic – as opposed to scientific – language. In turn, Barfield makes the observation that much of the discourse about poetic language fails in its aims because it is speaking about poetic language scientifically, rather than poetically: a point too many books on poetic language fail to take into account.

Yet, my willingness to force this book on other people – and it is sometimes that I test my own appreciation for a book by how much I do force it into the hands of persons who would benefit from it – is dampened somewhat by this aspect, for I do not believe Barfield himself has successfully extricated the scientific from his history of the development of language. Much of this is forgivable, considering the date of the original printing (1927). Indeed, at that time, it may be arguable that Barfield was with the vanguard of such discussions. However, I find his use of the idea of the "evolution of consciousness" problematic; and, his central definition, that of the aesthetic imagination being a "felt change of consciousness" to have been a touch forced by this scientific taint. (As well, it should be noted, if you are new to the turn of the twentieth century discourse on the development of language, the first half of Poetic Diction could be a difficult read.)

That said, the 'flaw' – if you can call it that – of _Poetic Diction_ can be for the most part excised from the discussion as a whole without much damage to Barfields ultimate aim, the discussion of poetic diction itself. While there are chapters (like "V. Language and Poetry" and "VI. The Poet") whose conclusions I mostly reject, they are really oriented more toward the evolution of language argument, and can almost be skipped wholly (better, read lightly) by the reader interested only in the primary subject of poetic diciton.

And it is undeniable that, whatever the thoughts be on the evolution of language argument, Poetic Diction as a whole and the second half especially is a banquet for thought on poetic language. The very small chapter IX., "Verse and Prose," is on its own worth the price of admission, though it is very much a part of the whole. (If that chapter does not influence your thought on poetry and literature in general you should find another hobby. Bird houses are always popular.) The following chapter on "Archaism" nearly likewise. (The next, "Strangeness," chapter to me speaks again of the presence of that scientific thinking: occasionally I get the feeling, throughout the work, that Barfield veers farther toward's the idea of the aesthetic as a momentary disorientation, not unlike Tolstoy's idea of depersonalization, without realizing it. Or perhaps he does. Though, if he did, I think he would have made mention in the bibliographic Afterward.)

So, my recommendation: a definite addition to the shelf with the following qualifications:

(1) If you are new to the discussions on the origin of language, you might find Poetic Diction a bit difficult. Barfield is writing, if to a small degree, to an audience that is somewhat familiar with that disourse.

(2) In fact, I would not recommend this book at all as an introductory text to the subject. This is an advanced text. (Perhaps better said "mid-level.") Or, if you do read it at an introductory level, expect that re-reading it five or eight years from now you will be astonished by how much you missed or misunderstood.

(3) Knowledge of Coleridge's ideas on the primary and secondary imagination would be helpful, but is not at all necessary. (Barfields second preface goes into it with some explanation.)

(4) Recognize that while the "evolution of consciousness" ideas may be considered dated, Barfield does yet succeed in moving from the general to the more specific subject of poetic diction, and there is much to be taken from this book on that subject, even though only a minority percent of this book is specifically on the subject. But then, this is not meant to be a book offering definitives, nor is it a book of examples: it is meant to be a book offering ideas to ponder. In no small sense, while I may disagree with some of his descriptions of the road he took, I have no issue with the choice of road taken. It offers a greatly thought provoking journey.

(5) In the 1972 Afterward, which is an annotative bibliography of no small value, Barfield speaks of how similar his book is to Cassirer's book, Language and Myth, on its discussion of the origins of language and the nature of poetic and scientific language. Barfield had not read Cassirer at all at the time he wrote Poetic Diction. (Indeed, Language and Myth was not translated into English until a number of years later.) The two books are, indeed, very similar. Though, Cassirer succeeds where to me Barfield fails, in excising that last bit of scientificality from the discourse. I highly recommend Cassirer's book, and it would make a great companion to this book. Though, note, Cassirer's book is far more philosophical in nature and thus a more challenging read. However, very worth the effort.

As a final note, it should be stated that the difference between the editions of Poetic Diction lies primarily in the added prefaces and appendices and not in rewriting the main text. That said, the appendices and the second edition preface are very worth having, so I would buy the later editions.