Owen Barfield’s ‘Poetic Diction’ – Psyche and Soma Unified?

I have lately discovered Owen Barfield’s deeply fascinating book, Poetic Diction. Barfield is perhaps known to most as one of the tangential members of the Inklings, a loose society of writers operating in and around Oxford in the mid-20th century. A lifelong friend of C.S. Lewis, Barfield was a key influence on the former’s coming to faith, and between them they conducted what Lewis called his ‘great war’ – a series of informal (yet highly rigorous) philosophical debates – which came at a deeply formative period of his intellectual life. Consider the fact that these arguments often took place, not in stuffy Oxford rooms, but during a series of walking holidays through an as yet not wholly spoiled English landscape, and concerned not dry, logical formulae but poetry and myth, and you will sense some of their spirit and vigour. The Inklings, it may be said, were none of them mere academics – fusty or pedantic scholars – but persons passionate about beauty, wisdom and truth; all that gives colour and character to life itself.1

Though sadly neglected, Poetic Diction is a book that gives voice to ideas which are essential in the appreciation of all art; almost all of which run contrary to the formative “values” of our modern culture. They are firmly traditional ideas, in all the richness of meaning that René Guénon gives to that word, and so it necessarily follows that they would reverse the trend of inversion and division that defines modernity.

While these ideas fundamentally inform Barfield’s writing, his more personal arguments rest upon other influences – some of them modern. He was committed to the ideas of Anthroposophy, a school of thought owing its origins to Rudolf Steiner,which may be described as a typically modern attempt to recover traditional truths by philosophical, scientific and occult means.2 These ideas of Barfield’s (and Steiner’s), however, are tangential to the main theme and do not undermine the positive content. In fact the central contribution of this book towards awakening moderns from the present sleep of intuition, is its claim that all the great works of poetry and myth are true, and that their symbolism has eternal validity. When we encounter, for example, a metaphor that moves us, it is so because it testifies to a real connection that will enhance our understanding of life.

That is the best sense in which poetry can be considered “good” or “bad” – if it is truthful. And in a way all knowledge, as expressed in words and metaphor, is poetry – even science, which, in modern times, refuses to acknowledge itself as such. Yet this acknowledgement was no great stumbling-block for great thinkers of the past: Goethe, or Bacon, for instance. Thus Barfield, when asking the question: ‘what is true metaphor?’ turns to a passage from Bacon’s Advancement of Learning:

‘Neither are these [metaphors] only similitudes, as men of narrow observation may conceive them to be, but the same footsteps of nature, treading or printing upon several subjects or matters.’

‘This is the answer’ Barfield continues: ‘[i]t is these ‘footsteps of nature’ whose noise we hear alike in primitive language and in the finest metaphors of poets. Men do not invent those mysterious relations between separate external objects, and between objects and feelings or ideas, which it is the function of poetry to reveal. These relations exist independently, not indeed of Thought, but of any individual thinker.’3

He goes on:

‘And according to whether the footsteps [‘of nature’] are echoed in primitive language or, later on, in the made metaphors of poets, we hear them after a different fashion and for different reasons. The language of primitive men reports them as direct perceptual experience. The speaker has observed a unity, and is not therefore himself conscious of relation. But we, in the development of consciousness, have lost the power to see this one as one. Our sophistication, like Odin’s, has cost us an eye; and now it is the language of poets, in so far as they create true metaphors, which must restore this unity conceptually, after it has been lost from perception. Thus, the ‘before unapprehended’ relationships of which Shelley spoke, are in a sense ‘forgotten’ relationships. For though they were never yet apprehended, they were at one time seen. And imagination can see them again.’4

In my view, this ‘apprehension’ is a function of our mental powers – our psyche. Barfield makes the distinction between ‘concept’ and ‘percept’ – a distinction I would associate with logic and intuition, respectively. The more perceptual (and thus intuitive) an idea, the less it is capable of being articulated logically, until it eventually transcends all language. On the other end, ideas that can be comprehended and expressed in conceptual (and thus logical) terms result, at the extreme limits of our knowledge, in mathematics, and pure Quantity.

Since that dreaded word has come up, it is hard to resist bringing into this discussion Guénon’s notion of the slide from Quality towards Quantity that characterises modernity; a notion that goes a long way to explaining the history of language as presented by Barfield. The latter talks about this as a development away from ‘concrete’ terms and meanings towards ‘abstract’ ones. When pressed to define these terms themselves (‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’), he comes up against the limits of definitions:

‘Indeed, it is fairly correct to say that the meaning of a word is abstract, just in so far as it is definable. The definition of a word, which we find in a Dictionary – inasmuch as it is not conveyed by synonym and metaphor, or illustrated by quotation – is its most abstract meaning… Thus, in thinking of gold, if we can at any point in our thought substitute ‘a precious, yellow, non-rusting, malleable, ductile metal of high specific gravity’, then our thought of gold is relatively abstract.’

He goes on to this crucial point:

‘A purely abstract term – which, with the possible exception of numbers, can nowhere exist – is a mark representing, not a thing or being, but the fact that identical sensations have been experienced on two or more occasions. It is in fact a classification of sense-perceptions. Purely abstract thinking, carried to its logical conclusions, is thus – counting’ (my use of bold).

I do not think I go too far in suggesting that Barfield, though he uses different terms, is here straining towards similar (if not the same) premises to those of Guénon. Barfield, however, very much stresses the sensible side of the ‘concrete’, thus relating it closely to somatic experience. This is, to my mind, quite different to Guénon’s take on Quality, which often comes across as downplaying, or subordinating the soma (body) to the higher realm of ‘spirit’.5 Indeed, Barfield sees in all language “roots” that have a physical, embodied referent, which, “in the beginning” by no means excluded, but rather unified what we now distinguish as physical, psychological and spiritual experiences. Some of this unity survives in English, he says in ‘our seemingly arbitrary, and now purely verbal allotment of emotion to divers parts of the body, such as the liver, the bowels, the heart, where, in our own day, an old single meaning survives as two separate references of the same word – a physical and a psychic.’ Yet ‘it is incomprehensible to most of us today that anyone should literally feel his ‘bowels moved’ by compassion.’6 These were once unified experiences; but the nature of language is such that even our abstract terms rely on very physical, sensible roots:

‘Thus, an apparently objective scientific term like elasticity, on the one hand, and the metaphysical abstract, on the other, are both traceable to verbs meaning ‘draw’ or ‘drag’. Centrifugal and centripetal are composed of a noun meaning ‘a goad’ and verbs signifying ‘to flee’ and ‘to seek’ respectively; epithet, theme, thesis, anathema, hypothesis, etc., go back to a Greek verb ‘to put’, and even right and wrong, it seems, once had the meanings of ‘stretched’ and so ‘straight’ and ‘wringing’ or ‘sour’.’7 8

This move away from the unity of experience would at least partially account for the decline of the sciences (which in our present age are only a reductive force). Barfield, however, has (like Steiner) a positive appreciation of modern science, seeing in this increased polarisation between logical reasoning and poetic intuition an evolution of consciousness. Rather than seeking to reunify the psyche, he seems to advocate a technical mastery of it in its present state; suggesting that the artistic powers of the poet should grow to the point at which he can rapidly switch between an analytical mode and an intuitive one – a kind of mental ping-pong which, it is supposed, will give birth to great art.9 Yet just as rapidly oscillating objects might have the appearance of being one solid, coherent mass, this idea of the development of the psyche (as being advantageous) is something of an illusion.

Out of this weakness in Barfield’s view grows his understanding of “aesthetic” experience. The pleasure it affords to the modern intellect is, truth be told, some consolation in light of its own internal divisions. After all, aesthetic appreciation is only possible if the psyche is polarised in the way that has been explained – for, as Barfield points out, persons of a culture in which all language is poetic do not perceive the “aesthetic value” of their language, or indeed their experiences. Aesthetic appreciation thus comes from a degree of mental detachment from lived experience, for, when we try to observe our own experiences, we have surely ceased to be experiencing anything directly but our own thoughts. However well intentioned the attempt, it remains impossible to reconcile these two states by human means, hence Barfield’s compromised “unity” comprised of infinite, rapid ‘oscillations’ between the two.

We have seen, in Barfield’s arguments of the decline of meaning in language over time, the notion that those truthful images and symbols that remain with us are in fact remnants of an ancient, more unified wisdom and knowledge of the world. It is clear that the psyche is polarised, and that in modern times poetry (and therefore intuition) is regarded as inimical to reason (and therefore truth, in the modern conception);10 but the point to argue is whether this polarisation itself is simply a modern phenomenon or a long-standing result of man’s fallen nature. I would argue the latter, against the notion, of thinkers like Guénon and Steiner, that there were periods of human history in which the psyche was whole. This is not to say that in modern times human thought has not suffered a diminishment, but that the faculty of psyche is not itself greatly altered. I think there is a clear drift towards the quantitative (in Guénonian terms) side, exemplified by the claims of modern materialism, and that this has happened at the expense of Quality. As expressed elsewhere, however, this view need not presuppose Guénon’s world-view in its entirety.

Nor does the problem concern the psyche alone. Far from it: this obsessive preoccupation with intellect (and “reason”) amounts to what we might call Psychism – a tendency which is ubiquitous in this present age. This is by no means incompatible with materialism, which only attempts to reduce all somatic, sensible experience to quantities; intelligible units. It is in poetry that real unity is capable, at least of finding expression, between psyche and soma. It is through poetry, too, that we can analogise things pertaining to the spiritual realm. The right poetry, then, is a helpful guide to a generation who have been misled and perverted by the tendencies of our modern era. It really can lead us to truth.

1 The book is dedicated to Lewis with the quotation: ‘Opposition is true friendship’.

2 There is a certain irony in an entirely new system of thought laying claim to traditional knowledge. I believe the only authentic source of tradition is the Orthodox Church, for it is the only living, true tradition of any kind.

3 Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (Faber 1962), pp.86-7

4 Barfield, pp.86-7

5 The soma, and “matter” in general, is for Guénon only a manifestation of Quality, and as such is always illusory to a greater or lesser extent.

6 Barfield, p.80

7 Ibid, p.64

8 Fans of C.S. Lewis may think of his character Ransom’s experiences on other planets, attempting to convey our understanding of moral “badness” and evil to their unfallen inhabitants, eventually settling on the expression “bent men” as the most tangible and thus intelligible.

9 Barfield, p.110


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