Just a Note on Owen Barfield, “Poetic Diction”

Owen Barfield was a great friend of C.S. Lewis’s, a member of the Inklings who played an important role in bringing the atheist Lewis to belief, and as I recall Lewis praised this book in particular, so I thought I should read it.  The bad news, dear reader, is that I got little out of it, but the good news is that I think its value in understanding Lewis would have to be in appreciating his literary craftsmanship rather than his Christianity.

The book is dedicated to Lewis (“Opposition is true friendship”) and, interestingly, the dedication in the first edition used Lewis’s literary pseudonym, as Barfield notes (38, referring movingly to “nearly half a lifetime’s priceless friendship”).

The first edition was published in 1928 with a preface dated 1927; the second edition was published in 1952 with a preface dated 1951; and the 1973 edition that I read had an afterword dated 1972.  That’s a 45-year span during which quite a lot happened!  So you have someone who, at one point, has recently read Oswald Spengler (12) and then later has recently read Harold Bloom (217).

Just a few notes:

  • There are lots of foreign-language passages (in Latin, Greek, German, French, and Italian) that are not translated, showing that not so long ago it was just assumed, at least for some British publications, that anyone likely to buy and read a book would be classically educated and multilingual (see also 108 n.1).
  • It’s astonishing that Barfield could, in pre-database days, write a whole chapter (seven) on ways that the word “ruin” has been used by a broad array of poets.
  • He has a very funny and self-deprecating characterization of himself as “highly original” (219) when discussing his discovery that one of the book’s points was made by someone else “early in the eighteenth century.”
  • It had struck me some time ago that everyone believes the best movies were made in one’s late adolescence, simply because a movie seen at that age is more powerful and thus comes to define what a great movie is, so I was gratified to see George Santayana quoted to similar (broader) effect (54).
  • On the penultimate page (224), the author discusses a number of physicists (Heisenberg, Bohm, Kepler, Newton).