When I was a child, I liked reading poetry, even when it was mostly a mystery to me. Poetry seemed a magical language that could express what ordinary language could not, and I was glad that there were things--love, loneliness, night, the seasons--that held secrets so deep that only poetry could express them. Poetry's mystery was part of its spell; reading it was a soothing yet exciting adventure of gradual discovery.
Nothing challenged my sense of poetry’s magic until a high school English teacher, in discussing a poem by Cummings, said that poetry could only be understood through detailed analysis. Usually timid, I raised my hand to say that I'd understood the poem, without analyzing anything. When she insisted, I insisted back: what was that feeling of understanding, if it was not understanding! It got worse in college, where analytical methods were so relentlessly enforced that many who had previously liked poetry gave it up altogether.
Over the years, the more
I read and wrote poetry, the more I thought about what and how and why
poetry communicates--and what these things have to do with the mysteriously
productive mental buoyancy that accompanies writing and reading it. Finally,
I came upon Poetic Diction,1
Owen Barfield’s brilliant
book on the subject, and was soon one of those readers for whom it is "not
only as a secret book, but nearly a sacred one," as Howard Nemerov puts
it in the book's introduction. Here, I can only offer the barest glimpse
of Barfield’s vision.
Adopting Coleridge’s definition of poetry--"the best words in the best order"--Barfield starts with his own experience of reading it. He first notes that the meaning conveyed by "poetic diction" engenders "a felt change of consciousness," a state of mind in which ordinary consciousness is shed "like an old garment," allowing the reader to see "in a new and strange light." This stir of aesthetic imagination is kindled, he says, by the passage from one plane of consciousness to another. Such a state of mind is a sign of a more lasting effect: an expansion of consciousness that he designates "wisdom." In the course of the book,
Barfield on the evolution of inspiration:
Barfield shows what these two effects have to do with poetry's role in the evolution of consciousness--his term for the ongoing, epochs-long transformation of the way human beings experience the world.
According to Barfield, Shelley's statement that every language in its infancy is poetry points to a time of a primitive, instinctive, dream-like consciousness, in which thinking, and the language that reflected it, were what we would now call "poetic." At that time, not only did human beings feel themselves to be a part of nature, but modern distinctions between subject and object, spirit and matter did not yet exist. In pre-logical Greece, for example, what we mean today by the three words breath, wind and spirit was expressed by a single word which meant all three things at once. As poetic consciousness decreased, the capacity for rational thinking increased, bringing with it greater self-consciousness and individual freedom--and eventually objective, scientific thinking and the whole modern technological world. Increasingly, it became possible to think that only the physical world was real, an idea which, in turn, led to uncertainty, alienation, loss of faith, materialism. A literal-minded world could also conclude that only rational thinking brought knowledge--an attitude that fostered a pseudoscientific approach to many subjects, including poetry. My high school teacher's ideas reflected the era. For the "wisdom" poetry imparts depends on an imaginative effort that purely analytical approaches would have us skip altogether.
Because the meanings of words change to reflect our changing thinking, the history of language reflects the evolution of consciousness.2 Barfield shows how, through the ages, the rational principle has contracted and divided meaning: splitting up, for instance, the above-mentioned word for wind-breath-spirit into three separate words with much narrower meanings. The poetic principle, on the other hand, works to expand meaning--as when an old word is used metaphorically to convey a new thought. When Coleridge extended the meaning of the painter's term point of view to its current usage, he gave a name to a dawning inner experience. Though countless words have achieved new meaning through this kind of poetic expansion, the overall progress in language, as in thinking, has been from poetic to prosaic.
Today it is up to individual poets--in an inspired, un-self conscious state that echoes an earlier consciousness--to intuit truths that were once alive in language and in people's normal experience of the world. The poem composed during such a "mood of creation" inspires a "mood of appreciation" in the receptive reader--and the delight that ends in enlightenment. Barfield emphasizes that poet and reader, however inspired, both depend on the rational principle: the ancients who lived their poetry could not judge or enjoy its truth and beauty as we do. Yet, however much we need the rational to measure, test, objectify, elucidate, and prove, only the poetic can expand consciousness.
The function of the poet, said Wallace Stevens, is to make his imagination "the light in the minds of others." Barfield goes further, suggesting that by illuminating the knowable and bringing it further into awareness, the light of poetry can begin to lead to conscious spiritual knowledge. In later works,3 he is more specific. The thinking that poetry requires is, he says, a path to a new stage of consciousness, one that would add the inspired consciousness of long ago to today's ordinary consciousness. We would then have the "double vision" that William Blake advocated, a vision, at once rational and imaginative, allowing simultaneous awareness of the physical and spiritual worlds we live in.
Barfield's prose seems, in fact, to anticipate the new stage to which he thought poetry should evolve, one which would cultivate in its readers Blakean "double vision." While his writing is a marvel of logic, it also has the poetic magic it speaks of. Like poetry, it brings a "felt change of a conscicousness" and an understanding of things that at first seem beyond one. Yet spiritual mysteries are clarified with scientific exactitude, and the lasting "wisdom" gained by the reader has a logical, as well as an imaginative, strength.
Literal thinking, according to Barfield, woke us from the poetic spell of our collective childhood; to come of age, we have to wake from the spell of the literal without losing the free, self-conscious objectivity we have gained. Barfield's work helps us begin to awaken.
Diction: A Study in Meaning, Wesleyan University Press, first printed
2 Barfield devoted his first book History in English Words to this subject.
3 See, for instance, "Dream, Myth and Philosophical Double Vision" and "Imagination and Inspiration" in The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays, Wesleyan University Press, 1977.