Read Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning by Owen Barfield Howard Nemerov Online


Poetic Diction, first published in 1928, begins by asking why we call a given grouping of words "poetry" and why these arouse "aesthetic imagination" and produce pleasure in a receptive reader. Returning always to this personal experience of poetry, Owen Barfield at the same time seeks objective standards of criticism and a theory of poetic diction in broader philosophicalPoetic Diction, first published in 1928, begins by asking why we call a given grouping of words "poetry" and why these arouse "aesthetic imagination" and produce pleasure in a receptive reader. Returning always to this personal experience of poetry, Owen Barfield at the same time seeks objective standards of criticism and a theory of poetic diction in broader philosophical considerations on the relation of world and thought. His profound musings explore concerns fundamental to the understanding and appreciation of poetry, including the nature of metaphor, poetic effect, the difference between verse and prose, and the essence of meaning.Forward by Howard Nemerov....

Title : Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning
Author :
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ISBN : 9780819560261
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 238 Pages
Status : Available For Download
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Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning Reviews

  • John Pillar
    2019-04-22 03:07

    This was definitely new territory for me. I came away from reading it with a greater appreciation for the role of the poet in expanding language and meaning. I'll leave it to other reviewers who may be better versed in literature and philosophy to comment on the technical details of the book. One thing I found interesting was that while extolling the virtue of the poetic, Barfield did not denigrate the need for the prosaic.

  • Tommy Grooms
    2019-05-01 04:14

    A difficult book, written for those of a classical education that as a practical matter doesn't exist anymore. It made me wish I had the means (or, more honestly, the patience) to learn and appreciate languages that function differently than my own. I found it necessary to stop midway through and read from the beginning in order to grasp the key concepts, and I hope I'll be forgiven for not tackling the appendices.That difficulty is the only thing keeping this from a five-star review. Otherwise I found the book engaging and thought-provoking in a way that transcended the seemingly straightforward subject matter. "A Study in Meaning" is a very apt subtitle. Owen Barfield will make you think the mystery of life can be perceived through the study and appreciation of language.

  • James Nance
    2019-05-19 22:10

    I know that there is more in this book than I got out of it. Barfield assumes a lot from his readers, not only fluency in poetry and philosophy, but also French, Latin, and Greek. What I mostly derived from it was how poorly educated I really am. Some great insights made it in past my ignorance, however. Thus the four stars.

  • Norman Styers
    2019-04-29 22:56

    Stimulating and suggestive.

  • Kenneth
    2019-05-01 23:58

    A few days ago I finished reading Owen Barfield’s POETIC DICTION (1928). He was a friend of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Not as well known as they, Barfield wrote mainly criticism and philosophical speculations. POETIC DICTION has been consistently reprinted and remains influential. Agreeing with Emerson’s “Nature,” Barfield argues that all language is in essence metaphorical, even scientific prose. He locates the poetic in the metaphorical use of language to create new perceptions of reality. Aesthetic pleasure derives in large part in the reader’s “learning a new perspective on reality” through metaphor. He also praises the use of archaic language and strange diction to do so. In many ways I am drawn to Barfield’s theories. I am not a poet—nor was I meant to be. But in my own prose I have tried to create by fresh metaphors and descriptions an effect similar to what Barfield praises. Of course, I am not doing justice to his book in this paragraph. I haven’t yet had time to react to some of his speculations. If his work has a fault, it might be one leveled at the so-called New Critics—Tate, Warren, and Brooks—that in concentrating on imagery, he neglects other aspects of poetry’s appeal: rhythm, implied dramatic interaction, and narrative structure. At any rate the book is brief, intriguing, but at times a bit obtuse. I recommend it to those of you who are poets or love poetry.

  • Michael Fitzpatrick
    2019-05-07 01:06

    Owen Barfield has truly written a philosophical and literary masterpiece. "Poetic Diction" begins with a phenomenological analysis of poetry, and why it affects us the way it does. But it quickly expands into an exploration of how we know things, and the shape of reality as a whole. Barfield critiques the works of Locke, Kant and Hume, and provides a basis for understanding meaning as a description of our relationship with reality. Poetry becomes a description of this experience, about how our participation with reality changes our consciousness. Well researched and beautifully written. The Second Preface and the Appendices were extremely helpful, and contained some of the mean of the argument. Highly recommended for anyone interested in: poetry criticism, literary criticism, epistemology, metaphysics, or the history of philosophy.

  • Douglas Wilson
    2019-04-20 20:53

    Really fine.

  • Dave Maddock
    2019-04-22 22:03

    This is a difficult book to review. Its arguments are complex, broad in scope and application, and ironically reductive. On the face of it, it is a meditation on a line from Emerson--"Language is fossil poetry" (from "The Poet")--that is taken so far to the extreme that it breaks.Most of what I have to say is criticism of Barfield which might give the impression that I hated the book. In fact, I quite liked it. The ideas have great appeal. The real shame is that he overreaches so far that I can no longer agree with him. In a way it is like empathizing with a grieving father who advocates revenge killing the accused murderer of his child. I understand the emotions, but he's just taken things too far.Well, let me take a step back. Do you remember the theme song to The Facts of Life? Sing it with me:You take the good, you take the bad,You take 'em both and there you have,The Facts of Life.[...]When the world never seemsTo be living up to your dreamsAnd suddenly you're finding outThe Facts of Life are all about you.I feel this song sums up Poetic Diction pretty well, but perhaps this statement requires some explanation...Barfield's big idea is that if "language is fossil poetry," then working our way back into linguistic time, language should get intrinsically more and more poetic until finally we hit the bedrock of language where all human linguistic experience is ultimate poetry. What's more, this ur-poetry is supposedly a "truer" state of understanding of the universe than the cult of modern empiricism offers.The Facts of LifeThe first problem is that these are two distinct claims. Claim #1: older language is more intrinsically poetic. Claim #2: the more poetic language is a more accurate representation of the universe than the modern prosaic language. Barfield gives some evidence of #1 and thinks he's proved #2. This is little more than a textbook example of the kind of chronological snobbery that Barfield accused scientism of. The only way to infer the truth of #2 from #1 is to assume a priori that older is better.The second problem is Barfield's oblique re-statement of William Paley's watchmaker argument from Natural Theology. Anyone who is familiar with the teleological argument against evolution by natural selection can see that Barfield's arguments here are a close cousin in the linguistic domain. Compare Barfield's descriptions of how poetic language degenerates over time to creationists assertions of genetic degeneration.Applying Barfield's logic to the actual fossil record (rather than the linguistic fossil record), we would expect the essence of life (to keep the "essence" tangible, let's call it DNA shall we...) to get more and more potent as you move back in time until we arrive at the earliest organisms that are the quintessence of life. In fact, we know that the truth is entirely the opposite. DNA began simple and evolved non-random adaptations from random mutations over obscene timescales.Whenever Barfield bumps up against such things he falls back on the claim that changes in consciousness drive changes in the perception of evidence. This is an incredibly lazy dismissal of empiricism. He really can't decide if he is a subjectivist or Platonic objectivist. He asserts either whenever it gives him the strongest argument against science. He takes the good, and leaves the badThe bulk of Barfield's evidence comes from two sources: internal reflection and historical linguistics. He rightly discusses poetry in terms of "a felt change in consciousness" that is accessible to us only through internal reflection. However, he does not allow for changes of consciousness that work both ways. If moving from prosaic to metaphoric thinking causes such a change that has value, is not the change caused by moving from metaphoric to prosaic also valuable? Would this not also qualify as poetic in Barfield's own system? He also plays fast and loose with linguistics. His evidence of linguistic change is almost entirely predicated on the evolution of the Indo-European languages which is largely the story of transition from synthetic to isolating languages. But as I understand it, that is by no means the only direction of language change and is by no means a one-way street. He cites Chinese as being further along this path of degeneration from the poetic ideal, but yet this entirely contradicts his thesis. If his view of the interaction of language and consciousness were true, then the Chinese culture should be the epitome of scientism and it is not. His conception of poetry presupposes a strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which is now out of favor.At best, the linguistic evidence is inconclusive--especially considering that anatomically modern humans have existed for ~200,000 years but our linguistic evidence is only about ~6,000 years old. The oldest languages we can point to are unlikely to be truly early languages at all. It occurs to me now that the Biblical creationist chronology begins around 6,000 years ago too. Coincidence?When the world never seems to be living up to your dreams...assert the Facts of Life are all about your internal experience of poetry.

  • Sophie
    2019-05-13 03:15

    There is absolutely more to this book than I have gotten from it on this read, so someday I'm gonna have to read it again. My 90-year-old landlord lent me this book earlier this month, and tonight we kicked a belligerent and drunk homeless man off the porch who had decided to set up camp with his sleeping bag directly across my door. I give this book four stars because I admire the way my landlord snatched the sleeping bag from the guy's hands, slowly plodded it to the curb, and threw it decisively into a puddle. We experienced this together, and for that, I give this book four stars and I will someday read it again.

  • Jeremy
    2019-05-11 04:05

    Assigned for Dr. Ralph Wood's Oxford Christians course at Baylor (2014). Some really great things in here, but not an accessible book. Here's Barfield's assessment of the book, 46 years after its publication: "If the book does anything, it erects a structure of thought on the basis of a felt difference between what it calls 'the Prosaic' and 'the Poetic'. Corollary thereto is a further distinction drawn between two kinds of poetry, or of the Poetic itself, and further the conception that that distinction reveals human consciousness as in process of evolution. And I wonder if the fact that I seemed to have discovered, or rather to be discovering, these thing for myself, mainly by pondering the felt difference to which I have referred, may not have imparted a certain energy that accounts for its having apparently outlasted some other books by men who knew a great deal more both of literature and of the history of ideas" (Afterword, 221).Nemerov's Foreward:2: should poets be contemplative?3: should poets be philosophical?4: shift in understanding "imagination"4-5: Jonson and Ingenium, Exercitatio, Imitatio, and Lectio5: separation of prose and poetry (17c and 18c)6: turning point at French Revolution; Wordsworth opposed poetic diction6-7: revolt and rebellion7-9: Wordsworth and BlakeBarfield's Preface to the Second Edition:15/17: only veridical scientific statements have meaning (what about that statement itself?—see p. 22)17: Locke—no innate ideas (all from senses)18: today philosophy requires a foundation in science23-24: parable of a car26: Coleridge28: importance of imagination29: loafing; thesis31: secondary and primary imagination32: genius (Hume); other genius pp.: 50, 66, 128, 131, 141, 161, 172, 220)32: create34: two functions of poetry; one is to mirror (see p. 36)38: man's myth-making faculty; English poetry is still aliveChapters 1-12:41: definition of "poetic diction"58: Coleridge: poetry is the best language (the best words in the best order)63: language is metaphor74: spiritus (also p. 80)87-88: Odin92: mythology and concrete meaning106: importance of memory107: find meaning inside yourself?109: history of poetic inspiration; two moods111: two kinds of poetry112: "creation" an okay term to use; metaphor uses unknown to arouse cognition of the known (cf. Pieper?)113-14: ruin meant "flow"?115: sleeping beauty metaphor131: change of meaning —> originality136: Wilde137: shift in the meaning of "subjective" in the 17c (see Appendix IV); Bacon applied mechanical principles to natural principles137-38: Bacon, Newton, Kepler, Hobbes140-41: language is basically a process of transforming metaphor into meaning143-44: limitations of the rational principle145: poetry does not equal meter147: verse/prose (meter); poetic/prosaic (spiritual?)152: review of poetic pleasure; archaism as the most characteristic phenomenon158: creating vs. restoring159-60: creating vs. imitating167: fame of great poets is posthumous168: can non-poets be good critics?169-70: seers need interpreting (they can't interpret themselves)170-77: strangeness171: Aristotle's Poetics—unfamiliarity can aid contemplation173-74: making familiar things stand out (Herbert, Chesterton)179: Emerson on fossil poetry180: Keats's love of Greek myths; Johnson/ColeridgeΩ–poetry arouses pleasureAppendixes:191: synthesis (all of Appendix II)200: analogy202: poetry as escape; madhouse203: Jung and myths210: Dante217: Auerback, BloomAfterward:218: Abrams's Mirror and the Lamp; Bodkin; Fiedler219: Frye; Vico220: Lovejoy's Great Chain of Being221: Barfield's sense of inadequacy

  • Dan'l Danehy-oakes
    2019-05-04 02:12

    This is quite a difficult book for me to review, because I'm not really sure what to make of it. I suspect it will take at least one more reading before it really sinks in.Actually, it is quite possible that Barfield himself wrote an excellent review, as part of is Preface to the book's second edition (1951 - the original being from 1928):...[T]his book grew out of two empirical observations, first, that poetry reacts on the meanings of the words that it employs, and, secondly, that there appear to be two sorts of poetry... Thus, it claims to present, not merely a theory of poetic diction, but a theory of poetry: and not merely a theory of poetry, but a theory of knowledge.Yes indeed, Barfield attempts all that, nor am I ambitious enough to summarize the theory of poetry that he takes 225 pages to unfold. I can, however, mention some of its salient features.First, that he distinguishes between poetry and verse. Poetry, for Barfield, is a quality of language: poetic diction, as opposed to prosaic diction, either of which may appear in verse or prose form. Poetic language, poetry, he suggests, is language that creates new meaning for (at least some of) the words it uses. When words are selected and arranged in such a way that their meaning either arouses, or is obviously intended to arouse, aesthetic imagination, the result may be described as poetic diction... Meaning includes the whole content of a word, or of a group of words arranged in a particular order, other than the actual sounds of which they are composed. Indeed, Barfield eschews discussion of things like rhyme, alliteration, and so on, except passim in service of other birds he is hunting.A great deal of the book is given over to a proposed revision of the commonly-held theories (as of 1928) of how language arises, and of how words "create" meaning in the mind of the reader/writer/speaker/hearer. He does not explicitly rejects, but thoroughly criticizes, the philological assumption that all modern languages are grown from simple linguistic "roots," suggesting that out grancestors actually had much more capacity for abstraction in language than we give them credit for - and, at the same time, much more capacity for concrete specificity. He suggests that words that seemed to have two meanings - such as the Latin verb "ruo," which is translated (depending on context) either as "rush" or "fall." It may be, he says, that to the Latin mind, there was a single meaning -- a single concept that has relationship to both, but is not either of, the modern concepts "rush" and "fall." He traces one of the word's English descendants, ruin, through a series of meaning-concepts it has represented over the centuries.I can't really grok his conclusions very well; as I said, I shall have to reread this book at some point. But it has something to do with the idea that poetic language occurs precisely when the speaker/writer says/writes something that the hearer/reader finds "strange" -- for a variety of meanings of "strange," which however basically come to "the hearer/reader is given a new way of seeing something."

  • Carl
    2019-05-07 23:50

    Don't have this fresh in my mind as it's been a while since I read this, but I think Barfield's work is interesting not only as a key to the thought of the Inklings, but as a philosophical/literary perspective parallel to but a bit off from mainstream 20th century thought. I feel like there are a lot of resonances with hermeneutic phenomenology, and hope to explore that further. For example, Barfield's ideas about metaphor seem to me very similar to Dreyfus' account of Heidegger's own work:"On the contrary, Heidegger wants us to see that at an early stage of language the distinction metaphorical/literal has not yet emerged". p. 42, Being-In-The-World, Hubert Dreyfus. I find no mention of Heidegger or Ricoeur in the index and bibliography of Verlyn Flieger's book Splintered Light, on Tolkien and Barfield, which maybe isn't surprising considering how phenomenology was taken on so much by french thinkers (Tolkien was anything but a francophile) and it's association with Sartre's existentialism (who misinterpreted Heidegger, according to Dreyfus), but I think a mutual cross examination of both sides, eg, Barfield and Ricoeur, would be quite fruitful-- but maybe that's just me trying to consolidate my diverse interests.

  • Ben McFarland
    2019-05-01 21:47

    I have pretty positive reactions to most books. A few I even think, when I put them down, that maybe someday I'll read them again. But very rarely have I ever felt like reading a book again as soon as I put it down. Poetic Diction is that book. I found this book by researching J.R.R. Tolkien, who was influenced by Owen Barfield's ideas, especially this book. Then I kept seeing Barfield's name and I found out that lots of people were deeply influenced by his thinking (and not just his close friend and the person to whom this book is dedicated, C.S. Lewis). He's writing about poetry, but he writes about everything, really, up to and including philosophy of science. For all the depth to the book, it is highly readable and succinct. Barfield was a member of the "Inklings," whatever that means, and this book is right up there with Tolkien and Lewis in its own way. Amazing.

  • Phillip
    2019-04-19 20:16

    This is my second time to read this. I enjoyed it a lot more my second time through. I'm reading it because I have reread The Lord of the Rings 14 times, The Hobbit 8 times, The silmarillion 6 to 8 times, and all of the volumes of The History of Middle-earth, and other things by Tolkien between 1 and 3 times. I have read literary criticisms of Tolkien's work. So, I'm reading the other Inklings. I read a fair amount of C.S. Lewis. I don't really like Charles Williams. I am enjoying Own Barfield. His work is hard, but he shared the interests and values of the other Inklings and that gives me a little something. I just hope that what I get in the end will be worth the work it takes to understand the work.

  • Josiah
    2019-05-12 00:01

    This was a fascinating little book that made me think a lot about different topics that I hadn't thought about all that much before. Because this field of literary studies is a relatively new field for me, I'm not sure how much I agree with his ideas (they all seemed to be pretty good ideas when I read it; but the first person to speak always sounds right until the second begins to speak), but they definitely provoked me to reflect on this more. I didn't read all of this book as thoroughly as I could, so some day I'd like to come back to this when I have more experience in this field and more time on my hands. Overall, this was a thought-provoking book with a lot of intriguing theories.Rating: 3.5 Stars (Good).

  • Robert
    2019-05-18 21:58

    According to Barfield, language has preserved the inner history of human beings and reveals the evolution of consciousness. Embedded in our subconscious is the memory of when language was more of an archetype symbolic expression, which is why poetry excites the aesthetic imagination and has the potential of producing a felt change in consciousness. Barfield also attempts to heal the subject / object split that has occurred through the evolution of consciousness by providing a participatory epistemology that includes an extra sensory relationship between the person and the phenomenon. He stands on the shoulders of Kant, Goethe, and Rudolph Steiner. I will return to this book in the future, and I believe there is an extraordinary amount of treasure to found here.

  • Philip Morgan
    2019-05-10 23:01

    I think this book kind of fucked me up in the head. In trying to trace back to when I stopped believing and acting as if words mean the same thing to everybody, I think I find the headwaters of that belief in Barfield's writings and this book in particular. Or maybe I'm just a Gen-Xer with a heightened awareness of the role of stories and filters and worldviews.In any event, Barfield lays out an sequence of interesting examples of how words have danced with meaning, and how that dance has changed leading up to modern times.This book is heady stuff, but I thought it was an interesting read. And if I'm right about the role it's played in my life, it's made life more real but more complicated.

  • Bill
    2019-05-09 03:03

    I really loved this book. Fair warning, Barfield's writing can be dense in places (particularly the Appendices) but the central thesis is enormously compelling and I look forward to finding further exploration of it. Hopefully in other authors as well as other examples of Barfield's work. I should also not that I came to "Poetic Diction" out of my general interest in the Inklings and a desire to get a solid "feel" for how Barfield's though fit's within their conversation. The book is helpful in that context as well.

  • Adam Ross
    2019-04-29 01:10

    This was an interesting, though highly dry book. It loses you occasionally, because Barfield is carrying on philological debates with men nobody's heard of today, but in his time were apparently influential. He argues that all language is inherently poetic, and that poetry and metaphor are the centers of language. The more "poetic" is our education, the more we are changed and transformed for the better.

  • Steve
    2019-05-07 02:06

    This is one of the books that I read every year, because it contains so much and each time I read it I learned something you and understand a bit more. If you want to understand the nature of language, and particular, "poetic diction", this is the classic that influenced both CS Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.

  • Justin Bailey
    2019-05-16 23:54

    Why is it that poetic language somehow feels truer and more meaningful than literal descriptions? Using etymology, Barfield argues that language holds within it a "history of consciousness" and that poetic language moves us by affecting in us a "felt change of consciousness", allowing us to participate more fully in the Meaning with which the world is dripping.A brilliant book.

  • Lauren
    2019-05-13 21:10

    *2.5 stars*There is much that Barfield assumes his audience knows, and therefore does not explain. I needed a copy annotated by a philologist of the time. Without notes, he talks just over my head and I can tell it's probably brilliant, but I can't quite make out why.

  • Philip
    2019-05-20 03:07

    It will probably take the rest of my life to understand this book, not because Barfield doesn't write clearly or logically but because his intellect is so giant. Extremely thought-provoking book about language and how we make meaning.

  • Ann
    2019-04-25 02:49

    Difficult but interesting.

  • James Prothero
    2019-04-21 01:49

    Brilliant, though I found it wound through realms of language theory that I was unfamiliar with. The central concept rings true. Language IS fossilized metaphor.

  • Meirizka
    2019-04-22 02:59


  • George Marshall
    2019-05-08 21:02

    Thouroughly enjoyed, though it is not an easy read. I know some reading I want to do, and I may find time to read again with that additional context.

  • Steve
    2019-05-13 01:59


  • Joel
    2019-04-29 02:07

    This book is a narrow shaft providing a glimpse into a world that went underground: metaphor and poetry as a key to a human construction of meaning in the universe.

  • Jim Owen
    2019-05-11 23:15

    Very pleased with this text. I have read it and I am now outlining it. He is no C. S. Lewis, but with a little rereading, he is clear and his discussion is valuable.