Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction—first published during his Saturn return—lays forth, in simple yet elegant terms, an argument for the evolution of consciousness. By tracing the differentiating meaning of words through the history of poetry, he reveals the participatory relationship of humanity with the cosmos. Barfield argues against the mainstream perspective held by philologists of his time that the origins of the words for abstract concepts find their roots in metaphors for concrete objects. Most philologists assumed words gained meaning by the use of intentional metaphors: for example, the contemporary word spirit has its roots in the ancient word for wind, therefore the assumption was that an ancient poet once decided to draw a metaphor between the blowing gusts of wind and the principle for life animating living beings.
Barfield posits an alternative theory. From his understanding, these primal words are not metaphorical but rather contain within them the full meaning—the spectrum of spirit and wind and all between—in a single utterance. He writes that “these poetic, and apparently ‘metaphorical’ values were latent in meaning from the beginning.” Only over time, and through a changing of consciousness in human beings, is the “undivided meaning” of words split apart, so that now wind refers to a material reality and spirit to an abstract thought. Barfield argues that it is not the case that “the earliest words in use were ‘the names of sensible, material objects’ and nothing more.” Rather, one “must suppose the ‘sensible objects’ themselves to have been something more; you must suppose they were not, as they appear to be at present, isolated, or detached, from thinking and feeling.” Language, in Barfield’s view, reveals the ensoulment of the cosmos once perceptible to ancient human consciousness, a quality revealed through true metaphor. A true metaphor was once a single ancient word, a unified meaning expressed not only in human language but in the language of the world.
Barfield’s thesis holds profound implications for a question often asked of astrologers: how was it that the ancients knew what names to give the planets so that their corresponding mythic figures expressed the same archetypal characteristics that are still carried in the astrological manifestations apparent today? How was the planet Venus aptly named after the Goddess of Beauty, or Mercury after the Messenger of the Gods, when Venus in the birth chart relates to love, beauty, romance, and artistic expression, and Mercury relates to communication, thought, speech, intellect, writing, and learning? The question is being asked with the same modern mindset as the philologists who assumed that consciousness has remained the same throughout time, and that humanity has only come to understand the world better through the acquisition of knowledge. Rather, as Barfield articulates, to ancient consciousness a physical object was inherently imbued with resonant, ensouled presence. This is the ‘undivided meaning’ of which Barfield speaks, the metaphor that exists latently in the word before a later consciousness has split it asunder. Our contemporary language cannot fully capture this ‘undivided meaning’ even as I try to describe it, because in the language I am using psyche and physis long ago diverged from one another.
The consciousness that in modernity wiped away the horizon of meaning, to paraphrase Nietzsche, cannot perceive in the world the unity of archetype and object, universal and particular. They are fundamentally split, finally to the point of unrelatedness. Yet, reawakening within an archetypal cosmos, the unity of archetype and manifestation is once again apparent, but from the other side of a long history of differentiation. The undivided meaning of words has splintered again and again—the white light has passed through the prism to be refracted into a myriad of colors—and the consciousness living in a reenchanted, archetypally patterned world view can witness both the differentiation and unity at once. The language of the archetypes hearkens back to a time when the world reverberated with unified, ensouled, embodied meaning. Yet now it is possible, through conscious participation, to once again hear the song of the spheres. But instead of the cosmos simply singing to us as our ancestors once experienced it, we are able to read the score and, along with the cosmos, play its song back in harmony. Through his passion Barfield lets his readers feel the “beating heart of poetry” as it once lived, and to recognize that its poetic rhythm is the beating heart of the cosmos itself.
Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. Oxford, England: Barfield Press, 2010.
 Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (Oxford, England: Barfield Press, 2010), 77.
 Barfield, Poetic Diction, 71.
 Barfield, Poetic Diction, 77.
 Ibid, 78.
 Barfield, Poetic Diction, 123.
2 Replies to “The Beating Heart of Poetry: The Elegant Simplicity of “Poetic Diction””
You have triggered my curiosity – I think we need a few lifetimes to read everything worthwhile, such as this book!
Thanks for the excellent post and recommendation! Really like this eloquent line: “and the consciousness living in the world view of archetypal cosmology can witness both the differentiation and unity at once.” Cheers!