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Owen Barfield’s History in English Words

3,323 words

Owen Barfield
History in English Words
New York: Doubleday & Company, 1926

In the common words we use every day, souls of past races, the thoughts and feelings of individual men stand around us, not dead, but frozen into their attitudes like the courtiers in the garden of the Sleeping Beauty.

— Owen Barfield

These are sentiments with which I can wholeheartedly concur. As I meander the ancient trackways and forests of my native land, imbibing the spirit of the British countryside, the genius terrae britannicae, of rich red earth so beloved by nature poets like Henry Vaughan and Edward Thomas, I can observe how a speckled thrush skips atop a hedgerow and hares prance on the sunny side of a chalk embankment glistening with morning dew. In Britain, you can weave your way between prehistoric ley-lines between standing stones perched precariously on grassy mounds and burial chambers made long before the Romans came. My understanding of how John Masefield perceived the landscape of his forefathers grows every day; whenever I go for a stroll, I quietly recite the lines:

And felt the hillsides thronged by souls unseen,
Who knew the interest in me, and were keen
That man alive should understand man dead

This sensibility is one that Owen Barfield (1898-1997), the all-too-often overlooked member of the famous Inklings, and himself a prodigious philosopher, author, poet, and critic, would have no doubt applauded. Barfield underwent an epiphany at a very young age akin to Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness, and being a Christian anti-reductionist, he firmly believed language unlocked the key to many mysteries. His own reputation as someone who greatly influenced T.S. Eliot is somewhat overwhelmed by the giant literary celebrity of Tolkien and Lewis and to a lesser extent Charles Williams, the author of supernatural sepulchral tales. This is somewhat unfair, because Lewis himself credits Barfield in the preface to his Allegory of Love (1936): “To Owen Barfield, wisest and best of my unofficial teachers.”

A well-earned accolade, given Lewis and Barfield conducted a “Great War” of words over their differing opinions on the evolution of consciousness and Barfield’s unshakeable admiration for the esotericist Rudolf Steiner between 1923 and 1931. This debate would erupt during the pre-Inkling peripatetic countryside rambles of the highly conservative group gathered around Lewis as they walked the woods and fields of Oxfordshire, often from pub to pub, as recalled by another future Inkling, Nevill Coghill, a translator of Chaucer and later Merton Professor of English Literature:

We used to foregather in our rooms or go off for country walks together in endless but excited talk about what we had been reading the week before. . . we walked almost as fast as we talked — disputing and quoting, as we looked for dark dingles and the tree-topped hills of Matthew Arnold. . . Lewis, with the gusto of a Chesterton or a Belloc, would suddenly roar out a passage of poetry he had newly discovered and memorized. . . we had, of course, thunderous disagreements and agreements.

Barfield responded in kind to Lewis’s previously-mentioned dedication in his book Poetic Diction, supplemented by the aphorism “opposition is true friendship.” Diction sets out to explain how poetic language embodied ancient perceptions of the world, stressing that “the individual imagination is the medium of all knowledge from perception upward” and gestating the notion of “original participation,” defining this term in Saving the Appearances:

There stands behind the phenomena, and on the other side of them from me, as represented which is of the same nature as me. . . as the same nature as the perceiving self, in as much as it is not mechanical or accidental, but psychic and voluntary.

Barfield is quoted much later as saying that “Lewis had taught [him] how to think, but [he] had taught Lewis what to think.” Given both Lewis’s and Tolkien’s debt to Barfield’s concept of poetic language, this is less a boast than a statement of fact. Indeed, there is much to be gleaned from the ruminations Barfield undertakes in works like Unancestral Voice (1965); History, Guilt, and Habit (1979); Romanticism Comes of Age (1944); The Rediscovery of Meaning (1977), Worlds Apart (1963) and History in English Words (1926), where he attempts to re-assemble the history of Western Civilization by meticulously exploring the changing connotations of various words over time:

In our language alone, not to speak of its many companions, the past history of humanity is spread out in an imperishable map, just as the history of the mineral earth lies embedded in the layers of its outer crust. . . Language has preserved for us the inner, living history of our soul. It reveals the evolution of consciousness.

Barfield actively explores a particular thread of English language philosophy which is so much more than the tradition of tired old linguistic analysis and that of symbolic logic which is normally associated with English philosophy in the first half of the twentieth century. Barfield argued in an essay entitled “Ruin,” published in the London Mercury in 1922, that as per Maupassant’s les mots ont une âme (words have a soul), consciousness is not the same now as it was in past ages, where human beings interacted and “participated” more directly with nature.

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His complex but always erudite offerings on the nature of language are more often than not associated with his love of poetry, literature, and drama rather than formulaic mathematics. This is exemplified by his affinity for Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Keats:

What impressed me particularly was the power with which not so much whole poems as particular combinations of words worked on my mind. It seemed like there was some magic in it; and a magic which not only gave me pleasure but also reacted on and expanded the meanings of the individual words concerned.

His thoughts seem to echo Dilthey and Heidegger, but take a more arcane route somewhat reminiscent of Norman O. Brown’s psychoanalytic theory of mysticism.

The Inkling scholar often resorted, like his fellows, to fiction and drama as well as poetry to communicate his ideas. The central thesis of History in English Words is essentially an attempt to come to a formulation of the central problem of hermeneutics. Barfield contends that the only true way to comprehend literature from the past is not through our current interpretation of our world via the medium of our present “lexiconography,” but by interpreting how the world was viewed at the time the work was originally conceived. He attempted to achieve this feat through diligent scholarly etymology and sympathetic imagination.

Colin Duriez, in his book The Oxford Inklings (2015), asserts that “Barfield tended, throughout his life, to stay focused on a number of outstanding insights into the nature of language, particularly poetic language, and upon the historic context of human language.”

Barfield’s regimen is one you can fully appreciate if you attempt to fully immerse yourself in the intricacies of Barfield’s own poetry and creative writing, which greatly infused both Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Lewis’s Narnia, and was to a large extent an admixture of a fervent medievalist mind and a committed Christian apologist. It’s a seductive sedative that one might be tempted to swallow in order to fight against the spiritually-voided modern world; proffering, as it does, images laced with references to medievalist spiritual writing, post-medieval quasi-nostalgic fantasy, and the fairy tales of his fellow Inklings. An alternative, almost escapist universe, with a much clearer picture, even if a little naïve, of good and evil and moral clarity, which is missing from the Modernist canon:

Music hath its charms’, said the Dwarf. —
Harmony, you know harmony — Form versus Chaos —
Light v. Darkness — and the Dominant Seventh.
It’s all one.

— From Barfield’s The Silver Trumpet (1925).

The Silver Trumpet is an otherworldly fairy tale, drawing heavily on Hans-Christian Andersen, with a wicked princess plotting her good sister’s death, turning people into toads, driving a kingdom to rack and ruin, only to be challenged by a pure-hearted prince, a good-natured dwarf, and a benevolent witch. In some ways, it opened the door for Lewis and Tolkien, both of whom considered it “a direct hit,” despite the fact that the critics of the time were somewhat underwhelmed. The Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger outlines the extent of Barfield’s influence on the creator of Middle Earth in her book Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World (1983). The respected Barfield scholar Simon Blaxland de Lange notes that the central image of the silver trumpet itself sounding out at key moments throughout the tale symbolizes the characters’ moving to a more noble mode of understanding, something he articulates as representing Barfield’s own belief in the “felt changes of consciousness” that could only be wrought in the imagery of the best poetry.

When I grow up to be a man and wear
Whate’er I please,
Black-cloth and serge and Harris tweed,
I shall have none of these;
For shaggy men wear Harris-tweed

— “Air Castles,” published 1917 in the satirical magazine Punch.

Indeed, according to Barfield, being sensitive to language makes the world come alive. He addresses this theme in the image of the “the kiss which brings the sleeping courtiers to life.” This metaphor is so much more than a mere decorative poetic reference, but a description of how one gradually realizes what lies behind the etymological framework and enters into the true “intellectual history” of the West.

Barfield commences his thesis in History in English Words with Greek mythology and identifies changes in the meanings of words to illustrate the evolution of philosophy and religion from the Classical Hellenic worldview to the Middle Ages. Progressing from that epoch through the Scientific Revolution and contemporary culture, Barfield provides credible evidence to convey that something significant within the realm of human consciousness is being diluted — or even lost — as we gain greater mastery over the material environment:

Now my normal everyday experience, as a human being, of the world around me, depends entirely upon what I bring to the sense-datum from within; and the absorption of this metaphor into my imagination has enabled me to bring more than I could before. It has created something in me, a faculty or a part of a faculty, enabling me to observe what I could not observe. This ability to recognize significant resemblances and analogies, considered as in action, I shall call knowledge; considered as a state, and apart from the effort by which it is imparted and acquired, I shall call it wisdom.

The rather simple example of how language fuses to incorporate new ideas or conceptions of the world is encapsulated in the derivation of the word electricity. Barfield explains that it comes from the Greek word “elektron,” meaning “amber,” and is associated with “elektor” which means “gleaming” or the “beaming sun.”

A perfect entry point to Barfield’s thinking is where he outlines his hypothesis that there is something far more fundamental happening than the basic meaning of words changing over time. Rather, it is the ideas, theories, and feelings that the words are intending to convey that are changing and mutating as human consciousness expands and alters its outlook upon the world. “Meanings,” he stresses, “must be seen as the history of meanings.”

Barfield’s point is illustrated from a quote recorded in Philip and Carol Zaleski’s excellent book The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (2015):

For the Romans themselves, the old goddesses called the Fata, or Fates, turned quickly into an abstracted notion of destiny. But contact with the dreamy Celts breathed new life into their nostrils, and “Fata” in Late Latin became spiritual once more. The sharp sounds were softened and abraded until they slipped imperceptibly into the Old French “Fay” and so fa-ery and fairy. Demon is the result of a similar metamorphosis.

Building further on his hypothesis, Barfield quotes Michael Faraday’s Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1833): “I was anxious to obtain some idea of the conducting power of ice and solid salts by electricity of high tension.” Barfield then notes that within a century, such a reference had turned into a metaphor that George Bernard Shaw used to describe the emotional stress between two people in his play Candida (1898).

For Barfield, it is not merely ideas and theories and feelings which have changed, “but the very method of forming ideas and of combining them, the very channels, apparently eternal, by which one thought or feeling is connected with another.” Here, the stammering scholar from Whetstone, with his thoughts on the “evolution of consciousness” and the relationship between science and religion in works like Saving the Appearances and its sequel Worlds Apart, begins to walk the same path as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and his musings on “temporality” and “historicity.” He even uses similar metaphors about geological sedimentation to explain his theory. Barfield’s musings soon stretch into reflections upon the difficulties inherent in discarding modern preconceptions about history and time, and inner and outer reality as perceived by oneself.

So it is perhaps not by chance that a student of English poetry with a love of Coleridge should comment that he felt “an affinity with German language,” and that for him, “the German language can express philosophical ideas and thought more easily and accurately sometimes than the English.”

Barfield, who went on to become a popular lecturer on the American college circuit, particularly at Wheaton College, SUNY, Drew University in New Jersey, and Brandeis, after serving an indenture-like period as a lawyer to the family law firm, described himself as “a gentleman of leisure” in the six or seven years following graduation, which he spent reading and writing:

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I also did quite a lot of reading and studying and at that time I renewed such acquaintance as I had from school with the Greek and Latin languages, in which I’d got very rusty. I also learned Italian in order to read Dante and, during that period, I read the late Platonic Dialogues, which are not so much about ethics but more about the nature of perception, as well as Aristotle’s psychology, De Anima — with great excitement.

It was also around the time he began to compose his History in English Words that Barfield discovered Rudolph Steiner’s theories of thought and perception and felt they personified exactly what he had been looking for. Barfield had no doubt that Steiner was the “new Aristotle” and “il maestro di color che sanno — master of those who know,” taken from Dante’s encomium to Aristotle — Inferno IV:131. Inspired by a lecture he attended in 1924 given by Steiner, Barfield soon began contributing essays to the Journal of Anthroposophy, as well as The New Statesman, The London Mercury, and the periodical Truth, and sought to study methods of comprehending the spiritual world through sensory experience.

In fact, Poetic Diction, originating from work undertaken for his British Literature thesis and finally published in 1928, was his attempt to put this understanding into his own very down-to-earth style, though he acknowledges and credits Steiner’s influence in the preface to the book and quotes him profusely on the nature of myth. This subject, along with his insights into the etymology of words and language, bound him intimately — despite differences of opinion over Steiner — to Lewis, who Barfield encouraged to complete his long narrative poem Dymer. This was a recognizable step towards the famed Christian apologist’s renunciation of atheism and Tolkien, who was, of course, an Anglo-Saxon philologist.

In a piece entitled “The Inklings Remembered,” Barfield — who we must remember given his London-based profession, was a fairly irregular attendee of the group’s meetings — wrote:

. . .my reminiscences, though vivid enough, are scarce and scattered. I never, to my great regret, heard Tolkien read any of the nascent Lord of the Rings, but I do recall his reading a poem, in stanza form, with a refrain in which he made us all join. The poem itself has faded, except that the mode was a kind of jovial pastiche Anglo-Saxon. In my recollection, these readings by Inklings authors from their own works were, at least in terms of the time allotted to them, subsidiary to the main business (if what happened can be so described) of the evening. Surprisingly, perhaps not so surprisingly, the reading I do remember well was that of a verse play of my own, Medea (in which she turns out to be a werewolf). On this occasion — I do not know if it was so in any other — Lewis had arranged for it to be a proper “reading,” with each part allocated to a different reader. The two things that have stuck in my memory are, first, that the reception was favourable but not ecstatic and, secondly, that, when it was over, at least three of those present casually remarked that they had written plays about Medea themselves in the past. Finally, as the conversation drifted farther and farther away from my play, I mildly inquired if there was anybody present who had not written a play about Medea! There was also an Inklings meeting at which, on request, I delivered the best account I could of anthroposophy — without, I think, making much impression.

But it is perhaps what Barfield says about the “the fanciful poetry of ‘escape’” that is more significant, not only because he spent most of the 1940s and 50s working in a humdrum legal office with only a verse drama Orpheus to his name, but also because — like his fellow Inklings — he did not see it as a distraction from more important moral and social issues, but a refutation of the modernist blueprint for society being unrolled before their very eyes. Duriez suggests in his introduction to The Oxford Inklings that there was a “strategy in their concerns that could point to a different kind of contemporary world, rooted in old virtues and values. Could there conceivably be a modern society that was marked by continuity rather than discontinuity with the past?”

And if that was possible, could the study and understanding of the development of language, and indeed, the evolution of human consciousness, as Barfield interpreted it, form a bridge between the two? The Inklings certainly thought so, and saw it as intrinsically linked to their Christianity, a quasi-religious and romantic oppositional force to what Lewis, in his inaugural lecture as Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature on the 29th November 1954, described as the “Machine-Age” — a term borrowed from Tolkien that he deployed in defense of what he outlined as “Old Western” or “Old European” values. The Inklings took these traditions to be rooted in the language, customs, and soil of Northern Europe.

The ever-mercurial musketeer, Owen Barfield, with a pen rather than a swashbuckling D’Artagnan-like rapier in hand, would have wholeheartedly concurred.

My abiding image of Barfield, a thoroughly good Wadham man, is of him nonchalantly cycling in his moleskin waistcoat and dangling silver pocket watch chain, along Addison’s Walk and out past Magdalen’s Tower, en route to the “Bird and Baby” in St. Giles to sip beer on a Tuesday morning and discuss theology, literature, and philosophy with his fellow Inklings. Barfield captured the scene resoundingly:

The leaves, grown rusty overhead,
Dropped on the road and made it red.
The air that coldly wrapped me round,
Stained by the glowing of the ground,
Had bathed the world in the cosy gloom
Of a great, red-carpeted, firelit room;
It filled my lungs, as I rode along,
Till they overflowed in a flood of song,
And joy grew truculent in my throat,
Uttering a pompous trombone-note;
For this elegant modern soul of mine
Was warm with old Autumn’s rich red wine.

— From “An Autumn Bicycle-Ride,” a typescript from the Barfield Papers at the Bodleian Library, Oxford (1919).

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2 Comments

  1. Archie Bunker
    Posted May 20, 2020 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Lovely. Thank you for this.

    • Fenek Solere
      Posted May 20, 2020 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      Dear Archie,
      You are very welcome!
      Best
      FS

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