Why is poetry so important in his thesis?

Discovering the etymology of words is fun but it doesn’t quite capture the full, revelatory impact of the imagination that Barfield sought. So next he turned to poetry and another book, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (1928). It’s had a lasting impact.

His focused shifted. He no longer drew on etymology but on literary theory, with the result that Poetic Diction is not so much a survey of how words are like fossils, as it is an explanation as to how they hold and also can be made to release the past.

He does this by showing how words are not just verbal signs with dictionary meanings. More importantly, they have an inner life. Hence their potency.

Poetry seeks it out, via the inventiveness of analogies and metaphors, and the composition of lines and verses. The task of the poet is to put words together in such an order that their soul is released. Their work enables readers to receive the vitality.

It is experienced as a “felt change of consciousness”, as Barfield put it in a key phrase, the word “felt” having been suggested by Lewis. The good poet not only enables a reader to see the world differently, by expanding on the ambivalences, ambiguities, resonances and complexity of things. There’s another, subtler transmission that occurs as poetic words are uttered.

The reader feels his or her surroundings and inner life light up. It’s as if the metre and the metaphors transform the sounds into sunrays that pick out features of the landscape. A poetic experience is both of something being disclosed and of the thrill of the disclosure itself.

It happens because, crucially, poetry does not play on the surface of things, as if it were a self-generating, self-referential dance, the doctrine that during Barfield’s lifetime came to be called the New Criticism, a precursor to postmodernism. No. Poetry illuminates reality at depth because words participate in reality at depth. They bridge and connect, rather than construct and manufacture.

They are agents of revelation.

Barfield offered an example to help a reader tune into the effect. Consider the difference between how a prose writer might write, “old prophets”, and how a poet would write, “prophets old”. The re-arrangement alters what is conveyed.

“Old prophets” is informative. It refers to prophets who lived many years ago.

“Prophets old”, though, has a very different feel. It is more like an invocation of the old prophets, drawing attention to who they might have been and what they might have known. The reversed word order suggests that it’s possible to share in the spirit of the prophets. A mind might open as it admits the phrase, “prophets old”.

It is this felt dynamic, generated by literary and compositional devices, rhymes and similes, that matters. Barfield likened what they do for words to what is produced by the movement of wire between the poles of a magnet. The action generates something surprising, something new. Electricity flows as the wire traverses the field. There’s a current, a materialisation of energy.

He wrote: “So it is with the poetic mood, which, like the dreams to which it has so often been compared, is kindled by the passage from one place of consciousness to another. It lives during the moment of transition and then dies, and if it is to be repeated, some means must be found of renewing the transition itself.” This is what poetry does.

But the secret liveliness of words, and the sense of awakening poetry brings to awareness, is not all that is achieved. Something further is revealed that has to do with the history of the changing meaning of words. A careful examination of the impact of poetic diction upon consciousness shows that words actually exhibit two types of vitality. One is released by the poet’s skill. Another is inherent in words themselves. Barfield highlighted the second type as the original soul of a word, and in terms of discerning the evolution of human consciousness, it is of fundamental importance.

An example he offers reflects on the changing meaning of the word, “ruin”. Originally, it comes from the Greek verb, reo, meaning “to flow”.

Then, in time, this meaning became the Latin verb, ruo, meaning “to rush” or “fall”. The word that had first evoked movement, perhaps vigorous movement given the rumbling “r”, came also to imply movement in a specific direction, towards collapse. The soul of the word gave birth to the new meaning.

That meaning shifted again when the substantive “ruina”, or ruin, emerged. A further meaning has been crystalized. Now, the word doesn’t just convey the sense of something flowing, or of something falling, but of something fallen. A ruin.

This meaning has become the settled, dictionary meaning, which is where the poet comes in. Through their art and alchemy, they are able to resurface the older meanings that have become embedded in the subconscious of the word, thereby rekindling the full range of its inherent power.

The poet with the greatest power in this respect, if measured by the number of words he revived, is William Shakespeare. His generative capacities were no doubt a result of his gift, though he also lived in a time ripe for semantic rediscoveries. “English meaning had suddenly begun to ferment and bubble furiously round a brain in a Stratford cottage,” Barfield writes. And not least of Shakespeare’s many discoveries concerns the hidden depths of the word “ruin”. He could capture all its meanings and energy in a single sentence, as he does at the climax of his history play, King John. It is a moment of linguistic magic.

The king’s young nephew, Arthur, has thrown himself from the castle walls. The fall kills him, a bloody end to a short life. His body is discovered by the Earl of Salisbury, and Barfield invites us to listen to the words Shakespeare gives to the nobleman as he approaches the crumpled form. The earl describes himself “kneeling before this ruin of sweet life.”

The use of “ruin” in that sentence releases a blast of awareness. “Shakespeare has felt the exact, whole significance of his word,” Barfield explains. “The dead boy has fallen from the walls; the sweet life, which was in him too, has crumbled away; but wait – by Shakespeare’s time the word was beginning to acquire its other meaning of the actual remains – and there is the shattered body lying on the ground! He has, indeed, found a soul in the word.”

Further, at the point in the plot when poor Arthur’s ruined corpse is found, the play itself is nearing the end of its flow, rushing towards its end, which will see the ruin of many. The word captures the exact experience of the audience in that moment too. With Salisbury, we kneel before the ruin of sweet life.

It’s just one example, but it illustrates a general point. The instinctive poetry located in the ancient meaning of words can be reignited. Flow-collapse-ruin. For Barfield, that’s only possible because words spring from a reality that is, at base, not caged and material in nature, but is free and packed with the pulse of life. You could say that words contain a natural poetry.

Barfield quotes the well-known summary of this thesis, now associated with the Romantic movement, found in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry”. “In the infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry… Every original language near to its source is itself the chaos of a cyclic poem.”

To put it another way, primordial thinking was done in the form of myths and memories, invocations and poetry. The poetic art today is one of the ways of recalling the forgotten life of our distance ancestors.

That’s another part of its thrill. Though something novel is added too. Today’s composed poems and chosen metaphors are doubly powerful because they are deliberate. The contemporary writer is aware of what they are trying to do. They are letting the words speak for themselves by consciously causing the words to speak. The reader shares in the creative aspect of the enterprise too, which is why there’s delight not only in what’s disclosed but in the act of disclosure.

All in all, Poetic Diction puts forward a multileveled thesis. It discusses how poetry works. It proposes that words and languages were originally poetic. And it argues that the poetic use of language now delights us not only because it adds colour to life and reminds us of more ancient associations but, in so doing, it raises our consciousness of ourselves.

It invites us to become mindful sharers in the meaning of life, thereby reminding us that life has meaning. It’s why reading poetry, hearing lyrics and watching plays is so therapeutic.