Books and Code · A Miscellany

Poetic Diction, by Owen Barfield (A Review)


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 seems
To be living up to your dreams
And suddenly you’re finding out
The 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 Life

The 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 bad

The 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.