Tag Archives: poetry

Malcolm Guite on Owen Barfield: Knowledge, Poetry, and Consciousness

This summer, I’m reading Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning by Owen Barfield, one of C.S. Lewis’s closest friends. By today’s standards, all of the Inklings were peculiar dudes, but back then, Barfield and Charles Williams were especially peculiar, Barfield basically a disciple of Rudolf Steiner and Williams an Anglican while also an initiate into secretive magical orders. And yet, Barfield’s book Poetic Diction influenced both Lewis’s writing and Tolkien’s, and beyond the Inklings, was praised by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Howard Nemerov. So I appreciate Rev. Dr. Malcolm Guite’s illumination of Barfield’s perspectives, which take a little time to grasp. They are, however, rewarding.

Czeslaw Milosz on Imagination, with reference to Blake, Dante, and Swedenborg

Through Imagination, spiritual truths are transformed into visible forms. Although he took issue with Swedenborg on certain matters, Blake felt much closer to his system than to that of Dante, whom he accused of atheism. Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell is modeled on Swedenborg, and he would have been amused by an inquiry into whether he had ‘really’ seen the devils and angels he describes. The crux of the problem—and a serious challenge to the mind—is Blake’s respect for both the imagination of Dante, who was a poet, and the imagination of Swedenborg, whose works are written in quite pedestrian Latin prose…. Neither Swedenborg nor Blake was an aesthetician, and they did not enclose the spiritual within the domain of art and poetry and oppose it to the material. At the risk of simplifying the issue by using a definition, let us say rather that they both were primarily concerned with the energy which reveals itself in a constant interaction of Imagination with the things perceived by our five senses.” — Czeslaw Milosz, from his essay “Dostoevsky and Swedenborg,” in Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision (boldface added)

Note: In my paperback copy of Emperor of the Earth, the word “Imagination” appears with a capitalized “I,” but in online sources I found, including the one linked above, it is not always capitalized. For Milosz’s purposes, I think it’s fitting to capitalize the first letter of Imagination as a way to designate it as something larger than what Coleridge would call, in contrast to Imagination, mere “fancy.”

A Look at Unfashionable Philosophy

“Wittgenstein and Barfield disagree on a number of important matters; Barfield wrote that Wittgenstein never attempted historical analysis, and was therefore missing the proper foundation for evaluating language. Curiously, though, they also seem to share some significant ground. Barfield’s understanding of metaphor seems to mirror some of the claims that Wittgenstein makes about ostensive definition, though Barfield would claim that a poet (or, to use Wittgenstein’s language, one who has been inducted into the game of poetry) is able to glean a deeper insight from poetry than Wittgenstein would be willing to allow.”

Tavern Song

And this I know: whether the one True Light,
Kindle to Love, or Wrath consume me quite,
One glimpse of It within the Tavern caught
Better than in the Temple lost outright.

— LVI, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám 

Happy G.K. Chesterton on Sad William Cowper

In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton begins an illuminating passage on madness, predestination, reason, and poetry with some observations about the English poet William Cowper:

“[O]nly one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept him in health. He could sometimes forget the red and thirsty hell to which his hideous necessitarianism dragged him among the wide waters and the white flat lilies of the Ouse. He was damned by John Calvin; he was almost saved by John Gilpin. Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him into extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators. The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

Auden Explains Poetry, Propaganda, And Reporting

“Poetry is speech at its most personal, the most intimate of dialogues. A poem does not come to life until a reader makes his response to the words written by the poet.

“Propaganda is a monologue which seeks not a response but an echo. To recognize this is not to condemn all propaganda as such. Propaganda is a necessity of all human social life. But to fail to recognize the difference between poetry and propaganda does untold mischief to both: poetry loses its value and propaganda its effectiveness.

“Whatever real social evil exists, poetry, or any of the arts for that matter, is useless as a weapon. Aside from direct political action, the only weapon is factual reportage—photographs, statistics, eyewitness reports.”

—W.H. Auden, in “A Short Defense of Poetry,” an address given at the International PEN Conference in Budapest, October 1967

‘We are symbols and inhabit symbols’

“We are symbols and inhabit symbols; workmen, work, and tools, words and things, birth and death, all are emblems; but we sympathize with the symbols, and being infatuated with the economical use of things, we do not know that they are thoughts.” — Emerson, in “The Poet”

To clarify a little bit, a symbol is fully itself, and it stands for something else.