The text on this page is from David Lavery, "An Owen Barfield Readers Guide." Seven 15 (1998): 97-112.

Poetic Diction:
A Study in Meaning

Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. London: Faber and Gwyer, 1928; 2nd Ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1952; reissued with an introduction by Howard Nemerov, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964; 3rd ed.: Middletown, CT: Wesleyan U P, 1973; 2nd Wesleyan ed. 1984. 

Our sophistication, like Odin's, has cost us an eye; and now it is the language of poets, in so far as they create true metaphors, which must restore this unity conceptually, after it has been lost from perception. Thus, the "before-unapprehended'" relationships of which Shelley spoke, are in a sense "forgotten" relationships. For though they were never yet apprehended, they were at one time seen. And imagination can see them again. (Poetic Diction 86-87)

In the interview conducted during the making of Owen Barfield: Man and Meaning, Barfield recollects how he came to write Poetic Diction. The product of a period in his life in his life in which his own "intellectual scheme of things" was, like that of the times themselves, completely materialistic (in philosophy and even in literary criticism, linguistic analysis and logical positivism reigned supreme), the book had its beginnings in Barfield’s recognition that the reading of poetry brought about in him what he would call a "felt change of consciousness." 

I began to find that I had very sharp experiences in reading poetry. Not so much of whole poems, certainly not long poems. But particular phrases, particular lines, seemed to have some kind--one uses the word magic, I can’t think of any other--but poetry was beginning to mean a lot to me, but more from the point of view of particular moments then a considered critical appreciation of a poem has a whole as a work of art. Especially metaphor, particularly metaphor. It seemed to say things to me that nothing else did. And it seemed to be something which was untouchable by the over-riding materialism of my outlook. So I started to write about that.

After securing his degree at Oxford (in 1920), he began to work on what would become Poetic Diction as a dissertation for a post-baccalaureate degree (received in 1927), eventually publishing it as a book in 1928. 

Next to Saving the Appearances, a book written thirty years later which would revisit some of the intellectual terrain first explored in Poetic Diction, this is probably Barfield’s most essential book. Though very much a product of its time, Poetic Diction, Barfield’s only work of true literary criticism, remains seventy years after its initial publication a still cited study of a literary concept, but it is much, much more: "not merely a theory of poetic diction, but a theory of poetry; and not merely a theory of poetry, but a theory of knowledge" ("Preface to the Second Edition" 14)


Table of Contents

Preface to the First Edition 
Preface to the Second Edition 
Preface to the Third Edition 

I Definition and Examples 41-46 
II The Effects of Poetry 47-59 
III Metaphor 60-76 
IV Meaning and Myth 77-92 
V Language and Poetry 93-101 
VI The Poet 102-110 
VII The Making of Meaning (I) 111-126 
VIII The Making of Meaning (II) 127-144 
IX Verse and Prose 145-151 
X Archaism 152-167 
XI Strangeness 168-177 
Conclusion 178-181 

Appendix I 182 
Appendix II 183-196 
Appendix III 197-202 
Subjective and Objective (Appendix IV) 203-211