History in English Words, 1926, revised 1954
Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, 1928, revised 1952
Romanticism Comes of Age, 1944, revised and enlarged 1966
Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, 1957 (philosophy)
Worlds Apart: A Dialogue of the 1960’s, 1963 (philosophy)
Unancestral Voice, 1965 (philosophy)
Speaker’s Meaning, 1967
What Coleridge Thought, 1971
The Rediscovery of Meaning, and Other Essays, 1977
History, Guilt, and Habit, 1979 (philosophy)
Owen Barfield on C. S. Lewis, 1989 (G. B. Tennyson, editor)
This Ever Diverse Pair, 1950 (as G. A. L. Burgeon)
Orpheus: A Poetic Drama in Four Acts, pb. 1983
Children’s/Young Adult Literature:
The Silver Trumpet, 1925
A Barfield Sampler: Poetry and Fiction, 1993 (Jeanne Clayton Hunter and Thomas Kranidas, editors); A Barfield Reader, 1999 (G. B. Tennyson, editor)
Although largely neglected by students of twentieth century English literature, Arthur Owen Barfield’s writings significantly influenced several of the most popular contemporary English authors, especially C. S. Lewis. It is difficult to classify Barfield. His writing reveals a lifelong interest in epistemological questions, especially the roles of language and imagination in the development of human consciousness.
Barfield was born on November 9, 1898, in London, the youngest of four children. His father, Arthur Edward Barfield, was a successful lawyer. His mother, Elizabeth Shoults Barfield, was a zealous feminist, active in the struggle for woman suffrage. They were both lovers of music and books; evenings in the Barfield home were often spent playing the piano and singing or reading aloud from some popular book.
Barfield was tutored at home until he was eight years old. He was then enrolled at Highgate Preparatory School. There he received a classical education centered on the study of Greek and Latin. In December, 1916, he was awarded a scholarship at Wadham College, Oxford University. His entrance was delayed by military service, as he served during World War I with the Royal Engineers from 1917 to 1918. With the end of war, and after recuperating from a wound, he began studies in English literature at Wadham College in October, 1919. He was awarded a B.A. in English language and literature, with first-class honors, in 1921. He subsequently earned a B.Litt. in 1928 and a bachelor of civil law degree in 1934.
After leaving Oxford, Barfield worked as a freelance writer and did part-time editorial work for several periodicals, including New Statesman, London Mercury, and Truth. In 1925, he published his first book, The Silver Trumpet, a fantasy for children. A second book, History in English Words, appeared in 1926. In 1928, he published Poetic Diction, his most important work. Barfield also published later editions of this work; the third edition, for example, appeared in 1973.
Barfield was married to Christian Maude Douie in 1923, a dance teacher whom he had met during the early 1920’s, when he briefly considered becoming a professional dancer. They adopted two children and became foster parents to a third. By 1930, it was evident that Barfield could not earn enough money from writing to support a family. Hence, he began training for a career as a lawyer and eventually became a partner in his father’s law firm in London. From 1930 until his retirement in 1959, Barfield contributed an occasional article to several periodicals and published three books, including an autobiographical novel, This Ever Diverse Pair, under the pseudonym G. A. L. Burgeon. Once retired from his law practice, Barfield returned to his first love, writing. He also began lecturing at universities in Canada and the United States. During the 1960’s, he held visiting professorships at Drew and Brandeis Universities. He died at the age of ninety-nine, in England, on December 14, 1997.
Barfield’s writings are heavily influenced by his interest in anthroposophy, a spiritualistic school of philosophy founded in 1912 by Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, artist, and self-proclaimed scientist. Barfield joined the Anthroposophical Society in 1922. His growing interest in what C. S. Lewis considered occultism greatly alarmed Lewis. Over the next several years, the two friends carried on a “great war” through correspondence: Lewis tried to dissuade Barfield from anthroposophy, while Barfield tried to convince Lewis that imagination could be a way to truth. Barfield believed in evolution and saw reincarnation as an essential compensation for the inequalities created by the gradual development of humanity. Yet he considered himself a Christian and declared that taking communion constituted his “happiest hour.”
Although Lewis never accepted anthroposophy and Barfield never became, like Lewis, an orthodox Christian, their dialogue during their “great war” and their ongoing friendship influenced both men. In his autobiography Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1955), Lewis acknowledges Barfield’s influence, especially that of his arguments in Poetic Diction. Lewis also recommends Poetic Diction in his book Miracles: A Preliminary Study (1947) and frequently cited it in his lectures at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Poetic Diction argues that “[g]reat poetry is the progressive incarnation of life in consciousness” and is best identified by its pleasure-giving qualities. Barfield also argues that all creation is sensitive to the primal spiritual element from which humanity has evolved. This form of mysticism appears strongly in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series. Barfield was a member of the literary circle known as the Inklings, associated with Lewis during the 1940’s. They remained close friends until Lewis’s death in 1963.
Attempting an analysis of Barfield’s writing is difficult. As with anthroposophy, which so heavily influenced Barfield’s thinking, his books are concerned with esoteric topics such as the evolution of consciousness. According to Barfield, the history of words and their changing meanings is a key to understanding the mind, or human consciousness, and the real world (that is, the nonmaterial or spiritual world which the mind helps create and of which the mind originally was a part).
While study of Owen Barfield remains largely a by-product of the ongoing interest in Lewis and other members of the Inklings, a small but growing body of scholarship acknowledges the powerful originality of Barfield’s work. In the United States, Barfield gained an outspoken advocate in the novelist Saul Bellow, whose fiction clearly reveals Barfield’s influence. The poet Howard Nemerov also acknowledged a heavy debt to Barfield’s writings.