Owen Barfield’s Prose and Poetry: Wholeness Blossoms from “Imagination’s Earth”

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Owen Barfield, a close friend of C. S. Lewis, was a philosopher and writer at heart. His numerous books range from a children’s fairy tale, to a drama retelling the story of Orpheus, to deeply philosophical books on theology and literary criticism. However, Barfield earned his living as a solicitor. For thirty years he rode the train to and from his law offices and plodded determinedly through meetings with clients, court appearances, legal documents, and a daily barrage of legalese. During his years as a solicitor, Barfield suffered a great deal of frustration, even angst. In his poetry and fiction, and perhaps most overtly in his novel, This Ever Diverse Pair (1950), we can identify these feelings as Barfield depicts the threat of stagnation-or worse, the threat of complete disconnect with our birthing selves, a fragmentation in which the creative voice is lost.

Many of us can relate to Barfield’s frustration; in our often hectic and information-clogged lives, it’s all too easy to feel fragmented, frazzled, and fruitless. We have to wear too many hats, take on too many tasks, and wonder wearily when we’ll find that creative spark again. In his gentle and often playful way, Owen Barfield opens for us the door to blossoming, fruitful creativity and to personal wholeness. We read the poems and smile at our former dreams of grandeur, or gaze wistfully into our heart’s delight and promise, as Barfield does. We read This Ever Diverse Pair and bemoan the fragmentation that divides us from our best selves. However, Barfield’s work propels us, as it did him, to a vision of springtime redemption engendered by the Imagination.

Barfield began publishing during the heyday of Modernism, with its ironic, sometimes despair-driven mode of consciousness and expression. His short story, “Dope” (1923), indicates that he might have taken his place in modern letters with others like T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats. Thomas Kranidas notes that “Dope” was a “well-written, ironic tale of a young factory-worker whose dreary life is empty of all spiritual reality” (23).  However, Barfield refused to identify with the merely ironic; Kranidas includes an excerpt from a Barfield letter to Eliot: “I am a little tired of literature which can do nothing but point out ironically that there is nothing much going on but disintegration and decay” (23).  Barfield, says Kranidas, “determines to abandon neutrality toward the spiritual desiccation of his times and toward the reigning styles that portrayed that desiccation” (24).  Instead Barfield chose to look at the whole picture, at a world full of polarities but grounded in love and imagination, and full of possibilities.

The quotation in my title is taken from one of Barfield’s poems, “La Dame a Licorne.”

All the world’s depth and width around her grace
Are shadows-Oh the utmost ends of space
Run inward to her, like her unicorn,
Seeking to sink in her, to be unborn,
Be time’s intensity in space’s dearth,
All generations’ appetite to birth
Caught in one miracle of personhood.
And since it doth inhabit (this great good
Clothed with the Sun his plenitude of power)
My very heart, imagination’s Earth,
How shall my spring not blossom into flower?

(Hunter 24)