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Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning Paperback – 14 Feb 2010

4.3 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 244 pages
  • Publisher: Barfield Press UK (14 Feb. 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0955958245
  • ISBN-13: 978-0955958243
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 1.4 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 663,973 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Owen Barfield is probably the outstanding philosopher of consciousness of the 20th Century. Poetic Dictation is really a study of the evolution of consciousness, though not in a flakey, New Age, way. The New Age is the pollution coming out of Barfield's windpipe!

Barfield is a weighty thinker and he came to similar conclusions to Julian Jaynes theory about the mind of humans living 4000 years ago. The two thinkers never met, so this is a clue the the truth that Barfield writes about.
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So I've finally read Owen Barfield's famous "Poetic Diction". Or large chunks of it, at any rate. Barfield published his book in 1928 and dedicated it to a mysterious character named Clive Hamilton. The dedication reads: "Opposition is true friendship". Later editions of "Poetic Diction" reveal the real identity of Barfield's friend. It was, of course, C.S. Lewis.

By 1973, Barfield's book had expanded considerably. This seems to be the "canonical" edition, including two prefaces, four appendices and an afterword. Unfortunately, I don't think this is much of an improvement. The book is disjointed, meandering and downright incomprehensible. The American poet Howard Nemerov called "Poetic Diction" a secret and sacred book, and I can readily concur with the first part of the statement...

One problem with Barfield is that he doesn't use standard philosophical vocabulary. To me, he sounds like a subjective idealist. In reality he was an objective idealist. I stumbled rather badly over his magnum opus "Saving the appearances" because of this misunderstanding. Barfield was also a life-long Anthroposophist, but this is usually not mentioned in his works, except in passing. This is a problem, since many of his terms (imagination, final participation, etc) probably mean one thing to the causal reader, and something else again to devout Anthroposophists. The strange new religion or "spiritual path" of Anthroposophy was developed in Germany by Rudolf Steiner, and seems to have taken the young Barfield by storm when he first heard about it during the 1920's. Indeed, Barfield could be regarded as a "one man front group" for the Anthroposophical Society.
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Excellant, and not just for poetry lovers
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars 6 reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars An ambitious book indeed 4 Dec. 2016
By Dan'l Danehy-Oakes - Published on Amazon.com
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This is quite a difficult book for me to review, because I'm not really sure what to make of it. I suspect it will take at least one more reading before it really sinks in.

Actually, it is quite possible that Barfield himself wrote an excellent review, as part of is Preface to the book's second edition (1951 - the original being from 1928):
<blockquote>...[T]his book grew out of two empirical observations, first, that poetry reacts on the meanings of the words that it employs, and, secondly, that there appear to be two sorts of poetry... Thus, it claims to present, not merely a theory of poetic diction, but a theory of poetry: and not merely a theory of poetry, but a theory of knowledge.</blockquote>
Yes indeed, Barfield attempts all that, nor am I ambitious enough to summarize the theory of poetry that he takes 225 pages to unfold. I can, however, mention some of its salient features.

First, that he distinguishes between poetry and verse. Poetry, for Barfield, is a quality of language: poetic diction, as opposed to prosaic diction, either of which may appear in verse or prose form.

Poetic language, poetry, he suggests, is language that creates new meaning for (at least some of) the words it uses. <blockquote>When words are selected and arranged in such a way that their meaning either arouses, or is obviously intended to arouse, aesthetic imagination, the result may be described as <i>poetic diction</i>... Meaning includes the whole content of a word, or of a group of words arranged in a particular order, other than the actual <i>sounds</i> of which they are composed.</blockquote> Indeed, Barfield eschews discussion of things like rhyme, alliteration, and so on, except <i>passim</i> in service of other birds he is hunting.

A great deal of the book is given over to a proposed revision of the commonly-held theories (as of 1928) of how language arises, and of how words "create" meaning in the mind of the reader/writer/speaker/hearer. He does not explicitly rejects, but thoroughly criticizes, the philological assumption that all modern languages are grown from simple linguistic "roots," suggesting that out grancestors actually had much more capacity for abstraction in language than we give them credit for - and, at the same time, much more capacity for concrete specificity.

He suggests that words that seemed to have two meanings - such as the Latin verb "ruo," which is translated (depending on context) either as "rush" or "fall." It may be, he says, that to the Latin mind, there was a single meaning -- a single concept that has relationship to both, but is not either of, the modern concepts "rush" and "fall." He traces one of the word's English descendants, <i>ruin</i>, through a series of meaning-concepts it has represented over the centuries.

I can't really grok his conclusions very well; as I said, I shall have to reread this book at some point. But it has something to do with the idea that poetic language occurs precisely when the speaker/writer says/writes something that the hearer/reader finds "strange" -- for a variety of meanings of "strange," which however basically come to "the hearer/reader is given a new way of seeing something."
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read. 7 Mar. 2017
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What a great read for people of faith and language who want to dig deeper into the meaning of the words, Psalms and various aspects of language in the Bible and in general. Fans of C.S. Lewis will love it because there are so many shadows of his work and how he writes in this book.
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars 24 April 2016
By SOTIRIOS D. KOTSOPOULOS - Published on Amazon.com
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tem arrived promptly and in excellent condition, as described. Thank you!
5.0 out of 5 stars Understanding Language 19 Feb. 2013
By E S HENRY - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Owen makes the case that poetic diction is basic to all communication, not just poems. All the poetic devices are essential to ordinary English.
5.0 out of 5 stars A valuable work for the serious in the field. 15 July 2014
By A.E.M. Baumann - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
First, there is something slightly misleading about the title of this book. Yes, the book is about poetic diction; but, it is far more about poetic language encompassingly. Which is the intent of Barfield: he takes the approach, and walks it well, that general ideas about poetic diction cannot be found by turning first to specific examples. (Though, his use of specific examples is very effective.) Rather, it is best to start broadly and work inward so that general principles can be discovered in those broader fields in which they operate. As such, the first half of this book is primarily an entry into the discourse on the origin of language, with that the nature of language, and with that the nature of poetic -- as opposed to scientific -- language. In turn, Barfield makes the observation that much of the discourse about poetic language fails in its aims because it is speaking about poetic language scientifically, rather than poetically: a point too many books on poetic language fail to take into account.

Yet, my willingness to force this book on other people -- and it is sometimes that I test my own appreciation for a book by how much I do force it into the hands of persons who would benefit from it -- is dampened somewhat by this aspect, for I do not believe Barfield himself has successfully extricated the scientific from his history of the development of language. Much of this is forgivable, considering the date of the original printing (1927). Indeed, at that time, it may be arguable that Barfield was with the vanguard of such discussions. However, I find his use of the idea of the "evolution of consciousness" problematic; and, his central definition, that of the aesthetic imagination being a "felt change of consciousness" to have been a touch forced by this scientific taint. (As well, it should be noted, if you are new to the turn of the twentieth century discourse on the development of language, the first half of _Poetic Diction)could be a difficult read.)

That said, the 'flaw' -- if you can call it that -- of _Poetic Diction_ can be for the most part excised from the discussion as a whole without much damage to Barfields ultimate aim, the discussion of poetic diction itself. While there are chapters (like "V. Language and Poetry" and "VI. The Poet") whose conclusions I mostly reject, they are really oriented more toward the evolution of language argument, and can almost be skipped wholly (better, read lightly) by the reader interested only in the primary subject of poetic diciton.

And it is undeniable that, whatever the thoughts be on the evolution of language argument, _Poetic Diction_ as a whole and the second half especially is a banquet for thought on poetic language. The very small chapter IX., "Verse and Prose," is on its own worth the price of admission, though it is very much a part of the whole. (If that chapter does not influence your thought on poetry and literature in general you should find another hobby. Bird houses are always popular.) The following chapter on "Archaism" nearly likewise. (The next, "Strangeness," chapter to me speaks again of the presence of that scientific thinking: occasionally I get the feeling, throughout the work, that Barfield veers farther toward's the idea of the aesthetic as a momentary disorientation, not unlike Tolstoy's idea of depersonalization, without realizing it. Or perhaps he does. Though, if he did, I think he would have made mention in the bibliographic Afterward.)

So, my recommendation: a definite addition to the shelf with the following qualifications:

(1) If you are new to the discussions on the origin of language, you might find _Poetic Diction_ a bit difficult. Barfield is writing, if to a small degree, to an audience that is somewhat familiar with that disourse.

(2) In fact, I would not recommend this book at all as an introductory text to the subject. This is an advanced text. (Perhaps better said "mid-level.") Or, if you do read it at an introductory level, expect that re-reading it five or eight years from now you will be astonished by how much you missed or misunderstood.

(3) Knowledge of Coleridge's ideas on the primary and secondary imagination would be helpful, but is not at all necessary. (Barfields second preface goes into it with some explanation.)

(4) Recognize that while the "evolution of consciousness" ideas may be considered dated, Barfield does yet succeed in moving from the general to the more specific subject of poetic diction, and there is much to be taken from this book on that subject, even though only a minority percent of this book is specifically on the subject. But then, this is not meant to be a book offering definitives, nor is it a book of examples: it is meant to be a book offering ideas to ponder. In no small sense, while I may disagree with some of his descriptions of the road he took, I have no issue with the choice of road taken. It offers a greatly thought provoking journey.

(5) In the 1972 Afterward, which is an annotative bibliography of no small value, Barfield speaks of how similar his book is to Cassirer's book, _Language and Myth_, on its discussion of the origins of language and the nature of poetic and scientific language. Barfield had not read Cassirer at all at the time he wrote _Poetic Diction_. (Indeed, _Language and Myth_ was not translated into English until a number of years later.) The two books are, indeed, very similar. Though, Cassirer succeeds where to me Barfield fails, in excising that last bit of scientificality from the discourse. I highly recommend Cassirer's book, and it would make a great companion to this book. Though, note, Cassirer's book is far more philosophical in nature and thus a more challenging read. However, very worth the effort.

As a final note, it should be stated that the difference between the editions of _Poetic Diction_ lies primarily in the added prefaces and appendices and not in rewriting the main text. That said, the appendices and the second edition preface are very worth having, so I would buy the later editions.
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