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IN the late 1960s when teaching in Grays in Essex just outside London, I attended a lecture by Owen Barfield at a local literary society, bringing with me a first edition with dust jacket of probably his most well-known work, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. After the lecture, he signed the copy, commenting--I recall--that it was a first edition and asking my name. When I said, "Baker," Barfield, a somewhat reserved man in a suit, looked startled and slightly shocked. In preparing this special edition of Renascence, I now understand why. My name must have reminded him of his close friend Leo Baker (1898-1986), Oxford contemporary and fellow Anthroposophist. Baker, like Barfield, was at Wadham College, Oxford, and to my knowledge no relative, not even distant!

Perhaps my initial introduction to Barfield was as an undergraduate and from my tutor at the University of Sussex, the late Stephen Medcalf (1936-2007), to whom this special issue of Renascence is dedicated. Stephen admired Barfield and especially his Poetic Diction, History in English Words (1926), and Saving the Appearances (1957). In his review of C. H. Sisson's Selected Poems (1981), Medcalf applies to Sisson what he refers to as "Owen Barfield's test of a poet--what words, having read him, do I use with an extended meaning" (Times Literary Supplement 23 April 1982: reprinted in Brian Cummings and Gabriel Josipovici, ed., The Spirit of England: Selected Essays of Stephen Medcalf, London: Legenda, 2010: 266).

Medcalf in his "Piers Plowman and the Ricardian Age in Literature" (originally published in David Daiches and Anthony Thorlby, ed., Literature and Western Civilization, I: The Medieval World and reprinted in The Spirit of England) quotes Barfield approvingly. Medcalf is writing about the early medieval author Thomas Usk's "allegorical description of how he first found the pearl." This is not necessarily an allusion to the medieval poem, Pearl. Medcalf then cites from Usk's description of a winter's walk. Medcalf comments that "one is very much tempted to jump the difficulties presented by arguing from aesthetic convention to form of consciousness." He then cites at length from Barfield's Saving the Appearances:

In his relation to his environment, the man of the Middle Ages was rather less like an island, rather more like an embryo, than we are ... If [he] could be suddenly transported into the skin of a man of the twentieth century, seeing through our eyes and with our "figuration" the objects we see.... "Oh," he would say, "look how they stand out!"... In such a world the convention of perspective was unnecessary. To such a world, other conventions of visual reproduction, such as the nimbus and the halo, were as appropriate as to ours they are not. It was as if the observers were themselves in the picture. Compared with us, they felt themselves and the objects around them and the words that expressed those objects, immersed together in something like a clear lake of--what shall we say? -of "meaning" if you choose. It seems the most adequate word (The Spirit of England 111).

Barfield lay submerged in my subconscious until 2001 when Waterfield's catalogues of his library reached me and re-awakened memories of Medcalf and my brief encounter with Barfield. As an avid collector of inscribed, marked association copies, I found the temptation to purchase too great. Acquisition included Barfield's annotated copies of Spinoza and Malory described in this special issue. The occasion for the descriptions was a graduate seminar on marginalia I had the fortune to teach at Northern Illinois University in the Spring of 2008. Impressed with what my students Angela Grimaldi and Todd West produced, I sent them for possible publication consideration to Ed Block, the editor at Renascence. Professor Block immediately expressed interest and suggested mounting a Barfield special issue. Without Professor Block's interest and encouragement, this special issue would not exist.

Wendell G. Johnson provides a succinct account of Barfield's religious beliefs and his importance. Johnson explains key influences upon Barfield such as Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy, C. S. Lewis, and Barfield's theology. Intellectual affinities between Barfield and his near contemporary, Charles Williams, and their perceptions of poetry and poetic language concern J. G. Bradbury in his "Poetic Vision: Owen Barfield and Charles Williams." The editor of this special issue of Renascence gives an account of Barfield's books and his reading in "Barfield's Books." Todd West and Angela Grimaldi describe Barfield's markings in his copy of Spinoza's Ethics and Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur and assess the impact both had upon Barfield and his ideas. In the final essay, Peter Garratt reviews the strengths and limitations of the first biography of Barfield.
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Author:Baker, William
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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