To Set the Deep Sea Clamorous

It seems like many of us we have turned off part of our brains, the part that dares to dream and remember, is able to imagine different worlds. It’s as if reality TV, real time broadcasting, the constant one-sided overheard inane chatter via cell phone have all sucked those brain cells out through our nostrils.

Some resist by turning off the television. They get their news from alternative media sources, watch Comedy Central online, read and re-read books. Read books about books and books about language. Such a course brought me to Owen Barfield.

While JRR Tolkien was writing his epic trilogy and developing his history of Middle Earth, he belonged to a group known as the Inklings, which included among others Owen Barfield.

Barfield’s book, Poetic Diction, is a series of reflections on the nature of poetry and language. Howard Nemerov in his forward to the 1973 Wesleyan University Press edition says, "Among the few poets and teachers of my acquaintance who know Poetic Diction, it has been valued not only as a secret book, but nearly as a sacred one." Poetic Diction was first published in 1928, prior to the advent of television, and even the Second World War, but the industrial revolution was well underway, and memories of World War One were fresh. Against this backdrop Barfield said,

Imagination, history, bare common sense – these, it seems, are as nothing beside the paramount necessity that the great Mumbo Jumbo, the patent, double-million magnifying Inductive Method, should be allowed to continue contemplating its own ideal reflection – a golden age in which every man was his own Newton, in a world dropping with apples. Only when poesy, who is herself alive, looks backward, does she see at a glance how much younger is the Tree of Knowledge than the Tree of Life.

Barfield felt that primitive people spoke in metaphor, that the initial naming of things was poetical. As man became more "civilized" language became fossilized and lost its magic. Words that once might have been specific became generalized, collective, unable to conjure up an emotive response. It is up the poet to return us to meaningful language through the tardis of imagination. Barfield follows the word ruin (from the Latin verb ruo meaning either rush or fall) to demonstrate the evolution or devolution of a word, which is then brought back to life by the poet, EL Davison. The following lines are from The Sunken City:

...the climbing tentacles

Of some sleep-swimming octopus

Disturb a ruined temple’s bells

And set the deep sea clamorous.