Feast of St Juliana the Virgin-Martyr
WE ARE HAPPY when for everything inside us there is a corresponding something outside us. —William Butler Yeats
I was twenty when I learned what is essential about metaphors. The poet Albert Goldbarth asked his introductory class to open the bundle of photocopied poems he’d made. Within it were twenty words by Gregory Orr:
Washing My Face
Last night’s dreams disappear.
They are like the sink draining:
a transparent rose swallowed by its stem.
I well recall the pedestal sink and pipe that Goldbarth drew with chalk to ensure we saw the shape the poem made. And I remember the way he drew the shape within the shape: surface petals made of water draining into a moving column of its making. And surely then he must have noted the iteration of that shape within us, for it comes so readily to mind: atop a column, the wakeful brain, an outgrowth of a stem. Further and further, he led us into the poem even as he led us deeper into ourselves. We talked of the cleansing agency of dream life, of the ways water and dreams relate. Only the clock stopped us.
Though I did not know Emerson’s work at the time, I was starting to see what that visionary said was “easily seen”: metaphors “are not the dreams of a few poets, here and there,” but essential offshoots of our nature. Man, he said, has been “placed in the center of beings, and a ray of relation passes from every other being to him.” He described this relationship as “radical correspondence,” root-level connections that allow the world and ourselves to feel “full of life.”
Owen Barfield knew this feeling well. The man whom C. S. Lewis called “the wisest and best of my unofficial teachers,” who, according to Malcolm Guite, was the “key player, not only for Lewis but for Tolkien as well,” in the Inklings’ belief in the “restoration of the imagination as a faculty of meaning and knowledge,” began writing of the power of imaginative language—particularly its use in poetry—after he returned from war.
Within the words of many of the day’s thinkers in the wake of World War I—including his own—Barfield had begun to sense the evidence of deadening impulses: despair and materialism. He grew more and more weary of experiencing a world of blind matter, “a world of outsides with no insides.” The world—and then his own nature—began to feel like a “dead thing.”
But in poetry, he realized, he felt the presence of something more. Reading certain lines, he experienced “a felt change of consciousness” (one he likened to electricity entering a piece of wire coil passing through a magnetized space): “I began to find that I had very sharp experiences in reading poetry…. Especially metaphor, particularly metaphor. It seemed to say things to me that nothing else did. And it seemed to be something which was untouchable by the over-riding materialism of my outlook.”
What he heard—even at the roots of the words themselves—was the stirring of hidden life, one connected integrally to meaning. As he explains in Poetic Diction, at one time in our history, a single word (pneuma in Greek, spiritus in Latin) conveyed breath and wind and spirit—evidence, he believed, of a prior mode of human consciousness, an “original participation” with reality, in which the personal and the eternal, the physical and the metaphysical, the subjective and the objective, were one. Man was mortal coil conducting meaning in a world charged with the grandeur of God.
The history of consciousness was embedded in the history of language, Barfield came to believe, and the fossil record showed increasing division, increasing abstraction, increasing alienation from that original, meaning-related world.
In certain works of the imagination, however—certain rich uses of words, certain images, certain metaphors—one could still find and feel the pulse of prior life. Correcting Shelley’s statement that “Metaphorical language marks the before unapprehended relations of things,” Barfield wrote, “Our sophistication, like Odin’s, has cost us an eye; and now it is the language of poets, in so far as they create true metaphors, which must restore this unity conceptually, after it has been lost from perception. Thus, the ‘before-unapprehended’ relationships of which Shelley spoke, are in a sense ‘forgotten’ relationships. For though they were never yet apprehended, they were at one time seen. And imagination can see them again.”
Barfield envisioned a time when the mode of knowing called imagination, guided by the figure of Christ (whose incarnation embodied a unification of individual freedom and embeddedness in creation), would lead to a new form of consciousness, in which man “regains his at-one-ment with the principle of creation, only now in full self-consciousness as a self-contained ego”:
There is no question of going backwards and trying to be little Greeks. . . . The task which their philosophers instinctively set themselves was . . . to get outside a plane of consciousness in which they normally lived, so as to be able to conceive of it: to turn thinking into thought. Our problem is the converse of this. We are outside it already. Our task is twofold, first to realize that it is still there, and then to learn how to get back into it, how to rise once more from thought into thinking, taking with us, however, that fuller self-consciousness which the Greeks never knew, and which could never have been ours if they had not laboured to turn thinking into thought. Thus, being normally outside, it follows that we shall also be conscious of it as a different world, a world into which we can plunge at will.
It is twenty-five years since first I felt a ray arriving from Orr’s transparent rose. Now I am the teacher with the bundle of poems, endeavoring to draw the water.
William Coleman teaches literature, drama, and writing at Northfield School of the Liberal Arts, in Wichita, Kansas.