Monday 26 June 2023

Romanticism Come of Age; a second edition of the biography of Owen Barfield by Simon Blaxland-de Lange

Simon Blaxland-de Lange. Owen Barfield: Romanticism come of age. Temple Lodge Publishing: Forest Row, UK, 2006/ Second Edition 2021. pp. xvii, 367. 

Blaxland-de Lange's is the only biography of Owen Barfield, and it is very good. 

Indeed, because its greatest strength is that BdL has such a deep understanding of Barfield's ideas, this biography is a way by which someone could approach reading Barfield from scratch. By reading the biography first, the potential explorer can discover which of Barfield's very various books he would be most likely to enjoy and appreciate - and therefore where he might best start reading. 

The biography's great strength, might also be regarded as a stumbling block; which is that BdL is - like Barfield - a serious, indeed professional, Anthroposophist - a follower of Rudolf Steiner. 

This has the great advantage of providing valid and thorough explanations of this aspect of Barfield, which aspect is usually so badly covered by most other writers about Barfield - few of whom have made the (considerable!) effort necessary to get to grips with Steiner's vast oeuvre

On the other hand; the book is written on the basis of Anthroposophical assumptions, and includes reference to Steiner concepts; that will strike the na├»ve reader as bizarre, as well as startling. Yet, there is also a good deal of Steiner, and indeed the core of his work; that is potentially of primary importance to everyone; so to attain understanding is well worth a bit of effort.   

The organization of the book is somewhat eccentric. It begins conventionally enough, with a "biographical sketch" which gives an overview of Barfield's life, and some of the major incidents - ending with some snapshots of his attitudes and concerns at the end of his ninety-nine year life. 

After this, the book is presented in a thematic way, with different chapters covering different aspects of Barfield's life and ideas - and these chapters are not in any overall chronological arrangement, but instead each chapter includes whatever is relevant to its particular concern. 

This means that - after the first overview - the book chapters can be read, without loss, in almost any order; and this has been my practice over the decade-plus since I bought the first edition. 

Second edition differences are minimal. Indeed, I could only myself detect the addition of an Appendix making available for the first time Psychography; which was an aborted draft attempt, from the late 1940s, at a spiritual autobiography by Barfield - which runs at 12 pages, and stops in Barfield's late teens. 

This is well worth reading, as a further insight into some fundamental aspects of Barfield - including his extreme shyness and reserve in talking on the topic of himself. 

For instance, he writes about the psychological effects of his problem with stammering; but never actually says what that problem was! If the reader did not already know about this problem from elsewhere, then the passage would be highly mystifying - and the problem sounds more sinister, and shameful, than it actually was.  

In sum: Romanticism Come of Age is probably the only indispensable book about Owen Barfield - anyone who is interested by Barfield will want a copy, and will consult it frequently. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! I had not yet heard of a Second Edition (and have never yet caught up with the first, however interesting it sounded: though I think I have learned more, here, than from references to ed. 1 which I remember). I really enjoyed Norbert Feinendegen and Arend Smilde's edition, The "Great War" of Owen Barfield and C.S. Lewis: Philosophical Writings 1927-1930 (2015)* - although it was not easy reading; but my German is not so reliably fluent that I have tried to read Norbert Feinendegen's Denk-Weg zu Christus. C. S. Lewis als kritischer Denker der Moderne (2008) - though I am very curious as to how much attention he gives to Barfield there: I should probably have a look at the nearest library copy and see how I get along!

One thing that interests me - though I have read little enough of either of them - is how Barfield may - or how much he does - differ from Steiner. From an all-too-brief conversation with the late Clyde Kilby, I got the impression that he thought there were distinct differences, and ones in some ways later in Barfield's life as well as others from before Barfield started to read Steiner. Meanwhile, this sounds like the best way to become acquainted with Simon Blaxland-de Lange's book - with an added previously unpublished draft by Barfield!

David Llewellyn Dodds

*Arend Smilde has posted a list of corrections for The “Great War” on his Lewisiana website.