Aeolian Harp

An Aeolian harp was a small box, a popular toy of the Romantic Era, across which are stretched gut strings of different thickness, tuned to resonate in unison with each other. Rising and falling harmonies are then produced when air blows over them. (Aeolus was, of course, a Greek god of the wind.)

Barfield’s chief interest in the Aeolian harp is that, as an instrument played on by nature itself rather than by human intervention, it stands as a ready-made symbol for inspiration, as is apparent in the following passages (quoted from Shelley and Coleridge respectively) cited by him:

Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them.
(from “A Defence of Poetry,” quoted in Rediscovery of Meaning 97)

And what if all of animated nature
be but organic Harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?
(from “The Aeolian Harp,” quoted in Rediscovery of Meaning 96)

To these Romantic testaments he adds his own “Romanticism come of age” version of the Aeolian harp metaphor—one of his most concise and brilliant representations of the evolution of consciousness:

It [the evolution of human consciousness] is rather as if a musical instrument, which was being played on . . . an Aeolian harp perhaps, played on by nature herself . . . fell silent for a while. And then, after an interval, when it began to sound again, it was no longer merely an instrument, but had become aware of itself as such . . . and could itself take part in the playing of itself.
(Romanticism Comes of Age 302)

In an essay entitled “The Harp and the Camera” (in Rediscovery of Meaning), Barfield contrasts the Aeolian harp as a root metaphor with the camera:

Unlike the camera the harp has no inside, it does not first of all receive into itself stimuli from without and then respond to them. The wind-harp becomes what it is by itself becoming an “inside” for the environing air, by becoming a modulated voice for it to speak with.
(Rediscovery of Meaning 105)

And he wonders if the Romantic infatuation with the harp did not represent a prescient moment in the evolution of consciousness:

Did that enthusiasm of the Romantics for the wind-harp signify that they had come to see the history of the Western mind as a kind of war between the harp and the camera—that they foresaw the camera civilization that was coming upon us?
(Rediscovery of Meaning 110)

The harp/camera antinomy lies at the heart of the modern misunderstanding of the “primitive” mind, the “chronological snobbery” that lead to the development of the theory of projection. “If we must think in metaphor,” Barfield writes (and he acknowledges that we must), “why not try beginning again on the assumption that primitive man was not a camera obscura but an Aeolian harp?” Conscious adoption of the harp metaphor, he suggests, may in fact be the only means by which “we can hope to understand the origin of myths and of thinking at all” (Rediscovery of Meaning 109).

Rather than a war between the harp and the camera, Barfield suggests, however, more than just a metaphoric reconciliation: he imagines a marriage, one that, as a decisive step in the development of true systematic imagination, might lead us out of the modern wasteland.

If the story of the harp and the camera is to continue instead of ending with a whimper, it will have to be by way of a true marriage between the one and the other. Is it fanciful, I wonder, to think of a sort of mini-harp stretched across the window of the eye—an Apollo’s harp if you will—as perhaps not a bad image for the joy of looking with imagination?
(Rediscovery of Meaning 113)

Copyright © 1997 — Owen Barfield Literary Estate.       Return to Top.