Frye, Northrop

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FRYE, NORTHROP . The reputation of Northrop Frye (19121991) as a literary theorist was originally based upon his Anatomy of Criticism (1957), a book that sought to provide a structural framework for the study of literature through an analysis of its various modes, symbols, myths, images, and genres. The Anatomy, heralded for a generation as a twentieth-century Poetics, had a large following in the 1960s and 1970s, and twenty years after its publication it was the most frequently cited book in the arts and humanities by a writer born in the twentieth century. Seventeen translations of the Anatomy into thirteen languages (as of 2003) attest to its international standing. But some thirty books followed in the wake of the Anatomy, and the scope of Frye's work as a whole has come into focus with the publication of his collected works. While Anatomy of Criticism will remain an important twentieth-century study of literary conventions, it seems likely that Frye's major contribution will be defined by the books that serve as bookends of his career: at the beginning, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947), and at the end, his two books on the Bible and literature, The Great Code (1982) and Words with Power (1990)as well as his posthumous The Double Vision (1991).

Frye grew up in a Methodist environment in Moncton, New Brunswick. Although he rejected at an early age what he saw as the constraining features of fundamentalism and the oppressive demands of Methodist moral piety, he never abandoned his Protestant roots, particularly its low-church, dissenting traditions and the Methodist emphasis on experience. In 1929, at age seventeen, he entered Victoria College in Toronto as a "church student," and on completing his undergraduate honors degree in philosophy, he enrolled at Emmanuel College, the theology school at Victoria University. The papers he wrote at Emmanuel, collected in Northrop Frye's Student Essays (1997), show how deeply he immersed himself in the comparative mythology of James Frazer (18541941), Oswald Spengler's (18801936) theory of the organic rhythms of cultural history, Reformation theology, and the Romantic cultural revolution. Several of these essays also addressed the relationship of religion and art. Frye's basic insights came to him early, and these student essays contain an embryonic form of many of the deductive frameworks he subsequently developed. At age twenty-two Frye wrote, "religion and art are the two most important phenomena in the world; or rather the most important phenomenon, for they are basically the same thing" (Correspondence, 1966, vol. 1, pp. 425426). This was an insight that Frye spent the next fifty-six years exploring.

Frye's interest in religion is, therefore, in many ways obvious: he became an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada; early in his career he wrote an extraordinary essay on American civil religion and another one on the relation of the church to society; at Victoria College, where Frye spent his entire career, he taught a course on the Bible for forty-four years; and he addressed religious subjects on numerous occasions (Northrop Frye on Religion [2000] contains forty-three texts, including a number of eloquent sermons and prayers). But having an interest in religion would be not be unusual for any thinker who engaged as expansive a range of literary, social, and cultural issues as Frye did. That would be the weak claim. The strong claim would be that religion was absolutely central to practically everything he wrote, the base upon which he built the massive superstructure that was his life's work. The reasons for the strong claim have become more insistent and the argument more convincing with the publication of Frye's notebooks, diaries, and other manuscripts.

Frye remarked on several occasions that all of his ideas derived from William Blake (17571827), a deeply religious poet, the code of whose "prophecies" Frye was more responsible than anyone else for deciphering. The most important thing Blake taught Frye was the religious vision of radical immanence. Blake insists, says Frye, that "everything God does comes through manthe consciousness and imagination of man.God becomes man in order that we may be as he is" (Cayley, 1992, p. 54). Theologically, this is the doctrine of the incarnation, though Frye was not inclined to speculate on such paradoxes in theological termsin what he called the second-phase language of discursive thought with its emphasis on subjects and objects. His approach was through the first-phase language of metaphor. "The metaphorical approach," he said, "moves in the direction of the identity of God and man" (Cayley, 1992. p. 183). This means that the principle of identity, which makes the paradoxical claim that two different things are the same thing, lies behind Frye's speculation on both religion and art. Identity is also a principle of myth: in our earliest stories, which are stories about gods, the gods are themselves identified with forces in nature. In such hyphenated words as sky-god or river-god the hyphen really functions as an equal mark, identifying the sky or the river with the god. Mythos or narrative, moreover, has to do with the loss and regaining of identity, or recognition of self by both literary characters and readers, which is the general topic of The Secular Scripture (1976).

Metaphor and myth, then, lie behind Frye's imaginative approach to the Bible in The Great Code and Words with Power and in the lectures on the Bible that he gave at Victoria College, published in Northrop Frye's Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts (2003). The Bible for Frye was the primary text in the Western literary imagination, becoming for him a touchstone for studying what he called "positive analogies" in nonbiblical stories and images. His approach always moved away from the historical and doctrinal toward the poetic. But although he was known primarily as a literary critic, his lifelong project took the form of a religious quest and the structures he built for containing his expansive vision were fundamentally religious. "I am an architect of the spiritual world," Frye wrote in his Late Notebooks (2000, vol. 1, p. 414).

The architecture of this world was formed by a number of key terms that appear throughout Frye's workwhat he called his "verbal formulas." Chief among these are (1) interpenetration, an idea that developed from his reading of Spengler, Alfred North Whitehead (18611947), David Bohm (19171992), and the sūtras of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and that, like identity, represented the erasing of the subject-object duality; (2) the participating apocalypse or revelation, which was the final stage of the reading process, opening up "myths to live by and metaphors to live in" and the gospel of love; (3) kerygma, the voice of proclamation that comes from the other side of the poetic; (4) purgatory, which represents the pilgrimage that serves as a crucible for the purified mind and the emancipated vision; (5) anagnorisis or recognition, which Frye associates with rebirth and renewed visionary perception; and (6) the dialectic of Word and Spirit, the goal of which was to reach spiritual insight.

Frazer and other comparative mythographers, including Carl Jung (18751961) and Mircea Eliade (19071986), were important in Frye's early work in helping him define the principles of myth, archetype, and ritual. In his late work such thinkers are displaced by G. W. F. Hegel (17701831), whose Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) Frye saw as the great philosophic statement of anabasis. Both Frye and Hegel climb a spiraling ladder to a higher level of being, except Frye moves upward by way of the language of myth and metaphor. Frye said, "If Hegel had written his Phenomenology in mythos -language instead of in logos -language a lot of my work would be done for me" (Late Notebooks, 2000, vol. 1, p. 192). About the same time he wrote, "The rush of ideas I get from Hegel's Phenomenology is so tremendous I can hardly keep up with it" (Late Notebooks, 2000, vol. 2, p. 631). Blake remained Frye's guiding light throughout his career, but Stéphane Mallarmé (18421898) was another important presence in his visionary poetics. In Mallarmé, Frye discovered a completely metaphoric and symbolic world, a world where divinity can be expressed only by the poetic word but which ultimately moved beyond the poetic. In his various accounts of Mallarmé the distinction between literature and religion tended to collapse.

Frye never escaped from his Christian roots, nor did he want to: the words Christian and Christianity appear more 3,400 times in his work. But he had more than a passing interest in Eastern religious traditions, and his notebooks reveal that he was deeply engaged with esoteric and mystical religious traditions. His library contains more than 250 annotateded books that can be labeled esoterica, ranging from Alexandrian hermeticism through the medieval mystics to various forms of the occult, including alchemy, astrology, Gnosticism, magic, mysticism, Rosicrucianism, channeling, the tarot, numerology, astral projection, New Age science, Theosophy, synchronicity, and qabbalism. Frye had no interest in these traditions as matters of belief, but they did confirm his contention that poetic thought is schematic, and they contained grammars of literary and religious symbolism. He was drawn to the esoteric traditions only to the extent that he could make imaginative use of them.

Frye was a schematic thinker (he could hardly put pen to paper without a diagram in mind), but he was also a dialectical thinker, his mind repeatedly moving back and forth between opposing poles of reference: knowledge and experience, space and time, stasis and movement, the individual and society, tradition and innovation, Platonic synthesis and Aristotelian analysis, engagement and detachment, freedom and concern, mythos and dianoia, the world and the grain of sand, immanence and transcendence, and hundreds of other oppositions. A second feature of Frye's expansive body of work was its drive toward unityan effort to get beyond the oppositions that he repeatedly introduced. He always resisted the Kierkegaardian either/or solution. But unity was not achieved at the expense of variety, and he never tires of insisting that opposites are never resolved by reconciliation, harmony, or agreement. They are typically resolved, rather, by the process of the Hegelian Aufhebung, a dialectic in which oppositions are, in the triple meaning of the term, canceled, preserved, and raised. The movement of passing through negation to another level of vision is present in the conclusions of each of the eight chapters of Words with Power, and it is operative as well in the final pages of each of the four chapters of The Double Vision.

Frye's own purgatorial journey, as he called it, took the form of a quest romance. The goal of this questthe existential vision that came from the other side of the poeticwas for Frye, the Everlasting Gospel, in Blake's phrase, or the gospel of love. Charity or agapē is the note that is sounded in the conclusions of Frye's last three books. But the structural poetics that Frye developed in Anatomy of Criticism remained with him to the end. Therefore, to see Frye as a religious visionary and architect of the spiritual world is to consider his work less in revisionary terms than in expanded ones.

See Also

Literature, article on Literature and Religion.


The authoritative texts of Frye's published and previously unpublished writings are being issued in the Collected Works of Northrop Frye (Toronto, 1996), under the editorship of Alvin A. Lee. As of 2003, thirteen of the more than thirty volumes had appeared: The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, 19321939 (2 vols., 1996); Northrop Frye's Student Essays, 19321938 (1997); Northrop Frye on Religion, (2000); Northrop Frye's Late Notebooks, 19821990 (2000; 2 vols.); Northrop Frye's Writings on Education (2000); The Diaries of Northrop Frye, 19421955 (2001); The "Third Book" Notebooks of Northrop Frye, 19641972 (2001); Northrop Frye on Literature and Society, 19361989 (2002); Northrop Frye on Modern Culture (2002); Northrop Frye on Canada (2003); and Northrop Frye's Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts (2003). The remaining volumes are expected at the rate of two per year.

Frye's major books are Fearful Symmetry (Princeton, 1947), Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), The Great Code (New York, 1982), and Words with Power (New York, 1990). His essays have been collected in Fables of Identity (New York, 1963), The Stubborn Structure (Ithaca, N.Y., 1971), Spiritus Mundi (Bloomington, Ind., 1976), Northrop Frye on Culture and Literature (Chicago, 1978), On Education (Markham, Ont., 1988), Myth and Metaphor (Charlottesville, Va., 1990), Reading the World (New York, 1991), and The Eternal Act of Creation (Bloomington, Ind., 1993). His essays on Canadian literature and culture are in The Bush Garden (Toronto, 1971) and Divisions on a Ground (Toronto, 1982). Other significant books include The Educated Imagination (Toronto, 1963), T. S. Eliot (Edinburgh, U.K., 1963), The Well-Tempered Critic (Bloomington, Ind., 1963), The Return of Eden (Toronto, 1965), The Modern Century (Toronto, 1967), A Study of English Romanticism (New York, 1968), The Critical Path (Bloomington, Ind., 1971), The Secular Scripture (Cambridge, Mass., 1976), Creation and Recreation (Toronto, 1980), and The Double Vision (Toronto, 1991). His books on Shakespeare are A Natural Perspective (New York, 1965), Fools of Time (Toronto, 1967), The Myth of Deliverance (Toronto, 1983), and Northrop Frye on Shakespeare (Markham, Ont., 1986). Twenty-two interviews with Frye are collected in A World in a Grain of Sand (New York, 1991).

Secondary Sources

Adamson, Joseph. Northrop Frye: A Visionary Life. Toronto, 1993.

Ayre, John. Northrop Frye: A Biography. Toronto, 1989.

Boyd, David, and Imre Salusinszky, eds. Rereading Frye: The Published and Unpublished Works. Toronto, 1999.

Cayley, David. Northrop Frye in Conversation. Concord, Ont., 1992.

Cook, David. Northrop Frye: A Vision of the New World. New York, 1985.

Cook, Eleanor, et al., eds. Centre and Labyrinth: Essays in Honour of Northrop Frye. Toronto, 1985.

Cotrupi, Caterina Nella. Northrop Frye and the Poetics of Process. Toronto, 2000.

Denham, Robert D. Northrop Frye and Critical Method. University Park, Pa., 1978.

Denham, Robert D. Northrop Frye: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources. Toronto, 1987.

Denham, Robert D., and Thomas Willard, eds. Visionary Poetics: Essays on Northrop Frye's Criticism. New York, 1991.

Donaldson, Jeffery, and Alan Mendelson, eds. Frye and the Word: Religious Contexts in the Criticism of Northrop Frye. Toronto, 2003.

Dyrkjøb, Jan Ulrik. Northrop Frye's litteraturteori. Copenhagen, 1979.

Gyalokay, Monique Anne. Rousseau, Northrop Frye, et la Bible: Essai de mythocritique. Paris, 1999.

Hamilton, A. C. Northrop Frye: Anatomy of His Criticism. Toronto, 1990.

Hart, Jonathan. Northrop Frye: The Theoretical Imagination. London, 1994.

Kee, James M., ed. Northrop Frye and the Afterlife of the Word. Semeia 89. Atlanta, 2002.

Krieger, Murray, ed. Northrop Frye in Modern Criticism. New York, 1966.

Lee, Alvin A., and Robert D. Denham, eds. The Legacy of Northrop Frye. Toronto, 1994.

Lombardo, Agostino, ed. Ritratto de Northrop Frye. Rome, 1989.

O'Grady, Jean, and Wang Ning, eds. Northrop Frye: Eastern and Western Perspectives. Toronto, 2002.

Ricciardi, Caterina. Northrop Frye, o, delle finzioni supreme. Rome, 1992.

Russell, Ford. Northrop Frye on Myth: An Introduction. New York, 1998.

Ziolkowski, Eric. "Between Religion and Literature: Eliade and Frye." Journal of Religion 71 (1991): 498522.

Robert D. Denham (2005)

Northrop Frye

views updated Jun 11 2018

Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye (1912-1991) was a Canadian literary scholar. His literary theories, which outlined a science of literary criticism based on a core of identifiable mythic forms, had unusual importance internationally, particularly in the late 1950s to late 1970s.

Herman Northrop Frye was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, on July 14, 1912. After the failure of his father's hardware business, his family moved to Moncton, New Brunswick, where he completed his primary and secondary education. His skill as a typist brought him to Toronto to compete in an Underwood-sponsored contest in 1929. He enrolled in Victoria College of the University of Toronto.

While still an undergraduate, he developed a deep fascination with the complex poetic prophecies of William Blake, particularly Milton, The Four Zoas, and Jerusalem, considered by many scholars to be the product of an eccentric, possibly insane, visionary. In Frye's first year of graduate work, in which he took concurrent training as a minister for the United Church of Canada (primarily Methodist), Frye decided to write a definitive book on Blake which would break Blake's difficult symbolic code. This near obsession sustained him through two unhappy years of graduate work at Merton College, Oxford, where he studied with poet Edmund Blunden in 1936-1937 and 1938-1939, after which he taught English at Victoria College for over four decades.

Ten-Year Labor on Blake

Heavily influenced by British scholars of myth, particularly James Frazer, he worked diligently on the Blake book from 1934 to 1945, finally producing Fearful Symmetry. Published in 1947, it is still considered the definitive reading of Blake. It shows that Blake's poetic universe was not psychotically personal but had close affinities with other major poetry. Basically Frye proposed that all literature fit into a grand apocalyptic pattern of heaven and hell. Aspects of literary expression such as tragedy (the Fall), irony (unrelieved hell), romance (resurrection), and comedy (communal reconciliation) form an interconnected circular pattern analogous to the Last Judgment or the wheel of fortune motifs common in medieval art.

Because Frye considered that the ideas he developed through Blake were unusually relevant to literary theory generally, he wrote a series of articles in the early 1950s suggesting how academic critics and students of literature could greatly improve their comprehension of their subject. He suggested the development of a standard symbolic and rhetorical terminology similar to that of musical studies. He spurned any evaluative, aesthetic factors as too subjective. Although Frye himself primarily studied Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens, he considered all literature relevant, including folk tales, detective novels, and science fiction. He combined his ideas for the reform of literary studies in Anatomy of Criticism (1957), probably the most influential book of criticism written in English in the 20th century. It has been translated into many languages.

Shaped Literature Teachings

While important, the Anatomy of Criticism is a difficult book intended for professional scholars. Frye produced a much simpler book for general readers, The Educated Imagination, in 1963. He also developed a strong populist interest in the 1960s in reforming the way literature was studied and taught in the schools. A major New York publisher produced a series of readers for grades seven to 12, Uses of the Imagination, based on Frye's ideas. Two college anthologies were also developed.

Found Bible Influenced Literature

While Frye hoped to write a sequel to the Anatomy of Criticism, he became too busy with the practical implications of his ideas to concentrate on it. In 1971 he finally settled on a book on the Bible's influence on English literature as a third major work. As with his first two major books, he took a decade to produce The Great Code (1982), and, like the others, it was both controversial and best selling in university circles. It was even number two on the Canadian non-fiction best selling list for six weeks. Frye's basic point was that the Bible has provided the basic patterns of symbolism and imagery for nearly all of the literature of western cultures. As a result, the Bible must be carefully read and studied by all students of literature. Frye then began work on a sequel, Words with Power (1990), showing how English literature has heavily borrowed its structural forms from the Bible.

Words with Power was the last of forty books of literary criticism written by Frye. The work is a study of the relationship of Biblical language to the language and thought of mythology, literature, and everyday life. "In the course of this book, as he reverses direction from secularizing sacred scriptures to spiritualizing secular ones, his own language moves from the descriptive, the conceptual and the rhetorical to the language of proclamation and prophecy," wrote Steven Marx of Cal Poly University. "This confirms a sense that he is returning to his early vocation as a preacher and also suggests that like the authors he prefers, in interpreting the Bible, Northrop Frye is remaking it his owns."

Prolific in Later Years

In addition to Words with Power, a large volume of Frye's work met the public following The Great Code, including Divisions on a Ground (1982), The Myth of Deliverance: Reflections on Shakespeare's Comedies (1983), Northrop Frye on Shakespeare (1986), No Uncertain Sounds (1988), Northrop Frye on Education (1988), Myth and Metaphor: Selected Essays 1974-1988 (1990), Reading the World-Selected Writings 1935-1976 (1990), and The Double Vision (1991). A World in a Grain of Sand: Twenty-two Interviews with Northrop Frye was published in 1991.

Intellectual but Humane

Frye died in Toronto Jan. 23, 1991 of an apparent heart attack following a recent diagnosis of cancer. He was 78. Writing in America, July 6, 1991, on the occasion of Frye's death, former student John P. McIntyre remembered the professor's ability for "showing off his students, letting them know that they really were better than they knew.

"As a teacher, he basically made sense. Not only could he put things together effortlessly, but in the doing he easily persuaded us of its rationale." McIntyre seems to credit this to Frye's methodical approach to analyzing literature. "Frye, the teacher, insisted that the study of literature provided a structure of knowledge no less systematic than the multiplication or periodic table. He approached literature deductively by using myth, patterns of imagery and genres. But he also approached literature inductively by talking about stylistics."

Reviewer John Bemrose, writing in Maclean's on The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, discovered a side of Frye his students could not have known—that which nurtured the romance with his wife that lasted from their first meeting in 1931 until her death in 1986. "With their wit, robust energy, lovingness and playful brilliance, these love letters are among the most fascinating ever published in this country—and should banish forever the notion of Frye as an intellectual iceberg." Reviewing Northrop Frye: A Biography, also for Maclean's, Bemrose wrote, "Frye's works often seem so much the product of a brilliantly functioning mind that it is easy to forget there is a struggling human behind them."

To honor Frye and his work, The Northrop Frye Centre was established in 1988 at Victoria University in the University of Toronto. The goals of the centre are to encourage research in the human sciences and the dissemination of humanist scholarship. The centre offers a fellowship program as well as programs by which scholars may become visiting fellows or associates of the centre. The Collected Works of Northrop Frye is expected to be published by the University of Toronto Press in 32 volumes. Drawing on the vast collection of Frye's papers in the Pratt Library of Victoria College, the collection will include an extensive selection of unpublished works, diaries, letters, early essays, speeches, fiction, and notebooks.

Further Reading

While Frye was a notable prose stylist, his writing is conceptually dense and difficult. General readers can approach Frye best through The Educated Imagination (1963) or The Modern Century (1967). Robert D. Denham prepared a bibliography (1973) and wrote an analysis of Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye and Critical Method (1978).

Additional Sources

Ayre, John, Northrop Frye: A Biography Random House, 1989.

Denham, Robert D., The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, 1932-1939, University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Adamson, Joseph, Northrop Frye: A Visionary Life, ECW Press, 1993.

Kirkwood, Hilda, "Frye at the Forum" The Canadian Forum, March, 1991, v69, n797, p15. □

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Northrop Frye