Frye’s Epiphanies


In his account of the thematic modes in Anatomy of Criticism Frye says that the general theme in the ironic mode is the pure, timeless moment of vision, and the examples of such vision he gives are “Rimbaud’s illumination, Joyce’s epiphany, the Augenblick of modern German thought, and the kind of nondidactic revelation implied in such terms as symbolisme and imagism.”  Frye himself had several of these moments of vision.  The earliest, reported in John Ayre’s biography, was during his early high school years in Moncton when he suddenly realized that he could shed without consequence the moral and religious dogmas of the fundamentalist envelope in which he had been raised.  Frye did not recall what triggered the revelation: he simply realized on a walk to school one day that the albatross of fundamentalist teaching “just dropped off into the sewers and stayed there.” 

There were other epiphanies: one in Edmonton (1932), one (perhaps two) with Blake (1933), another in Seattle (1951), and still another on St. Clair Avenue in Toronto (early 1950s).  The “Third Book” Notebooks contain a hint of a fifth epiphany––in 1944 on a walk down Bathurst Street in Toronto.  A final epiphany may have occurred in Yugoslavia only four months before Frye’s death: he speaks of “that loud flash I got in Zagreb: the ideal of spontaneity, where the moment of composition and the moment of performance are the same” (The Late Notebooks of Northrop Frye 1:415).

Frye refers to these moments variously as intuitions, epiphanies, illuminations, and enlightenments.  Most of them were experiences of unity––experiences, as he says, “of things fitting together” in a momentary flash of insight (Northrop Frye in Conversation 48).  Although Frye did speak about the Blake and Edmonton epiphanies in several interviews, he never mentioned them in his books and essays.  But in his notebooks there are more than thirty references to one or another of these experiences, the most important of which seem to have been what he calls his Seattle and St. Clair illuminations.  I have found Frye’s accounts of these experiences to be as endlessly fascinating as they are enigmatic.  The references are often quite cryptic.  In Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary I took a stab at analyzing the Seattle and St. Clair epiphanies (90–6), but the different kinds of recognition that came to Frye on these occasions remain something of a riddle.  Perhaps some blogger out there would be interested in sifting through the various notebook entries with the aim of providing illumination of these illuminations.  What follows are the relevant passages.  The references at the end of each entry are to the volumes in the Collected Works of Northrop Frye.  Page breaks and other editorial insertions are within square brackets.


A.  1932. Edmonton


1.  In the late summer of 1932, Frye had gone to Edmonton to dispose of the books of his aunt Mary Howard, his mother’s second youngest sister, who had died 28 July 1932.  About his time there he writes, “I found myself reading Spengler in the Edmonton YMCA—one of the great nights of my life, & one that unknown to me had converted me into a critic of my own distinctive kind” [Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings 28]


2.  A much more recent dream concerns a maroon-colored book which mentions St. Augustine & explains everything; an archetype that started with Spengler in Edmonton & grew through the spring of 1940 when I was holding Lovejoy’s Chain of Being in my hand and trying to find out about Neoplatonism [Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts 31].


3.  In the old diagram the Logos vision is a universal full of particulars; the corresponding point of alienation in the new one is a total similitude, Blake’s “generalizing gods” [Jerusalem, pl. 89, l. 30 (Erdman, 248)].  The old Thanatos, or life frozen in hell, similarly becomes the reversal of rebirth, as the total similitude of death turns into the particular point of light that turns similitude into the universal identity.  That is what resurrection means now.

This is the point Spengler misses, naturally: Toynbee realized it was there but couldn’t state it.  The Edmonton vision kept revolving around this like a halcyon bird on the sea of chaos.  I suspect it was in the FS [Fearful Symmetry] vision the thing I couldn’t grasp because it was itself the driving force of the book.  I may have glimpsed it in the “walking fire” & the [227] prayer to the poor naked wretches of Lear.  Paravritti [turning around]; Wiederkehr [return]: the descent through & return through the vortex; the movement of Byzantium. [Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts 226–7]


4. From Northrop Frye in Conversation, an interview with David Cayley

Cayley: Did you see right away that you had found your teacher in Blake?

Frye: Not right away. But here was a fascinating character that very little had been said about. Two years later, after my graduation, I was at Emmanuel, where Herbert Davis, who was a Swift scholar in the graduate school, gave a course on Blake, and I signed up for it. I was assigned a paper on Blake’s Milton, one of his most difficult and complex poems, and started working on it the night before I was to read it. It was around three in the morning when suddenly the universe just broke open, and I’ve never been, as they say, the same since.

Cayley: What was it? I know you can’t describe the experience, but what was it in Blake that provoked this experience?

Frye: Just the feeling of an enormous number of things making sense that had been scattered and unrelated before. In other words, it was a mytholog­ical frame taking hold.

[922]Cayley: A conversion?

Frye: Conversions usually relate to the other side, the experience. As a Methodist I was brought up converted. I never went through a conversion pro­cess.

Cayley: A reconversion?

Frye: Well, it was really getting the other half of what conversion is about.

Cayley: What provoked it?

Frye: The feeling that here I was dealing with an extremely complex poem of Blake’s about Milton, with whom he obviously had a very close, intricate love–hate relationship. Toward the end, I had the feeling that what united Blake and Milton, for all their differences—one was a Puritan and the other was very much an eighteenth-century nonconform­ist—was their common dependence on the Bible and the fact that the Bible had a framework of my­thology that both Milton and Blake had entered into. Of course, by that time I’d shucked all the anxiety side of the religion I was brought up in.

Cayley: What actually happened that night?

Frye: I don’t know that I can say what it was. But it was an experience of things fitting together. I’ve had two or three nights where I’ve had sudden visions of that kind, visions ultimately of what I myself might be able to do. Fearful Symmetry, for example, was started innumerable times, but the shape of the whole book dawned on me quite sud­denly one night. And the same thing happened once when I was staying in the YMCA in Edmonton, where I was for very dubious reasons reading Spengler’s Decline of the West, and I suddenly got a vision of coherence. That’s the only way I can describe it. Things began to form patterns and make sense. [Interviews with Northrop Frye 922]


5. Tragicomedy also picks up a childhood interest of mine, the impact that the plots of Scott had on me when I had practically nothing else to compare them with.  The Bible of course goes back into very deep childhood, and my interest in Classical mythology was also very intense in pre-school times.  Blake is later, and Rencontre probably grows mainly out of my Spengler enthusiasm, which also hit its peak in the fourth year, although the great night in Edmonton was two years earlier.  I think I realize now that what Spengler gave me was a sense of interpenetration of symbolism: everything that happens in the world symbolizes everything else that happens.  Nobody had really established this before, though there are hints of it in Ruskin; today it’s a staple of pop-kulch McLuhan–Carpenter stuff, but they (at least McLuhan) got it through Wyndham Lewis, whose Time and Western Man is a completely Spenglerian book.  So I think Spengler will have a lot to do with Rencontre, which will be, as I think, historical, showing how all the things I’m interested in, myths, fables, narrative structures, and concepts are intertwined in a historical progression.  The general introduction I wrote for HBJ is the core of Rencontre, of course.  But there’s a lot to be got out of Spengler yet, chiefly something he expresses without the faintest notion that he is expressing it: a sense of the relativity of time.  I’d draw very different inferences from the inferences he draws from the fact that Alexander and Napoleon are “contemporaries.” [ 309]


6. I have never had the sort of experience the mystics talk about, never felt a revelation of reality through or beyond nature, never felt like Adam in Paradise, never felt, in direct experience, that the world is wholly other than it seems.  I don’t question the honesty, or even the factuality, of those who have recorded such experiences, but I have had to content myself with the blessing to those who have not seen & yet have believed—if one can attach the word “belief” to accepting statements as obviously true as the fact that I have seen New York.  The nearest I have come to such experiences are glimpses of my own creative powers—Spengler in Edmonton and two nights with Blake—and these are moments or intervals of inspiration rather than vision.  I’m not [61] sure that I want it unless I can have clarity about other things with it.  What are all the miracles and divine visions of Bernard of Clairvaux to me when I know that he preached vehemently in favor of crusades?  I had rather been inpercipient all my life than preach a crusade.  And much as I admire the clarity of structure in the religious thought of Eliot or C.S. Lewis, I don’t want it if it’s inseparable from the controversial one-upsmanship of After Strange Gods or the 16th c. history.   I feel I must have God on my own terms, because God on somebody else’s terms is an idol. [The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye 1964–1972 60–1]


[Frye wrote in a number of places about Spengler’s influence on him.  Here is one succinct account: “Spengler was a cultural critic like Ruskin (who had also come to influence me a good deal): his illustrations were historical, but that did not make him primarily a historian. He did something that no historian can do without ceasing to be one: showed how all the cultural products of a given age, medieval or Baroque or contemporary, form a unity that can be felt or intuited, though not demonstrated, a sense of unity that approximates the feeling that a human culture is a single larger body, a giant immersed in time.” [The Critical Path” and Other Writings on Critical Theory 401]


B.  Blake. Fall of 1933. Toronto


1. Letter to Pelham Edgar, 9 August 1948.  “The third year came your eighteenth century, and I signed up for a paper on Blake.  From then on I was hooked.  You may remember the paper.  In my fourth year I could hardly talk about anything but Blake, and Helen gave me the one-volume Keynes Poetry and Prose for my graduation present.  Next year was theology, and I snatched at a graduate course on Blake that H.J. Davis was giving.  That year I read all the secondary sources on Blake, and Davis assigned me a paper on Milton.  I sat down to write it, as was my regular bad habit in those days, the night before, and around about two in the morning some very curious things began happening in my mind.  I began to see glimpses of something bigger and more exciting than I had ever before realized existed in the world of the mind, and when I went out for breakfast at five-thirty on a bitterly cold winter morning, I was committed to a book on Blake. (Northrop Frye: Selected Letters 1934–1991 37).


2. Interview with Peter Gzowski

Gzowski: Was there a real epiphany? People who write about you talk about epiphany at one time or another, but was there ever a moment in your life of which it’s possible to say, “there was something before and something else after”? [816]

Frye: I don’t know whether it would be as complete as that, but there certainly were moments when I realized I was turning a corner. When I stayed up all night to write a paper on Blake for graduate school, I knew, at the end of it when I went out for breakfast, that I was going to write a book on Blake, and fifteen years later it appeared.

Gzowski: Can you describe that understanding? How would you know that?

Frye: I don’t know whether it would be as complete as that, but there certainly were moments when I realized I was turning a corner. When I stayed up all night to write a paper on Blake for graduate school, I knew, at the end of it when I went out for breakfast, that I was going to write a book on Blake, and fifteen years later it appeared.

Gzowski: Can you describe that understanding? How would you know that?

Frye: Well, I had the very bad habit, in those days, of writing my assignments the night before I was to deliver them, and somewhere around three in the morning something very funny started happening in my mind. I was commenting on one of Blake’s most complex and difficult poems [Milton] and I began to get glimpses of a world that I had never imagined could exist in that many dimensions before, and nothing came clear at that point except that crystal clear determination: someday or other, I’d write a book about this.

Gzowski: That’s Blake. I mean . . . you were Blake.

Frye: Yes. [Interviews with Northrop Frye 815–16]


3.  Interview with Ian Alexander

Alexander: You’ve spoken of your coming to an awareness of Blake as a kind of epiphany. Can you describe that experience?

Frye: Perhaps you mean the time when I was taking a graduate course in Blake with Herbert Davis, who later went to Oxford. I was assigned a paper to write on Blake’s Milton for which there was, of course, no secondary material whatever. My very bad habit in those days was to start a paper the night before I was to read it. About half-past three in the morning some very funny things started happening in my mind, and I began to see dimen­sions of critical experience that I’d never dreamed existed before—a sudden expansion of the horizon. When I went out for breakfast—I remember it was a bitterly cold morning—I knew that I was to write a book on Blake. And fifteen years later I did. [Interviews with Northrop Frye 739]


[In excerpt no. 6 under Edmonton, above, Frye says there were two Blake epiphanies, but about the second one he is otherwise silent, except perhaps for the reference to “two or three nights” in the interview with David Cayley (see no. 4 under Edmonton, above.]


  1. Summer 1951.  Seattle: Oracle to Wit


 [In one of his notebooks, Frye writes that all of his fictional ideas “tend to revolve around Rilke’s idea of the poet’s perceiving simultaneously the visible & the invisible world.  In practice that means a new type of ghost or supernatural story, possibly approached by way of some science fiction development.  The idea is a vision of another life or another world so powerfully plausible as to make conventionally religious & anti‑religious people shake in their shoes.  I’ve begun notes on this many times, but threw away my best notebook, written in Seattle, in a London (Ont.) hotel.  By ‘shake in their shoes’ I don’t mean threats, but the ecstatic frisson or giggle aroused by plausibility” [Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings 140].  This is the only place Frye ever mentions having disposed of a notebook, a regrettable act, especially since he calls it his “best notebook.”  As it was written in Seattle it seems highly likely that it would have contained an account of his Seattle epiphany.  But we do have the following accounts of the Seattle illumination.


1. In the summer of 1951, in Seattle, I had an illumination about the passing from the oracular into the witty: a few years later, on St. Clair Ave. I had another about the passing from poetry through drama into prose.  They were essentially the same illumination, perhaps: the movement from the esoteric to kerygma.  Any biography, including Ayre’s, would say that I dropped preaching for academic life: that’s the opposite of what my spiritual biography would say, that I fled into academia for refuge and have ever since tried to peek out into the congregation and make a preacher of myself.  That’s why I’m taking this preposterous assignment [Frye’s Double Vision lectures] so seriously. [Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks 2:621]


2. “God is perhaps not so much a region beyond knowledge as something prior to the sentences we speak.”  That’s Foucault’s Order of Things p. 298, what I should have quoted earlier instead of the Nietzsche nonsense he goes on with [par. 635].

This may take me back to the Seattle intuition: Finnegans Wake is a kind of hypnagogic structure, words reverberating on themselves without pointing to objects (but not without naming, as in Mallarmé: see a previous note [par. 241]).  This may be the hallucinatory verbal world within which God speaks. [Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks 1:399]


3.  Things to think about in Seven: the world of the dead as a potential culbute; the substitute interrex as a reminder of the Golden Age or reign of Saturn; [interrex = the mock-king.  See Words with Power, 262.] the world of identity in Atlantis or underground as the pre-metaphorical world of Homer & the Bible [See Words with Power, 247–9.] (at present cut out of Four; perhaps it fits better in Eight).  Power without words is certainly Eight. [See Words with Power, 308.]  Detective stories shouldn’t be split between the two chapters. [See WP, 264–5.]  The pre-Homeric cipher-world must have links with my Seattle epiphany–whatever happened to the St. Clair one? [Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks 1:405]


4. I cut out the primitive cult (18th c.) in Seven, but maybe it’s part of the Seattle epiphany and the cave archetype.  If the demonic descent of Seven is into exile, surely the cave is home. [Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks 1:405]


5. Virgil’s Book Six as summing up most of these themes: perhaps there I could introduce the Igitur descent too.  And that takes me into the oracular-laughter Rabelais climax I’ve been stewing over since Seattle days. [Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks 2:491]


6. When have I had sudden runs like this (if this is one) and is there a pattern in them? There’s the oracle-wit stuff in Seattle, the mind-soul-body stuff, undated, but a Sunday morning, and the stuff at the beginning of the “mystical” notebook in 1946 [Notebook 3].

Also the St. Clair [Anticlimax] stuff, which seems slightly out of key with this, but may define the whole relation of 1 to 2 & 3.  2 anyway.  I wonder if the right order is ErosAdonis, NousNomos, OedipusPrometheus, ThanatosLogos?  I doubt that, because the Eros-Adonis cycle is a mere abstraction without the rest of it.  Think of the way Wolfram’s Adonis poem on Parzival dives straight for Amfortas’ balls—still, that doesn’t really reverse the movement.  Something about the L’AllegroIl Penseroso double-climax of Eros reappearing as Nomos & Nous:  one the maternal cycle & the other the paternal (projected) creator.  But the Orc cycle is a complete cycle, not a semicircle. [The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye 162–3]


7. I’ve known since Seattle that the S. gate was oracular & witty. I associated it then with the lyric.  But perhaps wit is the epiphany of oracular mystery—hence the recovery of the power of laughter in the cave of Trophonius. The fragmented or comminuted vision out of the dark, the coup de dés.  I suppose ultimately there’s only one encyclopedia, the educational contract, of which all the “disciplines” are quadrants & all works of art epiphanies.  I suppose the association of the S-gate with music is not new—it’s in Blake’s Urthona—but it’s useful all the same. [The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye 178]


8. Ever since Seattle I’ve seen a point near the d.e. [demonic epiphany] where oracle becomes wit, where the visitor to Trophonius recovers the power of laughter. What’s the corresponding point in the N?  Is it where the allegro & penseroso ecstasies touch?  I suppose it must be. [The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye 194]


9. The transition from [Liberal] to [Tragicomedy] will come out of the intuitions that have been swirling around me for twenty years (at least) connecting the Christian commedia with the Tempest, which is the telos of [Tragicomedy], with Sakuntala, Menander, The Birds, & the dianoia of romantic comedy generally.  The transition from [Liberal] to [Anticlimax] starts with the St. Clair enlightenment, also nearly twenty years old.  Note the Blake rhythm, and the recapitulation of my four undergraduate years.  The transition from [Anticlimax] to [Rencontre] probably revolves around the oracle-wit business at Seattle. Then [Anticlimax] presents literature as a cycle of discontinuous epiphanies. [The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye 332]


10. Anticlimax  (A or Ù), the third (Leviticus) book of the tetralogy, chapters 25–36, grayish-white, the Book of Urizen, is concerned with the anatomy prose form, the conceptual myth, the relations of mythology to philosophy, and prose rhythm.  It’s primarily a book on Plato.  Its opening, & the transition from ù [Tragicomedy], which ends with drama, is based on the St. Clair illumination; its close, where the theme of communication connects with l [Rencontre], is based on the Seattle oracle-wit classification. [Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance 83]


11. Now, if the St. Clair vision is the [Tragicomedy]-[Anticlimax] transition, & the Seattle one the [Anticlimax]‑[Rencontre] transition, I suppose this point is the [Liberal]-[Tragicomedy] transition.  They’re really—at least the first two—all the same point: the passage from dream to waking, oracle to wit.  Only that’s the Logos point of mystery, becoming the revelation of the original wisdom: I’m looking perhaps for a third or Holy Spirit awakening of love which succeeds all knowledge & prophecies, the opposite of epiclesis. [Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts 227]


12. The first chapter is relatively easy to set up: the second can simply start with the Blake reversal.  The third has to be Eros Regained, and the survival of the Platonic Eros, through Virgil & Ovid, as providing the basis of the human response to love & a human form of creation.  The Eros-Orpheus area entails the union with the blackbird; hence Chapter Four has to be the Adonis-Oedipus-Adam area of the white goddess.  Then (I’m more doubtful about this) by way of his psychopomp role we go into the world of HermesProteus, the metamorphosis trickster who leads us to the alpha-omega sense of words & numbers.  The St. John Salome business appears at the end of Adonis: the Igitur chance-choice business here, recapitulating my Seattle illumination, takes me into the Promethean Atlantis rising from the waves, where knowledge of the future (up to a point not destroying freedom of will) is again permitted. [Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts 370–1]


D.  St. Clair. 1950 or 1953 (?). Toronto. Drama to Prose


[In Notebook 53 Frye says that the St. Clair revelation occurred on New Year’s Day a few years after the 1951 Seattle epiphany.  But from his account of an experience on St. Clair Ave. on 1 January 1950, it may be that the St. Clair experience happened six or so months before the Seattle one.  See The Late Notebooks of Northrop Frye 2:621, and The Diaries of Northrop Frye 215.  In addition to the references to the St. Clair illumination above (Seattle, nos. 1, 3, 6, 8, 9, 10, and 11), the St. Clair epiphany appears in the following places.]


1.  It looks at present like three volumes.  First, the circle of images, Eros-Summer, Adonis-Autumn, Oedipus-Winter, Prometheus-Spring.  (Though they’re actually transitions: Eros is spring-to-summer, etc.).  This is the real [Tragicomedy] scheme.  Second, the axis of speculation, taking in the cores of [Anticlimax] (the E or Hermes point, with most of my St. Clair stuff in it, though some is N) and of [Rencontre] (the W or Apollo & Phaeton point).  Third, the climax of my life & not to be attempted before retirement, the axis of concern, the cores of [Paradox] (N, though Blake would say S) and [Ignoramus] (S) & the analogies of plenitude & vacancy, faith & doubt. [The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye 148]


2. Or, perhaps, the Mercator-projection laid down out of what I know & teach, which is mainly lyrical poetry; a second volume based on fiction and the sequences of imagery; a final volume making the St. Clair vortex illumination from drama to concept. That’s my old scheme again with [Liberal] & [Rencontre] identified.  Which is perhaps the answer I’ve been groping for for so long.  [Rencontre] was always a demonic, Romantic, fragmented book; [Liberal] always an epic & encyclopedic one.  Now I seem to be working toward the idea of encyclopedia manifesting itself in epiphanic fragmentation.  The real [Rencontre] might be concerned with the informing languages of experience, and/or the book of the centre. [The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye 178–9]


3. I suppose one of the things that’s bothering me is: are there epiphanic points at W & E, taking us into worlds of event & concept?  Praxis.  The great mystery of the heroic act that the poet can only watch and record.  Theoria.  The distant vision or Pisgah sight.  The mystery of the act and of the scene.  Perhaps those [Anticlimax] notes I collected that New Year’s Day on St. Clair Avenue were really about the E point of epiphany.  Perhaps the W p. of e. [point of epiphany] is a sacramental world of imitative ritual: anyway, it has a lot to do with kairos, repeating the moment in time.  From the Incarnation we go into the Pauline occasion-epistle.  The note across the way [i.e., par. 185] about the ultima cena, on this theory, sounds W rather than S: the completing of the Presence.  Yes: we could think of a W pt. of epiphany into a world of ritual based on analogy to myth.  The E one is not strictly dream but the organizing or shaping power inherent in conscious thought.  The W passage is Augenblick, the moment of decision when art becomes significant or chosen act; the E is the moment of incarnate dialectic or recognition, when subjective idea & objective fact identify. [The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye 47]


4. Two, then, on the katabasis or epic descent-quest, corresponds to its recovery in 6.  It’s concerned with continuous fictional forms, epic & romance.  Three is on the dialectic separation at the bottom of the quest, and is concerned with dramatic or episodic fictional forms.  Four starts off with the great St. Clair intuition, & deals with thematic continuous forms, confessions & quests for identity, in the course of which social & historical displacements are established.  It’s the Augustine-Rousseau book, as aforesaid.  Five deals with all my comminution ideas, and is the second twist on the anatomy. [The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye 90]


5. I notice that every major change of the last few years has been in the direction of naturalizing my themes, fitting them to the obvious things I know, or can most easily discover at my time of life.  Anchoring [Rencontre] in the old history of English literature scheme does away with having to learn linguistics & such; similarly, if the [Tragicomedy]‑[Anticlimax] drama-to-prose gyre (St. Clair) goes through sentimental romance I wouldn’t have to try to mug up any communication theory.  One could start with the four forms of fiction & work through a turned-on-side version of the descent theme of [Tragicomedy]. [The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye 333]


6. That’s Part One: Part Two is devoted first to confessions & anatomies, then to contracts & Utopias.  William Morris bulks large here, but the St. Clair illumination does too.  Three, revolving around Plato, deals with the informing patterns of thought.  Note that [Anticlimax] occupies the theoria territory & [Rencontre] the praxis one.  Hence [Rencontre] has to be historical in its outlook. [The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye 336]


7. Now that there appear to be four quadrants rather than two semicircles, six parts are shaping up.  And there may be eight, if I could establish E & W epiphanic points, one in conceptual & the other in social displacement.  The E point is the resolution of my comedy paradox, how what is pragmatic in comedy becomes a revolutionary triumph of dialectic when it goes into conceptual reverse.  This displacement is most of my St. Clair [TragicomedyAnticlimax] illumination: not all of it, because the discontinuous epiphanic sequence belongs to Logos.  I suppose I could call this E point Hermes.  On the other side is an existential social displacement, related to law but not easily held in a conceptual synthesis.  This is where the stuff goes I got into the Alexanders about the conditioning ecstatic society and the “thrown-ness” of the subject. It could be called Ares, who takes over at this point as the lover of Venus. [The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye 124]


8. But 1–33 is a little clearer as an epiphanic sequence ending in the Logos vision as the highest of these.  34–66 is about causality, both of thought & plot; 67–100 is the real simultaneous apprehension & the oracles of concerned prose/verse.  And perhaps 33 is the vision of the dead monotheistic god after all, or at least 34 is.  The second series may be my marble-board, ending in the centre.  Of course in Blake the centre is the East, which is the end of III.  My St. Clair revelation is in the II area. [Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts 133]


9. Meanwhile, the second spiral seems to recapitulate [Liberal-Rencontre] all right: first the epos, the revy. [revolutionary] & dialectical turn to the Word, then the relation of myth to act & scene, then the jump from the ritual bind to the prose possession (what I call the St. Clair revelation), & finally the comminution of wisdom in the Gospels.  The kernels of epos, drama, prose & lyric are still there, but very sublimated.  Now, perhaps I should think of the 3rd spiral as a clarified [Liberal-Rencontre] sequence & not get involved in the emanation lot—but that will look after itself.  Only I don’t want to get stage fright on [Twilight]. [Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts 202]


10. But what really interests me just here is the continuity of this philosophical romance.  Novalis incorporates a good deal of Fichte into his story, and in rhythm it’s hardly distinguishable from Hesse, Junger and others, even when the moderns lack the verse MacDonald was influenced by the genre, of course, and I’ve noted the anatomy influence in the Alice books (more explicit in The Water Babies, which has a Rabelais echo in the coming of the Coquecigrues, if that’s how it’s spelled). Bulwer Lytton is another direction.  But there certainly is a transitional form, quite as important in my total thinking as the drama-to-satire St. Clair one, and parallel to it.  I shouldn’t forget that one reason why the Nortons broke down as a major scheme was probably that Tragicomedy is to be primarily about drama; but the “lyrical” dream-romance is the other end of that. [Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance 313]


E. Bathurst Street, Toronto. 1944


Then I discovered at university what my real vocation was, and plunged into the Blake book.  When I finished it, the old scheme came back again, only this time they were to be works of criticism and scholarship and thought.  I pondered these books while walking down to the College from Bathurst Street—1944, it would have been. My lucubrations eventually produced the Anatomy of Criticism ten years later: by that time I had realized that the Blake didn’t belong in the series, but would have to be, as I put it, numbered zero.  After the Anatomy was published, it seemed to me that that too would have to be numbered zero. [“Work in Progress,” from The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye 338]

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5 thoughts on “Frye’s Epiphanies

  1. Russell Perkin

    Bob, that’s really interesting stuff! Do you have anything to say about the realization about The Four Zoas that John Ayre describes Frye experiencing “while sitting in the bored husband’s seat in a women’s wear shop on Yonge St. just below Bloor” (p. 177)? Does Frye record this anywhere – Ayre doesn’t give a source. It’s not so much a spiritual vision as a realization about how he had to present Fearful Symmetry. What Ayre calls the “absurdly mundane circumstances” fascinate me. Rather like Francis Thompson seeing Jacob’s ladder pitched between “heaven and Charing Cross”?

  2. Robert D. Denham

    Russell: I’d forgotten about Ayre’s account of the Four Zoas recognition–Los displacing Orc, it seems to have been. It certainly sounds like one of those momentary flashes of insight and similar to the others. So far as I know, Frye doesn’t mention it elsewhere, but it pretty clearly should be added to the list. Perhaps he recorded something about it in his original Blake notebook, which is not extant.

    It would be interesting to know that date of this epiphany. Early 1940s, I’d guess. Frye does have a similar account of Orc-Los business in his 1950 diary: “The tactic of the Blake article is shaping up a little. After I outline his archetypal imagery, which derives from the unfallen world, I go on to archetype of narrative. The archetypal narrative is the heroic quest, which is the Orc cycle. This is in Blake, but he’s not primarily interested in it, as he sees the cyclic shape of it too clearly. That’s the reason for the difficulty in trying to wedge Jungian archetypes, which are all narrative ones, into Blake. The shift over from the Orc cycle to the Los pattern of progressive & redemptive work is really the centre of the problem in [L] [Liberal] that converges on what I call the dialectic development of the conception of the hero. In Blake the cycle of narrative emanating from & returning to the unfallen world is seen so constantly as a simultaneous pattern of significance that the reader has to get this perspective before he can read: it isn’t unfolded to him passively in a narrative sequence. (Diaries, 431).

    Thanks for calling attention to the omission.

  3. Joseph Adamson

    As Russell Perkin observes, Frye’s epiphanies concern realizations of solutions to a central or major obstacle in his theorizing, solutions which bring about a sudden crystallization in his thought. They are Eureka moments, mightily magnified versions of what anyone might undergo when they make a breakthrough writing an essay or a book: the sense that everything suddenly comes together, fits together. They are critical or theoretical epiphanies but without ceasing to be spiritual or religious.

    I note that the Seattle epiphany about the passage from the oracular to the witty is the subject of the opening paragraphs of the 5th chapter of The Secular Scripture: that moment of reversal at which the lowest point of descent is mysteriously converted into release and ascent to a higher world. The epiphanies, it seems, almost always have to do with Frye’s great doodle or mandala-like structure of the mythological/literary cosmos: the sense of everything fitting together is triggered by finding the place, as it were, for an important missing piece in that particularly cryptic jigsaw puzzle. Interestingly, his Seattle epiphany concerning the transition at the southernmost point of the great doodle is, as it were, an epiphany of epiphany, a revelation of revelation–of that moment of “verbal understanding that shakes the mind free”:

    “As the hero or heroine enters the labyrinthine lower world, the prevailing moods are those of terror or uncritical awe. At a certain point, perhaps when the strain, as the storyteller doubtless hopes, is becoming unbearable, there may be a revolt of the mind, a recovered detachment, the typical expression of which is laughter. The ambiguity of the oracle becomes the ambiguity of wit, something addressed to a verbal understanding that shakes the mind free. This point is also marked by generic changes from the tragic and ironic to the comic and satiric. Thus in Rabelais the huge giants, the search for an oracle, and other lowerworld themes that in different contexts would be frightening or awe-inspiring, are presented as farce. Finnegans Wake in our day also submerges us in a dream world of mysterious oracles, but when we start to read the atmosphere changes, and we find ourselves surrounded by jokes and puns. Centuries earlier, the story was told of how Demeter wandered over the world in fruitless search of her lost daughter Proserpine, and sat lonely and miserable in a shepherd’s hut until the obscene jests and raillery of the servant girl Iambe and the old nurse Baubo finally persuaded her to smile. The Eleusinian mysteries which Demeter established were solemn and awful rites of initiation connected with the renewal of the fertility cycle; but Iambe and Baubo helped to ensure that there would also be comic parodies of them, like Aristophanes’ Frogs. According to Plutarch, those who descended to the gloomy cave of the oracle of Trophonius might, after three days, recover the power of laughter.
    In an atmosphere of tragic irony the emphasis is on spellbinding, linked to a steady advance of paralysis or death; in an atmosphere of comedy, we break through this inevitable advance by a device related to the riddle, an explanation of a mystery. . . .”

  4. Robert D. Denham

    The Secular Scripture provided the final clue in my review of the oracle–to–wit epiphany in Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary. It’s certainly true that Frye’s epiphanies are almost always related to one or more of his diagrammatic, deductive schemes. In the Seattle epiphany the framework seems to be the axis mundi, which Frye would describe many years later in Words with Power as the mountain or ladder archetype. In a letter to Brian Coates (31 March 1971) Frye set down what might be taken as a gloss on the Seattle (oracle to wit) epiphany, where recreation emerges from a demonic descent.

    “I think one should keep in mind, when dealing with modern literature, that the mythical map of the universe is much more ambiguous than it was before the Romantic period. For Dante, heaven was up there, hell down there, and consequently all myths of descent were likely to have a sinister or demonic implication. In modern times, the poles of the mythical universe are not heaven and hell, nor are the poles consistently associated with certain spatial projections. The two poles are alienation and identity. In some writers, including Blake and Shelley, the pole of alienation is associated with the sky, and the pole of identity with a submerged world like Atlantis. It is quite possible to have a demonic descent them, as the one in Heart of Darkness or the Waste Land. But it is equally possible to have a journey to the deep interior in search of identity. It is only in this latter case that the theme of rebirth is really built into the mythical structure. The theme of rebirth may of course also be expressed by the theme of eternal recurrence, as it is in Yeats and in Finnegans Wake. And of course recurrence may be looked at in two ways: as an ironic unending cycle or as an image of recreation and the making of all things new. In Finnegans Wake it is unmistakably both; Yeats warbles on the point, partly because he was trying to listen to “instructors” who didn’t know what they were talking about” (Northrop Frye: Selected Letters, 1934–1991, 124).

  5. Russell Perkin

    Thanks, Bob, and Joe! The date of the women’s wear shop revelation would seem to be 1943, from the context in Ayre’s biography.


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