Daily Archives: September 6, 2009

More Blunden and Frye


Undertones of War, the book that Helen Kemp picked up––Edmund Blunden’s autobiography of his traumatic WWI experience––has recently been reissued by the University of Chicago Press. It includes a selection of Blunden’s war poems. Readers of Ward McBurney’s terrific poem might be interested in two letters to Frye from Blunden, spurred by Frye’s having sent his Oxford tutor a copy of Fearful Symmetry. During his second year at Oxford, Frye had been urged by Blunden to postpone the writing of his Blake thesis and concentrate on the “schools” – the examinations for his degree.

c/o Times, Printing House Square, London, E.C.4.

6 Novr. 1947. With great pleasure I received the book this morning, and with perplexity––for I leave today with family for Japan and am in the same old Christmas tree condition as when once in the Elder War we were about to move . . . . I think that I will have the book kept safely for my return when I can sit down to it with the necessary library in reach and then I’ll write you a proper letter of thanks. You will know I still recall vividly yr. devotion to Blake at Oxford and I rejoice in the spectacle of such constancy of imaginative endeavour––in these days of rapid zests and desertions. We all read Miss Sitwell’s first eloquent appreciation of the Blake [Edith Sitwell, “William Blake,” Spectator 179 (10 October 1947): 466] which must have been a most welcome press cutting. I’ve been away from T.L.S. latterly but know that a review is in hand there. [“Elucidation of Blake” by an anonymous reviewer appeared in TLS, 10 January 1948: 25] Hope you are well and merry. Merton is unchanged in much, but men come & go: you will have heard that H.W. Garrod, who seems the exception, has had his portrait done by R. Moynihan for the panelled room where you attended Collections. It’s a speaking likeness, & a work of art. [Garrod, a classics scholar, was a fellow at Merton College for more than sixty years.] Every good wish, & thanks indeed. EBlunden.

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Frye on the Goldberg Variations


The video posted Saturday night of Glenn Gould performing Bach’s “Aria” inspired me to track down some of Frye’s references to the Goldberg Variations.

From Frye’s diary entry of 25 March 1949:

[O]ff to the Forum, where I had a most delightful surprise: Lew [Lou Morris] had bought a lot of dusty old music on spec, & in it were two volumes constituting a complete Bischoff Bach. I need hardly say how I felt the rest of the day, with the Brother Capriccio, the Goldberg Variations, the Sonatas, the French Overture & the A minor Fugue all falling into my lap at once. I must find out what a fair price on it would be.

From Frye’s Notebook 38, par. 46:

In music there’s something profound about the working up of a dramatic narrative structure, rising to an analytic climax in the slow movement, & then a finale that gives the initial impression of comic anticlimax. Mozart’s G m quintet [String Quintet in G minor (1787), op. 516]. In Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto [G minor, op. 58] the tetralogy ending in satyr-play structure is clearer. The reason for it in music is easier to see in the classic variation form, where the dramatic climax is usually penultimate & the very last one a ‘let-down’ (Goldberg & Diabelli). The variation form is not only cyclic but explicitly circumferential, & has to deny narrative advance. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism 144)

From Frye’s Notebook 31, par. 36:

The numbers from 28 to 34 are the chief sparagmos numbers. 28 & 29 are lunar & Chaucerian, & V [A Vision] is a kind of lunatic (in the strict sense) Chaucerian (see ref. to Chaucer above [par. 29]) arrangement of what Jung would call psychological types. 30 & 31 are solar & recall the sons of Egypt [Blake’s Book of Urizen, pl. 28, ll. 8–10]. 32 & 33 bring us to the points of the compass & the recurrent Goldberg–Diabelli variation form (counting the theme in G) in music. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance 102)

From Frye’s “Wallace Stevens and the Variation Form”:

The long meditative theoretical poems written in a blank tercet form, Notes toward a Supreme Fiction, The Auroras of Autumn, An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, The Pure Good of Theory, are all divided into sections of the same length. An Ordinary Evening has thirty-one sections of six tercets each; the Supreme Fiction, three parts of ten sections each, thirty sections in all, each of seven tercets; and similarly with the others. This curious formal symmetry, which cannot be an accident, also reminds us of the classical variation form in which each variation has the same periodic structure and harmonic sequence. Even the numbers that often turn up remind us of the thirty Goldberg variations, the thirty-three Diabelli waltz variations, and so on. (Spiritus Mundi 276)

Ward McBurney: “Browsing Genius”


Ward McBurney sends us this poem inspired by Frye and his Merton College tutor and Great War Poet, Edmund Blunden.


Browsing Genius


She stops beside a book stall and she finds

  a copy of her lover’s tutor’s book:

Undertones of War. It costs a dime,

  and all around her, all she need is look


to see Toronto choked with veterans,

  wheezing past her whizz-bang attitude

that after all it’s twenty years since then,

  and youth will have its sway and certitude


that past is past is passed is passed away.

  O Helen, in your hand you held a friend

    ravished by particulars, whose fate


was to smile and quietly unsay

  that the war to end all never ends

    until we hold in hand the hands of mates


    long since buried under soil. So Frye

  took decades to search out his brother’s grave –

Eraytus Howard – where his mother paused


    her life on permanent no-need-reply:

  to whom it may concern please Jesus save

this brother who you never are and was.


  Blunden was a genius; so were you,

but he saw you and you blindsided him

  with academic fireworks and true

to form he smiled and let you win


  the laurels that a soldier poet knows.

Bound with brows of time and in the din

  of battle blasted memory he goes,

that shepherd who had gathered Howard in.


Another poem after the break.

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Today in the Frye Diaries, 6 September


1942: The difficulties with cultivating the young.

[98] A cousin of Helen’s living in Forest dropped in. Interested in music, & apparently planning to teach it. Asked her what she was working on & she said “Grade Ten.” Probed further & she said “Beethoven.” “One of the sonatas?” I suggested. “Guess so,” she said. She has a voice like a kitchen stove falling downstairs. I can’t understand the superstitious & barbaric notion in this country that it’s sissified to to cultivate an accent. The idea that correct & well-modulated speech is a fundamental cornerstone of culture doesn’t occur to my students, many of whom make noises like the cry of the great bronze grackle in the mating season. As it isn’t part of one’s education, I can’t teach it: I’m just the best friend who won’t tell them. The Yankee method of talking through the nowse and hawnking like a fahghowrrn is very widespread; some whine like flying shells, some mutter like priests, some chew & gurgle like cement mixers. Ten minutes of frank talking to this girl and I could raise her several notches in the scale of culture: she’s a bright kid and can take things on.

Aspects of this complete diary entry were included and expanded in “Reflections at a Movie,” Canadian Forum 22 (October 1942). The entire article can be found at the above link, reproduced in the Collected Works, volume 11, edited by Jan Gorak.

1950: No entry.