Daily Archives: September 8, 2009

Jonathan Allan on “Disciples”


Regarding Michael Sinding’s earlier post on Frye and the Curriculum, Jonathan Allan makes this interesting observation:

Another aspect of this discussion, perhaps, is the place of Frye’s early “disciples” or critics deeply influenced by Frye. Fredric Jameson in his recent book, Archaeologies of the Future, reluctantly admits the importance of Frye: “Any reflection on genre today owes a debt — sometimes an unwilling one — to Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism” (257 n.3). The other central example being Harold Bloom whose anxiety of influence seems to have completely taken him over (something Frye noticed already in the late 70s). In his introduction to the latest Princeton edition of the Anatomy, Bloom writes: “I am not so fond of the Anatomy now, as I was more than forty years ago, but I probably absorbed it in ways I can no longer apprehend” (in Anatomy vii). In 2009, in the Hopkins Review, he writes: “Now, at seventy-eight, I would not have the patience to read anything by Frye” (27). Thus, a query that seems to be part of this is why these critics have left Frye behind or distanced their work from Frye’s work.

Frye on Wilde

Oscar Wilde

Re: Frye’s choice for “greatest English critic“:

I think Shelley would be a strong candidate for Frye’s “greatest English critic”–I’m thinking mainly about the Shelley that appears in The Critical Path. I was talking to Frye once about his affinities with Coleridge, and he said he wondered why nobody had ever remarked on his closeness to Shelley. But who knows? Maybe it’s the “divine Oscar,” as Bloom calls Wilde.

Michael Happy writes, “In Creation and Recreation Frye does Wilde the compliment he grants no one else, that I can recall: he adopts his critical outlook with little filtering or conditions. When I was an undergrad, I loved Wilde’s criticism, which I discovered all by myself and couldn’t get anyone else to read. When I finally read Creation and Recreation, I was delighted to discover that Frye had been there before me. But, then, that’s where he always is, isn’t he?”

Here are the passages in Creation and Recreation Happy was referring to, followed by other places in Frye’s writing where Wilde makes an appearance:

A year or so ago, after agreeing to help teach an undergraduate course in Shakespeare, I settled down to reread one of my favourite pieces of Shakespearean criticism, Oscar Wilde’s essay on “The Truth of Masks.” The essay, however, was one in a collected volume of Wilde’s critical essays, and I find it easy to get hooked on Wilde. His style often makes him sound dated, and yet he is consistently writing from a point of view at least half a century later than his actual time. He is one of our few genuinely prophetic writers, and, as with other prophets, everything he writes seems either to lead up to his tragic confrontation with society or reflect back on it. Partly because of this, he deliberately restricts his audience. He sets up a palisade of self-conscious and rather mechanical wit, which not merely infuriates those who have no idea what he is talking about but often puts off those who do. We may get so annoyed at his dandies waving their hands languidly at thick volumes labelled “Plato” or “Aristotle” that we may forget that Wilde could, and did, read Greek, and that his references to classical authors are usually quite precise. So before long I was back in the world of the essay called “The Decay of Lying,” now widely recognized to have said a great deal of what modern theories of criticism have been annotating in more garbled language ever since.

The main thesis of this essay is that man does not live directly and nakedly in nature like the animals, but within an envelope that he has constructed out of nature, the enve¬lope usually called culture or civilization. When Words¬worth urges his reader to leave his books, go outdoors, and let nature be his teacher, his “nature” is a north temperate zone nature which in nineteenth-century England had become, even in the Lake District, largely a human artefact. One can see the importance, for poets and others, of the remoteness and otherness of nature: the feeling that the eighteenth century expressed in the word “sublime” conveys to us that there is such a thing as creative alienation. The principle laid down by the Italian philosopher Vico of verum factum, that we understand only what we have made ourselves, needs to be refreshed sometimes by the contempla¬tion of something we did not make and do not understand. The difficulty with Wordsworth’s view is in the word “teacher.” A nature which was not primarily a human artefact could teach man nothing except that he was not it. We are taught by our own cultural conditioning, and by that alone.

We may see already that the word “creation” involves us in a state of mind that is closely parallel with certain types of paranoia, which may give us a clue to what Wilde means by “lying.” Our envelope, as I have called it, the cultural insulation that separates us from nature, is rather like (to use a figure that has haunted me from childhood) the window of a lit-up railway carriage at night. Most of the time it is a mirror of our own concerns, including our concern about nature. As a mirror, it fills us with the sense that the world is something which exists primarily in reference to us: it was created for us; we are the centre of it and the whole point of its existence. But occasionally the mirror turns into a real window, through which we can see only the vision of an indifferent nature that got along for untold aeons of time without us, seems to have produced us only by accident, and, if it were conscious, could only regret having done so. This vision propels us instantly into the opposite pole of paranoia, where we seem to be victims of a huge conspiracy, finding ourselves, through no will of our own, arbitrarily assigned to a dramatic role which we have been given no script to learn, in a state of what Heidegger calls “thrown¬ness.” ––from Creation and Recreation in Northrop Frye on Religion 36-7

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Some Notes on Frye and Blunden (1)

Edmund Blunden in 1938

Edmund Blunden in 1938

The relationship between Frye and his Oxford tutor is, like most human relations, complex.  Frye’s attitudes toward Blunden emerge during the course of his correspondence with Helen Kemp (Frye).  Blunden’s view of Frye is more difficult to untangle.  Other than Frye’s statements about Blunden in the Frye‑Kemp letters, I think Frye makes only five references to his tutor.  In a 1942 diary entry, he mentions Blunden in passing: “I’d like to write an article on Everyman prudery sometime.  Geoffrey of Monmouth; the translator’s smug sneer on p. 248.  Malory, according to Blunden” (Diaries 33).  The meaning here is uncertain, but perhaps Frye is remembering a remark of Blunden’s that the Everyman edition of Malory’s Arthur had been bowlerdized.”  There’s another passing reference in Frye’s foreword to Robin Harris’s English Studies at Toronto. In his 1952 diary he remarks that Douglas LePan had visited Blunden in Tokyo (504).  The fourth reference comes in a review of C. Day Lewis’s translation of Virgil’s Georgics: Frye writes that the translation has “much in common with the best of the English bucolic school: with Shanks, Blunden, Edward Thomas, and Victoria Sackville-West’s The Land” (Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 71 [March 1948]: 337-8).  Then in a review of Robert Graves’s Collected Poems Frye writes that Graves is closer in technique to Blunden than to Eliot (Hudson Review 9 [Summer 1956]: 298).

These remarks are inconsequential for understanding the Frye‑Blunden relationship.  In an interview with Valerie Schatzker Frye reports that Blunden “was a rather shy, diffident man.”  At least they had those traits in common.  Then Frye adds, signaling an enormous difference, “for some bloody reason, which I’ve never figured out, he was pro‑Nazi.  I didn’t know who to blame for that.”  In a letter to Helen (28 May 1937) Frye wrote that “Blunden came back from Germany full of enthusiasm for the Nazis.”  Blunden was in fact accused in 1939 of being a Nazi sympathizer.  Here’s the way his politics is presented on the Edmund Blunden website, established by his family:

In April 1940 Edmund wrote to the Times to deplore plans to bomb German cities, fearing for the inevitable killing and wounding of civilians. As a result, Annie’s [Annie was the German wife of Blunden’s brother] home in Tonbridge was raided by the police who took all [his wife] Sylva’s letters to Edmund, and returned to the house to go through all Edmund’s books.  Edmund told the Warden of Merton that he had already written to his old Commanding Officer, [Col. Harrison in Undertones of War] to offer his services, and soon found himself in uniform again as an officer in the University’s Officers Training Corps.

Blunden was not interested in politics but was vehemently opposed to war. He refused to be drawn into the politics of pacifism. His refusal to politically engage in the late 1930’s led to him being labelled a Nazi and subsequently, in the 1950s, a communist, following his visit to China, shortly after the end of the Korean war.  His belief in the fundamental goodness of the ordinary man and the need to avoid war at all costs, consistently led him to being politically misunderstood, particularly during the tumultuous events of the 1930s.  He used his writing, public speaking and visits to Germany in an ambassadorial attempt to influence opinion against any recurrence of the 1914-18 conflagration.  This was emphatically not a political voice but one that believed in bringing nations together by talking to each other and building strong human ties.  He was convinced that were his battle-weary generation in positions of power, war would naturally be averted.  He was devastated when it became clear that lessons from the tragedy of the Great War were being ignored and in many cases trodden upon. (http://www.edmundblunden.org/productservice.php?productserviceid=299)

It would be interesting to see what Barry Webb’s biography of Blunden has to say about this.

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“The Greatest Critic of His Time (Potentially)”


Re: Bob Denham’s “Frye’s Superlatives

“If Hopkins could only have got rid of his silly moral anxieties, his perpetually calling Goethe a rascal and Whitman a scoundrel and the like, he’d have been the greatest critic of his time.” [RN, 325]

Thanks, Bob, for an intriguing post.

When I worked on my article on “Frye and Catholicism,” the Notebooks on Romance had not been published (in fact, the article and Notebooks both appeared in 2004). It would have been nice to have been able to use the following passage, one of the most interesting statements Frye makes about Catholicism:
“By the way, I must get rid of my fear of Catholicism long enough to distinguish the kinds of it that are purely Fascist & therefore factional (the paranomasia of national & natural religion as the Satanic analogy should be noted) from a cosmopolitan & liberal residue. In Dante the former is Antichrist, the Avignon Pope. In Dickens there is a real catholicity of the latter kind.” (RN 28)

I wonder whether Frye didn’t feel a degree of anxiety about the fact that some of the writers he admired most, and who play a significant role in his theory of literature, were Catholic Christians, like Dante, Hopkins or T. S. Eliot.

The reference to Hopkins’s “silly moral anxieties” recalls a number of comments he makes about Chesterton and Ruskin (I intend to pursue the former in a future post). Gerard Manley Hopkins as the greatest critic (potentially) of his time is a truly surprising statement. Hopkins certainly makes some very influential and significant comments concerning his sacramental theory of poetry. Concepts such as “inscape” give rise to many fascinating classroom discussions, in my experience. But Hopkins was also a dreamer, someone who concocted large intellectual and literary projects that he was never able to bring to fruition (rather like Coleridge in that respect). It is hard to imagine him producing enough significant work to be a truly great critic. As for calling Whitman a scoundrel, he nevertheless registered his influence in his own poetry, I think.

A major critical influence on Frye was Oscar Wilde, author of “two almost unreasonably brilliant” critical dialogues (NFR 87), “The Critic as Artist” and “The Decay of Lying.” The conclusion of Wilde’s De Profundis is another place where he anticipates Frye’s ideas. My teacher at the University of Toronto, W. David Shaw, argued that by the end of De Profundis the regimentation of time and space in Reading Gaol have become metaphors for the categories of time and space in general, which can be overcome by the poetic imagination. A couple of years ago I was inspired by a comment Michael Dolzani made in a CBC Ideas programme about Frye to explore the affinities between Frye and Wilde. Both critics shared a preference for the idea of literature as a visionary new creation to the idea of literature holding the mirror up to nature.

It’s interesting that there has been some lively recent scholarship on Wilde and Catholicism. (I have myself shocked several people, at least some of them evangelical Christians, by including Wilde in a course on the Catholic tradition in English literature. I like to tell them the story about how he was baptized three times: the details are in Richard Ellman’s biography).

I wonder who was the greatest of all English critics of any period for Frye, to indulge in some more “literary chit-chat,” if not “sonorous nonsense.” William Blake, who was his preceptor in all things? Frye’s marginalia seem to emulate Blake’s sometimes. Sir Philip Sidney, Protestant humanist and intellectual, might be another candidate (with his visionary golden world as opposed to the brazen world of nature). And Frye, of course, uses Sidney and Aristotle as key elements in his own theory of literature in the Anatomy.

Frye’s Superlatives


The first step in developing a genuine poetics is to recognize and get rid of meaningless criticism, or talking about literature in a way that cannot help to build up a systematic structure of knowledge. This includes all the sonorous nonsense that we so often find in critical generalities, reflective comments, ideological perorations, and other consequences of taking a large view of an unorganized subject. It includes all lists of the “best” novels or poems or writers, whether their particular virtue is exclusiveness or inclusiveness. It includes all casual, sentimental, and prejudiced value judgments, and all the literary chit-chat which makes the reputations of poets boom and crash in an imaginary stock exchange. (Anatomy of Criticism 18)

From Frye’s Notebooks (lifted from Northrop Frye Unbuttoned) 

The Greatest Book Ever Written (at Oxford).  I’m in Oxford now, & from my point of view the greatest book ever written at Oxford is the Anatomy of Melancholy. [RT, 132]  (Abbreviations and links to texts below.)

The Greatest Book in the Bible. Genesis. [LN, 1:337] 

The Greatest British Monarch.  King Arthur. [LN, 2:598]

 The Greatest Creative Mind of Modern Times.  Shakespeare. [NRL, 108]

 The Greatest Critic of His Time (potentially).  If Hopkins could only have got rid of his silly moral anxieties, his perpetually calling Goethe a rascal and Whitman a scoundrel and the like, he’d have been the greatest critic of his time. [RN, 325]]

 The Greatest Eros Poet (English).  The greatest Eros poet in English is probably Marvell. [RT, 136]

The Greatest Eros Poets (Non-English).  Dante & Plato are the world’s greatest Eros poets. [RT, 407]

The Greatest Example of Linearity. Christianity to the Bible was typically a linear, step by step response, the sacramental disciplinary habitus of which the greatest illustration is the interlocking march of Dante’s terza rima from one end of the chain of being to the other. [RT, 240]

 The Greatest Fiction Writer of the Century (potentially).  God, I wish D.H. Lawrence had some sense of real satire: if he had he’d have been by long odds the greatest fiction writer of the century. [LN, 1:322]

 The Greatest Form of Prose.  The Utopia. [LN, 1:404]

 The Greatest Form-Shaper.  Dante is an analogical visionary & stands opposite the Scripture, the “paradox” involved being that the greatest of form-shapers turns out to be the supreme analogist or reverser of the Word (Logos). [NAC, 4]

 The Greatest Historical Novel.  War and Peace. [LN, 1:407]

 The Greatest Imaginations.  Defeated nations have the greatest imaginations. [RT, 185]

 The Greatest Impersonator in History.  There are three kinds of geniuses: imposers, imposters, & impersonators, & I may be the greatest impersonator in history. [RN, 33]

 The Greatest Literary Genius after Blake.  The greatest literary genius this side of Blake is Edgar Allan Poe. [LN, 1: 165]

 The Greatest Masterpiece of Experimental Prose in English Fiction.  Tristram Shandy. [LS, 63]

The Greatest Moral Virtue. Jesus speaks of hypocrisy, which may be a vice in the gospel context but is one of the absolutely essential cementing force that holds society together. Morally, it is the greatest of all virtues. [LN, 1:270]

The Greatest Number of Demonic Images.  The book with the greatest number of demonic images in it I ever read (the Inferno of course doesn’t count) was Melmoth the Wanderer. [TBN, 142]

The Greatest Occasional Writers.  The occasional writing, of which the supreme example is the epistles of Paul, & the greatest English example probably Burke, needs more development. [RN, 77]

 The Greatest Play of Shaw.  Saint Joan. [LS, 180]

 The Greatest Poet for Shakespeare.  Ovid [TBN, 315]

 The Greatest Protestant Poet of the Pathos.  Bach [FMW, 166]

 The Greatest Shakespearean Comedy.  The Tempest. [LS, 158]

 The Greatest Symposium Writer.  Plato. [LN, 2:552]

 The Greatest Thanatos Poem.  The Iliad. [NR, 168]

 The Greatest Titanic Spirit in Literature.  Hamlet himself is the greatest example in literature of a titanic spirit thrashing around in the prison of what he is. [LN, 1:13]

 The Greatest of Vices.  Pride is the greatest of vices partly because it is the most futile of vices: man has nothing to be proud of. [LS, 87]

Abbreviations and links to primary texts after the break.

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Today in the Frye Diaries, 8 September


At this point the 1942 diary is the only one of Frye’s diaries that continues past the first week of September.


[101] Howard Smith has a book out: “Last Train From Berlin.” Howard was a very likeable boy, frank and open-minded in the best American way, somewhat naive, & a little sentimental, as Americans are. He is one of those who are so unwilling to be cynical that they tend to lack humor. I remember his showing me some Russian kopecks with “Workers of the World Unite” on them and saying: “Now have the Russians forgotten the world revolution?” I said something about the profound Christianity indicated by the “In God We Trust” on American coins and he laughed, though somewhat unwillingly.

[Bob Denham’s note, page 684, CW vol. 8: “Smith, who later became a well-known CBS commentator, was a Rhodes Scholar at Merton College, during the time NF studied there.  NF is apparently remembering this incident from their student days.”]