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.


FMW = Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings

LN = The Late Notebooks of Northrop Frye

LS = Northrop Frye on Literature and Society

NAC = Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism”

NRL = Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Renaissance Literature

RN = Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance

RT = Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts

TBN = The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye

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1 thought on “Frye’s Superlatives

  1. Russell Perkin

    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]

    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). 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 Wilde’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). Frye uses Sidney and Aristotle as key elements in his own theory of literature in the _Anatomy_.


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