Frye and Chesterton


Responding to Russell’s post earlier today:

Russell, Frye didn’t write anything extended on Chesterton, so far as I know. He read at least The Victorian Age in Literature and The Everlasting Man when he was a student at Emmanuel College. Here are about three dozen passages in his writings, some of them trivial, that refer to Chesterton.

1. I must expand the conception of dandyism as, essentially, a comic literary convention entering life around the second half of the 19th c. The dandy develops out of the Cléante type of comic moral norm, detached from what is seen as a crowd of preoccupied attached obsessed people, all facing in the same direction. The dandy is essentially conservative, because the facing-one-direction people make an assumption of progress, yet his impact is that of a devil’s advocate, reversing the melodramatic maxims in which society believes. Apart from the French developments, Oscar Wilde popularized the attitude, the progenitor of which in England is really Matthew Arnold, both in his life & in his comedies. An Ideal Husband has the dandy in one of his proper roles—that of gracioso-hero. His attitude is comic-existential, puncturing the balloons of false idealism. A Woman of No Importance has a far more brilliant dandy, but Wilde, partly through an effort to be “fair” to the other side, partly through a streak of masochism, & partly through sheer laziness, completely foozled the conclusion. Anyway, the dandy attitude survives in the early (twenties) essays of Aldous Huxley, whose epigrams are mainly inverted clichés, in Yeats’ association of dandyism & heroism, in Lytton Strachey, & in the contemporary New Yorker—see its Knickerbocker figure and again the inverted melodrama clichés of its cartoons. G.K. Chesterton is an anti-dandy; Shaw uses the dandy formula of course, but never puts much of himself behind it. I think something of this might get into an essay on Samuel Butler, who isn’t a dandy, but uses one as a norm in WAF [The Way of All Flesh], & is in marked contrast to William Morris, who’s a tough little Cockney drudge, to use Carlyle’s opposite term. (Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism,” CW 23, 265)

2. . . . Aesthetic judgement one in which anxieties are quieted, hence detached & cathartic; but literary experience is not a discrete series of goose pimples (Poe, Clive Bell). Taste (Lamb) vs. anxious judgement (Coleridge, Ruskin, Chesterton). (ibid., 281)

3. One of the others may be oracular & emblematic: the form in Hebrew prophecy where a pronouncement arises as an allegorical explanation of a visionary archetype. Amos’ plumb line & Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. I think it’s pretty central in Nietzsche & in Rimbaud: it’s a form difficult to disentangle from poetry. Note the emblematic structure (Grail, Stone, etc.) of the Charles Williams apocalyptic novels. The Chesterton Williams form I don’t account for except as a romance anatomy combination. It has links with the central emblem—white whale, scarlet letter, golden bowl—development of fiction, which I’ve not thoroughly gone into either. It may go back to the “motif” in folktale. Of course the emblem is close to being the archetype as image. (ibid., 162)

4. Some poems are based entirely on the third, such as Eliot’s Waste Land & Dry Salvages. The Four Quartets read from left to right. What I think you can introduce is a) the principle of historical cycle as a vis inertiae or ritual imitation of a lower state (as all ritual imitates the plants) b) the perception of this in Biblical & early Christian (Orosius, Boethius & the Augustine point) thought—not exact recurrence, but cyclical movement c) its place in Beowulf, in Spenser (Tory cycle), in Shakespeare maybe, as a rotary principle opposed to dialectic d) its modern formulation, sometimes under Spenglerian influence, in the 19th c. three-part rcs. [romantics] (G. Chesterton), in Nietzsche, Yeats, Eliot & Joyce. (ibid., 243)

5. After 1907 there follows something of an interregnum in Blake scholarship, in which the information and apparatus provided by the earlier critics was absorbed into the academic tradition by a steady though often reluctant osmosis. Basil de Selincourt’s William Blake (1909) follows the older tradition in maintaining a balance between the literary and pictorial aspects of Blake criticism, which now tended increasingly to concentrate on purely literary aspects. G.K. Chesterton’s William Blake (1910) is a breezy little book, doubtless of interest to admirers of Chesterton. (Northrop Frye on Milton and Blake, CW 16, 276)

6. McLuhan put a similar split rhetoric into an international context. On top was a breezy and self assured butterslide theory of Western history, derived probably from a Chestertonian religious orientation, according to which medieval culture had preserved a balanced way of life that employed all the senses, depended on personal contact, and lived with “tribal,” or small community units. Since then we have skittered down a slope into increasing specialization (McLuhan defines the specialist as the man who never makes a minor mistake on his way to a major fallacy), a self hypnotism from concentrating on the visual stimuli of print and mathematics, a dividing and subdividing of life into separate “problems,” and an obsession with linear advance also fostered by print and numbers. (“Across the River and Out of the Trees,” Northrop Frye on Canada, CW 12, 559–60)

7. One principle involved here is that nearly all popular historical myths are, like the myth of Christianity itself, related to comic romance, the story of the successfully achieved quest. As G.K. Chesterton remarks, the Victorians assimilated history to a three volume novel, with themselves as the happily-ending third volume. (“The Critical Path” and Other Writings on Critical Theory 1963-1975, CW 27, 58)

8. And why are all detective story writers, at least all English ones, stinking snobs? An offensive Jew almost always turns up; all radicals are long-haired heels; the hero or another detective is always a well-fed member of the British upper-middlers. Dorothy Sayers is the worst; Margery Allingham comes next. In the two I have, one, by Anthony Berkeley, contains a lot of pro-Conservative propaganda; the other, by John Dickson Carr, says the hero (another well-fed Tory: Carr seems to be a sort of Chestertonian Fascist Catholic) expected the manager of the hotel to be a Jew but found him belonging to the “island” instead. (The Diaries of Northrop Frye, CW, 15–16)

9. Arsed around reading Williams’ Place of the Lion, a much better book than All Hallows’ Eve, but still bad: he’s no artist. For about fifty pages he tries to let his story tell itself, but then gets morally itchy & starts fussing & mussing & grimacing & making points & preaching sermons & scolding his characters & twisting his allegory into cute little patterns. An unbelievably pedantic writer. This book makes Eliot’s point about the Chesterton influence much clearer. Like Chesterton, he can’t think of the arts except as a source of homiletic points. (ibid., 141)

10. The graduate group had Mary Waugh’s paper on Descent into Hell. Not bad: she’s a bright child. The conception of Gomorrah as the place of auto-erotic love is interesting. I dislike Williams so much—he pushes in, hectors & preaches, and in general writes archetypal fiction the way Samuel Smiles writes representational fiction—that it’s hard for me to settle down to him. When I do, he’s better than one would think. I still haven’t isolated the archetypal strain in prose fiction—Bunyan, Swift’s Tale of a Tub, George Macdonald, Chesterton, Lewis, Williams. It isn’t the anatomy, and I doubt if it’s the romance-anatomy combination I used to think it was. (ibid., 480)

11. A more common way of indicating that an image is literary is by allusion to something else in literature. Literature tends to be very allusive, and the central things in literature, the Greek and Roman classics, the Bible, Shakespeare and Milton, are echoed over and over again. To take a simple example: many of you will know G.K. Chesterton’s poem on the donkey, which describes how ungainly and ridiculous a beast he is, but that he doesn’t care because, as the poem concludes:

I also had my hour,
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

The reference to Palm Sunday is not incidental to the poem but the whole point of the poem, and we can’t read the poem at all until we’ve placed the reference. In other poems we get references to Classical myths. . . . We don’t often find that a poem depends completely on an allusion, as Chesterton’s poem does, but allusiveness runs all through our literary experience. (“The Educated Imagination and Other Writings on Critical Theory, CW 21, 459, 460; see also 261)

12. One thinks of G.K. Chesterton’s remark about the Victorians who saw the whole of human history in the form of one of their own three-volume novels, sure that they were the third volume and that history was turning out well because it was turning out with them. (ibid., 474)

13. There have been many great critics, such as Coleridge or Ruskin, or their followers like G.K. Chesterton and others, who seem to be incapable of making an aesthetic judgment. They make no statement about literature not coloured by anxieties of some kind. On the other hand, such critics as Edgar Allan Poe and his followers up to Clive Bell and beyond, seem to take the aesthetic judgment as an end in itself and to regard literary experience as one detached aesthetic judgment after another, generally expressed by some kind of physical reaction. (ibid., 305)

14. Miss Coburn’s method of anthologizing is much fairer to Coleridge than he was to himself, because she preserves the aphoristic quality of his real thinking. In continuous prose, even at his best, he is, as Chesterton says of Shaw, long winded because he is quick witted: he thinks of all the qualifications of his idea at once, hence his contemporary reputation for murkiness. (Northrop Frye’s Writings on the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, CW 17, 45)

15. Ruskin provides an almost mathematical proof of the superiority of the middle phase of Gothic architecture to every other form of human building. This thesis was taken up by various Catholic apologists, such as Belloc and Chesterton, who applied it to other aspects of medieval life. (ibid., 322)

16. Blunden last night. Paper on Wyatt: by no means a bad paper, though not very well organized: I didn’t start writing it until ten that morning, and the splutter over addle headed critics as aforesaid also interfered. Blunden said he had noticed that all his students who really understood what poetry was about liked Wyatt, which was no doubt a compliment. That man must listen to my papers more carefully than I thought. I was listening to a lecture of his on Chesterton last Wednesday in which I suddenly heard a paraphrase of a passage in the last paper I read him, followed by an application of the general principle it embodied to Chesterton. After the lecture he nodded cheerfully at me and said: “I stole from you, but unwillingly: and it was only petty larceny anyhow.” (The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp 1932-1939, CW 2, 634)

17. Another form of silly & irresponsible escapist belief is the kind of thing I got from Belloc & Chesterton, & later from the Thomist clerks: muttering darkly about the horrid (unspecified) disasters that would have followed if Europe had succumbed to Arianism or Manicheanism. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts, CW 13, 143)

18. There were so many aspects of the written word which were there right in front of him [Marshall McLuhan] and which he knew about, and I rather wish he had incorporated them. It was really the G.K. Chesterton butterslide: the notion that everything was unified in the Middle Ages and we have been splitting and specializing ever since. (Interviews with Northrop Frye, CW 24, 527)

19. Conversation [during my undergraduate years] was certainly a very strong element, but for a person brought up in a small town, coming to Toronto itself was part of one’s college education. In those days there were lecturing circuits and one went to Massey Hall to hear people like G.K. Chesterton and Bertrand Russell. (ibid., 580)

20. The following century produced a good deal of writing which saw the medieval period, or perhaps rather an idea which the medieval period represented, as a kind of cultural age of innocence, preceding a historical toboggan slide down into increasing sterility. The myth was congenial to Roman Catholic apologists, including G.K. Chesterton, who found in the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas a definitive synthesis of faith and reason, and in the ascendancy of the Church during the period an ideal of a unified society. (Northrop Frye on Literature and Society, CW 10, 92)

21. Chesterton is the only critic I know who has seriously tried to rescue The Tale of Melibee. He says, and from what we have seen in The House of Fame, says quite rightly, that Chaucer’s humour is of Gargantuan scope: to pick sly witticisms out of half-lines does not give us that humor in its proper perspective. (ibid., 134)

22. J.S. Mill could write of civilization, but not of culture: he had too much of the deracinated protestant animal and too little of the rank catholic vegetable. His dry shy sly humour is a furtive, scurrying, busy, rodent humour, a humour of the front teeth only, a forward-projecting humour, not a back-lean-and-look-up guffaw. I’m getting Chestertonian. (Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings, CW 25, 273)

23. Chesterton says Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, but found difficult and not tried. But Christianity in Chesterton’s sense has been tried. What has not been tried is Apostolic Christianity in a form suitable to the world in which it is tried, or not tried. That is done only through bringing about the conditions of Apostolic Christianity to something like a parallel [“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried” (What’s Wrong With The World [1910], chap. 5)]. (ibid, 363)

24. On the west wall is a Last Judgment by Taddeo di Bartolo, a grim, saturnine peasant of a man who goes through hell with relish, adding a few touches of his own. We see fiends holding back a fat friar from a luscious banquet, a fiend riding on a woman and cutting off her breasts, a fiend excreting into his victim’s open mouth with a wide grin on his ugly face, fiends winding somebody’s bowels out of his stomach over a windlass. One can see in every line of its precise and balanced painting, Chesterton says, that medieval culture was always seeking equilibrium. Yeah . . . Here’s the north wall, scenes from the Old Testament by Bartolo di Fredi, a good natured soul with a weakness for animals. He really goes to town on the ark, and Pharoah’s army drowning in the Red Sea, though his camels and giraffes certainly look a lot like horses. On the south wall are scenes from the life of Christ by someone called Barna—never heard of him. (Northrop Frye on Modern Culture, CW 10, 190)

25. Oh yes, how far Fascism as an intellectual’s creed (Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Charles Maurras & all that turba grama [wretched crowd]) develops out of a shopkeeper cult of Chestertonian distributism going back to Morris & how far it’s just idealizing aristocracy & peasantry at the expense of the middle class. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance CW 15, 92–3)

26. Morris is the right person to ask this question about, because he’s not just nostalgic or reactionary. Catholic thinkers like Chesterton pretend that medieval life was an ideal along with medieval art, and was so because everybody was agreed on a central myth of concern. That’s shit. Ruskin was very close to Morris, but, especially in things like the Fors Clavigera papers, he went reactionary too, and of course Carlyle always was. Ezra Pound was clearer in some ways, or at least less reactionary, but fuzzed in others. (ibid., 320)

27. Later writers of romance fall into a kind of sliding scale of projection and recovery in their attitude to the past. The projecting writers fall in love with the hierarchical structures that they find in earlier history, and present them as ideals to be recreated in their past forms. There is a good deal of this in Carlyle, with his over simplified work ethic which leads him to a dream of a reactivated aristocracy. There is a good deal of it in Yeats, with his carpet-knight adulation of some very dubious leaders and his fatalistic “vision” of history, and a good deal of it in such writers as G.K. Chesterton who think within a mythology of decline from earlier standards of authority, and identify recreation with their revival. Here again I am not speaking of literary merit, but of the quality of social mythology accepted. In projected romance the past becomes the mirror of the future, and we remember from our survey of descent themes that remaining imprisoned within a mirror world keeps us in the basement of reality. (The Secular Scripture” and Other Writings on Critical Theory 1976–1991, CW 18, 116)

28. It is an open question if any better free verse is written today than the prose of Bernard Shaw, whose long sentences are obviously intended to be spoken in a breath, like the lines in a poem of Sandburg’s, or than the antiphonal chant of G.K. Chesterton. (Northrop Frye’s Student Essays, CW 3,

29. Chesterton, in his essay on Browning, complains of Pippa being suddenly thrust as a participant into one of the intrigues she should visit as an impersonal, even a disembodied, spirit. The criticism would hold good were it not that the impingement of Pippa upon the final scene constitutes the stretto of a fugue which*but we had better return to more solid ground. (ibid., 102)

30. Chesterton, with a flash of insight rare in a writer on Browning, has remarked that if Browning’s plays were not failures, at any rate they should have been, as he seems to have been born to dramatic failure. (ibid., 105)

31. In the Passion stories perhaps the cursing of the barren fig tree is an unobtrusive underscoring of the fertility motive. It also seems logical to associate, as Chesterton suggests, the slaughter of the innocents with the passing of the old world as a last despairingly ferocious gesture. [G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1955), 178-9]. (ibid., 134)

32. This scheme reminds one of Chesterton’s remark about the Victorians who turned all human records into one of their own three volume novels, sure that it would end happily because it was ending with the Victorians. (ibid., 140)

33. The charges of such Catholic historians as Chesterton, Belloc, and Tawney, essentially that Protestantism broke the unity of Europe, should be made with more caution and fairness. (ibid., 268)

34. This view, though held as far on the left as William Morris, is more congenial to such Catholic apologists as Chesterton, and to such literary critics as Ezra Pound, whose conception of “usura” sums up a good deal of its demonology. (T.S. Eliot,

35. Wells’s range was therefore narrower but more intense: he was never fooled into thinking, as Shaw was during the Boer War, that imperialism could be a transitional phase of socialism, and therefore he understood the meaning of Fascism, as Shaw never did. There is nothing in Shaw corresponding to Wells’s horrifying fantasies of a Robot world or his vicious anti-Fascist satires, like The Autocracy of Mr. Parham, which prophesied Hitler’s rise to power long before it occurred. As for Shaw, Chesterton’s conception of him as a descendant of the Puritans is not likely to last: he is as pure a pagan as anyone can now be, far more so that Anatole France, for instance, because less self-conscious about it. (“Idols of the Market Place”; forthcoming in Northrop Frye on Twentieth Century Literature)

36. The cult of the legend is apt to lead to archaism, to sentimentalizing a certain period in the past. If we believe with Swinburne that the world has grown gray with the breath of Christ, we are making a historical Fall out of Christianity and a historical Golden Age out of the Classical era. Consequently we shall tend to think of the creative imagination as concerned with reviving the faded splendours of Classical culture, which will lead to a good deal of faking and antiquing when we come to deal directly with that culture. The same is true of the romantic medievalism of Morris and Chesterton, where the Fall is placed in the Renaissance or Reformation, as it is by Ruskin, who actually calls the Renaissance a Fall in The Stones of Venice. (“Yeats and the Language of Symbolism”)

37. The phrase “as far as possible” indicates the limitations of the procedure. Each religion uses dialectic, or the appearance of it, to demonstrate that it is the right one—the key to the lock, in Chesterton’s phrase. (Words with Power, CW 26, 96)

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1 thought on “Frye and Chesterton

  1. Russell Perkin

    Bob, Thanks so much for that splendid collection of passages! No. 22 on J.S. Mill’s “rodent humour” is absolutely priceless.


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