The Collected Poems of Northrop Frye


1.  In letter to Helen Kemp, 15 July 1932.

A man with a bad case of phthisis

Kept asking his family for phkhisses

Until his wife said,

“You can’t see your head

So you don’t know how rotten your phphiz is.”


2.  In letter to Helen Frye, 5 January 1939.

I could fly as straight as an arrow,

To visit my wife over there,

If I could excrete my marrow,

And fill my bones with air.


3.  Sonnet written on Frye’s 23rd birthday (14 July 1935).  In a letter to Roy Daniells.  Frye refers to it as “horrible doggerel, like all of my alleged poetry.”

Milton considered his declining spring

And realized the possibility

That while he mused on Horton scenery

Genius might join his youth in taking wing;

Yet thought this not too serious a thing

Because of God’s well-known propensity

To take and re-absorb inscrutably

The lives of men, whatever gifts they bring.

Of course I have a different heritage;

I’ve worked hard not to be young at all,

With fair results; at least my blood is cooled,

And I am safe in saying, at Milton’s age,

That if Time pays me an informal call

And tries to steal my youth, Time will get fooled.


4.  Among the annotations Frye made in his copy of The Wisdom of Laotse (1948, trans. Lin Yutang) is this holograph verse at the end of chapter 4.

Laotse’s Commentary of Genesis

In the beginning God created heaven and earth.

That was where the trouble started.

Before, there was chaos,

Which is what the wise man still seeks.

He divided light from darkness, dry land from sea,

But we got sea and darkness anyway.

Silly blundering old bugger,

Why couldn’t he have left well enough alone.


5.  Among the annotations to Frye’s copy of Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji, this couplet scribbled in the margin of page 153.

When night lets fall her sable hood

How may one know which dame one scrood?

6.  Frye’s parody of modernist verse in his short story “Interpreter’s Parlour,” along with his New Critical “close reading”:





diance, di

Vine, -in (e)

Prunes and prisms.

“Interpreter’s Parlour” is an ostensible dialogue between a poet and an unnamed interlocutor, but the latter makes no contribution to the dialogue, serving only to punctuate the poet’s clever interpretation of one of his own “difficult poems.”  It is a satirical tour de force, even though the poem is hardly a poem at all: the creativity emerges not from the poem but from the poet’s creative reading, which becomes an elaborate exercise in comparative religion, illustrating that if you stare at the words long enough you can make coherence out of an incoherent riddle.  The monologue prefigures the close readings that the New Critics would later develop into critical orthodoxy, though the monologue is of course a parody of such readings.  Here’s the poet’s “interpretation”:

“Nothing there but a few crabbed words, seemingly, yet it’s an entire essay on comparative religion. . . .You see, every great religion thinks in terms of two leading ideas, heaven and earth: heaven because it’s the source of light, earth because it’s the source of life.  So every god worshipped as a supreme being is connected both with the sun and with the coming of rain to a waste land. . . .”

“The first three lines work out the solar part of the symbolism.  Ra, you remember was the Egyptian sun god.  The connection of ‘gold’ with the sun is pretty easy, except that you have to realize that it represents the diffusion of the light among men.  Gold is the basis of all commerce and trade, and of course I’m taking it for granted that gold became the standard of coinage because it originally represented the sun. . . .”

“But of course trade only accounts for part of the communications among men: the rest comes mainly from writing, which is based on the alphabet.  The ‘A’ symbolizes the alphabet, only to link it with the solar symbolism you have to assume that the alphabet (which began in Egypt, of course, connecting up with Ra) was derived from some sort of lunar calendar, there being twenty-eight days in a lunar month and almost that many letters in the alphabet.  That represents the reflection of the sun’s light, and marks the extreme limit of its diffusion. . . .”

“And that’s why the formal characteristics of those three lines are so sharp and clear.  ‘A’ is a direct rhyme to ‘Ra’, and as Ra is a god, that’s a pretty easy assonance with ‘gold.’  The next two lines, dealing with the fertility side of the symbolism, are harder.  They have to be.  Life, in contrast to light, is tangled, tortured and mysterious.  That’s why the important words are broken up and concealed.  The god is divided among men, you see, which is why the word ‘divine’ is broken.  That gives you the word ‘vine’, which is an obvious fertility symbol, and the connection of ‘vine’ with the ‘gold’ above suggest the Golden Bough which Aeneas took when he, like the Ra of this poem, descended to a lower state of existence. . . .”

“And just as the first three lines suggest the fixity of heaven by the oracular echolalia of assonance and rhyme, so the rest of the poem is based on alliteration, reminiscent of the powerful repeated rhythms of the fertility dance.  That accounts for the repetition of ‘di’ and ‘ine,’ and, of course, the two ‘pr’ sounds below.  But the ‘e’ of the second ‘ine’ is in parenthesis, which means that you are free to take just the ‘in’ part of it and connect it with the Ra who brings rain. . . .”

“The prunes and prisms . . . represent the fact that all religions degenerate into automatic routine morality.  The phrase is used by Dickens to symbolize the most rigid kind of conventional propriety [“Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism, all very good words for the lips,—especially prunes and prism” (Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, bk. 2, chap. 5)].  In fact, the words depend for their effect, even in Dickens, on the sound-associations of ‘prude’ and ‘precision.’  The unimaginative and needless repetition of the ‘ine’ sound above warns you what’s coming.  And then, of course, a prune is a dried-up and sterile fruit, which shows the exhaustion of the fertility impulse, and the prism is the distortion and fragmentary breaking-up of the clear radiance of the light-god Ra.  The words also suggest that the reasons for the exhaustion of a religious impulse are its tendency to become a formal and unintelligible ritual on the one hand and to break up into sects and heresies on the other—in other words, runes and isms. . . .”

[As for the title,] “Well, although a prism bends or bows a clear light, the connection with the rain above irresistibly suggests ‘rainbow.’  And a rainbow is the symbol of hope and promise, as you remember from the story of the Flood.  ‘Arx’ means both the ark of Noah and the arc of the rainbow.  So, although you seem to have a straight linear descent from the sunlight of summer, down through the dying earth of the autumn into the prunes and prisms of the apparently sterile winter, still the breaking up of the snows into the floods of spring revives the spirit of hope, so that we come back in a circle after all.  That’s why the poem has twelve syllables, representing the sun’s passage through the Zodiac and the cycle of seasons.”


7. From Acta Victoriana 56, no. 3 (December 1931): 42.


An attractive young Sophette from Tait House

Went out to a party at Gate House,

Which was not at all wild,

But her don said, “My child,

This place is your home, not a date house.”



The loved one’s shoes are small and neat,
And my beloved is light and fleet
But one thing seems to me unmeet
They are so awfully full of feet.


Three more unsigned ditties may have come from Frye’s pen when he was on the editorial board of Acta Victoriana 55, no 7 (May–June 1931):

Here lies the body of Mary Ann

Safe in the bosom of Abraham:

Very nice for Mary Ann,

But rather hard on Abraham.



He comes from the pasture‑fields lazy

Where the mild‑eyed Jerseys browse;

And we ask how he grew midst the daisies,

And escaped the omnivorous cows!



A maiden from Annesley Hall,

At the rink had a fortunate fall,

For one of the men

Quickly raised her again,

There’ll be a church union next fall.


[We should all thank our lucky stars that Frye chose criticism over poetry.]

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One thought on “The Collected Poems of Northrop Frye

  1. Robert D. Denham

    Another ditty by Frye, increasing the number of his collected poems by 14.28%–from Late Notebooks, 1:274:

    I am about to write the world’s profoundest poem, with apologies to William James, the only one who has touched my level of genius:

    Hogamus, higamus,
    God is polygynous.
    Higamus, hogamus,
    Christ was androgynous.

    [James is said to have awakened one day with this jingle ringing in his head: “Hogamus, higamus, / Men are polygamous. / Higamus, hogamus, / Women monogamous.”]


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