Angels, Again


This is a meditation and mini‑sourcebook, triggered by Michael Dolzani’s uncommonly perceptive post (not uncommon, of course for Michael, my editorial sidekick, who, as I’ve said several times in print, is a reader of Frye without equal).  Here’s hoping that he’ll continue to share with us what’s on his mind.


Angels for Frye belonged to a complex of entities he called the world of “fairies and elementals.”  In his notebooks he keeps promising himself to write an article of “fairies and elementals” (On the topic, see Late Notebooks [CW 5], 189–90, 195, and Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible [CW 13], 54; Notebooks on Romance [CW 15] 143, 144; Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism” [CW 23], Notebook 25, par. 7 [unpublished but posted in the Library as sect. 7 of “Unpublished Notes”]).  He never got around to writing the article, but there are hints here and there about what the article would contain.  At one point in his Great Code notebooks Frye appears to conceive of three strands in the “elemental” esoteric traditions:

1.  The fairy world itself

2.  The bardo world

3.  The “total magnet or anima mundi which accounts for mesmerism, telepathy, clairvoyance, second sight & magical healing cures” (Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible, 54).  Frye sometimes calls this third strand the soul-world or Akasa (Sanskrit for “space” or “ether”), a term that he adapted from Madame Blavatsky.  Angels belong to what he refers to as “non-human forms of more or less conscious existence” (ibid.)  In Anatomy of Criticism, these “forms” belong to the existential projection of romance (64), meaning that the writers of romance accept the world of fantasy as “true” and so populated their stories with angels, fairies, ghosts, demons, and the like.  Angels, of course, occupy their place in Frye’s accounts of the ladder of being on the rung between the human and the divine.  They belong as well, in Blake’s four‑storied cosmos, to Beulah, and they are a part of what Frye called in his first essay on Yeats “the hyperphysical world” (Fables of Identity, 227).  Twenty years later he describes this world as

the world of unseen beings, angels, spirits, devils, demons, djinns, daemons, ghosts, elemental spirits, etc.  It’s the world of the “inspiration” of poet or prophet, of premonitions of death, telepathy, extra-sensory perception, miracle, telekinesis, & of a good deal of “luck.”  In the Bible it’s connected with Lilith & other demons of the desert, with the casting out of devils in the gospels, with visions of angels, with thaumaturgic feats like those of Elijah & Elisha, & so on.  Fundamentally, it’s the world of buzzing though not booming confusion that the transistor radio is a symbol of.  (Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible, 90)


I wonder if in Frye’s anguished katabatic experience of Helen’s death in Cairns we might not have a conjunction of the oracle and wit insight that was the essence of his Seattle epiphany.  This occured to me by looking again at the ultimate and penultimate remarks of Helen before she died––after which Jane Widdicombe becomes a guardian angel.

The oracle: “Besides, when Jane told her she was in hospital and had to get better before she could go home, she said ‘I can take that from you.’  When I tried to say the same thing, she said ‘Don’t be so portentous.’  It was the last thing she said to me, and it sounds like an oracle.  Meanwhile there is Jane, a daughter sent by God instead of nature.  Guardian angels take unexpected but familiar forms, as in Homer” (Late Notebooks, CW 5, 137–8).

The wit: “She died at 3.10 p.m. on August 4 (the medical attendants said 3.30, but I happen to know when she actually left me).  She was a gentle and very pure spirit, however amused or embarrassed she might be to hear herself so described.  The day before her death the intravenous machine ran out of fluid and started ticking:  Helen opened an eye and said “Is that your pet cricket?”  I am grateful that in practically the last thing I heard her say there was still a flash of the Helen I had known and loved for over fifty years” (“Memoir,” Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings, CW, 42).

Michael Dolzani shows how Frye, in all those passages about Helen in Notebook 44, moves from a negative to a positive faith, having been transported from the abyss where he has confronted her death to some form of apocalyptic revelation, where Helen has now become for him a Beatrice or Laura.  He needs no longer now accuse himself of having murdered her by taking her to Australia.

Two pages after Frye announces that Helen has become a Court of Love mistress, he writes two extraordinary entries that are ostensibly about points he is considering for Words with Power, but it is difficult not to read these in the context of Helen’s death.

I’ve said that the poem passes into the critical reader through a process of death & absorption in a new life.  This is an essential point in Two [i.e., chap. 2 of Words with Power], where the transition is made from hypothetical to existential metaphor, or actual identity with.  Also in Two is the sense of dianoia as stasis: this can be a seed or germ like Henry James’ suggestion (preface to The American particularly) or mandala object of contemplation.

St. Thomas distinguishes ratio from intellectus, the former being logic & the latter what we call vision.  It comes from the active intellect, which comes in turn from angels or other messengers of Sapientia.  Meister Eckhart talks about every soul as a Virgin Mary giving birth to the Word in the soul.  For poets their poems are a mimesis of the Word, just as love for Provencal & later Italian poets become[s] a mimesis of agape, and Classical myth a (positive) mimesis of Christian myth.  Aucassin’s hell; the Romaunt of the Rose; the possible secret (e.g. Templar) cults.

Notice the series of oppositions here:

death                                       new life

hypothetical metaphor         existential metaphor

ratio                                         intellectus

logic                                         vision

mimesis of the Word               mimesis of agape

Aucassin’s hell*                       Roumant of the Rose

[* “Aucassin says he’d rather go to hell because everything that makes life in the least worth living is quite obviously headed for there, whereas nobody wants heaven except a bunch of old crocks who are good for nothing else,” CW 6, 552]

In terms of Frye’s Great Doodle, the movement from negative to positive faith would be the vertical trust from the Thanatos to the Logos vision.


The esoteric traditions are a central to Frye’s effort to understand the spiritual world.  In his Notebooks on Romance he writes, “The next step is the total West & total East reintegration: I talk big; perhaps big things are happening in the spiritual world.  My next step, anyway, is an effort to make sense of the whole spiritual world from seraphim to poltergeists.  I must study doctrines of spirits so as to visualize that whole world as a system.  Socratic & Apuleian daimons, Dionysian angels, & the devils cast out in the Gospels are among the main problems.  I wish a slight crack in that other half-brain of mine would let in a ray or two” (CW 15, 99).  Jung’s Red Book would have fit right into Frye’s effort to study the spiritual world.  It has a number of cousins, including Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Yeats’s A Vision, Blake’s illuminated manuscripts, the Avatamsaka Sutra and the Lankavatara Sutra, Boehme’s The Signature of Things and Six Theosophic Points, Madame Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine––all of which held deep fascination for Frye.  The list of such works is quite large.  His library contained 272 books (254 of them annotated) that might be described as esoteric and placed alongside Jung’s Red Book––books on alchemy, astrology, Gnosticism, gnosis, magic, mysticism, cabalism, Rosicrucianism, channeling, synchronicity, astral projection, the Tarot, fourth‑force psychology, paranormal phenomena, numerology, secret societies, and other manifestations of the occult, some of which Frye referred to as his “kook books.”  A preliminary study of these things is in Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary, chap. 6.



Otherwise on angels, a baker’s‑dozen sampler:

1. In his earliest notebook for the Anatomy, written at about the time Fearful Symmetry was published, Frye wrote, in an astonishing catalogue of angels and demons who can be either “looked at” or “looked through”:

Angel is from αγγελος, messenger, who in the Classics is Hermes or Mercury.  Hermes the thrice-great with his Egyptian origin & his secret doctrines & powers, is the Classical Covering Cherub.  In Hebrew ruach usually means evil spirit: the good ones are usually ma’lok, a word suggesting the C.C. [Covering Cherub] analogy melek, king.  Cf. the MHH [The Marriage of Heaven and Hell] pattern in Blake.  I suppose angel : imagination : Albion or Israel : Jesus.  We look out with titanic powers, & the creature perceived through the eye reflects the vision: we look at the same thing & it becomes its own arsehole, as in Exodus.  The angel, the C.C. or Hermes, becomes then an elemental spirit or watching star.  The angel of a Church is the Zeitgeist or ether-reservoir of ideas.  In vision, the fallen angel or meteor is the Prometheus-Jesus, the descending friend of man; in analogy, he’s the worshipped angel, warned against in Colossians [2:18], Hebrews [1:13–14], Revelation [19:10, 22:8–9].  The worshipped angel is really the accepted chain of being.  The serpent who tempted Adam was the serpentine form of his own intelligence, so the fallen serpent form is the Adamic body.  Looked at, the C.C. is a devil-basilisk-Leviathan; looked through, he’s an angel of God (melek-ma’lek).  Looked at, the Ocean; looked through, Atlantis.  Looked at, the concealing form of God who turns out to be the Father-alone or (as in Blake’s Tharmas) “Parent power” principle [The Four Zoas, Night the First, pl. 4, l. 6], the Angelo or regent.  Looked through, he’s the spiritual form of the king, the only-begotten Son of God.  Looked at, the atomic bomb, the secret power of the thrice-great triple-formed monstrous & hermetic Cerberus; looked through, the furnace or alembic of the three children in which we can see the form of the fourth [Daniel 3:25].  Looked at, the magician with wand & cloak; looked through, the released Prospero whose body is the island.  The angelology-chain of being link is pretty clear in the whole Dionysian-Thomistic tradition. (Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism” [CW 23], 22)

2. Frye as angel. From the Late Notebooks a suggestive entry about who or what Frye might be, freely cruising along in a higher world future, after he ceases to be a literary critic:

I must never forget that I’m a literary critic.  Socrates’ daimon, tutelary deities, angel guardians, may well be ourselves in a future stage of development.  Henry James’ Sense of the Past, one Ralph Pendrell imprisoned in the Regency & the other cruising freely in the future, yet still affected by his behavior.  Or we could read “higher” for “future” above.  Prospero recreating his enemies in a submarine purgatory. (CW 6, 715)

3. Angels as symbolic of psychological powers:

In this world all power leads to the abuse of power: the angels symbolize the released conscious powers of intellect & imagination.  I suppose yoga techniques move in this direction: anybody who completely achieved Patanjali’s agenda would be an angel.  Note that a lot of people, from Heraclitus to Blake, have identified man’s guardian angel with his own essential genius. (Late Notebooks, CW 5, 78)

4. Detectives as angels:

The reason why detectives in detective stories are so preternaturally intelligent is that they’re angels.  Guardian angels of society; avenging angels for the murderer.  Everyone is guilty of something, so all the major characters are suspects. (Late Notebooks, CW 5, 95)

5. Angels as principle of interpenetration:

Angels, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, belong in a pure presence and don’t have to move in space, their real or universal form being the Holy Spirit, who, being everywhere at once, is the pure principle of interpenetration. (Late Notebooks, CW 6, 562)

[A similar notion]  Angels here have passed beyond space altogether, as God has passed beyond time. (Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible, CW 13, 91)

[Another parallel]  Angels are spiritual beings because they don’t travel but just epiphanize (when they do) in an interpenetrating space, and all angels by the royal metaphor are One Spirit, a little higher (Ps. 8 ) than we are. (Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible, CW 13, 331)

6. On planning his next big job after Words with Power and The Double Vision:

I’m haunted by the feeling that even WP [Words with Power] needs a few extra paragraphs about the imaginative universe, the warning that the axis mundi is an exceedingly arbitrary choice from a whole complex—perhaps even a hint that this may be my next big job, with these Emmanuel lectures the transition between them.  How long do I have, angel? (Late Notebooks, CW 6, 628)

7. Angels as spirits

The omnipresence of spirit and its independence of simple location: angels are spirits, and the number that can stand on the point of a pin is either none or an infinite number, depending on whether they occupy space or not.  I think I can risk speculating on the fact that the spiritual body consists of energy rather than matter, but I hate to think of some form of Whitman’s “body electric.”  Not that anyone knows what electricity is. (Late Notebooks, CW 6, 637)

8. On the principle that the evidence for the existence of angels is provided by sensory awareness (experience), which in Frye’s case he has not had.  His doubt is not about the event but about himself.

If I had been on the hills of Bethlehem in the year one, I do not think I should have heard angels singing because I do not hear them now, & there is no reason to suppose that they have stopped. (Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible, CW 13, 74)

[Another version]  If I had been out on the hills of Bethlehem on the night of the birth of Christ, with the angels singing to the shepherds, I think that I should not have heard any angels singing. The reason why I think so is that I do not hear them now, and there is no reason to suppose that they have stopped. (The Critical Path, 114)

9. Angels as embodied imaginary constructs:

Incarnation includes creation in the sense of realization or physical embodiment.  It includes all imaginary constructs, of angels, the spiritual world, & the like, which can be embodied, in works of art or whatever.  (Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible, CW 13, 223)

10. Angels as a subcategory of “gods”:

Gods include all the potentially numinous powers of nature, angels, devils, elemental spirits, ghosts, the lot.  (Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible, CW 13, 249)

11. An anatomy of angels in the New Testament:

Degrees of angels: lower ones over the elements: Rev. 7:1 (wind); 14:18 (fire); 16:5 (water).  They’re too busy to observe the Sabbath.  Some are guardians of individuals: Matt. 18:10; Acts 12:15.  The highest orders are angels of the presence (note analogy with court) and of sanctification. (Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible, CW 13, 287.  Frye is drawing here on R.H. Charles, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha 2:10)

12. On the function of angels in the Bible, see lecture 7 of Frye’s Symbolism in the Bible (Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible, CW 13, 467–75.  This could be supplemented by taking account of Frye’s commentaries on the angelic (Hallelujah Chorus) perception of the sun in Blake’s Vision of the Last Judgment, the angels in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Rilke’s angels.

13. “Is Michael the only saint who is also an angel?  If so, why?  If not, who are the others?” (Late Notebooks, CW 5, 134).  “Michael is the ‘angel of humanity’” (Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible, CW 13, 288).  Whether the references are to Dolzani or Happy is uncertain.

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