Monthly Archives: May 2010

Frye Alert


A notice from The Hayward Gallery, London, 28 May 2010:

The British Art Show Prelude
Three of Britain’s most exciting emerging artists–Roger Hiorns, Phoebe Unwin, Mick Peter–the Turner Prize-nominated artist, the painter and the sculptor use Northrop Frye’s model of seasons/genre to explore some issues in contemporary British art. Chaired by Tom Morton and Lisa Lefeuvre, Curators of British Art Show 7.

Walt Whitman


A wax recording of Whitman in 1890

Today is Walt Whitman‘s birthday (1819 – 1892).

Frye in The Modern Century:

When the Romantic movement began, there was one important primitive influence on it, that of the oral ballads, which began to be collected and classified at that time.  The oral ballad makes a functional use of refrains and other strongly marked patterns of repetition, which correspond to the emphasis on design in the primitive pictorial arts.  The fact that it depended for survival on an oral tradition meant that whatever personal turns of phrase there may originally have been in it were smoothed out, the poem thus acquiring a kind of stripped poetic surface quite unlike that of written poetry.  The literary ballads which imitate these characteristics — the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Blake’s Mental Traveller, Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci — come about as close as poetry can come to reproducing directly the voice of the creative powers of the mind below consciousness, a voice which is uninhibited and yet curiously impersonal as well.  This was also the “democratic” voice that Whitman attempted to reproduce, and Whitman is the godfather of all the folk singing and other oral developments of our time which cover so large an area of contemporary popular culture.  (CW 11, 54)

Frye in Court


Frye is called on in a 2009 amicus curiae brief in a case against Frederik Coulting by J.D. Salinger, who had asserted that Coulting’s book, 60 Years Later, “infringes [his] copyright rights in . . . the character Holden Caulfield.”  (Frye’s remarks on Salinger in an earlier post here.)

In the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit


J.D. SALINGER, individually and as trustee of the J.D. Salinger Literary Trust, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v. FREDRIK COLTING, writing under the name John David California, WINDUPBIRD PUBLISHING LTD., NICOTEXT A.B. and ABP, INC., doing business as SCB Distributors, Inc.,


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York


“That ability to “build freely upon the ideas” in others’ work is essential to First Amendment protection because even the most creative or artistic activity depends on the ability to borrow from what has gone before.  “Poetry can only be made out of other poems; novels out of other novels.” Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism 97 (1957). As Frye put it, we have inherited “a literature which includes Chaucer, much of whose poetry is translated or paraphrased from others; Shakespeare, whose plays sometimes

follow their sources almost verbatim; and Milton, who asked for nothing better than to steal as much as possible out of the Bible” (p. 16 of the brief).

Christopher Marlowe


Rupert Everett as Marlowe in Shakespeare in Love

On this date Christopher Marlowe was murdered (1564 – 1593).

Frye on the relation of Marlowe, Shakespeare and Webster in Notebook 9:

In my young days I said that Marlowe’s characters were demigods moving in a social ether, that Webster’s were “cases” of a sick society, & that Shakespeare was the transition from one to the other.  Well, it’s true that in DM [The Duchess of Malfi], for example, there is no order-figure because there is no genuine society: there is a Dionysiac health-figure instead, the Duchess herself, & society itself, personated by Ferdinand & the Cardinal, is the action-figure.  I think that this is the kind of tragedy adumbrated by Chapman in B d’A [Bussy D’Ambois].  Yet even Tamburlaine is a scourge of God, the destructive nature let loose in a society that has no God.  I suppose Shakespeare’s nearest approach to a social tragedy of the Webster kind is really Coriolanus rather than TC [Troilus and Cressida]: Co has no de jure magic because he can’t crystallize any kind of society, as Antony can. (CW 20, 254-5)

Frye on the Group of Seven


A. Y. Jackson, “Red Maple”

Jeff Mahoney of the Hamilton Spectator has an article today about a Westdale couple who’ve hunted down scores of locations featured in the paintings of the Group of Seven.  This provides a nice opportunity to cite Frye on that remarkable group of painters.

From “Canadian Scene: Explorers and Observers”:

“[T]he primary rhythm of English Canadian painting has been a forward-thrusting rhythm, a drive which has its origin in Europe, and is therefore conservative and romantic in feeling, strongly attached to the British connection but ‘federal’ in it attitude to Canada, much possessed by the national motto, a mari usque ad mare.  It starts with the documentary painters who, like Paul Kane, have provided such lively and varied glimpses of so many vanished aspects of the country, especially of Indian life.  A second wave began with Tom Thomson, continued through the Group of Seven, and has a British Columbia counterpart in Emily Carr.  (The romantic side of the movement is reflected in the name ‘Group of Seven’ itself: there were never really more than six, in fact there effectively only five, but seven is a sacred number, and the group had a strong theosophical bent.)  One notices in these painting how the perspective is so frequently a twisting and scanning perspective, a canoeman’s eye peering around the corner to see what comes next.  Thomson in particular uses the conventions of art nouveau to throw up in front of the canvas a fringe of foreground which is rather blurred, because the eye is meant to look past it.  It is a perspective which reminds us how much Canada developed as a passage or gateway to somewhere else, being merely an obstruction in itself.  Further, a new world is being discovered.  There is an immense difference in felling between north and south Canada, but as north Canada is practically uninhabited, it exists in Canadian painting only through southern eyes.  In those eyes it is a “solemn land” as frightening and fantastic as the moon.  (CW 12, 422-3)

From “Lawren Harris”:

As a rule, when associations are formed by youthful artists, they break up as the styles of the artists composing them become more individual.  But the Group of Seven, who did so much to revitalize Canadian painting in the ’20s and later of this century, still retain some of the characteristics of a group.  Seven is a sacred number, and the identity of the seventh, like the light of the seventh star of the Pleiades, has fluctuated somewhat, attached to different painters at different times.  But the permanent six, of whom four are still with us, have many qualities in common, both as painters and in fields outside painting.  For one thing, they are, for painters, unusually articulate in words.  J.E.H. MacDonald and Lawren Harris wrote poetry; Harris, as his book shows, wrote also a great deal of critical prose; A.Y. Jackson produced a most entertaining autobiography; Arthur Lismer, through his work as educator and lecturer, would still be one of the greatest names in the history of Canadian art even if he had never painted a canvas.  For another, they shared certain intellectual interests.  They felt themselves part of the movement towards the direct imaginative confrontation with the North American landscape which, for them, began in literature with Thoreau and Whitman.  Out of this developed an interest for which the word theosophical would not be too misleading if understood, not in any sectarian sense, but as meaning a commitment to painting as a way of life, or, perhaps better, as a sacramental activity expressing a faith, and so analogous to the practicing of a religion.  This is a Romantic view, following the tradition that begins in English poetry with Wordsworth.  While the Group of Seven were most active, Romanticism was going out of fashion elsewhere.  But the nineteen-sixties is once again a Romantic period, in fact almost oppressively so, so it seems a good time to see such an achievement as that of Lawren Harris in better perspective.  (CW 12, 398-9)

“The Rite of Spring”


On this date in 1913 Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring premiered in Paris.

Frye in an April 1936 review of the Jooss Ballet in The Canadian Forum:

So the ballet has gone through a period of transition.  It has used incidental music not originally intended for it, and the greatest of the composers treating it seriously as an art form — Stravinsky — has been temperamentally unsuited to it, for though he clearly recognizes, and has explicitly stated, the necessity of impersonality and convention, his own style tends toward the vehement spluttering of Wagner and Tschaikowsky rather than the more objective balance required.  Behind Stravinsky there is the “emigre” Russian ballet, associated with the names Diaghilev, Massine, and Nijinsky.  A typical product of this school visited Toronto last fall, and the laboured virtuosity of its dancing, the eternal jiggling monotony of its nineteenth-century music, its set poses, rococo pictorial backgrounds, and vaguely allegorical programs amply showed how far the ballet had yet to go.  (CW 11, 80 – 1)