Monthly Archives: May 2010

Anne Bronte


On this date Anne Bronte — sister of Emily and Charlotte and author of Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall — died (1820 – 1849).

Frye refers regularly to Emily and Charlotte but doesn’t seem to refer separately to Anne.  However, he does cite the Bronte sisters in this notebook entry to make a crucial point about realism and romance:

As time goes on, the greater seriousness attached to myths, as the stories that really happened or are “true” in some special way, eventually shifts, as with a writing culture the sense of truth or correspondence grows, to the life the story reflects.  Thus realism acquires the moral dignity that romances never had, and which realism itself inherits from myth.

Thus in the nineteenth century the “history” of fiction goes through those who can, for the purposes of the alleged historian, be treated as realists.  Thackeray, George Eliot, Trollope, Jane Austen, and carefully selected aspects of Dickens form the main skeleton; Wilkie Collins and Bulwer Lytton, even the Brontes, don’t fit quite so well, and Le Fanu, George Macdonald, William Morris, Rider Haggard, for various reasons, don’t fit at all.  Neither do the Alice books.  My thesis is, of course that romance illustrates structure and realism only content, hence a genuine literary history would put the romances in the centre and make realism peripheral.  (CW 15, 202)

Frye on “Space and Shape Pollution”


The Saunterer — aka H. Charles Romesburg, Professor of Environment and Society, Utah State University — cites Frye from the recently released Northrop Frye: Selected Letters on urban “space and shape pollution” in a March 9th, 1970 letter to A. E. Parr:

I have been living in Toronto for forty years, have seen it change from a quite habitable town to the usual wilderness of freeways and highrise apartment buildings, and consequently I have experienced something of what you call the realities of sentiment and nostalgia.  I am quite convinced that space and shape pollution is quite as important a social problem as noice and dirt.  (Northrop Frye: Selected letters, 1934 – 1991. McFarland Publishers, 2009)

You can read the full post here.  Take some time to browse around the blog.  It’s worth the effort.

John Calvin


On this date John Calvin died (1509 – 1564).

Here’s Frye in a student essay, “The Importance of Calvin for Philosophy”:

It is obvious that if we look at Calvin we can see in his view of God a Cartesian feeling for order and permanence, and that if we look at his view of man we see that for him human activity springs from sources deeper than the human will.  The immense energy and uncompromising heroism of Calvinism, its tendency to consolidate in theocratic dictatorships, sufficiently refute the theory that according to it our relation with God should be one of helpless quietism.  As a social force, Calvinism identified itself more explicitly with the bourgeois than with the royal side of the alliance of prince and middle class, in opposition to the Erastians, but as a doctrine both factors are present.  But they are present in antithesis, not synthesis; God and man have too wide a gap between them.  Just as Aquinas had extended the feudal society of his day into heaven and established a hierarchy of angels leading up to God, so in Luther we find an absolute monarch protecting the interests of a democratic body saved through their faith in and obedience to him.  There is something of this in Calvin, but on the whole his scheme disregards the state and the organization of human society, resting on an Augustinian dualism between a city of God, or body of elect, and an excluded world.

As our civilization becomes more mature, it is bound to expand and take in more of its cultural heritage.  A greater eclecticism will no doubt do much to rehabilitate Calvin, but the positive contribution of the thought between Calvin’s time and ours cannot be ignored; nothing less than the full consciousness of the unity of our tradition will be satisfactory for us.  And it seems that the time-philosophy of the last century has a real value in reinforcing Calvin’s doctrine.  Now that evolution has penetrated into our intellectual make-up, we are beginning to sense the working out of a purpose in the organic world, so that the Manichean dualism of a static principle of good existing beside an unregenerate nature, which came into Christian thought with Augustine, is no longer necessary for us.  Of course, as we have said, the purely evolutionary doctrine, that the only truly elect are posterity, and that the ideal is actualized at the end of a historical progression, is full of contradictions and is, when pressed to its logical conclusion, unthinkably repulsive.  But nonetheless we have inherited a feeling which expressed in Christian terminology might be said to be a perception of the creative, developing, redeeming power of the Holy Spirit in the affairs of men, conserving the good, progressing toward the better.  To assume that this exhausts God’s activity is to assume God an imperfect force striving to self-realization, such as we find in the creative evolution religions of such thinkers as Bernard Shaw.  The weakness of such an attitude is that it recognizes no evolutionary lift in human history; it depends ultimately on geology for its religious dogmas and in most cases turns to the idea of the development of a “superman” which, expressed again in Christian terms, amounts practically for a call for an Incarnation, an identification of the evolutionary principle with an historical event.  Nor has it a firm enough grasp of the permanence, pre-existence, and immutability of the phenomenal world, the world as an object of understanding, which the immediate successors of Calvin perhaps overemphasized.  (CW 3, 414-15)

Frye on “The Critic as Artist”


Yesterday’s Quote of the Day was from Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist.”  Here’s what Frye has to say about it in Creation and Recreation:

In my first chapter I quoted a passage from Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Critic as Artist.”  This essay builds up an argument that seems to make an exaggerated and quite unrealistic importance out of the reader of literature, the critic being the representative reader.  He is paralleled with the artist in a way that seems to give him an equal share at least in what the artist is doing.  Here again Wilde is writing from the point of view of a later generation.  For many centuries the centre of gravity in literature was the hero, the man whose deeds the poet celebrated.  As society slowly changed its shape, the hero modulated to the “character,” and in Wilde’s day it was still the creation of the character, as one sees it so impressively in Shakespeare, Dickens, and Browning, that was the primary mark of poetic power.  At the same time the Romantic movement had brought with it a shift of interest from the hero to the poet himself, as not merely the creator of the hero but as the person whose inner life was the real, as distinct from the projected, subject of the poem.  There resulted an extraordinary mystique of creativity, in which the artist became somehow a unique if not actually superior species of human being, with qualities of prophet, genius, wise man, and social leader.  Wilde realized that in a short time the centre of gravity in literature critical theory would shift again, this time from the poet to the reader.  The dividing line in English literature is probably Finnegans Wake, where it is so obvious that the reader has a heroic role to play.  (CW 4, 75)

Oscar Wilde

Wendy Hiller as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest

On this date in 1895 Oscar Wilde was convicted of “gross indecency with other males” and sentenced to two years hard labor.

Frye in Creation and Recreation:

A year or so ago, after agreeing to help teach an undergraduate course in Shakespeare, I settled down to reread one of my favorite pieces of Shakespeare criticism, Oscar Wilde’s essay on “The Truth of Masks.”  The essay, however, was one in a collected volume of Wilde’s critical essays, and I find it easy to get hooked on Wilde.  His style often makes him sound dated, and yet he is consistently writing from a point of view that is at least half a century later than his actual time.  He is one of our few genuinely prophetic writers, and, as with other prophets, everything he writes seems either to lead up to his tragic confrontation with society or reflect back on it.  Partly because of this, he deliberately restricts his audience.  He sets up a palisade of self-conscious and rather mechanical wit, which not only infuriates those who have no idea what he is talking about but often puts off those who do.  We may get so annoyed at his dandies waving their hands languidly at thick volumes labeled “Plato” or “Aristotle” that we may forget that Wilde could, and did, read Greek, and that his references to Classical authors are usually quite precise.  So before long I was back in the world of the essay called “The Decay of Lying,” now widely regarded to have said a great deal of what modern theories of criticism have been annotating in more garbled language ever since.

The main thesis of this essay is that man does not live directly and nakedly in nature like animals, but within an envelope that he has constructed out of nature, the envelope usually called culture or civilization.  When Wordsworth urges his reader to leave his books, go outdoors, and let nature be his teacher, his “nature” is a north temperate zone nature which in nineteenth-century England had become, even in the Lake District, largely a human artifact.  One can see the importance, for poets and others, of the remoteness and otherness of nature: the feeling that the eighteenth century expressed in the word “sublime” conveys to us that there is such a thing as creative alienation.  The principle laid down by the Italian philosopher Vico of verum factum, that we understand only what we have made ourselves, needs to be refreshed sometimes by the contemplation of something we did not make and do not understand.  The difficulty with Wordsworth’s view is in the word “teacher.”  A nature which was not primarily a human artifact could teach man nothing except that he was not it.  We are taught by our own cultural conditioning, and by that alone.  (CW 4, 36-7)

Bob Dylan

“Tangled Up in Blue,” live

Today is Bob Dylan‘s birthday (born 1941).

Frye alluded to Dylan on a number of occasions.  Here in a 1969 interview he cites Dylan to illustrate how popular culture has facilitated the teaching of literary criticism:

I think that in our day the communications gap between seriousness and lightness is breaking down… And I found in my teaching of literature that a person who knows folk singers like Bob Dylan or the Mothers of Invention has far less difficulty with symbols in poetry.  Twenty years ago you had to teach students the language of symbolism which they often just refused to learn.  Nowadays young people know that language.  (CW 24, 110)

And here, ten years later, he responds to the suggestion that it is “ludicrous that people like Bob Dylan are considered poets”:

Oh, I think Bob Dylan is a poet.  I am quite interested in the folk-song idiom as a poetic idiom.  It’s a revival of an oral tradition in poetry which disappeared for centuries.  Poetry got too badly bogged down with books, and I think it’s a very healthy thing when poetry becomes something that can be recited to an audience with a musical background.  (CW 24, 474)