Previously Unpublished Correspondence: Rewriting “Fearful Symmetry”

The praise and international recognition that Fearful Symmetry brought Frye did not come easily. Frye told David Cayley that the book went through “five complete rewritings of which the third and fourth were half again as long as the published book” (CW 24, 924).  He reported the same thing in interviews with Art Cuthbert, Valerie Schatzker, and Andrew Kaufman (ibid. 413, 595, 671).  Then there was the major rewriting called for by Carlos Baker, one of the readers for Princeton University Press.  Part of Baker’s report on Frye’s 658‑page manuscript can be found in Ian Singer’s introduction to the Collected Works edition of Fearful Symmetry (CW 24, xxxv).  Other parts are recorded by John Ayre (Northrop Frye: A Biography (192–3), who has a full account of Baker’s judgments about the strengths and weaknesses of the book.  Frye’s response to Princeton was to undertake another rewriting.  Once he had completed this large task, Baker reread the report and sent the memorandum below to Datus C. Smith, Jr., the director of Princeton University Press.


Inter‑Office Correspondence

Department of English

To: Datus C. Smith, Jr.

From: Carlos Baker

Subject: MS. of Frye’s Book on Blake

September 10, 1945.

I have reread this MS. with particular interest and care in order to discover just how complete the revision was.  I find that he has done the job with great attention and thoroughness.

1)      The length is lessened by about 20% with, I should say, a 20% gain in intensity and interest.

2)      He has either eliminated or completely reworked all the allusions to other major poems than those of Blake about which I originally felt quarrelsome.  What is left seems to me right and just, and his method of handling these matters at the heads of chapters seems to me preferable to the method I suggested: viz. separating them off into one section of the book by themselves.

3)      He has been liberal and helpful in inserting signposts of the reader’s self‑orientation.  But nota bene: if you decide to print the book, you ought still to insist on a prefatory page where the Blakean canon is listed.  Or this could appear as a one‑page appendix.

4)      In short the book is now definitely publishable, is the best book of Blake that I know, and I should describe it as brilliant, sensitive, witty, and eminently original.  It should do much to make better known and more respected a poet who might have been more so at an earlier date but for a series of accidents of which he himself was one of the most conspicuous.

5)      With carefully chosen and strategically placed reproductions of Blake’s own pictures, it should make a handsome book.  Both because of the size of the Blake cult and the originality of these utterances, the book might create something of a stir, especially in Academia but also outside.

I find in the revision a crack not there before, anent Blake’s use of Rahab, the Apocalyptic Whore of Babylon.  Says Frye slyly: The Joyce of Finnegans Wake might have referred to her as The Last Strumpet or The Great Whorn.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *