Monthly Archives: May 2012

Frye on Victoria College and Canadian Culture

Old Vic, the original building of Victoria College

Victoria’s Contribution to the Development of Canadian Culture

Northrop Frye

 The following talk was presented at Victoria College on 10 November 1977.  It has not been previously published. Although the talk seems to end abruptly, there is no indication in the typescript that additional material followed from what we have here.

My three predecessors in this series have built up a picture of a highly rational ethos and a lively atmosphere of debate and argument, sometimes good humoured and sometimes acrimonious.  The axiom of any liberal arts college with a church connection must always be that faith and reason are complementary and not contradictory.  When faith and reason collide, as unfortunately they keep doing with the greatest regularity, the community becomes polarized.  By one group, reason is seen as under­mining faith, and so, eventually, morals.  By the other group, the insistence on faith which contradicts instead of fulfilling the demands of reason is seen as stifling all liberal knowledge and intellectual honesty.  This issue became particularly acute in Victoria College after Darwinian evolution had begun to make its impact and the so-called “higher criticism” of the Bible had begun. Victoria adopted an “if you can’t lick ’em, join ’em” attitude to evolution.  This approach to the Bible was preoccupied with the question of whether the account of Creation in Genesis was poetic or scientific.  Many people in the Faculty of Theology had been trained in science, and brought to the study of the Bible minds that had been brought up in such areas as chemistry and biology.

For my purposes I have to begin with this issue, and isolate in it a cultural dimension, that I think is likely to be overlooked.  The average Victoria student in the nineteenth century, coming from a Methodist background, found himself in a world that was split imaginatively rather than intellectually.   In front of him was a tough, gritty, competitive world of nineteenth century Upper Canada.  Tucked away in a corner of his mind, and given an airing on devotional occasions, was a world of magic, wonder and mystery, in which Jonah could spend three days in a fish’s belly and Elijah could go up to heaven in a chariot of fire.  The split between the two worlds enabled most students to deal with the contemporary world before them very effectively on its own terms.  But having the other world on their minds helped to keep a cultural balance.

The Massey family bulks very large in early Victoria history, and although Vincent Massey was a graduate of University College, he did a great deal for the Victoria community both during his term as Senior Tutor in Burwash and later.  He became, of course, a major cultural influence for the whole of Canada, particularly through the Commission which he chaired, and which brought out the “Massey Report” in 1949.  The introduction to this report, almost certainly written by Massey himself, spoke of the roots of cultural life in nineteenth century Canada, with strong emphasis on the role played by the church.  He begins with a tribute to the expert and dedicated church organists who came from England to Canada.  My own music teacher [George Ross] was, one of them, and I well remember how the congregation of St. John’s United Church in Moncton used to make their way out of the church with no notion that they were being wrapped up in something like the St. Anne’s Fugue. He then goes on to speak of the roots of literature:

Not only in music but in letters did the church make important contributions to the life of the community.  The rector or the pastor of the church lectured on Dante or on Browning, on Victor Hugo or on Lewis Carroll; he was in wide demand with his lantern slides of London or the Holy Land, and in many of the smaller places his was the only library for many miles.

When I reread this, my eye paused on the phrase “lantern slides of the Holy Land.”  It indicates the way in which the Bible was not simply a source of faith and morals, but an imaginative and cultural focus as well.  The controversies between faith and reason are usually presented simply in their own terms, and as late as the novels of Grace Irwin, some of them written in 1969, that is how they were still being presented as the realities of faith colliding with the unrealities of human rationalizing.  But I think that the cultural dimension in the display is in the long run more important.  Perhaps the rationalizers and higher critics of the Bible, however admirable their motivation, did not realize the extent to which, in assigning the magic and miracle of the Bible to unreality, they were making the entire world as tough and gritty and competitive as the world of ordinary life.

One of the earlier poems of E. J. Pratt, which appeared in Newfoundland Verse, is called  “The Epigrapher”:


His head was like his lore—antique,

His face was thin and sallow-sick,

With god-like accent he could speak

Of Egypt’s reeds or Babylon’s brick

Or sheep-skin codes in Arabic . . .


And every occult Hebrew tale

He could expound with learned ease,

From Aaron’s rod to Jonah’s whale.

He had held the skull of Rameses––

The one who died from boils and fleas . . .


From that time onward to the end,

His mind had had a touch of gloom;

His hours with jars and coins he’d spend,

And ashes looted from a tomb,—

Within his spare and narrow room . . .


And thus he trod life’s narrow way,—

His soul as peaceful as a river—

His understanding heart all day

Kept faithful to a stagnant liver.


This poem puzzled me for many years, partly because of the curious virulence of the tone, which was unusual for Pratt.   What was it about epigraphers that he disliked so much?   When the poem appeared,  the best known scholars in that sort of area were Charles Currelly, whom I shall return to shortly, and S. H. Hooke, the great Old Testament scholar who after a somewhat turbulent career at Victoria College, went to the University of London.  But neither of them had stagnant livers: Currelly was a person of extra­ordinary drive and energy, and Hooke was an athlete of professional competence in several areas, who was still writing books with unabated enthusiasm in his nineties.  It seems to me that the antagonism is real to the kind of pedantry that unconsciously attempts to take out of life everything that the imagination needs to nourish it.

Again, in James Reaney’s play, Colours in the Dark, a certain Dr. Button is introduced, who lectures on the Bible and finds great delight in telling his students that the Bible contains nothing except the most primitive and repulsive forms of superstition.  One distressed student says: “But don’t you believe in anything?”  Dr. Button says: “No, not since I caught old Professor So-and-so putting twelfth‑century shards in a ninth‑century dig.”   Here again the issue is presented as one of faith against reason, but the real issue is that of imagination against minimal reality.

Frye, Metaphor, and André Breton

If there is a centre or core to Frye’s theory of literature, it is metaphor. One could argue that myth is just as central. No doubt. But myth itself is the unfolding of a  metaphoric structure of imagery.  A myth is the story of a god, and a god is a metaphoric union of a human form, a divine personality, with Nature.

In my teaching I often turn to two passages from Anatomy on the “radical form of metaphor.” The first is from the second essay on levels of meaning, which concludes with a discussion of  different modes of metaphor:

In the anagogic aspect of meaning, the radical form of metaphor,  “A is B,” comes into its own. Here we are dealing with poetry in its totality, in which the formula “A is B” may be hypothetically applied to anything, for there is no metaphor, not even “black is  white,” which a reader has any right to quarrel with in advance. The literary universe, therefore, is a universe in which everything  is potentially identical with everything else. This does not mean that any two things in it are separate and very similar, like peas in a pod, or in the slangy and erroneous sense of the word in which we speak of identical twins. If twins were really identical they would be the same person. On the other hand, a grown man feels identical with himself at the age of seven, although the two manifestations of this identity, the man and the boy, have very little in common as regards similarity or likeness. In form, matter, personality, time, and space, man and boy are quite unlike. This is the only type of image I can think of that illustrates the process of identifying two independent forms. All poetry, then, proceeds as though all poetic images were contained within a single universal body. Identity is the opposite of similarity or likeness, and total identity is not uniformity, still less monotony, but a unity of various things.  (124-25)

The second definition is from Frye’s discussion of the rhythm of association that characterizes lyric:

The fusion of the concrete and abstract is a special case, though a very important one, of a general principle that the technical development of the last century has exposed to critical view. All poetic imagery seems to be founded on metaphor, but in the lyric, where the associative process is strongest and the ready-made descriptive phrases of ordinary prose furthest away, the unexpected or violent metaphor that is called catachresis has a peculiar importance. Much more frequently than any other genre does the lyric depend for its main effect on the fresh or surprising image, a fact which often gives rise to the illusion that such imagery is radically new or unconventional. From Nashe’s “Brightness falls from the air” to Dylan Thomas’s “A grief ago/’ the emotional crux of the lyric has over and over again tended to be this “sudden glory” of fused metaphor. (281)

One thinks of Pierre Reverdy’s definition of the poetic image, cited by André Breton in the first surrealist manifesto:

The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be — the greater its emotional power and poetic reality… [Pierre Reverdy, Nord-Sud, March 1918]

A related idea, another touchstone for Breton, is Lautréamont’s famous image “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.”

Breton’s great love poem “Union Libre” (1931) is one of the most striking examples of such catachrestic fusion. “Union Libre” is the French term for common-law marriage, a sexual union outside the law. What better title could there be for a poem whose radical uniting of disparate realities obeys no normative censor of any kind, and whose subject is both a delirious sexual union and the delirium of verbal fusion in which, as Breton puts it elsewhere, “the words make love.”

The poem is loosely based on the Renaissance blazon, in which the poet praises  the beauty of his mistress by enumerating the various attractions of her body.  The breathtaking sequence of bewildering but exhilarating images, in an exuberant parody of the Song of Songs, is  erotically charged while evoking at the same time a union of the bride (“ma femme,” my wife or woman) with Nature and a world of the most diverse particulars.  The epithetic structure of each image allows for a violent yoking of remotely related but surprisingly fitting realities.

Such a “free union” of images brings to mind Bakhtin’s observations about the use of the blason in Rabelais and His World (425-430), and in the section on “The Rabelaisian Chronotope” in the essay “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel” (The Dialogic Imagination, 167-206), Bakhtin analyzes  the ways in which a grotesque fusion of images decreates and recreates the verbally organized conception of the world. Bakhtin’s understanding of poetic and literary imagery, particularly in its relation to the matrix of objects and phenomena (food, drink, copulation, birth and death) is is, in fact, very close to Frye’s, where such images are an outgrowth of the primary concerns of food, sex, freedom, and property.

Here is Breton’s extraordinary poem. I have consulted a number of versions in English, but the translation is my own:

Free Union

My wife of the wood fire hair
Of heat lightning thoughts
Of the hourglass waist
My wife of the waist of an otter in a tiger’s jaws
My wife of the mouth of cockade and a bouquet of stars of the latest magnitude
Of teeth like the tracks of white mice over the white earth
Of the tongue of rubbed amber and glass
My wife of the tongue of a stabbed wafer
Of the tongue of a doll which opens and closes its eyes
Of the tongue of fabulous stone
My wife of eyelashes in the vertical lines of a child’s handwriting
Of eyebrows like the edge of a bird’s nest
My wife of temples like the slate of a glasshouse roof
And the steam of breath on the windowpanes
My wife of the champagne shoulders
Of the shoulders of a fountain with dolphin heads under ice
My wife of the wrists of matches
My wife of fingers of luck and the ace of hearts
Of fingers of new-moan hay
My wife of armpits of marten and beechnuts
Of Midsummer Night
Of armpits of camphor and a nest of angel fish
Of arms of sea foam and a sluice-gate
And a blend of wheat and mill
My wife of the rocket legs
Of legs of clockwork and movements of despair
My wife of calves of elder marrow
My wife of the feet of initials
Of the feet of a bunch of keys
Of the feet of tippling caulkers
My wife of the neck of pearl barley
My wife of the throat of Val d’Or
Of the throat of a rendezvous in the very bed of the torrent
Of breasts of night
My wife of breasts of marine molehill
My wife of the breasts of crucible of ruby
Of breasts of the spectral rose beneath the dew
My wife of the unfolding belly of the fan of days
Of the belly of a giant claw
My wife of a bird’s back in vertical flight
Of the quicksilver back
Of the back of light
Of the nape of rolled stone and moistened chalk
Of the fall of a glass which has just been emptied
My wife of the hips of a skiff
Of hips of chandelier and arrow feathers
And stems of white peacock quills
Of imperceptible balance
My wife of the rump of stoneware and asbestos
My wife of the rump of a swan’s back
My wife of the rump of springtime
Of the sex of a gladiola
My wife of the sex of a gold-mine and platypus
My wife of the sex of seaweed and yesteryear’s  candies
My wife of the sex of a mirror
My wife of eyes full of tears
Of eyes of violet panoply and magnetized needle
My wife of the savanna eyes
My wife of eyes of water that quenches thirst in prison
My wife of the eyes of wood eternally under the axe
Of water level eyes
Of eyes at the level of air and earth
Of eyes at the level of fire

Remarks by Northrop Frye

Remarks by Northrop Frye on Having Received a Toronto

Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement, 13 October 1987.

[Frye was presented for the award by Pauline McGibbon, his classmate and friend and lieutenant‑governor of Ontario.]

Thank you very much Pauline and ladies and gentlemen.  I suppose if one gets a lifetime achievement award one must have done fairly well in what we’re told is the primary Canadian virtue––survival.  I’ve lived in Toronto continuously for nearly sixty years, and as your hostess remarked earlier this evening it wasn’t always a fun town.  In 1929 there were no decent restaurants––after all it was an Anglo‑Saxon community.  There was nothing to drink––after all it was Ontario.  And there were millions of churches.  There was only one thing to do on Sunday but you had a lot of choices to do it.

From there, of course, Toronto grew into this tremendous, exhilarating, cosmopolitan city.  One disadvantage of a city as it grows larger is that it gets more impersonal, and there’s less a sense of belonging.  What this extraordinary honor has done for me is to make me feel that not only does Toronto care about its own cultural life, not only is it aware of it, not only does it want to encourage it, but it gives those who live and work here a sense of belonging.  That is the feeling that I think I would have had in any case if anyone else in my field had got the award, but then, of course, I wouldn’t have had a chance to say so.


Jay Macpherson: Rest in Peace

Jay Macpherson, one of Frye’s closest colleagues and friends, a gifted poet and fine scholar, died this last March, on the 21st.  Sandra Martin has written an obituary in The Globe, here. Thanks to Sue Trerise for bringing this to my attention.

Frye’s great respect for his friend’s “level of perception” is evidenced in the following entry from Notebook 19, high words of esteem from someone with Frye’s own powers of apprehension:

 I wasn’t expecting this diary to turn personal, but it has.  William James’ dog in the library raises the question of different levels of perception.  I take in more of my surroundings than Aunt Lily does: she’s deafer than I, but it isn’t just perception: there’s conceptual apprehension as well.  Whenever I’m with Jay I realize that her level of perception is higher than mine: I’m more short-sighted, but it’s the mental patterns she creates out of her livelier mind that make the difference.  Let’s say that Aunt Lily takes in one per cent of what’s there, I two per cent, & Jay three per cent.  The maximum, limited by the structure of the human mind & by its biological need to select for coherence, maybe, let’s say, ten per cent.  Even above five per cent you’ll have perceptions that we call psychic or extra-sensory: ability to read others’ thoughts, awareness of the presence of the dead, & the like. (Notebook 19, paragraph 167]

The same show of respect is repeated in numerous allusions in the notebooks to Jay’s insight and judgment:

As Jay pointed out to me, the birth of the child is an important Adonis pattern.

Others will have to emerge from some extensive reading in Scott & Balzac & that Gothic stuff that Jay knows all about.

Jay was remarking recently about the difference in two treatments of the same theme–a mother murdering her illegitimate child–in Bunyan’s Badman & in Monk Lewis’s House on the Heath, & certainly something like the ethical-aesthetic difference is involved.

She was also a friend with whom he could try out out his own genius and wit:

Back to detective stories: how many hundreds of them end with a confrontation between detective & murderer, the latter’s boasting supplying the cognitio, the former eventually foiling the latter’s attempt to kill him.  Michael disputing with Satan over the body of Moses.  As I said to Jay, non omnis Moriarty.