Review of the University of Toronto Quarterly’s Special Issue on Frye

Review of the University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 81, no. 1

Robert D. Denham


Recently three journals have each published a special issue in connection with the centenary of Frye’s birth, 14 July 1912:


University of Toronto Quarterly 81, no. 1 (2012): 1–186.  Special Issue: The Future of Northrop Frye: Centennial Perspectives.  Articles by Michael Dolzani, Merlin Donald, Travis DeCook, Ian Balfour, Jean Wilson, Yves Saint‑Cyr, Adam Carter, Jonathan Allan, Gordon Teskey, plus an interview with Margaret Atwood by Nick Mount, responses to Frye by nine poets, and a previously unpublished essay by Frye on poetic diction.


Ellipse: texts littéraires canadiens en traduction/Canadian Writing in Translation 87–88 (2012).   Giant in time/un géant plongé dans le temps: An Anthology of Writings in Honour of Northrop Frye’s 100th Birthday/Textes en homage à Northrop Frye à l’occasion de son 100eanniversaire.  Articles on Frye by Susan Glickman, Michael Happy, Serge Morin, and Bruce Powe, a memory of Frye by Robert Denham, Yann Martel’s “Letter to Stephen Harper,” poems by Troni Grande, Nella Cotrupi, and Valerie LeBlanc that engage Frye directly, poems by Paul Bossé, Gabriel Robichaud, and Jessie Robichaud that take their inspiration directly from the Frye Festival in Moncton, works by Lee D. Thompson, J.D. Wainwright, Jim Racobs, Edward Lemond, Anne Leslie, and Daniel Dugas that were written “in the spirit of Frye,” and other stories and poems, with no direct connection to Frye, written in his honor.


English Studies in Canada 37, no. 2 (June 2011).  Special Issue: Northrop Frye for a New Century.  Ed. Mervyn Nicholson.  Reflections by John Ayre, Stan Garrod, Monika Hilder, William N. Koch, and Rick Salutin.  Articles by Melissa Dalgleish, Timothy A. Delong, Robert D. Denham, Diane Dubois, Paul Hawkins, David M. Leeson, Duncan McFarlane, Mary Ryan, and Sára Toth.



Here we consider the first of these, the UTQ special issue, edited by Germaine Warkentin and Linda Hutcheon.  The editors’ introduction rehearses the debates surrounding Anatomy of Criticism, and then moves on to express the hope that the essays in the special issue, “The Future of Northrop Frye: Centennial Perspectives,” will reveal “what a critic of today will find challenging, provocative, fruitful, and productive in the rich record of a critic at work” (7).  The editors hasten to observe that this rich record includes the previously unpublished writing which, with the launching of the Collected Works of Frye project, began to become available in 1996.  The new material more than doubled the Frye canon, the Collected Works having brought to light almost ten thousand pages of previously unpublished writing, constituting now some 58% of the total Frye canon.  We are encouraged to think that the contributors to the special issue will take advantage of this new material.  But except for Michael Dolzani, and to a lesser extent Ian Balfour, Travis DeCook, Yves Saint‑Cyr, the contributors are practically silent about anything Frye wrote, especially the holograph texts, during the last decade‑and‑a‑half of his life.  The last volumes of the Collected Works came off the presses only two years ago, and no one can be expected to have read the 4,700,000 words that constitute the thirteen volumes of the previously unpublished material.  But even the published work of the late Frye, beginning with The Great Code and continuing through Words with Power, Myth and Metaphor, The Eternal Act of Creation, and The Double Vision, gets only the scantiest attention.  Toward the end of their introduction the editors do remind us that Frye’s career is rounded off with his two books on the Bible, but the contributors remain largely silent about the great burst of activity in Frye’s final years.

Why the lack of attention, even resistance, to the religious accent that is sounded so strongly in the last decade of Frye’s life?  The editors do say that from the pages of the CW as a whole “emerges a picture not only of Frye the literary theorist, but Frye the historical and social thinker, the theologian, the musician, and the satirist” (6).  I don’t see much evidence for calling Frye a theologian, but there is a wealth of evidence for calling him a religious visionary, one who is on a spiritual voyage.  The editors indicate that Frye “addressed a wide audience, not only a purely literary readership, but students of music, history, science and the general public as well” (9).  Anyone who has read the books from the 1980s and early 1990s and especially anyone who has looked into the Late Notebooks will find it strange that students of religion have been excluded in the editors’ understanding of Frye’s readership.

What then is the “future of Frye”?  Or the future of Frye studies?  Gordon Teskey’s answer to the first question in the “Afterword” is affirming: “I would bet on Frye, of course,” he says (180).  But  on the basis of the essays presented here the answer to the second question is, “The several bright spots notwithstanding, not altogether encouraging.”


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The first page of the special issue, having to do with abbreviations, does not get us off to a very promising start.  The explanation of the abbreviations is confused.  The editors say that Frye’s writings generally appeared in three forms, which they proceed to list as three kinds of books.  As much of Frye’s writing appeared as journal essays or articles, what the editors mean to say is that Frye’s books were of three kinds.  The first they call “individual books,” and they give as examples Anatomy of Criticism and Words with Power.  The second they call “lecture series or collections of essays presented as a unified whole,” examples of which are The Critical Path and The Modern Century.  And the third they call collections of miscellaneous essays and lectures assembled to focus on related issues,” The Bush Garden and Spiritus Mundi given as examples (1).

But The Critical Path is no less an individual book than Anatomy of Criticism is.  True, a great deal of The Critical Path was presented originally as lectures, but so were large portions of Anatomy of Criticism.  Moreover, the Anatomy borrowed liberally from fourteen of Frye’s published articles.  So what the editors mean by “individual books” isn’t clear.  Is A Natural Perspective or The Double Vision any less an individual book than Words with Power?  Also unclear is what the editors mean by “collections of essays presented as a unified whole” (the second category”).  Spiritus Mundi, which is in the third category, is a “collection of essays.”  Since both examples in category two––The Critical Path and The Modern Century–– are lecture series, we’re left wondering what a collection of essays presented as a unified whole might be.  Are Fables of Identity and The Stubborn Structure any more or less a unified whole than Spiritus Mundi is?

Even if this classification of Frye’s books were not muddled, there is no reason in the context of abbreviations to distinguish the different forms of Frye’s books in the first place.  All the editors need to say is that the references to Frye’s writing are to the original book in which they appeared and then to the Collected Works volume.  The point is that the editors want to make it easy for readers to locate passages in the original form and in the CW, even though sometimes they don’t give the CW reference (see pp. 163–64, e.g.).  The three kinds of books have nothing to do with this.  What jumps out immediately is that the second typical example the editors give violates the principle of citing both forms of publication.  Why not give The Stubborn Structure as the reference for the original appearance in book form of “Speculation and Concern”?  Many people will not have, or have access to, the very expensive Collected Works volumes.  But they may well have a copy of The Stubborn Structure.  It does these people no favor to cite “Speculation and Concern” as appearing in CW 7.  It would do them a favor to cite “Speculation and Concern” as first appearing in The Stubborn Structure.  The editors say that they don’t give the original appearance citation when the Collected Works is the “best source.”  But CW 7 is no better a source for “Speculation and Concern” than The Stubborn Structure is.  In Jean Wilson’s essay, for example, we get references to the titles of a host of Frye’s essays, preceding the CW reference.  But readers won’t know where to find the original publication of these essays without a reference to the books in which they appeared.  “(‘The View from Here,’ CW 7: 566)” tells the reader where to find the reference in the CW.  A more useful citation would be, first, to indicate the page number in Myth and Metaphor where the passage could be found.

For items in the CW that have not been previously published, I see no problem with giving the title of the section in the CW volume along with the page number, as in Ian Balfour’s essay: “(‘Autobiographical Reflections,’ CW 25: 28).”  This makes things a little more user friendly.  But this procedure is not consistently followed.  Yves Saint‑Cyr cites a number of previously unpublished pieces, but none of the titles of these is given in advance of the CW reference.  I think the more information one can give to the reader about where to find things, the better, but whatever the policy of citation, it should be consistent.

Otherwise, this section on abbreviations could have used a good copy‑editor.  It refers to The Anatomy of Criticism, which is the title of a book by Henry Hazlitt.  Frye wrote Anatomy of Criticism.  Standard practice for noting place of publication calls for no abbreviation for the state when the publisher is a state university press: there is no need to tell readers that Indiana University Press is in Indiana.  Under CW 1 and 2 (p. 2), “vol.” should be “vols.,” as it is under CW 5 and 6.  Four of the CW titles include subtitles, so why exclude the subtitles for The Great Code, Anatomy of Criticism, and Words with Power?  For CW 23, “Anatomy of Criticism” should be marked as a title, just as the other book titles are set off with quotation marks in CW18, CW 21, and CW 27.  The volume numbers for CW 27 and CW 28 have been reversed: volume 27 is “The Critical Path” and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 1963–1975 and vol. 28 is Northrop Frye’s Writings on Shakespeare and the Renaissance.   LHC1 and LHC2 at the top of page 2 appeared respectively in The Stubborn Structure and Divisions on a Ground, which would doubtless be more accessible than the Literary History of Canada.  For these two entries, “‘Conclusion’ to the” should be in Roman, not italic.  It’s not clear anyway why these two articles deserve special notice in the list of abbreviations when articles just as frequently cited do not.  The proper date of publication for CW7 is “2000”; for CW 20, “2006”; and for CW 22, “2006.”

And then later we have idiosyncratic citations, such as “(‘Notebooks on Renaissance Literature,’ CW 20: 296), where a partial title of a CW volume is given (why then have the abbreviation?), but the title is in single quotation marks, not in italics.  That’s from Michael Dolzani’s essay, p. 19.  And then there’s the curious practice of giving the title of an article in front of one CW reference but then omitting it for another reference to the same page, as on p. 171.

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Jonathan Arac has written a very powerful, learned, and eloquent defense of Frye’s historical, ethical, and archetypal criticism, relating Frye’s vision to that of Coleridge, Auerbach, Benjamin, and others.  But one would think from Arac’s essay that Frye had not written anything since The Critical Path, and this is apparently the reason why he says nothing about anagogic criticism.   Arac’s discussion of Frye and Coleridge omits any reference to the one sustained piece Frye wrote on Coleridge, and there are sixteen entries in the Late Notebooks that refer to Coleridge, seven in The “Third Book” Notebooks, fourteen in the Notebooks on Romance, ten in Frye’s late essays (1978–1991), and so on.  Except for a glance at CW 21 and the quoting of eight words from CW 27 Arac seems unaware that the Collected Works exists.  Frye’s Collected Works, say the editors, “now makes possible a serious reconsideration of the nature of his criticism and what it might have to say to the future” (6).  Arac could have made a more compelling case by considering things Frye wrote after 1971.  Think how much richer his comparison of Frye and Benjamin would have been had he read, say, chapter 3 of The Double Vision.


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Yves Saint‑Cyr’s “Northrop Frye’s Musical Dimensions” explores Frye’s musical tastes, his attitudes toward the languages of literature and music, the role music played in his life, and the ways music fits into his various schema (mythos and dianoia, melos and opsis, and so on).   Saint‑­Cyr takes a stab at explaining one of the real puzzlers in Frye––how the circle of fifths relates to the cycle of stories in his theory of myths.   It is clear from his notebooks for the Anatomy that Frye sees an analogy between the circle of fifths and the twenty-four parts, not of the mythoi, but of the first three divisions of his ogdoad: Liberal, Tragicomedy, and Anticlimax.  But what is the musical analogy in the parallel between the twenty‑four elements in the circle of fifths and the twenty‑four phases of the mythoi?  Frye didn’t diagram this but he provided the basis for constructing such a diagram in Notebook 18 (CW 23: 273–4, 276, 278).  A diagram reconstructed from these passages is in CW 23: 398.  What Frye seems to be suggesting is that the analogy depends on whether there is a “harmony” or a “discord” between the phases.  He says that the first three phases of a mythos are related to (in harmony with) the first three of an adjacent mythos (e.g., comedy and irony).   But this relation does not obtain between the phases of opposite or discordant mythoi (e.g., irony and romance).  What we end up with is an analogy between the overlapping keys in the circle of fifths and the overlapping phases in the circle of mythoi.  And just as there are twenty‑four keys, so there are twenty‑four phases.  My musical knowledge is limited, but this seems to be the conclusion that Saint‑Cyr also comes to: “It is the interlocking and overlapping nature of musical keys that Frye found most compelling as a source of analogy when discussing what he considered to be similar structures in the history of Western literature” (127).

Although Saint‑Cyr confuses the modes of the First Essay of Anatomy of Criticism with the mythoi of the Third Essay, on the whole he explains things to us that have been largely unexplored.  He does draw on the two most substantial essays on Frye and music, Deanne Bogdan’s and James Shell’s.  The latter, which appeared in the University of Toronto Quarterly and is a study of Frye’s musical tastes and interests and the influence of music on his critical ideas, was written as an undergraduate essay––no doubt one of the few undergraduate essays published in the UTQ.  Saint‑Cyr repeats a number of things Shell has dug out of Frye’s correspondence, diaries, and notebooks, some unpublished at the time.

Saint‑Cyr ranges extensively over the Frye corpus, calling our attention to passages in at least a third of the Collected Works volumes.  Speaking of student essays, one wonders why he neglected to consider the twelve‑page treatment of Romantic music in Northrop Frye’s Student Essays, 1932–1938 (CW 3: 53–66), or in the same volume “The Relation of Religion to the Art Forms of Music and Drama” (313–42).  Other omissions are “The World as Music and Idea in Wagner’s Parsifal” (CW 17: 326–40) and three essays from the late 1930s and early 1940s: “Frederick Delius,” “Music and the Savage Breast,” and “Music in the Movies” (CW 11: 83–6, 88–91, 108–11).  In addition, the Diaries are a rich source of Frye’s attitudes towards music.  They provide, for example, a gloss on music as “philoprogenitive,” thus answering the question Saint‑Cyr asks, which of the two meanings of the word did Frye have in mind?  Then there’s Frye’s experience at the Bach Festival presented by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Mendelssohn Choir.  In short, there is a great deal more in the Collected Works about music that bears examination.  Here are two paragraphs from the 1942 diary that illustrate how rich and suggestive Frye’s entries on music can be:


Beginning to work my first piano programme, to consist of a Byrd group, some Debussy Préludes, some Bach (probably the 3-part Inventions, though I’d love to open W.T.C. [Well-Tempered Clavier] 2 again, perhaps a Mozart sonata, and some romantic, doubtless the Brahms Ballades op. 10.  Debussy is really not so hard to play, at any rate not in the Preludes—he’s for the most part a thoroughly practical pianist, and though when played he sounds like an ectoplasmic evocation, when worked at he feels like impromptu.  I’m doing a group from the 2nd bk. now, Bruyères and Les Terrasses, going on to Ondine later.  Langford says (I must remember to get him a wedding present) that even Feux d’Artifice isn’t bad, but as long as I’m in an apartment I shall postpone it.  The discovery of the impromptu effect is rather disenchanting, except in Des Pas sur la Neige, a powerfully disturbing and sinister piece of music.  That’s one of the few the programmes of which I think I understand: steps on snow is a pattern of white on white, recalling Melville’s great chapter on the symbolism of white as a “colorless all-color of atheism,” symbol of the materia prima or substratum which is all colors & yet no color.  Also the white fog into which Pym disappears in Poe’s story—an underlying symbol in Henry James’ Golden Bowl, incidentally—is connected with a curious black-and-white pattern there.  I dare say Ben Nicholson’s white-on-white abstract belongs too.  As steps on snow make no noise, Debussy’s irony rather bites its arse, but I don’t mind that.  It’s the Rameau tradition, if it’s true that Rameau predicted the eventual exhaustion of melodic combinations—one of the phrases of John Stuart Mill’s accidie, by the way—in his treatise on harmony.


The French have consistently ignored the great forms, the sonata and the fugue, and have stuck to dainty descriptive pieces not to be taken too seriously.  It seems to be an outlet for their crotch-bound paralytically caesured poetry.  The pictorial tendency, often with a dance basis, is so persistent it should be worked out in some detail.  The nihilist one too, referred to above & also in Ravel’s Bolero.  Of course the Bolero isn’t limited to that: its blow-up-and-bust orgasm rhythm is in The Turn of the Screw, but it’s of perhaps wider application, to the crescendo-repeat-and-pounce technique of modern propaganda of all kinds, including advertising, and of the boom-and-crash periods of cyclic capitalism.  The French are not a rhythmically-moving race—a Celtic-Latin alloy.  Michelet says they hesitated between Rabelais & Ronsard & then chose Ronsard, but hesitation is impossible on such a point.  Vulgar French is of course mere constipation disguised as Classical reticence & understatement: that’s the exportable kind.  The highlights of a musical history would probably be Couperin-Rameau fanciful titles, with some of Landowska’s notes (lunatic but interesting).  The attack on opera centring on the Gluck & the Tannhauser [Tannhäuser] fights: the impossibility of producing music while pretending to be a Roman (Revolution: Cherubini & Napoleon were both Italians): the 19th c. partition into a Provençal, a Belgian and a Pole (Franck is purely Teutonic and Chopin’s music is entirely pictorial.  His non-committal titles are a pose: one doesn’t expect any other music to follow his Preludes.  There’s a closer link between Chopin & Debussy than one would at first think): the opéra bouffe parodies of the Faust type: revival of the Rameau tradition with Debussy & Ravel: Saint-Saen’s [Saint-Saëns’s] last-war journal.  Do the French hate music?  Why is it there’s no lust of the flesh & pride of the eyes in it? no Renoir or Boucher or Hugo even?


As for the secondary literature on Frye and music, there is, in addition to the studies by Shell and Bogdan, Kurt Spang’s survey of Frye’s ideas on the relation of literature to painting and music: “Melos y opsis en la crítica de Northrop Frye,” Revista de Filología Hispánica 25, no. 1 (2009): 82–7.  Saint‑Cyr shows us how music influenced Frye’s ideas about literature.  The flip side of this is the ways in which Frye’s ideas have been used by music critics and musicologists.  An example is Byron Almén’s “Narrative Archetypes: A Critique, Theory, and Method of Narrative Analysis,” Journal of Music Theory 47, no. 1 (2003): 1–39, which presents a model of the narrative analysis of music based on Frye’s concept of the narrative archetype.  The editors mention Almén in their introduction as one who has adapted Frye’s approach to the analysis of musical narrative.  Other such studies can be found in the entry on Frye and Music in chapter 14 of The Northrop Frye Handbook and on this weblog (


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Michael Dolzani’s excellent essay, “Blazing with Artifice: Light from the Northrop Frye Notebooks,” is directed toward those who accuse Frye of being anti‑historical, seeing him only as a formalist or structuralist.  Dolzani, rather, understands Frye’s work as a dialectic, the opposing categories of which are structure vs. history, synchronic vs. diachronic, product, vs. process, and he turns to Frye’s notebooks to reflect on the two poles that are a part of Frye’s vision, the structural and the historical.  But soon the second category begins to expand into something else: “the vision of progressive history known as biblical typology.”  Shortly after that the opposites then morph into a “dialectic between the structural and the dynamically recreative.”  By the time we come to the end of Dolzani’s essay he has heightened the rhetorical tone, just as Frye often does at the end of his essays and books and chapters within books, so that he begins to speak of myths to live by and total identity.

This makes one wonder if the two poles of the dialectic with which Dolzani began––structure vs. history––are really the central dialectic after all.  My own sense is that the dialectic is really structure, on the one hand, and Word and Spirit, on the other.  It’s not so much history that is opposed to structure as it is spiritual awareness.  As I say, my friend and coeditor Michael Dolzani tends to lean in this direction toward the end of his piece with the emphasis on recreation and the talk of Joachim’s age of the Spirit.   He seems almost to have convinced himself that in the final analysis history is really not what Frye opposes to structure after all.  The anatomizing and categorizing of Frye’s early work, culminating in all the taxonomies of the Anatomy, represent the structure of literary conventions.  But the 725 pages of Late Notebooks, composed over an eight‑year period beginning in 1982, are devoted not to historical or social thematics to any significant degree; they are devoted to spiritual matters.

Dolzani, it should be said, remains Frye’s most cogent and penetrating reader.  If he would only issue a collection of his essays on Frye, we would then have an authoritative guide.


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Ian Balfour has written a thoughtful and elegant piece on paradox, the literary or rhetorical device that is omnipresent in Frye.  Kierkegaard says “one should not think slightingly of the paradoxical; for the paradox is the source of the thinker’s passion, and the thinker without a paradox is like a love without a feeling: a paltry mediocrity . . . . The supreme paradox of all thought is the attempt to discover something that thought cannot think” (Philosophical Fragments, trans. Swenson and Hong. Princeton UP, 1962, 46).  Frye was attracted to Kierkegaard for a number of reasons, one of which was because he was a liar “in Wilde’s sense of the word” and one of those “people who got smashed up in various ways, but rescued fragments from the smash of an intensity that the steady-state people seldom get to hear about.”  Kierkegaard’s “vision is penetrating because it is partial and distorted: it is truthful because it is falsified.  To the Old Testament’s question, ‘Where shall wisdom be found?’ there is often only the New Testament’s answer: ‘Well, not among the wise, at any rate’” (CW 4:39–40).  Frye was fond of quoting the Tertullian paradox: “It is believable because it is absurd; it is certain because it is impossible.”  He mentions this paradox a half‑dozen times in his notebooks for The Great Code and Words with Power.  The words “paradox” and “paradoxical” appear some two dozen times in Anatomy of Criticism and twice that number in the notebooks for the Anatomy.  In Essay Four of that book Frye labels one of the forms of the lyric the poem of paradox.  As Balfour points out in his conclusion, the sixth unit of the ogdoad, which was the blueprint for Frye’s writing projects, was called Paradox.  Paradox, to be sure, is always on Frye’s mind.

Balfour begins with an anecdote about the paradox of the new in the old––his overhearing Frye tell another student that the New Criticism is called “new” because it has been here only since the time of Plato.  (Balfour believes that the anecdote has not surfaced in Frye’s published work, but actually the epigram can be found in “Research and Graduate Education in the Humanities” [CW 7: 340]).  There are literally hundreds of places in Frye’s writing where he calls attention to the paradoxical nature of his subject matter.  Thus, on epiphany and the Incarnation: “This doctrine of epiphany is important to me because the visibility or appearance of God, who is practically by definition invisible, seems to me a more momentous paradox than the alternative form of stating the same paradox: God becomes man in the Incarnation” (CW 13: 322).  Or, on interpenetration in the spiritual world: “Man lives in two real worlds, one spiritual, the other natural, physical, or psychic.  In the spiritual world God exists in us and we in him: a paradox that only metaphorical language can begin to express” (CW 5: 415).  Or, on the part‑whole paradox: “Also, of course, that Moebius strip, where the part-and-whole relationship reverses itself, comes to complete fulfilment in the Gospel.  I am in Christ, a part of a whole; Christ is in me, a part of a whole. . . .  How one verbalizes a paradox like that I don’t know” (CW 6: 528).  Frye reflects on scores of such paradoxes in his books and notebooks, and collecting them all would probably be a project worth undertaking.  But Balfour is not so much interested in paradoxes as a thematic concern in Frye as he is in the paradoxical provocations of Frye’s own rhetoric.

Balfour gives two examples of hyperbolic rhetoric leading to paradox, the first from A Natural Perspective: “Shakespeare had no opinions, no values, no philosophy, no principles of anything except dramatic structure.”  The second is from the Anatomy: “Poetry can only be made out of other poetry, novels out of other novels.”  Such extravagant, exaggerated, and provocative claims are, for Balfour, a teaching device: paradox “is a privileged, prosaic figure of pedagogy in many of its forms” (54).  In some of these forms the focus is on the difference between the figurative and the literal.  This naturally leads Balfour to the topic of metaphor, a figure that identifies two things that are different.  Here we have arrived at the crux of the issue: metaphor is a subspecies of paradox, and paradox is a central feature of metaphor.  Balfour believes that “if we keep returning to Frye in the future it will be due partly to the paradoxical character of the work” (58).  I suspect this is true, and the paradoxical nature of his work will include a study of his view of metaphor.  Most views of metaphor, from Aristotle to Max Black turn out to be based on analogy: there is something comparable between the X and the Y.  Frye’s view, as he keeps insisting, is based on identity, and on the paradoxical claim that the literal meaning is really the metaphorical meaning.  No one has done a comprehensive study of Frye’s view of metaphor.  If Frye studies has a future, such a study might be undertaken by some enterprising student in an effort to reverse what Frye called the Sartor Resartus paradox: whatever conceals also reveals.


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Merlin Donald’s “Northrop Frye and Theories of Human Nature” is a report on how his own work on cognition was inspired by Frye’s system‑building.  Donald uses the word “mimesis” to represent the debt he owes to Frye because “mimesis captures the vague, analogue logic that lies behind most of human thought, and drives such things as allegory and metaphor.”  It “was a useful bridging concept, because it is closer to the logic of prelinguistic thought” (35).  “Mimesis” is a somewhat curious word to describe a connection with Frye.  True, the mimetic tradition dominated literary criticism from the Greeks to the nineteenth century, when “imagination” took over, and Frye was firmly in the camp of critics that M.H. Abrams calls “expressive.”  For Frye, the social context of a literary form may tend toward realism and accurate description at one pole or toward myth, with no concern for plausibility, at the other.  The world of myth lies at the center of his predilections, and this is the world of implicit metaphorical identity: to speak of a sun-god in mythology is to say that a divine being in human shape is identified with an aspect of physical nature.  On the other hand, the world of realism, which lies at the periphery of Frye’s own interests, is the world of implicit simile.  To say that something is “lifelike” is to comment on its “realism,” a term Frye once referred to as that “little masterpiece of question-begging” (CW 14: 407).  Donald doesn’t make a very convincing case for associating “mimesis” and Frye.  “Myth” would have been a better word.

In Donald’s essay we are stuck in the world of Anatomy of Criticism.  A cognitive neuroscientist should not be expected to keep abreast of everything in the expanded Frye canon, but the centrality of the Nous–Nomos dialectic, which figures importantly in the notebooks for The Great Code, might well have some appeal for a scholar interested in mind.


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Travis DeCook’s richly suggestive article on Frye and the book looks at Frye’s attitudes toward the book as a material artefact and how the metaphors for this function in his criticism.  Given Frye’s general antimaterialist sensibility, such a study would not at first glance seem to be too promising.  Like Aristotle, Frye thought the material cause to be the least important of all the causes, ranking way below the formal and final and even the efficient.  Complicating things, Frye does write epigrammatically that poets “say that the material world neither is nor isn’t, but disappears” (CW 23: 293).

DeCook shows convincingly that Frye’s references to the book are replete with materialist assumptions and conclusions.  Here is DeCook’s summary of the first half of his essay: “Frye, then, engaged with the books as a material artefact in disparate ways, affirming limitations to materialist textual scholarship when engaging the Bible as ‘great code of art,’ expressing skepticism about the shaping power of media on content, and exploring the dependence of community on the endurance of written records” (42).  DeCook looks especially at Frye’s essay “The Renaissance of Books,” which suggests that Frye’s remarks on the materiality of the book anticipates D.F. McKenzie’s essay on the book as expressive form.  There can be little doubt that Frye did assume the book could be a physical monument.  I wonder if the implications of this might surface in Frye’s extraordinary collection of twenty‑one of the Trianon Press editions of Blake’s work, some of which sell for thousands of dollars.  Are these examples of the book as monument––editions that Frye no doubt wouldn’t dream of annotating with his marginalia?  At the other extreme of the book as material object is the recent report of an interview with Frye in which he was reported to have said: “If I don’t rip them up and toss them into the trash, the cleaners fish them out and put them back on my desk. . . .  I’m constantly pulling out books and having symbolic bonfires.  It amazes me sometimes that I have so little regard for them” (   Nevertheless, we do know that Frye paid attention to the physical appearance of books.  In 1958 he wrote to John Gray, president of the Macmillan Company of Canada, about The Collected Poems of E.J. Pratt that he was editing: “I hope you will get somebody to design the new collected poems so it will look like what it is, one of the essential books of Canadian literature and a definitive collection of Canada’s biggest poet, and not like a rebound copy of the Ford Salesman’s Handbook” (Selected Letters, 1934–1991, ed. Robert D. Denham [Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland, 2009], 54).  Frye was not pleased with the result, and his reply to Macmillan is worth quoting in full:

What on earth is your layout man thinking of?  This is no way to set PROSE: prose is supposed to go into sentences that can be taken in by the eye in two or three lines.  If one is writing for a poverty stricken magazine like The Canadian Forum, one expects to have one’s stuff distorted by being squeezed into narrow columns (though the columns in the Forum are slightly wider than this) but even the most grinding poverty cannot excuse a bungle of this kind.  All the internal organs of a prose sentence get pushed out of alignment in a corset of this kind.  To take a sentence at random: I wrote: “In Methodism at that time the battle of ‘higher criticism’ had been won, Biblical archaeology (see ‘The Epigrapher’) was opening up, there was general enthusiasm for such new world pictures as ‘evolution,’ Angst and Existenz were unheard of, and there was no difficulty––certainly the poet has never found any––in being Christian and liberal at the same time.”  Now that, I concede, is a longish sentence, but in anything like proper typography it’s quite easy to follow.  Here the eye has to trip and stumble over nine lines, including two hyphenated words, lose its way in the syntax, and get confused by the allusions.  Quotations too get distorted:

But what made our feet miss the road that


The world to such a golden trove . . .

What is the point of such a broken up setting?  I’d much rather not see my introduction appear at all than have it appear in so preposterously unreadable a form,

where it looks like a po‑

em of Mr. Arthur Bourinot

’s.                                                         (ibid., 55)


Finally, DeCook provides a perceptive and ingenious reading of the concluding sentences of The Great Code.  This is at the end of a section in which he explores what for Frye is the metaphorical power of the book.  Frye ends his book by saying, “The normal human reaction to a great cultural achievement like the Bible is to do with it what the Philistines did to Samson: reduce it to impotence, then lock it in a mill to grind our aggressions and prejudices.  But perhaps its hair, like Samson’s, could grow again even there” (CW 19: 254).  This is the passage that so vexed Péter Pásztor in his effort to translate it into Hungarian.  He was troubled by the mixed metaphor, concluding that “in Hungarian expository prose a book growing hair is simply inconceivable” (“Reading Frye in Hungary: The Frustrations and Hopes of a Frye Translator.” Rereading Frye: The Published and Unpublished Works, ed. David V. Boyd and Imre Salusinszky [Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1999], 124).  Frye’s commentary emerges from an Old English riddle: “An enemy deprived me of life, took away my strength, then soaked me in water, then took me out again and put me in the sun, where I soon lost all my hair.”  Here is a part of DeCook’s gloss:


In Frye’s analysis of this portion of the riddle, his attitude toward the Bible’s materiality reaches an extreme point of tension.  While the shearing of Samson is part of his enslavement, since it took away his strength and allowed the Philistines to enslave him, the shearing of the animal skin enables the material substrate to be inscribed with the words of the Bible.  This makes the resonant final sentences of The Great Code self‑undermining from a reductively materialist perspective . . . . The power of the sentences is indisputable: like Samson, the Bible is victimized, yet somehow it triumphs.  However, whereas the return of Samson’s hair allowed for his defeat of the Philistines and destruction of their idolatrous temple, it is precisely the absence of hair on the animal’s skin that allows for the inscription of the Word of God in the production of a Bible codex. (46)


The editors say that they hope the special issue of the UTQ will project forward, looking to the future of Frye’s ideas in the twenty‑first century.  DeCook’s essay certainly accomplishes that, standing as an example of what might seem at first a minor or even trivial issue, but what emerges from his close readings is substantive.  One should never be surprised with the linkages that Frye’s readers find, such as nursing and legal theory.  Frye was a polymath, and like other instances of the homo universalis, his ideas, especially those that form his literary theory, will no doubt continue to spill over into other areas of study, affecting in fundamental ways both our understanding of Frye and the fields he has been linked with.  His ideas have been investigated and often applied by philosophers, historians, geographers, anthropologists, and political scientists, and by writers in the fields of advertising, education, biblical studies, marketing, communication studies, medicine, political economy, law, organization science, social psychology, consumer research, and now book history.


* * *

A number of poems over the years have been about Frye or had references to him.  In The Frye Handbook I have noted twenty‑one of these.  The nine poets who contributed to the UTQ issue extend that number, though some have no obvious connection to Frye at all.  “We asked,” say the editors, “not for poems about Frye or related to his criticism, but simply for the best they had to offer” (12).  The third section of Gordon Teskey’s “Afterword” pays tribute to all nine poets.  Interestingly, the issue of ellipse mentioned above has a similar portfolio of poems.  As for connections with Frye, Nick Mount tries to tease those out of Margaret Atwood in his interview with her, but she denies a direct influence.  What she does see in Frye is a great synthesizer who was able to discover literary patterns and who, when he lectured, spoke not in the ordinary associative babble of most teachers but in prose paragraphs.  Frye was a great admirer of Atwood’s work, but he thought that her Survival, which she dedicated to him and which she and Mount discuss, had “a rather over-simplified and somewhat derivative thesis” (Selected Letters, 1934–1991, 151).


* * *

The essay by Jean Wilson on Frye’s view of liberal education is a competent treatment of the subject.  Her notion of Frye’s social vision as being a matter of “the practical intelligence” is central to her argument of how Frye is relevant to teaching the liberal arts in the twenty‑first century.  She rubs Frye’s views up against Martha Nussbaum’s and C.P. Snow’s, and she shows how in her teaching of One Hundred Years of Solitude, the novel with its “hallucinating sessions” becomes an allegory of an ideal liberal arts education.  One of the things Frye said in “A Liberal Education,” “By Liberal Things,” and “Elementary Teaching and Elemental Scholarship” was that the purpose of a liberal education was to maladjust the student to ordinary society.  It might be worth restating that and teasing out its implications.


* * *


Jonathan A. Allan has written a history of the Northrop Frye Visiting Professorship at the University of Toronto, from the first appointee, Fredric Jameson in 1977 to the anticipated visit of Judith Butler in 2013.  In between, a goodly portion of those who have served form a veritable Who’s Who of contemporary critical discussion.  There is no necessary connection between the visiting professors and Frye, though three of the first five have written on Frye: Jameson, Ricoeur, and Weimann.  What links the disparate group together (I count thirty‑two who have held the position) is their interest in theory.  (I was hopeful of getting through the essay without encountering the word “theorize,” but alas it cropped up in the penultimate paragraph.)  The editors see the diverse interests in the long parade of Frye Professors as “a tribute to Frye’s own literary openness” (13).  How Judith Butler will bring any distinction to the professorship isn’t clear.

Frye maintained for a number of years that criticism should be a system of interpenetrating rather than conflicting modes.  But as poststructural critics came to take center stage in the 1970s and 1980s, Frye grew less sanguine about realizing his critical ideal.  In his last major works, Words with Power and Myth and Metaphor, he began to take an oppositional stance toward poststructuralism, especially to cultural criticism and deconstruction.  But as one might expect from a critic who very seldom argued in a public way against critical views different from his own, his critique of these two postmodern approaches is relatively muted.  This is not the case, however, in Frye’s unpublished notebooks, where his critique of, say, Derrida, is explicit and direct.  The degree of Frye’s opposition to cultural criticism (or what he calls ideology) and deconstruction is almost always sublimated or displaced in what he chose to publish; in the notebooks, it is not.  The scores of entries that Frye makes in his late notebooks about poststructural critical positions reveal the anxiety he has about his own position in the critical world, as well as his concession that the model of interpenetrating critical visions is more or less doomed.  And they reveal directly what is at times almost concealed in his late, previously unpublished work.  Here’s one example from a set of typed notes for The Myth of Deliverance, written about 1980: “My function as a critic right now is to reverse the whole ‘deconstruction’ procedure, which leads eventually to the total extinction of both literature and criticism: people are naturally attracted first, and most, by the suicidal and destructive.  One should turn around to a reconstruction, which is a matter of seeing a narrative in its undisplaced form as a single complex metaphor” (CW 20: 302).  In the notebooks such comments are legion.  For a sampler see a post on the Frye weblog:


* * *


Adam Carter’s essay on Frye’s theory of Canadian literature proposes that the idea of freedom from nature is what serves as a kind of middle term to unite Frye’s international view of culture with a local view.  Carter traces this oscillation between the “cosmopolitan” and the “national” throughout Frye’s Canadian criticism, which he sees as a “structural movement” rather than a “historically evolving view.”  The idea that these can be united by an idea of culture drawn chiefly from Pheng Cheah is a fairly big leap, and Carter never makes clear why we should accept the idea of culture as that which is free from nature.  Relying on Cheah is a mixed blessing at best.  Carter locates the meaning of Frye’s moving back and forth between the international and the national in Cheah’s notion of the “aporias of given culture.”  If we don’t quite understand what this means, Carter gives us Cheah’s gloss:


The aporia is as follows: culture is supposed to be the realm of human freedom from the given.  However, because human beings are finite human creatures, the becoming‑objective of culture as the realm of human purposiveness and freedom depends on forces that are radically other and beyond human control.  Culture is given out of these forces.  Thus, at the same time that culture embodies human freedom from the given, it is also merely given because its power over nature is premised on this gift of the radically other.


I’m not sure this kind of prose does much to advance Carter’s cause.  There is apparently an argument of some kind going on here, marked by “because” and “thus,” but it’s hardly worth the time to try to figure it out.  I can think of lots of examples of culture that are not free from nature, and the reader would no doubt be helped if Carter were to explain why the freedom‑from‑nature idea should compel our assent.

I’m reminded of Frye’s response to a sentence from Julia Kristeva’s Desire in Language.  The sentence was this:


[T]he modality of novelistic enunciation is inferential; it is a process in which the subject of the novelistic utterance affirms a sequence, as conclusion to the inference, based on other sequences (referential––hence narrative, or textual––hence citational), which are the premises of the inference and, as such, considered to be true.


Frye’s responds by saying,


I can no more understand [the sentence] than I could eat a lobster with its shell on.  I wouldn’t discourage anyone from masticating and ruminating such sentences, but I’d like to think (or perhaps only my ego would) that my greater simplicity came from a deeper level than the labyrinth of the brain. (CW 5: 61–2)


When we run upon the following sentence by Carter with all of its Latinate abstractions pressing for this and that and with all of its blurry jargon, do we not agree that the simplicity of prose style is a virtue?


Frye’s controversial theorizing of the radical alterity of an ‘indifferent,’ terrifying, and potentially destructive geography and natural environment in Canada (CW 12: 34; see also 103, 133, 140, 350) presses upon his thought an even more profound realization of the limitations of a traditional concept of culture as the achievement of a freedom beyond nature, even as it starkly presses home the desire for such a realm.


The wooliness of this prose suggests there is a great deal to be learned from an elegant and simple style, like Frye’s.

The best treatment of Frye’s nuanced views of nature is Michael Dolzani’s “The View from the Northern Farm: Northrop Frye and Nature.”  In the nature vs. culture debate, while Frye sometimes takes a negative view of the natural world, especially in his early work, in Words with Power there are different visions of nature on each of the four levels of the axis mundi.  For Dolzani’s essay see  We might profit too from the chapter on nature in The Double Vision, where it’s not freedom from nature that Frye commends but the redemption of nature.


* * *


Gordon Teskey’s “Afterword” wonders if Frye will endure as great critic.  Will people still be reading him in 2019?  Often our predictions about critical reputations are just as wrongheaded as they are about literary ones.  Frye himself called Henry Reynolds “the greatest critic before Johnson” (CW 5:236).   Reynolds wrote one brief critical work (Mythomystes) and published a translation of Tasso, an output that hardly seems sufficient to advance his status beyond that of Bacon and Jonson, Hume and Burke, Campion and Sidney, Milton and Dennis, Pope and Dryden, Daniel and Young.  Frye seems to be wrong on that one.  In any event, here we have Teskey providing the criteria by which we might take a guess about Frye’s staying power.  The great critic must be catholic and impartial, must be one who takes the long view, must focus on a single large question (what is literature for? what does literature say? both questions relating literature to its social and natural environments), and must endure for more than a century.  But there’s more.  The great critic must be accessible, widely read, entertaining in a civil way; must write popular journalism, address large non‑specialist audiences, and “know how to make literature important for whom literature is not their whole lives” (180).  The great critic cares deeply for great writing, “gives us simplicity with power” (181), subordinating his vast learning to the one great question asked.

We might suffer some difficulty in seeing how all of the great critics meet these criteria.  Is Aristotle entertaining?  Did Longinus write popular journalism?  Did Horace ask only one great question?  My guess is that Teskey didn’t arrive at his list of criteria deductively.  My guess, rather, is that he looked at Frye’s achievement and used that inductive survey to formulate his list.

Finally, Teskey proposes that Frye was different from other critics in that he spoke about more than literature and that he was always asking the questions, where are we? and where are we going?  That is, Frye was interested in the large centrifugal questions.  In the late 1960s these questions emerge from Frye’s speculations about concern, an idea that he took over from the existentialists, and in the late work they produce what he called “myths to live by.”


* * *


Editorial Corrections and Questions


p. 5, ll. 17–18.  I think it’s not correct to include Hillis Miller in the group who regularly read Frye and argued about his ideas.  In Criticism and Society Miller told Imre Salusinszky that “the grand synthetic stuff in the Anatomy of Criticism is something I’ve never been able to read” (235).

p. 5, 4 ll. from bottom.  “eighteen” for “sixteen”

p. 7, l. 11.  “twenty‑one books.”  This depends on how one counts.  If we omit the books published in his lifetime and edited by others, the number is twenty‑two, or twenty‑three if we include The Double Vision, which Frye knew was going to be published in 1991.  The total number of books by Frye including those published posthumously and excluding those in the Collected Works is 42.

p. 7, l. 18.  “Modes” for “Mode”

p. 7, 13 ll. from bottom.  “CW 22” for “CW 12”

p. 7, ll. 3–4 from bottom.  Double quotation marks for all the single quotation marks.

p. 11, last line, and p. 12, first line.  The essay by Frye I’ve called “Intoxicated with Words” is by no means “draft teaching notes.”  It happened to be at the end of a notebook which had an outline for a course in sixteenth century literature.  But the essay, even though it is perhaps incomplete, is an essay.

p. 15, l. 9.  “broadly” for “broad”

p. 16, l. 8. “Jefferson, NC” for “Jefferson”

p. 16, l. 11.  “43–46” for “46”

p. 16, last l. “Baltimore, MD” for “Baltimore.”  The convention of adding the abbreviations of states after cities is not consistently applied.  Thus we have “Frankfort, KY” (p. 28), “Malden, MA” (p. 39), “New Haven” (p. 110), “Cambridge” (p. 172), and so on.  The point is to adopt a style manual and stick with it.

p. 23, 2nd line from bottom.  “occurs” for “occur”

p. 28.  In “Works Cited,” “de Man” for “DeMan”

p. 28, 14 ll. from bottom: delete “, and Northrop Frye” (though it is pleasing to think that I could have written a book with Frye)

p. 48, 8 ll. from bottom.  Delete comma.

p. 49, 9 ll. from bottom.  Colon for comma.

p. 70, Works Cited, entries 2 and 3.  “Anansi” for “Anansi” for both entries.  The dates in parentheses are unnecessary.  “Eleven Years of Alphabet” first appeared in Canadian Literature in 1971.  “Northrop Frye Observed” was not previously published but was written in 1981.  Readers could not infer this information from the entries, but there’s no reason to provide the information anyway.

p. 70.  Works Cited, entry 4.  Confused date.  “The Great Communicator” appeared in the 24 January 1991 issue of the Globe and Mail.  For periodical publications the editors sometimes use a comma to precede the page numbers (as here and as on pp. 49, 155, et al.) and sometimes they follow more standard practice and use a colon.  The practice should have been regularized by the copy‑editor.

p. 111, 10 ll. from bottom, and passim.  Italicize “The Educated Imagination” and delete single quotation marks.

p. 120, 2 ll. from bottom.  “Address on Receiving” for “On Receiving”

p. 123, n. 2.  “Notebook 5” for “Notebook 5

p. 124, l. 12.  “CW 24” for “CW 25”

p. 125, n. 5.  For a more complete account of Helen Kemp’s early musical career, see CW 1: 3 and 6 n. 1.

p. 130, l. 3.  “(CW 9: 74)” for “(74)”

p. 130, l. 6.  Add “CW 22” and p. no.

p. 131, l. 5 from bottom.  “CW 21: 128” for “CW: 128”

p. 132, l. 2.  “Notebook 5” for “Notebook 5

p. 149, 11 lines from bottom: What’s “Misc. Notes” mean?

p. 151, last line.  In Frye’s discussion of Layton’s work in CW 12: 133 I don’t find any reference to the otherness of a terrifying nature.

p. 159, l. 3.  “Weimann” for “Weiman” or “[sic]” after “Weiman”

p. 154, 6 ll. from bottom: “Berkeley” for “Berkley”

p. 155, l. 11.  “Literary” for “literary

p. 155, l. 18.  “Its” for “its

p. 163, last line.  “(AC, 22; CW 22: 24)” for “(AC, 22)”

p. 164, ll. 6, 8.  Give the CW reference for the two citations here; also for AC, 313 on p. 171, 9 ll. from bottom.

p. 167.  Sometimes “Coleridge” precedes the vol. no. and the p. no. for the Biographia; sometimes not; should be regularized.  In 16 ll. from the bottom, should not “Coleridge 1: ” precede “xc”?

p. 172, ll. 4–5 from bottom.  Close up “Engell” and “and”

p. 173, 8 ll. from bottom.  “View” for “view”

p. 173, penultimate l.  “Wimsatt, W.K., Jr.” for “Wimsatt, W.K.”

p. 174, mid‑page.  “Dürer” for “Durer”

p. 184, 17 ll. from bottom.  What Frye actually wrote was “I am building temples to––well, ‘the gods’ will do.”  The citation is CW 5: 120.



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6 thoughts on “Review of the University of Toronto Quarterly’s Special Issue on Frye

  1. Jonathan Allan

    I have been reluctant to post a comment here, especially since I have a brief article in the issue under consideration.

    Regardless, Professor Denham writes: “[Germaine Warkentin and Linda Hutcheon] hasten to observe that this rich record includes the previously unpublished writing which, with the launching of the Collected Works of Frye project, began to become available in 1996. The new material more than doubled the Frye canon, the Collected Works having brought to light almost ten thousand pages of previously unpublished writing, constituting now some 58% of the total Frye canon.”

    I think we can agree that the new material is important material, but a question that we ought to consider: how does one engage with these materials? I am wondering if perhaps it is time to put together a volume on Frye in light of his private writings. The Collected Works of Northrop Frye have now been completed (I just received my copy of the Index in last week’s mail), and perhaps now, we can begin to (re)evaluate Frye. The Frye that appears in many of these private writings is a difficult and complex Frye. A Frye that has troubled many of his readers. Harold Bloom, for instance, laments: “The publication of Northrop Frye’s Notebooks trouble some of his old admirers, myself included. One unfortunate passage gave us Frye’s affirmation that he alone, of all modern critics, possessed genius. I think of Kenneth Burke and of William Empson; were they less gifted than Frye? Or were George Wilson Knight or Ernst Robert Curtius less original and creative than the Canadian master?” (vii) Admittedly, this passage — Bloom’s and Frye’s — has been quoted often enough, Professor Denham explains Frye’s quotation: “Denying that he has any special technical knowledge while at the same time claiming something greater than that, Frye here links himself with the paradoxes of Socrates’ apology. Frye wrote very little without the double vision in mind, and one can sense in the coda both the impishness of the Socratic ironist, jolting us with the unexpected, and the truth contained in the literal meaning of the word ‘genius,’ reminding us of what finally motivated this architect of the spiritual world” (6.725). The Statement for the Day of My Death, however, remains a troubling passage.

    I admit that I will never have the understanding of Frye that Professor Denham has (indeed, I will likely never have the knowledge that many contributors on this blog have, I think here of Professors Adamson, Happy, Dolzani, and others), but if we are to study the entire corpus of Frye’s work, I suppose we will have to confront these difficult passages.

    To study Frye now will require much more than just attending to difficult or troubling passages; instead, we must now read Frye in relation to a changed academy. In the Globe and Mail, we read:

    “What was missing from Frye’s criticism throughout his career, and what may be the source of the dismissiveness his name engenders today, was an awareness of works beyond the central English canon. He did not foresee how multiculturalism, post-colonialism, feminism or even queer theory would change the way we read literature, and his perception of the mythic structures and archetypes inherent in the Western tradition gave little scope to the broad and almost universal mythos that would express itself in the form of aboriginal literature.” (

    The Collected Works of Northrop Frye is an impressive collection of writings, writings that will undoubtedly allow for and encourage new readings of Frygian thought. These new readings, I imagine, will necessarily have to engage with the changed academy, and thus, will have to answer to the interventions of “multiculturalism, post-colonialism, feminism, or even queer theory.” Do the archetypes of Frye genuinely exist across literature? Does Frye’s theory of literature function when removed from the English tradition? How might Frye be useful to literary scholars today, scholars who have been trained in “multiculturalism, post-colonialism, feminism, and even queer theory”? And how might the “new material [that] more than doubled the Frye canon” help us in understanding Frye’s place in literary studies today?

    1. Joseph Adamson

      Meyer is simply spouting tiresome commonplaces that are all too prevalent among academics and only serve as a facile substitute for actually reading Frye and thinking about his ideas. Frye in fact engages a great deal of literature and myth beyond the “English canon.” And his writings reveal an acute awareness of sexism, multiculturalism, imperialism, colonialism, racism, and the vicious nature of sexual repression, even repression of same-sex love. But he also makes the point that you cannot base a comprehensive theory of literature on a special interest group. That is the point of the polemical introduction to Anatomy. And that is why he he has referred to certain feminist theories of literature as “heifer shit.”

      The latter, I suppose, would be another of those troubling statements you refer to. It might well be to someone without a sense of humor. And Harold Bloom is certainly lacking in that, which is one reason he is so provoked by Frye’s statement for the day of his death. Vanity brings with it “l’esprit du sérieux.”

      As for your own argument here, I don’t feel you can quote Bob Denham’s lucid gloss on this paragraph in the notebooks and then, without even engaging it, simply revert to your claim that the statement is troubling, when you have just cited someone who has clarified its provocative and paradoxical nature. Do you agree with Bob’s gloss or not? And if not, why not? What is so troubling about Frye’s statement that he possessed genius? He did. And I think it can be argued that he did in a way that Burke, Empson, Knight, Curtius, or Bloom did not. None of these critics and theorists have even adequately answered (much less asked) the basic question about literature: what is it and what is its social function?

      By the way, one version of the collection of essays you call for has already been written: Rereading Frye: The Published and Unpublished Works, by Imre Salusinszky and David V. Boyd. Bob’s point is well taken: any assessment of Frye’s work, if it is to meet the standards of intellectual integrity, demands a comprehensive engagement with his complete writings, and this is something that is woefully lacking in the U of T Quarterly’s special issue on Frye.

  2. Robert Denham

    Someone on the Manuscript Review Committee of the University of Toronto Press wanted to remove the “Statement for the Day of My Death” from the Late Notebooks apparently because it didn’t conform to their image of Frye as a humble and self-effacing Victoria College professor. I admit that I was taken aback when I first ran across the passage in the file of typed notes, even though I thought it was true that Frye did have genius. I naturally balked at any effort to muzzle Frye, and I let it be known that I would not be party to any form of censorship.

    Many images of Frye emerge from the notebooks but it will take a long time, I think, to discover them all. There will be many more “troubling” passages as well, and there will be numerous passages that reveal that Frye is very much aware of critics motivated by identity politics and the “changed academy.” It took me fifteen years to transcribe the previously unpublished material I was assigned to edit, and there are large portions of it that remain mystifying. But we will not have a very good grasp of Frye as a critic if we remain locked in the world of Anatomy of Criticism. There are whole areas of Frye’s though that remain to be discovered in what is now the newest part of the Frye canon. That is something, it seems to me, we need to celebrate. There are new voyages for us to launch, just as there were for Tennyson’s Ulysses

  3. Jonathan Allan

    As soon as I had posted the comment, I realized that one such book did exist.

    I have found the notebooks, particularly the Notebooks on romance, to be very helpful in helping to understand Frye. I am thus quite grateful that Professor Denham spent the fifteen years transcribing them.

    On Anatomy, I think this is part of the problem, and yes, it is important to move beyond Anatomy.

    On Genius — I’m not sure what to make of the statement. What is troubling, I suppose, is that he “alone had genius.” There is something quite different about the private Frye, which stands to reason. And it is quite possible that Frye did understand himself as a genius, but I think there are important questions about other geniuses, for surely there were others. And others, I imagine, have attempted to answer questions about the nature of literature and its social function. (It is a shame that I won’t be able to take the course on Frye that was discussed here on the blog.)

    I’m not entirely certain that theorists of identity politics intend to write a theory of literature. I think the idea is about an intervention, a move to point out things that might be missed. My worry, and maybe I’m misreading Frye, is that this sort of “theory of literature” lends itself to canon building when misread in the Bloomian sense, a swerve; Bloom is, of course, the chief example of what happens when a critic misreads Frye. (I think there is a letter somewhere in which Frye laments Bloom’s having taken his use of canon and turned it into something else.)

    I am still reading through the notebooks and the Frye Canon, so I still have plenty to learn about and from Frye.

    Sadly, I will miss the conference at U of T where I imagine much will be said in light of the unpublished work.

  4. Nicholas William Graham

    I’ve had occassion before to mention Hugo Meynell’s review of GC
    where he calls the book a work of genius. Frye responds with
    an ever so gracious thanks.


  5. Nicholas William Graham

    Is this a private fight, or can anyone join in?!! Being Irish, I have a fondness for this type of exchange between Jonathan, Joe and Bob. Recently,the thought passed through my mind that perhaps what Frye means by “genius” in ‘A Statement on the Day of my Death,’
    comes from his beloved poet Milton’s LYCIDAS:

    Henceforth thou art the genius of the shore, [183]

    At least, that’s what I think every morning I pass his
    bronze statue on a park bench along with his books,
    in the middle of the campus.



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