Daily Archives: December 16, 2012

Frye and Poe

The following paper was delivered at “Educating the Imagination: A Conference in Honour of Northrop Frye on the Centenary of His Birth,” October 4th – 6th 2012, Victoria University in the University of Toronto.


Joseph Adamson

It might surprise readers not entirely conversant with Frye’s writings that he should make such an important place in his writings for the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Surprising because critical responses to Poe’s work have been, as Frye puts it, “curiously schizophrenic” from the beginning. “There have been no lack of people,” as he puts it, “to say that Poe is fit only for immature minds; yet Poe was the major influence on one of the subtlest schools of poetry that literature has ever seen” (CW 18:37).  Jean O’Grady’s invaluable index to the Collected Works shows clearly Frye’s extensive interest in the great American writer–and that is precisely how Frye regarded him. In his essay on Thomas Beddoes in A Study of English Romanticism, he compares the English master of the grotesque to that of  “his great American contemporary, Edgar Allan Poe” (CW 17:133; emphasis added). In the Late Notebooks he goes so far as to call Poe “[t]he greatest literary genius this side of Blake,” which, he explains, is “why he’s regarded as fit only for adolescents, or French poets who don’t really know English.” (CW 5:165)

Frye’s interest in Poe dates from his earliest writings. It is most notable in Anatomy of Criticism, where Poe is first invoked in the very good company of Bunyan, Richardson, and Dickens, not to mention Shakespeare and the Bible, as an example of the particular association of the myths  prevalent in “fairy tales and folk tales” with“primitive and popular literature,” literature, as Frye defines it, “which affords an unobstructed view of archetypes” (CW 22:108). Later, in a similar context, Poe is favorably compared to Hawthorne and the latter’s “self-imposed” imaginative inhibitions (CW 22:128). The context is the latter’s use of a death-and-revival pattern in The Marble Faun, where Hawthorne felt the need to add a plausible explanation in his epilogue to the novel. In contrast, Frye points to Poe’s “Ligeia,” where “the straight mythical death and revival pattern” is  “given without apology.” Poe, Frye observes, “is clearly a more radical abstractionist than Hawthorne, which is one reason why his influence on our century is more immediate.”

Frye then goes on to include Poe, along with Hawthorne, Conrad, Hardy, and Virginia Woolf, with the mythopoeic pattern-making that characterizes anti–realist writers. (CW 22:129) Poe’s vexed reputation as a writer Frye explains in The Secular Scripture by the “ascendency of realism” and the fact that Poe “specializes in setting down the traditional formulas of storytelling without bothering with much narrative logic.” (CW 18:37) In the mouth of most other critics this might sound disparaging, but Frye means it is an unqualified recommendation—of Poe’s gift for utlitizing the sensational “and then” sequence of romance narrative, as opposed to the “hence” logic of descriptive causality aimed at by realism. Frye emphasizes, however, that this type of story-telling is not simply linear and episodic, but assumes a universe of lower and higher levels, “neither of them corresponding very closely to the ordinary world of experience. . . . The realist, with his sense of logical and horizontal continuity, leads us to the end of his story; the romancer, scrambling over a series of disconnected episodes, seems to be trying to get us to the top of it.” (CW 18: 35)

This vertical perspective is the key to Poe’s symbolism. Poe’s grandly speculative essay Eureka is for Frye a central touchstone. He recurs to it throughout his writings to illustrate the attraction of certain modern writers to poetic cosmologies, a cosmology being essentially a  “framework of symbolism, with all the identities, associations, and correspondences that symbolism demands.” (CW 22: 149–50). In Words with Power, Frye cites Valery’s observation about Poe’s essay that cosmology is essentially a poetic art, cosmology being a skeletal framework made up of metaphoric identities with all its clothes off. Poe is, par excellence, a metaphorical and mythic literalist, and anticipates in many ways the movement away from realism to the mythopoeic tendency arising from the ironic mode ascendent in the twentieth century. For this reason among others, Poe is one of the main-stays in Frye’s lifelong exploration romance, a literary mode in which the imagination is at its most hypothetical and mythical, most removed from the given world, concerned with the possible, not the plausible, the conceivable, not the existent.

In the third essay of Anatomy Poe is cited twice, and both allusions bring into play this vertical movement along a cosmological axis. The tale “Eleanora” serves as one of the examples in second-phase romance of an Edenic Golden Age, “a kind of prison-paradise or unborn world from which the central characters long to escape to a lower world.”(CW 22:186).  At the end of his discussion of romance, Frye turns to cosmology again and cites Poe’s “The Gold Bug” as an example of “movement from one world to the other,” which “may be symbolized by the golden fire that descends from the sun, as in the mythical basis of the Danaë story, and by its human response, the fire kindled on the sacrificial altar” (189-90). Frye points out that “the Egyptian scarab was a solar emblem,” and that Poe’s gold bug “is dropped from above on the end of a string through the eye hole of a skull on a tree and falls on top of a buried treasure: the archetype here is closely related to the complex of images we are dealing with, especially to some alchemical versions of it. (CW 22:189–90). Frye refers again to the same tale in Words with Power to illustrate the grisly lower reaches of creative descent narratives, where the journey down the axis mundi is often in quest of buried treasure, this being “a metaphor for some form of wisdom or fertility that is the real object of the descent” (CW 26:203).

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