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).

Richard Wilbur, in his definitive readings of Poe, reconstructs very precisely this cosmological aspect of Poe’s symbolism. The gold bug is a lower world variant of the golden chain descending from heaven, the latter a borrowing from Milton which Poe employs to symbolize the link between the lower physical universe and the ethereal world. The image appears in Poe’s most Miltonic effort, “Al Araaf,” a much underrated poem, and other versions appear in “Ligeia,” “Hop-Frog,” “The Philosophy of Furniture,” and “King Pest.” Alchemical forms of this symbolism, which, as Frye notes , is one of its variants, include the purifying spiritual transmutations that are depicted in “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Poe is invoked in The Secular Scripture as a past master of such descent imagery, this time to illustrate the archetype of the double–the splitting and objectification of the self in space–and its counterpart, imagery symbolizing the objectification of time: pendulums, clocks watches, and analogous symbolism. Later, in the same work, in his discussion of the lowest reaches of such narratives, Frye turns again to Poe, citing the closing passages of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym as an example of the “dark saying, and riddles and ciphers and oracular utterances of all kinds [that] proliferate around the end of the descending journey.” (CW 18:81) Poe appears in Words with Power in a more or less identical discussion of themes of descent, with the added examples of “The Gold Bug” and Poe’s “A Predicament,” an outlandish spoof of a Blackwood article, narrated by a woman named Psyche who, by her own misadventure, is ludicrously decapitated by the hands of a clock tower. Poe’s use of images of descent and the oracular brings us, nicely, to the final chapter of Anatomy.


Most significant perhaps in Anatomy is Poe’s pivotal importance in Frye’s elucidation of  “the rhythmical creation of beauty,” to use Poe’s term for it, that is, the discontinuous and oracular rhythm of lyric poetry as a genre distinct from verse, a genre that becomes autonomous and ascendent only in the last two centuries. In marked contrast to critics such as Harold Bloom, whose 1984 essay on Poe in the New York Review of Books is, in its glib dismissiveness, an egregious instance of the obtuseness of what Wilbur calls “Poe resisters,” Frye sees Poe as, if not a great lyric poet, at the very least an important originator in the domain of lyric, linking, for example, his metrical improvisations to similar experiments in T. S. Eliot, among others. Most important to Frye is Poe’s lucid articulation of the principle of fragmentary intensity that is so much a part of post-romantic writing. Frye observes that there is a characteristically American anarchism in Poe, “whose significance as a portent of many aspects of contemporary literature it is hard to do full justice to. Poe wrote an essay called ‘The Poetic Principle’ in which he asserted that a long poem was a contradiction in terms, that all existing long poems of genuine quality consisted of moments of intense poetic experience stuck together with connective tissues of narrative or argument which were really versified prose.” This doctrine pertains to narrative as well: the short story, not surprisingly, becomes an ascendent genre in the same period.

Notably, Poe has pride of place in the opening passage of the fourth essay, the chapter on genre and rhetorical criticism where Frye makes use of what he calls in one passage of the notebooks “the Poe business” (CW 23:203–4)–that is, the “threefold structure divid[ing] human faculties into history, art, and science and philosophy” (CW 22:225). Poe is quoted here as an indisputable authority: “Poe gives his version of the diagram (right to left) as Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense. ‘I place Taste in the middle,’ said Poe, ‘because it is just this position which in the mind it occupies.’ Until someone can refute this admirable explanation, we shall retain the traditional structure.”

When Frye comes to the discussion of lyric poetry he cites Poe a remarkable six times, more than any other writer in this particular section. Later, in the highly suggestive and seminal essay “Charms and Riddles” an expansion of the discussion in Anatomy of the two radicals of lyric, melos and opsis, or babble and doodle–or as the textbooks would have it, sound and sense–Poe is cited four times. These two radicals reappear in Frye’s discussion of narratives of descent in both the “Charms” essay and in The Secular Scripture. In the opening discussion of themes of ascent in the latter work, Frye observes that in the nether regions of descent the protagonist is often held in thrall by an enchanted mood of  “oppressive solemnity” which is suddenly dispelled by the answering of a riddle or the eruption of wit and laughter. The charm is dissolved, the oracle dispelled by wit. Belonging to this area is the Poe of the tales of detection, in which the visionary Dupin, by an act of poetic intuition–or, as the Peircean semioticians would have it,  an imaginative leap of abduction–hits on the solution to a mystery that eludes the mere science and intellect of the prefect of police.  Like Whitman Poe is primarily a charmer, but as Frye notes, his incantatory and jingling tendencies–“the jingle man,” Emerson called him–by no means preclude his fascination with detection, riddles, ciphers, acrostic poetry, anagrams, cryptography, hoaxes. Like his detectives, Poe is both a poet and a mathematician. But it is not just Poe’s influence in isolating the elements of charm and riddle that define the associative rhythm of lyric poetry, or his radical use of metaphor and myth, but the visionary aspects of his writing that explain Frye’s great interest in a writer who is so often dismissed and misunderstood by more pedestrian and conventionally minded critics.


The insistence on the fragmentary and oracular means that Poe was primarily interested in the ecstatic experience which literature in its most intense moments provides. The following passage from Words with Power beautifully articulates this fragmentary and visionary quality that Poe shares with so many romantic and post-romantic writers:

The imaginative element in the poetic means that all the doors of perception in the psyche, the doors of dream and fantasy as well as of waking consciousness, are thrown open. This is the point at which the metaphor of seeing a poem becomes inadequate, and the word “vision,” suggesting a greater intensity of the same thing, becomes more appropriate. Vision also suggests the fragmentary and the temporary, not necessarily something seen steadily and whole, to paraphrase Arnold, but more frequently providing only an elusive and vanishing glimpse. Glimpse of what? To try to answer this question is to remove it to a different category of experience. If we knew what it was, it would be an object perceived in time and space. And it is not an object, but something uniting the objective with ourselves. (26: 83)

Poe was one of the first to insist on this purely imaginative element in literature, in particular as a way of throwing open “the doors of dream and fantasy.” As he argues in “The Philosophy of Composition,” poetry must subordinate all other verbal matters, moral or intellectual, to the intense unity of effect that elevates the soul, and which is most effectively induced by the capture of Beauty. This not to say that passion, morality, and intellectual truth should be expunged from poetry altogether but that they should be strictly subordinated to the primary unifying focus on the imaginative end or telos of poetic design and composition. In this way Poe identified the writing of a poem with divine creation. As he states at the end of Eureka, the created universe is the poem of God, and the poet’s task is to be part of divine consciousness and assist in the recovery–or recreation–of that original creation. One might think here of Blake’s conception of rebuilding the Human Form Divine, except that Poe’s conception of God is, unlike Blake’s, a transcendent and not a humanistic one. ”It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us, but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above,” as Poe writes at the end of “The Poetic Principle.”

In the Late Notebooks Frye mentions several times Poe’s sketch “The Domain of Arnheim” in association with the famous formulation from Kant’s The Critique of Judgment, “purposiveness without purpose.” Frye cites the piece as part of his discussion of beauty as the province, to use Poe’s language, of the poem or work of art. Frye notes that the word “cosmetic” is linked to the word cosmos and the beauty of design that we attach to what is essentially a poetic conception of the universe. As Frye argues, the beauty we associate with Nature and art is not something objective and quantifiable, but cannot be said to be simply subjective either. The intangible here is the peculiar sense of purposiveness that is not simply teleological and which we associate with something in Nature or creation that cannot be reduced to mere functionality or utility.

Poe’s tale is the story of an enormously wealthy artist figure, a figure akin to Roderick Usher and forerunner of Huysmans’ Des Esseintes, who designs a dream-like paradise in the midst of a carefully chosen part of Nature. Poe’s tale, as Frye notes, anticipates the same theme of the locus amoenus in Baudelaire (“Invitation au Voyage”) and in Yeats (“Sailing to Byzantium”). The Moral Sense and the Pure Intellect are incapable of providing this recreative vision because they assume a world in which the self is tied narrowly to the physical world of the pasions and morality, and to a material world that can be understood only through the reason. Only the imagination joins us to a divine apprehension and consciousness. The discussion of beauty, neither a moral nor an intellectual category, as an authoritative form of apperception closes the chapter on Eros or the Garden variation in Words with Power, which concerns the primary concern of sex and love; a version of the same argument appears in The Double Vision.

As Frye points out, beauty is now a hackneyed term that suggests something reassuring and fashionable. But understood in Arnold’s sense of perceiving something that is not fully seen without its being seen as beautiful, it touches on a significant dmension of human experience that is not fully accessible to either morality or the reason. The same goes for our sense of what is ugly, which, as Frye says, “tends to become whatever violates primary concern.” Our deep sense of  revulsion at the domination and exploitation of Nature, beyond even our moral disgust, is inconceivable without it. Poe’s idea of beauty is very much in this spirit: the spiritual world created by the imagination in art and literature counteracts what he saw as the threat of the modern intellect and science to the health and very existence of the planet. Poe’s “Arnheim” piece is cited several times in the Late Notebooks. However, for reasons that remain unclear–in a passage in the notebooks Frye seems almost to express his puzzlement–it does not appear in the final versions of the argument in either Words with Power of The Double Vision.

In the former book, in his discussion of the dialectric of word and spirit, Frye speaks again of “the influence of a critical tradition that began with Poe,” one that emphasizes the “intense and discontinuous character” of literary experience. Here we move into the kerygmatic or anagogic aspect of literature that comes into the foreground every time a particular passage of a novel or poem is identified by a reader as a power to be possessed, as a personal appropriation (107)– “this is for me” (108). It thus becomes a fragment set off and extracted from the rest of the work and possessing an oracular resonance of its own. These are the “peak” experiences in the absorption of a work– this “sense of oracular, fragmented intensity”– that go beyond the merely hypothetical quality of fiction or poetry and exert a transformative power on the reader.

Poe is invoked again in the same passage to illustrate this “metaliterary” dimension, this “ process of perceiving some kind of ‘that’s for me’ detail in one’s reading.” It may “be present in the magical line or phrase . . . that suddenly seems to extend one’s vision,” or

in the sententious, the great thought or epigram that may become detached from its context and become a proverbial expression in its own right. Still others will seize on assonances and inner harmonies, such as Poe’s much admired line, “the viol, the violet, and the vine.”  . . . These are simple examples of the way in which we may be suddenly confronted by a verbal formula that insists on becoming a part of us. As isolated passages become more frequent, the contact expands from the oracular flash into the possession of or identification with the narrative, as in Eliot’s famous phrase about listening to music so deeply that we become the music while it lasts. (CW 26:108)

Frye’s interest in the famous line from “The City of the Sea” dates from the discussion of lyric in Anatomy of Criticism, where he speaks of the teasing ambiguous tension between oracle and wit that may often encourage the reader to go in two directions at once: uncertain whether to be absorbed by the spell or laugh at the wordplay. “There is a perilous balance in paranomasia between verbal wit and hypnotic incantation. In Poe’s line ‘the viol, the violet and the vine,’ we have a fusion of two opposed qualities. Wit makes us laugh, and is addressed to the awakened intelligence; incantation by itself is humourlessly impressive. Wit detaches the reader; the oracle absorbs him.” (CW 22:258) As Frye observes, a version of the line might well have appeared in Finnegans Wake as something like “vinolent.”


Far from being the meretricious charlatan of Bloom’s incurious dismissives, Frye’s Poe is a weighty occupant of one of the cardinal quadrants in his criticism: the region of the great themes of descent, of the deep roots of lyric poetry in charms and riddles, and ultimately of a transcendent experience that takes us into the meta-literary or kerygmatic. Even Wilbur, whose brilliance as a reader of his work is unparalleled, has trouble following Poe this far, and cannot help scolding him for the nihilism of his rejection of the material universe. Like the misgivings of two masterful readers before him, Joseph Modlenhauer and Allen Tate, Wilbur’s frettings seem irrelevant in the end. Frye observes in another passage of the noebooks: “There have been many great critics, such as Coleridge or Ruskin, or their followers like G.K. Chesterton and others, who seem to be incapable of making an aesthetic judgment. They make no statement about literature not coloured by anxieties of some kind” (CW 21:305). Poe had no such anxieties, and, as Frye goes on to note in the same entry, was their very opposite: incapable of making anything other than an aesthetic judgment. As Frye suggests, he was a great American outlaw, a defiant poetic anarchist. In his solipsistic world there is no social reality, only the resources of an unfettered imagination–which is why the last decades of Poe scholarship in this dreary age of ideological criticism has so little to show for its prosecutorial efforts.

Like Frye, Wilbur reserves the tales for highest praise, deeming them masterpieces of inner civil war–the war of the spirit with the time-bound ego of physical appetites and action in the social world. All of them, in one way or another, are allegories of the poetic imagination, as Wilbur’s perspicuous reconstruction of the symbolic framework of Poe’s writings, and the manifold undercurrents of mystic meaning that run through them, so clearly shows. For it was Poe, long before Hopkins, who first identified the principle of an overthought of surface meaning beneath which runs an intricate underthought of metaphoric suggestion. It is this dimension of Poe’s writings that explains his irresistible appeal to writers such as Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Valéry, and Borges. Little wonder that Frye saw him as a great literary and critical genius:  one of the great masters of archetype and metaphor, a preeminent theorist of lyric poetry and its fragmentary intensity, and the inspired inventor of a visionary symbolism that, for all the sneering and passing of judgment by critics like Bloom, will continue to tease us out of thought by the power of its unearthly imaginings.



Northrop Frye. The Collected Works. Toronto: U of Toronto P. 1996-2012. 30 vols.

Bloom, Harold. “Inescapable Poe.” The New York Review of Books. 31.15 (1984). <>.

Moldenhauer, Joseph J. “Murder as a Fine Art: Basic Connections between Poe’s Aesthetics, Psychology, and Moral Vision.” PMLA. 83 (1968): 284-297. .JSTOR. <>.

Tate, Allen. “The Angelic Imagination: Poe and the Power of Words.” The Kenyon Review. 14 (1952): 455-475. JSTOR. <>.

Wilbur, Richard.  Responses: Prose Pieces, 1953-1976. Expanded edition. Story Line, 2000.

—. The Catbird’s Song: Prose Pieces, 1963-1995. New York: Harcourt, 1997.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a comment

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