Author Archives: Joseph Adamson

Essays on Frye and The Modern Century

Modern Century

HA&L (Hamilton Arts & Letters), an award-winning online journal edited by Paul Lisson and Fiona Kinsella, has recently published two issues on Frye and his book The Modern Century, the print version of three lectures which Frye originally delivered at McMaster University in 1967, Canada’s centennial year. Here is a list of the articles and contributors, with accompanying links.

Issue Seven.2: The Modern Century

Thomas Willard, “Making it New: Frye and Modernism.” (here)

John Robert Colombo, “The Love of Four Kernels: A Frye Fantasy.” (here)

Jeffery Donaldson, Poetry: “House of Cards” and “Museum.” (here)

Gary Michael Dault, Short Fiction: “The Last Hours of Northrop Frye.” (here)

Brian Russell, “Frye and Hoggart on Film and TV: An Alternative to the Postmodern Paradigm.” (here)

Issue Eight.1: The Educated Imagination

Robert D. Denham, “Northrop Frye, M. H. Abrams, John Keats, and the Co-ordinates of Art  Criticism Theories.” here

Joseph Adamson (Guest Editor), “Maladjusting Us: Frye, Education, and the Real Form of Society.” (here)

Mervyn NIcholson, “Frye’s Desire.” (here)

Ed Lemond, “Beckett and the Alienation of Progress.” (here)

Michael Sinding, “Mythology on the Move: Narrative Archetypes in Framing and World View.” (here)

Blake, Frye, and McLuhan in Fiction: ​​The Devil’s Party, A Novel by Bob Rod​gers


The Devil’s Party
Who Killed the Sixties?

By Bob Rodgers

About the book: “The Devil’s Party follows Jason, an intellectual tenderfoot, and Lennie, a charismatic and tortured literary phenomenon, as they finish their Bachelor’s degrees in Manitoba and begin graduate school at the University of Toronto. Driven by the works of William Blake and mentored by intellectual heavy-weights Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, the pair dive into the rabbit hole of scholastic passions and set out to wrestle with the ruling elite and rattle the ‘mind-forged manacles’ of the complacent majority. Their stories echo a culture stepping away from the quiescent 1950s towards the turbulent and dramatic ‘60s, and together they wrestle with the birth of new ideas and the burden of knowledge that threatens to consume them.”

You can read more about the book here.

In Response to Ed Lemond’s “Frye, Leviathan, and the Jonah Paradigm”

As an addition to Ed Lemond’s informative post (here) on the often “intemperate”–as Bob Denham calls them–responses to Frye’s take on Canadian literature, here is an excerpt of my review of  two recent collections on Frye, followed by a synopsis of Frye’s views, an excerpt from my own Northrop Frye: A Visionary Life:

First, an excerpt from a review of Northrop Frye: New Directions from Old, and: Northrop Frye’s Canadian Literary Criticism and Its Influence, University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 80, No. 2, Spring 2011, pp. 322-324:

. . . Another disappointment is David Bentley’s essay on Frye’s contribution to the criticism of Canadian literature. The punning title “Jumping to Conclusions” is meant to be at Frye’s expense, but it applies much better to Bentley’s own argument. The essay consists almost entirely of passive-aggressive innuendo: the suggestion, for example, that Frye’s views were the outgrowth of neurotic anxieties about nature and animals, or that he was out of his league as a critic of Canadian literature and culture. How credible is the latter charge about a critic who for a decade annually surveyed the entire yearly output of Canadian poetry for this quarterly? Frye’s intricate knowledge of the Canadian scene–the whole scene: not just literature, but culture, politics, and history–is manifest to anyone who has made his way through the daunting volume of essays in Northrop Frye on Canada (vol. 12 of The Collected Works), which brings together his diverse writings on Canada.  Most egregiously, Bentley’s essay never really confronts the  argument of the epochal ‘Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada’; he simply hints at its contradictions and inaccuracies by quibbling over passages that he does not properly contextualize. Sadly, as Eleanor Cook observes in her essay in the other volume reviewed here, ‘for fifty people who can repeat the phrase “garrison mentality,” only one can repeat the critical argument in the”‘Introduction” to The Bush Garden and get it right.’ At the same time, Bentley conspicuously ignores Frye’s changing view of Canadian literature. Frye’s views altered as the quality of Canadian literature itself did with the emergence of writers like Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. Frye, it seems, will never be forgiven for pointing out the limitations of Canadian literature before the seventies.

Any such patronizing treatment of Frye is happily missing from Branko Gorjup’s gathering of essays by different critics who have responded over the years to the influence of Frye’s Canadian criticism. The book opens with a sympathetic introduction by Gorjup and a fine epilogue by Russell Brown. The book serves as an illuminating documentation of  Frye’s impact on Canadian writers and critics. It was the publication of The Bush Garden by Anansi Press under the editorship of Dennis Lee that brought Frye’s influence on Canadian literature to its peak in 1971. Frye’s presence as a cultural authority figure was always controversial, but by the end of the seventies, as the challenge of post-structuralism and ideological criticism waxed in strength, Frye quickly became a whipping-boy for the humanistic sins of his generation of scholars. Eleanor Cook has perhaps the most acute insights into the bad fortune of Frye’s legacy as a critic: she speaks of  the ‘depressing’ reduction of Frye’s work to ‘slogans’ and notes the galling irony that ‘some of the departures from Frye’s criticism seem to me very close to the spirit of his work.’ It is perhaps even more true of his Canadian criticism than of Anatomy of Criticism that it is widely and peremptorily dismissed without any attention to the actual argument. And as with the vast body of writing that followed Anatomy, reconsiderations and developments of his earlier pronouncements in myriad essays and books, such as The Modern Century and Divisions on A Ground, remain largely unexplored. As Francis Sparshot points out, ‘In perceptiveness and in generosity of mind, The Modern Century excels many works in its genre that are far better known.’  Linda Hutcheon rightly observes that Frye’s sensitivity to the socio-cultural context of literature ‘comes out most clearly’ in his Canadian cultural criticism and that ‘those critics who have not looked at these writings frequently miss the important tension in his thought.’ This neglect is apparent even in as astute a scholar as Heather Murray who, in asking us to ‘read for contradiction’ in Frye, restricts her focus to the essays collected in The Bush Garden. The last word of this book review goes to David Staines, who concludes his essay by castigating those who ‘continue to find fault with [Frye’s] theories, not realizing that so much of their writing uses Frye’s enunciated myths as a point of departure.’ As he so nicely puts it, adapting an old epigram about Plato: ‘in whatever direction you happen to be going, you always meet Frye on his way back.’

The following, an excerpt from Northrop Frye: A Visionary Life (ECW Press, 1993):

Frye’s early view of Canadian literature was uncompromising and often unflattering. He saw it as the expression of an immature culture, there being “no Canadian writer of whom we can say what we can say of the world’s major writers, that their readers can grow up inside their work without ever being aware of a circumference” (Bush Garden 214). In retrospect, Frye’s opinion of his reviews of Canadian poetry was that

the estimates of value implied in them are expendable, as estimates of value always are. . . . For me, they were an essential piece of `field work’ to be carried on while I was working out a comprehensive critical theory. I was fascinated to see how the echoes and ripples of the great mythopoeic age kept moving through Canada, and taking a form there that they could not have taken elsewhere. (ix)

Indeed, Frye’s view of Canadian literature was to change dramatically by the end of his life, when he came to recognize that Canadian culture had at long last awakened “from its sleeping beauty isolation” (On Education 7). He would even go so far as to say that “This maturing of Canadian literature . . . is the greatest event of my life, so far as my own direct experience is concerned.”

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Frye and Bakhtin: Satire, Saturnalia, and the Carnivalesque

[Mikhail Bakhtin, 1920]

The following is an excerpt, slightly revised, from an essay I wrote some years ago on some of the connections between Frye and contemporary literary theory.  A theme that runs through Frye’s pieces on Christmas is the idea of saturnalia or an upside-down world, a season of festivity and carnival common to many cultures. Such a holiday from the “real world’ is the closest we get to a world that makes human sense, when the social hierarchy is reversed and the spirit of  fellowship, neighbourliness, and joy, released from an oppresive social structure, becomes, for a brief period of license, the social norm. Elsewhere Frye makes the link between saturnalia and comedy and satire, a link that is central to Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the novel and the novelistic.

Frye and Bakhtin: Satire, Saturnalia, and the Carnivalesque

Besides practising the art of anatomy himself, Frye did much to resurrect a sense of the importance of the genre in Western literature, and he regarded it as a crucial, if not, like Mikhail Bakhtin, the most important, element flowing into what we now recognize as the novel. The generic radicals of the novel that he isolates–anatomy, romance, confession, and the novel of personality–are, indeed, more or less analogous to the genetic lines that Bakhtin comes up with in “The Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel.”

Bakhtin and Frye are also in agreement in refusing to analyze satire outside of a larger mythological framework. Bakhtin is just as conscious as Frye is of the development of literary structures from myth. The comic novel in the hands of Rabelais, Cervantes, or Dostoevsky, manifests, in Bakhtin’s view, the myth of a collective social body conceived of in the metaphoric form of a giant human body which is born, grows, dies, and renews itself in the course of time. This powerful image of a self-renewing collective human form is strongest in Rabelais, but extends throughout Bakhtin’s work. It is, for example, clearly implied in the insistent anatomical imagery that pervades his writings on the novel, as in the opening paragraph of “Epic and Novel”: “The generic skeleton of the novel is still far from having hardened, and we cannot foresee all its plastic possibilities” (1981: 3); he speaks of the “hardened and no longer flexible skeleton” of genres and of “the establishment and growth of a generic skeleton of literature” (5). This recurrent image of a “generic skeleton” applied to the archaic form of the novel is linked metaphorically to the genre of anatomy as “a comical operation of dismemberment,” “the artistic logic of analysis, dismemberment, turning things into dead objects” (24). There is, then, a dramatic unifying tendency in Bakhtin’s conception of the novel which, in its assumption of an animating mythological framework, is analogous to Frye’s even more ambitious unification of the entire corpus of literature.

Frye sees the circle of mythoi, of which satire or sparagmos is one episode, as being contained in the arche-story of the dragon-killing theme, condensed so tidily in the following summary: “A land ruled by a helpless old king is laid waste by a sea-monster, to whom one young person after another is offered to be devoured, until the lot falls on the king’s daughter: at that point the hero arrives, kills the dragon, marries the daughter, and succeeds to the kingdom” (1957: 189). This central quest-myth, composed of four distinguishable episodes in the life of the hero or divine being, has a comic shape: agon, or adventures; pathos, or death; sparagmos, or disappearance; and anagnorosis, or recognition. These episodes correspond to the four narrative radicals or mythoi that Frye details in the third essay of Anatomy of Criticism: romance, tragedy, irony (and satire), and comedy. It is here that we can recognize the great debt Frye owes to the compendious pioneering work of Frazer on the “dying god,” or to the theme of the white goddess as outlined by Robert Graves. Also important to Frye is the work of the group of British classicists of the early decades of this century, Gilbert Murray, Francis Cornford, and Jane Harrison, who uncovered in Greek rituals based on the myth of the dying god the origins of Classical tragedy and comedy. The scheme of Frye’s sequence of mythoi is largely drawn from Murray; his theory of comedy owes much to Cornford’s study, The Origins of Attic Comedy.

A reflection of the profound continuity of Frye’s work is the way he reasserts the development of literature from myth in Words with Power, which appeared only months before his death; he refers at one point to Thorkild Jacobsen’s Treasures of Darkness, which is a more up-to-date examination of the dying gods of fertility in pre-Biblical Mesopotamian culture. This study, and others like it, such as Theodor Gaster’s Thespis, which examines the derivation of early forms of drama from ritual and myth in the cultures of the ancient Near East, provides a fascinating glimpse into the genesis and the logic of the conventions found in literature. In Words, Frye shows how the poetic imagery and narrative structures that derive from myth are an expression of the primary human concerns of “making a living, making love, and struggling to stay free and alive” (43); that is, of food and drink, sex, freedom of movement, and property. Ultimately, the latter concern with property or with human extensions of power concerns the instruments of mental production and the expansive energy and consciousness belonging to an imaginative vision of reality. In Frye’s view, it is this power alone, the power of the arts and sciences to “show us the human world that man is trying to build out of nature” (1988: 44), that has any hope of delivering humanity from the ghastly cycle of history and the ordinary limitations of physical and social reality.

In an analogous way, behind Bakhtin’s “comic” vision of the novel lies a faith in “unlimited human potential” (1981: 241), in the creative power of human beings to transform the natural and social order, a faith that is embodied in his revolutionary theory of the novel as the artistic form of modern history corresponding to an unprecedented expansion of human knowledge and creativity. He finds the novel’s revolutionary potential best exemplified in Rabelais’s work where “All historical limits are, as it were, destroyed and swept away by laughter. The field remains open to human nature, to a free unfolding of all the possibilities inherent in man” (1981: 240). Paradoxically, the authentic image of this modern liberation of human potential is derived from what Bakhtin calls the folkloric chronotope. Very close to Frye’s insight that poetic imagery is an outgrowth of primary concerns is Bakhtin’s insistence on the poetic significance of the matrix of objects and phenomena–food, drink, copulation, birth and death–that forms the rhythm of folkloric time-space.

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On Christmas (December 1973)

[The Adoration of the Magi, Brueghel, Pieter (the Younger)]

The following talk is from a service that took place at Victoria College in December 1973:

On Christmas

Northrop Frye

There is no indication in the New Testament of the time of year when Jesus was born, and the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke are relatively late. The earlier Gospels, Mark and John, begin with the Baptism, which became the main festival, outside Easter, in the eastern churches. The western churches seem to have introduced Christmas because of a feeling that the natural birth of Christ should be emphasized, to counteract a feeling that Jesus was not a man who was born and died, but a kind of ghost who manifested himself for a time and then disappeared. We don’t know why the Church decided on December 25, but it looks as though Christianity, for once, was adopting something outside the Biblical tradition. Almost every people in the ancient world had some kind of festival at the winter solstice, the time of year when the nights are longest, when some kind of primitive fear emerges that the sun might go out altogether if not encouraged by a ritual of lights and fires. In the great rival religion of Mithraism, which stretched from Persia to Scotland, the chief festival was the birthday of the “unconquered sun” on December 22, and Northern Europe had its “Yule,” when a great log was ceremonially set burning.

In the Church calendar Christmas is preceded by four weeks of Advent, a sombre, brooding season of the gathering powers of darkness. The infancy stories grow, in part, out of the Exodus story of the Passover, when the Angel of Death was let loose in Egypt and the Israelites held their first Passover standing up and in haste, ready for a quick and silent departure. This feeling recurs in the infancy stories with the account of the slaughter of the innocents, the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, and the stealthy departure of the wise men. The book in the Apocrypha called the Book of Wisdom describes the time of the first Passover thus:

[For while all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course,
Thine Almighty word leaped down from heaven out of thy royal thone, as a fierce man of war into the midst of a land of destruction,
And brought thine unfeigned commandment as a sharp sword, and standing up filled all things with death; and it touched the heaven, but it stood upon the earth.

(Wisdom of Solomon 18:14–16)]

This is the starting point of the tradition that Christ was born at midnight, just as he was crucified at noon. Besides the two infancy stories, there is a third account of the birth of the Messiah in the New Testament, in Revelation 12, a much more obviously mythical account, and this too preserves the sense of blood and terror and menace in the Christmas story:

And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:
And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.
And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.

And she brought forth a manchild, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.
And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a placed prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.

(Revelation 12:1–6)

W.H. Auden’s radio drama, For the Time Being, also called a Christmas Oratorio, begins with a section called Advent, where the growing power of darkness is linked to the exhaustion of the Roman Empire and the fact that even at the height of its power the barbarians who will eventually destroy it are gathering on the frontiers. The parallels between the time of Christ’s birth and our own time emerge very clearly:

Darkness and snow descend;
The clock on the mantlepiece
Has nothing to recommend,
Nor does the face in the glass
Appear nobler than our own
As darkness and snow descend
On all personality.
Huge crowds mumble—‘Alas,
Our angers do not increase,
Love is not what she used to be’;
Portly Caesar yawns—‘I know’;
He falls asleep on his throne,
They shuffle off through the snow:
Darkness and snow descend. (pt. 1, ll. 1–14)

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Frye on Christmas (December 1949)

[Adoration of the Shepherds, Bronzino]

From the Canadian Forum, December 1949:


The original Christmas was born of primitive fear. The fear of the growing darkness and the shortening days produced the rite of kindled fires, and the fear of winter the cult of the evergreen tree. Since then, Christmas has been wrapped up in one layer after another of an advancing civilization. Christianity came with its lovely serene story of a divine child and a virgin mother: the Middle Ages brought the carols, and then came the presents, the roast fowls, the mince pies, and the plum puddings. Our present form of Christmas, with its Santa Claus, its Christmas tree, and its exchange of cards, is a nineteenth-century invention, largely of German origin, the product of the age of Dickens and Albert the Good, of the British Empire and voluntary charities.

Yet even in this cosy urban middle-class Christmas something of the old panic recurs. There is unmistakable panic in the advertisers’ desperate appeals of “only so many shopping days left,” with its lurking threat that only if enough people spend enough money will this dollar civilization be able to stagger once more around the calendar. There is, if not panic, at any rate compulsion, in the popular response to this appeal, in the set faces of the women checking items off a list and in the apathy of their husbands trudging behind them, envying the bears.

What is the thoughtful observer to make of all this? Apart from the children, is it not the frivolous who enjoy Christmas, or pretend to enjoy it? Who else would find any real release in an orgy of synthetic gaiety as this dreadful century lurches to its halfway mark? Surely one is not a sour-faced Puritan if one feels, after listening to the radio reports of the cheering crowds in Times Square: “There is nothing here that reminds me of the birth of Christ; there is much that reminds me of Belshazzar of Babylon, who feasted while his city was in flames, and who could not read the writing on the wall” [Daniel 5].

One may find it instructive to compare the two Christmas stories in Matthew and in Luke. The Christmas story that we know and love is almost entirely from Luke. Matthew tells a terrible and gloomy tale of a jealous tyrant who filled the land with dead children and wailing mothers, while the wise men escaped from the country in one direction and the Holy Family in another. It is a tale in which all the characters except the tyrant and his minions are either murdered or refugees. Today we know as never before that this, too, is part of the Christmas story. But the story of Luke, with the shepherds and the manger and the angels singing hymns of peace and goodwill to men, does not cease to be true because the story of Matthew is also true. The story of Christmas, from its primitive beginnings to the present, is in part a story of how men, by cowering together in a common fear of menace, discovered a new fellowship, in fellowship a new hope, and in hope a new vision of society.

As Dickens shows us, the ghost of Christmas past brings us only regret for the past, and the ghost of Christmas future brings us only the terror of the future. But he also shows us that one of the surest ways of making the possible nightmare in the future come true is to fail to know and appreciate better the spirit of Christmas present. And so, without hypocrisy and as far as possible without frivolousness, we wish our readers once more a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Frye on Christmas (December 1948)

[Les Saturnales, Antoine-François Callet]

From the  Canadian Forum, December 1948:


 The world clings to Christmas with a kind of desperation: it is the only traditional festival, apart from a flurry of new hats at Easter, that retains any real hold on ordinary life. The reason for its persistent vitality is not easy to see. It is not primarily the influence of Christianity, for in the Christian Church Christmas is only one event in a long calendar. The unique popular Christmas outside the Church is hardly a Christian festival at all. Its presiding deity, so far as it has any, is the carnival figure of Santa Claus. The cynical answer is that commercial advertising keeps Christmas going, but that is nonsense. The public is quite capable of resisting pressure of this sort if it has no answering response to its appeal. No: people want Christmas, though they hardly know why they go through all that bother every year.

Perhaps the answer is that people go through the bother of Christmas because Christmas helps them to understand why they go through the bother of living out their lives the rest of the year. For one brief instant, we see human society as it should and could be, a world in which business has become the exchanging of presents and in which nothing is important except the happiness and well-being of the ultimate consumer. It is only a symbol, and humanity can hardly stand more than about twelve hours of really civilized behaviour, but still it is there, and our Christmas shopping may be inspired by an obscure feeling that man is done for if he loses entirely the vision of life that Christmas represents.

Potentially, therefore, there is a tremendous revolutionary power in the idea of Christmas. When Christ was born there was already a Christmas in Rome, a late December festival called the Saturnalia held in memory of a Golden Age when men were free and equal. The distinctive feature of that festival was the licence given to slaves, who were allowed to answer their masters back, sit down at table with them, and even be waited on by them. It was a dumb, helpless ritual which said symbolically that the structure of Roman society was all wrong. It did not save the Roman Empire, any more than a futile pretence of making things easier for the underprivileged at Christmas will save us. A helpless Christmas is an intolerable hypocrisy, especially when associated with Christianity. It is unlikely that the evangelists who told the Nativity stories would have thought that a cosy, cuddly, sentimental good time was an appropriate way of celebrating Christ’s birth. Christianity speaks of making the earth resemble the kingdom of heaven, and teaches that the kingdom of heaven is within man. This is something very like the conquest of the whole year by the spirit of Christmas, and is the kind of thing we mean when we wish a merry Christmas to all our readers.

(CW 4)

Frye on Christmas (December 1947)

[First edition of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” December 1843]

Frye on Christmas, from the  Canadian Forum, 1947. Notice the question mark.


A passage in the Christmas Carol describes how Scrooge saw the air filled with fettered spirits, whose punishment it was to see the misery of others and to be unable to help. One hardly needs to be a ghost to be in their position, and as we light the fires for our Christmas they throw into the cold and darkness outside the wavering shadows of ourselves, unable to break the deadlock of the U.N., unable to stop the slaughter in China or India or the terror in Palestine, unable to release the victims of tyrannies still undestroyed, unable to deflect the hysterical panic urging us to war again, unable to do anything for the vast numbers who will starve and freeze this winter, and above all unable to break the spell of malignant fear that holds the world in its grip. Yet Dickens’ ghosts were punished for having denied Christmas, and we can offset our helplessness by affirming Christmas, by returning once more to the symbol of what human life should be, a society raised by kindliness into a community of continuous joy.

Because the winter solstice festival is not confined to Christianity, it represents something that Christians and non-Christians can affirm in common. Christmas reminds us, whether we put the symbol into religious terms or secular ones, that there is now in the world a power of life which is both the perfect form of human effort and all we know of God, and which it is our privilege to work with as it spreads from race to race, from nation to nation, from class to class, until there is no one shut out from the great invisible communion of the Christmas feast. Then the wish of a Merry Christmas, which we now extend to all our readers, will become, like the wish of a fairy tale, a worker of miracles.

(CW 4)

Frye on Christmas

Frye wrote four pieces on Christmas for the Canadian Forum, each year, from 1946-49, and another later piece for a Christmas service in 1973. Here is the first, from December 1946:


Christmas is far, far older than Christianity, as even the pre-Christian Yule and Saturnalia were late developments of it, and it was never completely assimilated to the Christian faith. Our very complaints about the hypocritical commercializing of the Christmas spirit prove that, for they show how vigorously Christmas can flourish without the smallest admixture of anything that could reasonably be called Christian. Christmas is the tribute man pays to the winter solstice, and perhaps to something in himself of which the winter solstice reminds him. We turn on all our lights, and stuff ourselves, and exchange presents, because our ancestors in the forest, watching the sun grow fainter until it was a cold weak light unable to bring any more life from the earth, chose the shortest day of the year to defy an almost triumphant darkness and declare their loyalty to an almost beaten sun. We have learned that we do not need to worry about the sun, and that there is no monster big enough to swallow it. We have yet to learn that no atomic bomb will ever destroy the human race, that no Dark Age will (as it never has done) totally overspread the earth, that no matter how often man is knocked down, he will always pick himself up, punch drunk and sick and morbidly aware of his open guard, spit out some more teeth, and start slugging again. At that point there is a division between those for whom Christmas is a religious festival, and for whom the new light coming into the world must be divine as well as human if the struggle is ever to be won, and those for whom the festival is human and natural and points to an ultimate human triumph. With this difference in outlook the Canadian Forum has nothing to do, but to all of its readers who recognize the primary meaning of Christmas, and who realize that generosity and hospitality and the sharing of goods make a better world than misery and persecution and the cutting of throats, it wishes a Merry Christmas.

(CW 4)

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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