Author Archives: Bob Denham

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Gordon Teskey, plus an interview with Margaret Atwood by Nick Mount, responses to Frye by nine poets, and a previously unpublished essay by Frye on poetic diction.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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What’s a Meta For?

The Reynolds Lecture for 2012, presented at Emory & Henry College, reflects on Frye’s view of metaphor only toward the end,  I’ve often felt that theories of metaphor–at least those I’m familiar with–turn out to be founded on principles of similarity, comparison, analogy, or likeness.  Frye’s theory is unique in that it’s founded on sameness or identity.  I try to consider some of the implications of that view in the conclusion of the lecture.

What’s a Meta For?

Reynolds Lecture, Emory & Henry College, 28 March 2012

Robert D. Denham

It goes without saying, a phrase we use to mean that we should say at once, how honored I am to be the Reynolds Lecturer for 2012 and on the occasion of the 175th anniversary of the founding of Emory & Henry College, where I worked and played for some twenty‑three years.  Early on in my tenure here the dean of the college, Dan Leidig, assigned me to chair the Reynolds Lecture Committee, and so I had the good fortune of helping bring to campus such eminent humanists as Helen Vendler, James Redfield, John Simon, Wayne Booth, and Northrop Frye, among others.  I never dreamed, of course, that I would be joining their ranks as a Reynolds Lecturer, and I naturally feel that this is an instance of the ridiculous linking up with the sublime.  At the same time, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, which is both humbling and elevating.   The first Reynolds lecturer at Emory & Henry––in 1963––was Norman Cousins, peace activist and long‑time editor of the Saturday Review.  Two years later the president of the college, William Finch, whose son Tyree has joined us tonight, introduced the second Reynolds lecturers (there were two that year, on successive nights), both distinguished poets and critics, John Crowe Ransom and Reed Whittemore.  The shoulders of giants, indeed.

I’ve called my lecture tonight “What’s a Meta For?”––a title stolen from a quip by Marshall McLuhan: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a metaphor?”  McLuhan, too, was a thief: he was twisting the end of a line from Browning, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”  That is, the notion of an ideal world, which we may never attain, nevertheless motivates us to seek something better than what we’ve now got: it may elude our grasp but in our Utopianism we still reach for it.  I think metaphor in its most radical forms may have something to do with our linguistic reach exceeding our grasp, which is a notion I’ll come back to.  Rather than trying to define tonight what metaphor is, I’ll be reflecting on some of the contexts in which we encounter metaphor.

Metaphor is, of course, along with myth, one of the basic building blocks of literature.  John Keats’s masterful Ode on a Grecian Urn begins with three metaphors.  Keats is speaking to the urn: he addresses it by saying, “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness, / Thou foster-child of silence and slow time, / Sylvan historian.”  In these nouns of direct address Keats, who was in his early twenties when he wrote the poem, is identifying the urn with a bride, a child, and a historian.  The suggestions that issue from the three metaphors are fairly complex.  Of course everyone knows that an urn is not a bride, and yet Keats is saying that it is a bride and not just that: she’s a bride who’s still chaste.  Furthermore, she’s married to quietness.  And she is also a child, or rather a foster‑child, who has been nourished by her adoptive parents, silence and slow time.  We could spend the rest of the evening investigating the magical language of Keats’s poem––its metaphors, paradoxes, and puns.  The point I want to make is that the extraordinary uses to which Keats puts figurative language is commonplace among poets.  Here’s another, the opening lines of one of Jeff Daniel Marion’s old Chinese poet poems: “Over the river this quarter moon / tilts in its dark well, / a gleaming dipper / spilling October.”  Here the moon is a gleaming dipper, and the heavens are a dark well.  This is the way poets talk.

Metaphor, however, is an aspect of language that belongs not just to poets and novelists and playwrights.  In a story in a recent issue of a college student newspaper I read about the soccer team’s “dream season, the “noise” that it took to wake the team up from its dream, about a “sudden death” period, about the opposing team’s drawing “first blood.”  And I read in a college catalogue, a most unpoetic document, about “cultivating students’ sensitivity,” students being, in this metaphor, something you run a plow through, like dirt.  In one of her “Messages from the President” in the alumni journal Emory & Henry’s Rosalind Reichard quotes George Peery, class of 1894, who forty years later became the governor of Virginia, as saying that the ideals “cultivated” at Emory & Henry deeply influenced his life.  That’s the plowing metaphor again.  The Indo‑European root for “cultivate” means to revolve or move around, which is what the plow does to the field.  In the most recent alumni journal President Reichard moves from the garden to the sea, speaking about the “tides of influence” that have rippled forth from Emory & Henry.  Perhaps this metaphor comes from her inaugural address, where she quoted an alumnus as saying that Emory & Henry continues to send “out tides of influence that touch the whole hungry soul of man.”  Because the alumnus begins with a watery metaphor, he would doubtless have been better served, at least to those not given to mixed metaphors, to have said “the whole thirsty soul of man.”  A final example from President Reichard comes in her message in the recent annual report.  “Emory & Henry,” she says, “is a beacon of hope envisioned by her founders.”  And then she extends the metaphor saying that the college is a glowing light in the heart of many of us that will shine brightly for many decades.  So here we have an administrator and a mathematician, Rosalind Reichard, using one of the key elements of the language of poetry.

But back to more mundane texts, like college catalogues.  I pick one up and read about the holder of a degree, about the fortifying of students’ minds, about launching on a voyage of discovery, about the important voice the students have in shaping programs (two metaphors there), about higher education being a marketplace of ideas, about instructional tools, about a semester spanning the summer months, about the library as an electronic gateway, about instructional software and flexible seating, about developing a strategy for accomplishing goals, and so on.  So even in the most unpoetic and leaden prose, we find metaphor.  (“Leaden” in that sentence is of course also a metaphor, one that derives from metallurgy.)

Or one can turn to the daily press, which wouldn’t on the face of it seem to be a particularly fertile field for metaphor.  (Note “fertile field.”)  In the headlines of the Roanoke Times I read that the GOP leader will step down, that a mountain is hiding a quiet threat, that the media are too soft on the president, that three-year college degrees are a fast track, that a basketball player has come to the end of the road, that loyalists slam Cuban defectors.  Here are two from a David Brooks editorial:  (1) Mitt Romney is a corporate vulture and (2) when people read Ron Paul the scales fall from their eyes.  This last one comes from the account of the conversion of Ron Paul’s namesake, St. Paul, a.k.a Saul, on the road to Damascus.  In Acts we’re told that “something like scales fell from his eyes” and he could see again.  That’s simile, not metaphor.  But the simile has become a metaphor in common parlance, referring to a person who has come to a sudden realization.  “Road to Damascus experience” is a metaphor growing out of the same story.  Here are a few more from the headlines in the New York Times of 17 January 2012: “Romney Opponents’ Main Target in G.O.P. Debate,” “For Romney’s Rivals Time Is Running Out,” “Romney Keeps Eye on Obama,” “The Invisible Hand behind Wall Street Bonuses,” “Iran Face‑Off” (that one’s from hockey), “Wikipedia To Go Dark,” “Israelis Facing a Seismic Rift Over Role of Women,” and “Bang for the Buck.”

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Frye on Victoria College and Canadian Culture

Old Vic, the original building of Victoria College

Victoria’s Contribution to the Development of Canadian Culture

Northrop Frye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


His head was like his lore—antique,

His face was thin and sallow-sick,

With god-like accent he could speak

Of Egypt’s reeds or Babylon’s brick

Or sheep-skin codes in Arabic . . .


And every occult Hebrew tale

He could expound with learned ease,

From Aaron’s rod to Jonah’s whale.

He had held the skull of Rameses––

The one who died from boils and fleas . . .


From that time onward to the end,

His mind had had a touch of gloom;

His hours with jars and coins he’d spend,

And ashes looted from a tomb,—

Within his spare and narrow room . . .


And thus he trod life’s narrow way,—

His soul as peaceful as a river—

His understanding heart all day

Kept faithful to a stagnant liver.


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

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

Remarks by Northrop Frye

Remarks by Northrop Frye on Having Received a Toronto

Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement, 13 October 1987.

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

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

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


Frye Scoop! An Unpublished Talk by Northrop Frye

Communication and the Arts: A Humanist Looks at Science and Technology

Northrop Frye

A talk Frye gave at the Philips Series of Science Lectures at the Ontario Science Centre, Don Mills, Ontario, 12 December 1969.  He was introduced by Ted Rogers, founder and CEO of Rogers Communications.  Transcribed by Robert Denham from a tape produced by the Media Centre, University of Toronto.


Thank you very much, Mr. Rogers.  The reason why I am here is that I got a letter from the director of the Science Centre, Mr. [Douglas N.] Omand, saying that while most of the people in this series were scientists and technologists he would like to include a humanist.  This of course is a familiar procedure, which is known in other circles as tokenism.  He went on to say that what he wanted was not on humanism but a talk on science and technology from a humanistic frame of reference.  This seemed to be a very reasonable and sensible proposal, except that I cannot quite manage the separation between the two things.  I’m not sure that I can talk about the sciences from a humanistic frame of reference without explaining what humanism is and what, if any, its importance in society may be.  Perhaps we have to go back all the way to the Middle Ages when the original and oldest universities of our culture were established––Oxford, the Sorbonne, and the great Italian and Spanish universities.  In those universities there was of course the training of the professional faculties––theology and law and and medicine––and there was also liberal education based on the conception of seven liberal arts.  The principle behind this conception of seven liberal arts was that there are two great tools that man has evolved in his mastery of his environment, those two tools being words and numbers.  So the seven liberal arts were divided into two groups.  There was a group of three, called the trivium, which were concerned with the arts of words, and they were called grammar and rhetoric and logic.  Rhetoric was extremely important, because the two key professions, theology and the law, were both rhetorical ones.  Grammar meant, of course, the study of the inflected language of Latin, and the word “gramarye” acquired the meaning of magic or something mysterious.

After mastering the three arts of words, the student went on to the quadrivium, the four arts of numbers, and those in the middle ages were geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music.  We can see how that has left its legacy in the culture of our own world.  The sciences have developed very largely in the order of their closeness to mathematics.  The most deductive, the most amenable to mathematical treatment evolved first.  Astronomy in the sixteenth century with Copernicus, and later Galileo and Kepler; physics in the seventeenth century; chemistry, with Lavoisier, in the later eighteenth; the biological and geological sciences in the nineteenth; the social sciences in the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth century.  In all this it became gradually clear that mathematics was the central informing language of the sciences, particularly, of course, of the physical sciences, but in some degree of all the sciences. Mathematics itself is not so much a science as a study of the possibilities of scientific formulation.

The arts of words, in the meantime, developed very differently.  With the Renaissance, with Copernicus and Galileo developing the new astronomy, the humanists took shape as a group of people who were studying the languages which related to man as distinct from theology, which related to God, and the sciences, which related to nature.  The humanists were concerned mainly with reviving the Greek and Latin texts.  The printing press had just been invented, and it provided a means of producing accurate and mechanical copies of Greek and Latin authors.  Unlike the sciences, which were founded on experiment and observation, the humanists were concerned very largely with a cult of authority.  They traveled around Europe digging the manuscripts of Greek and Latin literature out of the monasteries, where they had often lain abandoned for centuries, and they wrote formal epistles to each other in Latin, reinforcing each other and keeping their spirits up in the course of visiting such barbaric countries as England and shivering in the cold climate for the sake of discovering whatever manuscripts might turn up.

Their general social influence was to regard the Greek and Latin writers as having produced the definitive statements on practically everything.  The great classical poets––Homer and Virgil––were the models of poetry and would be forever.  The great orators––Demosthenes and Cicero––were still the schools to which one should go for oratory, and the same cult of authority extended even into architecture and into the sciences themselves.  Along with this went an attack on technical language of all kinds, especially the language of philosophy.  There had been a considerable development of philosophy in the Middle Ages but the humanists said that a technical language of philosophy was not the way that people ordinarily talked.  In other words, the humanists were concerned to defend the social importance of the use of words.  Their ideals revolved around the idea of the gifted amateur or more specifically the orator.  The technical philosophers were ridiculed and attacked as people who talked a kind of jargon which nobody could understand.  Of course, the great philosopher of the Middle Ages, Saint Thomas Aquinas, still held some of his authority, but his great critic, the nominalist philosopher, John Duns, called Duns Scotus, who taught at Oxford, became a synonym for the old obsolete way of thinking and writing, the old jargon way.  And the people who held by him were called the “duns men” or the “dunces,” and so the name of one of the greatest critical intellects in the history of thought became a byword for stupidity.

At the same time, while there was much that was reactionary in humanism, there was also something that had an intense social concern for the proper use of words.  Roger Ascham, who was an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, said, “You know not what hurt you due to learning when you separate words from matter.  For if you look at the history of all nations, you shall find that social manners began to decline as soon as the use of words became vague and imprecise.”  Almost exactly the same words were being used in our own day by the American poet Ezra Pound, who claims to have derived them from a Chinese origin.  So this sense of the social importance of the precise, accurate, and powerful use of words was the mainspring which was the impetus of the humanist movement.  It has left on our day and our modern universities the term “humanities,” which means the subjects of the literatures and philosophy and history.  In general, it is a term favored by university administrators to designate the low‑budget departments.  All through the nineteenth century the courses which the serious student took were courses in the two essential tools of knowledge, that is, words and numbers, which until about 1900 were interpreted as a course in the classics and a course in mathematics.  In my own college, Victoria College, when it began in the nineteenth century in Cobourg, there was the course for intellectuals, which consisted of the classics and the mathematics, and another course for the people who made money and endowed the college, which was called the English course and was essentially a business training.  It was not until the turn of the century, when the classics began to be replaced by the modern languages, that the same general set‑up and formulation of university curricula still was retained.

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Frye and Borges

In the fourth essay of Anatomy of Criticism Frye calls the two subconscious elements of association “babble” and “doodle.”  He later gives the two elements more dignified names, “charm” and “riddle.”  I think Borges’ fictions appealed to Frye not because of their charm but because of their riddles.  Like Joe Adamson, I’ve also been fascinated with Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” a story about “other worlds,” about things that are quite distant from us, things that are strange.  On the first two pages alone we have repeated references to things that are fallacious, vague, ambiguous, nebulous, fantastic, imaginary.  The narrator eventually discovers that Tlön is in fact an “other world”—what he refers to as a “cosmos.”  What we have is a kind of Chinese box: a story within a story within a story.  That is, people invent the country of Uqbar in order to provide a base for the subsequent invention of Tlön, which will eventually become a third world, Orbis Tertius.  As people create fictional worlds within fantastic worlds, they cover their tracks as they go, hiding their fictions in rare editions of encyclopedias.  What is Tlön?  We’re not certain.  In the Uqbar entry of the encyclopedia Tlön is referred to as an “imaginary region.”  In the 11th volume of the Encyclopedia of Tlön it’s referred to as a planet.  The mystery of Tlön is eventually cleared up in the “Postscript,” where we learn that Tlön was an imaginary country invented by a secret society dating back to the seventeenth century.

How strange, how odd all of this is.  It does seem to be another world altogether.  But is it really?  Might Borges be suggesting that this strange, dehumanized, godless world is our world, the world that we’re still in the process of constructing for ourselves?  So, while the fiction of Tlön as conceived by the philosophers and propagated by Buckley’s money is both ridiculous and in some ways deadly to life, the fiction about Tlön as conceived and told by Borges is delightful in its riddling wit and cleverness.  Borges frequently presents us with riddles––intellectual puzzles to be figured out.  It’s interesting to note, for example, that the postscript of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is dated 1943.  Borges says that the story first appeared in the Anthology of Fantastic Literature in 1940.  That’s the truth: it was published in 1940.  So it appears to us that Borges added the postscript three years later.  Why?  Because he felt that readers were puzzled by the story and he needed to clear things up again?  That seems to be a reasonable inference.  The problem is, however, that the 1943 postscript was part of the story when it was originally published.  Another example of Borges’ trickery: some of the books he refers to in the story are real; some are fictitious.

All fiction is about “other worlds,” worlds that have no existence except in our imaginations.  Are Tlön’s philosophy and language and geometry any stranger or any more arbitrary than our own?  In the account of the hrönir, we learn that the ideal influences the real.  Lost objects begin to reduplicate themselves: the idea ends up shaping reality.  And the story seems to end on a moralistic note in the comments on what has happened to people who become fascinated by symmetrical systems.  Fearful symmetry, perhaps?

The appeal of Borges for Frye lay in the dianoia of his fictions, not in their ethos.  We feel little engagement or identification with Borges’ characters.  Frye told David Cayley that when he was writing his short fables for the Canadian Forum back in the 1930s, he knew “more about ideas than . . . about people. If some-body like Borges had been known to me at the time, I would have tried to pick up that kind of tradition.”

Frye owned seven of Borges’ books, all of which he annotated, and there are references to a half dozen of Borges’ ficciones in Frye writings: “The Immortal,” “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” “The Gospel according to Mark,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “Borges and I,” and “The Aleph.”  The scattered references to Borges throughout Frye’s work are collected in what follows.



The realist finds his material in waking experience, or, more accurately, he finds the analogies to his material in waking experience (because he seldom if ever transcribes directly from experience).  It would be silly and misleading just to say that the romancer finds the analogies to his material in dreams, in spite of all the remarks (there’s one by Borges) about how all writing of fiction is really controlled dreaming.  But if we expand the term “dream,” as I do in AC [Anatomy of Criticism], to cover all the conflicts of desire with reality, it would make more sense.  Impenetrable disguises, where the same person is two people at least; metamorphosis of people into animals; anxieties of shipwreck and “falling” (sinking into water); fantasies in which a hero kills an impossible number of enemies—all these are reminiscent of what Freud calls “the dream work.”  It would include conscious fantasy or day-dreaming, where the erotic drive is more controlled and subordinated. (“Notes 56a,” CW 15: 209–10)


For most of my life I have felt that I didn’t have enough to say in the ordinary fiction form to bother turning my full attention on it, when there were so many things as a critic I could say that were distinctive.  But I’ve also had a persistent feeling that if I had the outline of some work of fiction by me, it would be useful as a counterweight or ballast, like a second weight on a cuckoo clock.  I should not think of this as something eventually to be published in any form, merely as something there to be thought about as a mental exercise.  Although for a while I had a novel in mind, set in western Canada, and very naively realistic in style, that was obviously getting me nowhere and I gave it up.  I now realize that my gift in fiction, if I have such a thing at all, would be in one of the “anatomy” genres rather than in the conventional novel or romance forms.  Apart from the small things I printed in my graduate student days, nothing has emerged in a big shape, and isn’t likely to unless I get a revelation out of line with what I’ve so far received.  My early things were based mainly on Richard Garnett’s Twilight of the Gods—if Borges had been available then I might have got further with it. (“The Academic Novel,” CW 25:153)


I keep vacillating between the feeling that there are four areas & the feeling that there’s just one area with variations.  Thus Oedipus seems to be the labyrinth one, but there are labyrinths in Eros too.  Prometheus is the emergence from the labyrinth or cave: it features follow-the-leader games, where (see a passage in Yeats) an ordinary man gains immortality through attaching himself to his shepherd king.  Harrowing of Hell.  Egypt: Book of the Dead.  (Hero as the dead king moving toward identity).  Blake’s picture of Earth in GP [The Gates of Paradise]; Caliban; Borges’ story “The Immortal.” Parodied by Satan’s journey through chaos in P.L.[Paradise Lost], with its Ulysses echoes.  Old Comedy: the Odyssey as a narrative Old Comedy, labyrinth followed by dialectic emergence of identity of Odysseus at Ithaca. (“Notebook 12,” CW 9:165)


I mention Borges, who seems to me one of the guides, along with the Alice books & Poe.  He says in connection with Quixote that literature not only begins but ends in mythology, & he tells the story of the man who rewrote Quixote—a parable of the way every great work is polarized between meaning then & meaning now [“Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”]. (“Notebook 12,” CW 9:165–6)


[from one of Frye’s pipe-dreams about a 64-section book] Fourteen, Sections 53-56: The new Hermes or Perseus.  Doubles, clocks, mirrors, nympholepsy & alastor figures: growing mechanistic & conspiratorial worlds (Poe, Kafka, Borges); the dystopia; breakup of language as we approach Phase One. (“Notebook 24,” CW 9:306)

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Report from Washington Keystone XL Protest

Above is an interview with Bill McKibben conducted just prior to yesterday’s Washington protest. TransCanada is a major villain here, as McKibben’s account makes clear. We now live in a world where Alberta oil interests, facilitated by the Harper government, have decided to make a leading contribution to the destruction of the global environment because it is profitable to do so. The amount of tar sands bitumen extractable on a daily basis is considerably less than one-twentieth of America’s daily needs, but producing it — that is, separating the tar from the sand — makes it the most toxic and environmentally dangerous oil in the world. As NASA’s James Hansen has put it, the large scale and long term production of Alberta tar sands means it’s “game over” for the climate.

Below is an email reporting on the Keystone XL protest yesterday at the White House that I received from McKibben.


There are days along any journey that stick with you, and today was one of them.

Under blue Indian Summer skies, more than 12,000 people from every corner of the country descended on Washington DC; then, with great precision, they fanned out to surround the White House and take a stand against the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Here are just a couple of pictures from the day, and you can see lots more by clicking here.

What speaker after speaker today made clear (and they came from every part of our movement: indigenous leaders, labor organizers, environmentalists, young people, preachers) was that today was in no way a grand finale — there’s lots more work to do.

I have no idea how this battle is going to come out — only that, together, we stand a chance to shut down this dirty pipeline and shift the flow not just of oil, but of history. This day was an important part of that history, and we’ll carry its power with us as we take this fight forward.

Thanks in advance for all the work we’ll do together,  shoulder-to-shoulder, on the road ahead.


Bill McKibben for the team

P.S. This movement milestone deserves to be shared, so forward along this email — and share it on Facebook by clicking here or share it on Twitter by clicking here.

A Report from Occupy Washington

My wife Rachel and our neighbor Barbara Kingsolver went to an OWS demonstration in Johnson City, TN, on Saturday. Check it out here. You can see part of the interview with Kingsolver in the “Related Video” window on the upper left.

Below is an eyewitness account of Occupy Washington.


Report on October 2011 by Cinny Poppen

Stop yer bitching. . . start a revolution! (message on a t-shirt)

The Occupy movement is spreading all over this country.  Roger and I felt extremely moved by the encampment we joined in Washington, DC, from its first day, Thursday, October 6, 2011, through Saturday, October 9.

People were well-organized, peaceful, angry, and determined to make their desires known. We found the hundreds of colorful signs dotting Freedom Plaza extremely entertaining.

The first night we witnessed a large crowed making decisions by consensus.  An excellent facilitator asked for proposals on the subject of where the demonstrators should sleep, limiting speakers to a minute apiece. People reacted with what I learned is called “sparkling”: hands in the air with fingers waving means agreement, hands pointed downward means disagreement. Through this process the many proposals were finally boiled down to one with two tiers. After much helpful clarification, especially by members of DC’s homeless population, it seemed that the plaza might be under federal jurisdiction, so sleeping there could lead to arrest by federal police. Sleeping on nearby streets might be less risky because the park police, or DC police, or transit police, or yet another of the many policing entities in our nation’s capitol, would be in control. As it turned out, around 300 people slept outside with no arrests at all.

During the subsequent days, several marches took off  down the street, at least once to another occupation in McPherson Square, and once to the Art and Space Museum in an ill-advised attempt to protest the current exhibit of drones there. When I first saw Bread and Puppet Theater in Chicago years ago, some of the actors, dressed in black,  pretended to be bombers, with great effect; nowmembers portrayed even more threatening drones.  On Saturday welistened to a talk on US national security policy by iinvestigative historian/ journalist Gareth Porter,  participated in a workshop on economics for the people, and then had the great pleasure of hearing from Ralph Nader. He advised us to keep our focus and warned us not to be co-opted–because we are the 99%.The permit was supposed to end on Sunday, October 10, but the city has agreed to extend it for four months.

From an article in the Washington Post on Tuesday, October 11, by Tim Craig:

Several D.C. Council members said Tuesday they have no problem with antiwar and anti-Wall Street protesters setting up extended encampments on National Park Service property in the city, and one council member hopes they ”‘stay for years.”

Two groups are entrenched in Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square downtown. Protesters with the Stop the Machine and Occupy DC groups have erected tents and piled up boxes and other living materials as they hold meetings, decamp for marches and protests and otherwise traverse the city. In Freedom Plaza, Stop the Machine group organizer Margaret Flowers said Tuesday that the group and the National Park Service agreed to extend its permit to stay there through Dec. 30. At McPherson Square, Occupy DC protesters have said they have no permit and have not been bothered by authorities.

In interviews Tuesday, eight of 13 council members supported the protesters’ presence.

“Sometimes for people without means, the only way to get a message out is a public display,”’ said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), a constitutional law professor at George Washington University. “Other issues could develop, such as public health, but I think we shouldn’t be too quick to sweep them off the public plaza. Flowers said Tuesday that while her group has a permit for the entire Freedom Plaza park area, other groups have permits for events there and she would make sure space is cleared. Meanwhile, she said her group may apply for another extension that would run through February. “’We can’t say how long we’ll be here,’ Flowers said. ‘We’ll see an end when our groups accomplish what they need to accomplish.’”

And from the most recent email from the Occupy 2011 organizers:

One of the beautiful aspects of the occupation is that it has brought people out into the open to talk about the issues. Everywhere we look right now as we gaze out at Freedom Plaza in Washington DC, people are engaged in conversations. Some are standing in groups, and some are sitting in circles in the assembly area or between the tents. This is the first step in this evolution to a more peaceful, just and sustainable planet. For too long we have been focused on divisions. Now we are finding what unites us.

Increasing numbers of people are becoming unemployed, uninsured, losing their homes or pensions or dignity. Students are dropping out of college due to cost or graduating with lifelong debt in a deteriorating job market. The days of sitting in silence and blaming ourselves for not working hard enough are over. The first step in the process of change is awareness of the problem. We are encouraging all people to come out of their homes. Join us in the streets either through your local occupation or on the local playground. Talk to those around you. Talk about the way things are with increasing wealth disparity and poverty. Talk about the way you want things to be – a society based on openness, acceptance, honesty, transparency and kindness.Following are the 15 issues we’re working on. Please talk about them and share what you learn with your family, friends and colleagues. This is the first step in the nonviolent transformation of our country.

Frye on Drinking

Photo from Macallan Scotch

Here’s a followup on Clayton’s earlier post on Victoria University’s Northrop Frye Gold Medal wines. One of Frye’s diary entries from 1950 recounts drinking at a dinner party with James Thurber that did not go well. On most days through a long working career, however, he liked to drink according to the accepted social standards of the time. Here are some of his observations on and accounts of drinking. (An earlier posting of his Canadian Forum editorial in support of the repeal of Sabbath drinking laws here.)

I knew an old man once who settled for drinking straight Scotch, and he said, “I find it agrees with me.” I find the same thing. (“Chatelaine’s Celebrity I.D.,” Chatelaine 55, no. 11 (November 1982), 43.

Claude Bissell had a few drinks ready for us afterwards before Clawson’s dinner. Very typical of Clawson that his dinner should come on a day when congratulations were being showered on Blissett & me.  I drank Scotch very hard & fast & was quite high until I had my dinner.  (Diaries, 11 April 1950)

There’s getting to be too damn much God in my life.  After lunch I went over to hear Crane’s paper on the history of ideas, but instead of staying for the discussion after tea I went off and had three Martinis—Carpenter doesn’t drink and I decided against giving him the handicap of a slug of Scotch, so it was the first drink I’d had in three days.  (Diaries, 23 February 1952)

We had dinner at Jean’s hotel and I went along with the two girls to the theatre: they had tickets to Shaw’s Caesar & Cleopatra but I couldn’t get one, as it was the last performance.  I waited until the man said it was a waste of time to wait longer, then went home and had a couple of Scotches & went to bed early. (12 April 1952)

Felt very sleepy after Woodhouse’s whisky & didn’t make much out of Vaughan or Traherne.  The kids didn’t cooperate either: the final Huxley lecture was brilliant—Freudian slip again—I meant to write wasn’t brilliant.  (Diaries, 15 March 1950)

So I sneaked off to collect Helen from some women’s meeting at Wymilwood, and we went down to the Oxford Press to a cocktail, or rather a whisky, party, given for Geoffrey Cumberlege.  I couldn’t get much charge out of Cumberlege, but enjoyed the party.  (Diaries, 17 May 1950)

In the evening the Macleans had a supper party for the Cranes, and a very good party it was.  (Very good of Ken too, as Crane wrote one of his typically slaughterous reviews of Ken’s book). The Grants, the Loves, the Ropers, and Ronald Williams (I suppose because of the Chicago connection) were there (I suppose Mrs. Williams is pregnant again).  Martinis to begin with, and whisky afterward, so what with a very late dinner I got sick again afterward.  My own damn fault.  I was well into my fifth drink before I realized that I’d had practically no lunch.  The party did a men-women split, unusual for the Macleans [MacLeans], and we gossiped about jobs and they about curtains.  We were, as I faintly remember, beginning to get slightly maudlin about Eliot and Auden just at the end.  Douglas Grant of course talked very well, and remained sober enough to drive us home.  I suppose a car, to say nothing of children and sitters and things, does make one very temperate.  Crane is a very charming man, but remains a most elusive one. (Diaries, 22 March 1952)


It is not hard to ridicule the fallacy of the distinctive essence, and to show that it is really a matter of looking for some trade mark in the content.  A satirical revue in Toronto some years ago known as Spring Thaw depicted a hero going in quest of a Canadian identity and emerging with a mounted policeman and a bottle of rye.  If he had been Australian, one realizes, he would have emerged with a kangaroo and a boomerang.  One needs to go deeper than ridicule, however, if one is to understand the subtlety of the self-deceptions involved. (“Criticism and Environment”)

I suppose they must have a disease for lies, as they have kleptomania for stealing.  This chap had “spent years in the South Seas”: rubber plantations and trading vessels were at the top of the whisky bottle, waving palm-trees and pounding surf around the middle, and island paradises and brown-eyed mistresses near the bottom.  It bored me a bit, I must say, and after we’d finished the whisky and he started looking inscrutable over a lighted cigar butt I thought I was in for some pretty involved brooding.  (opening paragraph, “Face to Face”) [Frye’s Conrad‑imitation phase]

Marked a few essays & took Helen, who had just finished writing an article for the Star Weekly, out for a cocktail.  I had a sidecar, which, I’ve been told, works on the backfire principle: you swallow down one lemonade after another trying to get a faint alcoholic taste in your mouth, when suddenly there’s a dull boom in your stomach, a sudden ringing in the ears, crimson clouds before the eyes, & there you are as drunk as a coot.  I had only one, so I don’t know.  A businessmen’s dinner was in the dining room, and as I came out I heard the hostess say to the waiter, “How are they getting along with eleven bottles among twelve men?” (Diaries, 5 January 1949)

Ran into Ned [Pratt] & told him my woes.  He says Markowitz tells him that evening drinking is the best way to ward off heart disease.  He went to the liquor store with me & bought me a bottle of rye.  Promised him faithfully I would not have a heart attack in ten years.  (Diaries, 11 January 1949)

On the way back [from the library at Harvard] I stopped at a liquor store & asked if there were any formalities about purchasing liquor.  He said the formality consisted only in the possession of cash.  Even so I didn’t know what to buy, and Canadian rye is $5.75 a bottle—though I think a larger bottle than what we’re allowed to buy.  I got a cheaper rye for $3.75, a Corby’s.  I must investigate California wines.  We came home & had dinner in, after speculating about going out & deciding to renounce the gesture. (Diaries, 14 July 1950––Frye’s 38th birthday)

[Frye tells this story in several places]:  In the year of his retirement he [Ned Pratt] turned up unexpectedly at a meeting of the Graduate Department of English (he hated graduate teaching), and sat through three hours and a half of petitions and what not, and then, under “further business,” announced that this was undoubtedly his last meeting of the Graduate Department, and therefore–at which point he produced a bottle of rye. It was a typical gesture, but he was also reminding us of a certain sense of proportion. (“A Poet and a Legend”)

Crackpots and Undistinguished Flakes

In Anatomy of Criticism Frye notes that critics often break forth into an “oracular harrumph” when they encounter references to alchemy, the Tarot, Rosicrucianism, and the like, and the same attitude persists more than a half‑century later.  One encounters readers here and there, having discovered that Frye thought highly of Colin Still’s book on The Tempest or that he had read some esoteric work, recoiling in amazement, as if it automatically followed that Frye was a card‑carrying member of some mystery cult or was engaging in the ritual practices of Freemasonry.  In the late 1970s I was invited to a party in Toronto by a friend at York University, where the assembled party‑goers turned out to be McLuhanites. When they discovered that I had an interest in Frye, they began to pepper me with questions about Frye’s having been a Mason. I naturally asked what evidence they had for this claim, but none was forthcoming, their assumption being that this was common knowledge. The rumor, apparently, was initiated by Marshall McLuhan, or at any rate perpetuated by him. McLuhan’s biographer Philip Marchand writes that McLuhan “certainly never abandoned his belief that his great rival in the English department of the University of Toronto, Northrop Frye, was a “Mason at heart, if not in fact” (Marshall McLuhan, 105).  In a book review Marchand removes the qualification, saying flatly that “McLuhan thought Frye was a Mason” (Toronto Star, 30 November 2002).  He goes on to say that it’s no wonder that McLuhan suspected that Frye was a Mason because (check out this logic) he was interested in the occult, used diagrams, and, heaven help us, took Colin Still’s Shakespearean criticism seriously.

“Colin Still,” Marchand declares, “was a crackpot,” whose book on The Tempest “[m]ost academics would have been embarrassed to be seen reading.”  Really?  This is an example of a little learning having turned into ignorance.  Marchand has no sense of allegory, and he has no sense of the difference between the reading of a text and the use to which that reading is put. All this gets picked up by Colby Cosh, who does Marchand one better: “The crushingly excellent Philip Marchand has a mesmerizing column about the poisonous rivalry between Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye. . . . McLuhan, a conservative Catholic, despised Frye because he thought he was dabbling in dark occultic forces and perhaps messing about with Freemasonry. . . . Marchand has discovered a new and major source for Frye’s thinking in Colin Still, a hitherto undistinguished flake who believed The Tempest was a disguised representation of some sort of pagan initiation rite” ( 30 November 2002).

Although Frye occasionally comments on Freemasonry (e.g., the Masonic overtones of The Magic Flute, the Masonic links with the trade unions in the nineteenth century, the affinity between the Freemasons and the Royal Society, and the Freemason scapegoat myths), there is not a shred of evidence that Frye was a Mason. As for Still’s being a “crackpot” and an “undistinguished flake,” no less a critical intelligence than R.S. Crane speaks of the “pioneering work” of Still in reading Shakespeare allegorically, discovering in the play “the double theme of purgation from sin and of rebirth and upward spiritual movement after sorrow and death” (The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry, 132).  Peter Dawkins refers to Still as an “eminent scholar” (The Wisdom of Shakespeare in “The Tempest,” xxv), and Michael Srigley has defended Still’s thesis (Images of Regeneration).  Ronald Tamplin finds in Eliot’s The Waste Land “a pattern corresponding in outline, imagery, and incidental material to Still’s account of initiation into the Greek mystery religions” (American Literature 39 [1967]: 361). In a detailed examination of Still’s argument, Michael Cosser says, “Certainly it is not stretching credulity to see a close parallel between the play and what can be pieced together from classical sources as to the training received in the Mystery-centers of old” (Sunrise 49 (December 1999–January 2000). And in his study of the sacerdotal features of The Tempest my colleague and friend Robert Lanier Reid, though not convinced of the explicitness of Still’s claims, nevertheless takes seriously Still’s view that the play is a “universal purgatorial allegory” (Comparative Drama 41, no. 4 [Winter 2007–8]: 493–513). These critics, like Bishop Warburton before them, are far from being crackpots and flakes. In the eighteenth century Warburton, as both Still and Frye were aware, had proposed the theory that book 6 of the Aeneid––the descent to the underworld––corresponds to the ancient rites of initiation.  In other words, observations about parallels between literary works Greek initiations rites had been around for some time: noting such parallels was a common critical practice.

Still’s books, listed in all the bibliographies, were also celebrated by the distinguished Shakespearean G. Wilson Knight, who calls Shakespeare’s Mystery Play an “important landmark” (Shakespeare and Religion, 201). As an undergraduate at Victoria College, Frye had known Knight, who taught at Trinity College at the University of Toronto in the 1930s.  T.S. Eliot referred to Still in his preface to Knight’s The Wheel of Fire, and it is possible that Frye ran across this reference even before he checked Still’s book out of the Toronto public library during his sophomore year in college––the same year that The Wheel of Fire was published (1930). In The Wheel of Fire Knight writes, “Since the publication of my essay, my attention has been drawn to Mr. Colin Still’s remarkable book Shakespeare’s Mystery Play . . . .  Mr. Still’s interpretation of The Tempest is very similar to mine. His conclusions were reached by a detailed comparison of the play in its totality with other creations of literature, myth, and ritual throughout the ages” (16). Knight regards Still’s book as confirmation (“empirical proof”) of his own view that The Tempest is a mystical work (ibid.). A year later Knight wrote that his view of The Tempest

is most interestingly corroborated by a remarkable and profound book by Mr. Colin Still, Shakespeare’s Mystery Play: A Study of the Tempest (1921). . . . Mr. Still analyses The Tempest as a work of mystic vision, and shows that it abounds in parallels with the ancient mystery cults and works of symbolic religious significance throughout the ages. Especially illuminating are his references to Virgil (Aeneid, VI) and Dante. His reading of The Tempest depends on references outside Shakespeare, whereas my interpretation depends entirely on references to the succession of plays which The Tempest concludes.  We thus reach our results by quite different routes: those results are strangely––and, after all, I believe, not strangely––similar.  To the skeptic this may suggest that mystical interpretation of great poetry may be something other than Horatio’s (Hamlet, I. V. 133) ‘wild and whirling words’. It is not without its dangers, yet it is the only adequate and relevant interpretation of Shakespeare that exists; since, if the vision of the poet and that of the mystic are utterly and finally and in essence incommensurable, where are we to search for unity? And yet if the art of poetry has its share of divine sanction and transcendent truth, what limit can we place to the authentic inspiration of so transcendent and measureless a poet as Shakespeare?” (Shakespeare and Religion, 67–8)

Marchand and friends are of course free to say whatever they wish about the interpretations of Still, Knight, and Frye, though one wishes that their dismissals had not been based on such ill-informed opinions about the parallels between Shakespeare and ancient myth and ritual.

Previous posts on Frye and McLuhan here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. The complete McLuhan thread here.