Category Archives: Audio

Sir Thomas Wyatt


“They Flee from Me”

On this date Sir Thomas Wyatt died (1503-1549).

Frye in Rencontre: “The General Editor’s Introduction”:

It used to be said of Wyatt, being older and further down on the evolutionary scale, was a cruder pioneer than Surrey, who the same kind of thing much better.  This view of them resulted from a historical accident.  They both belonged to the courtly class of amateur poets who did not publish their poetry, and were first introduced in Tottel’s Miscellany (1557), on the eve of Elizabeth’s reign.  By that time the new conservatism was in full swing, and the editor of Tottel made many alterations in Wyatt’s work to bring it inl line with Surrey’s, under the impression, so common among editors, that he was improving it.  Fortunately Wyatt’s manuscripts have survived, and we can see from them that he is a poet of older radicalism of Skelton and Dunbar as well as the of the new age, and one of the finest experimental poets of any age:

They flee from me, that sometime did me seek
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek
That now are wild, and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand: and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.

[They Flee from Me, ll. 1-7]  (CW 10, 17-18)

Edgar Allan Poe


“The Raven” read by Christopher Walken

On this date in 1848  Edgar Allan Poe was found delirious in a gutter in Baltimore, Maryland under mysterious circumstances; it was the last time he was seen in public before his death.

Frye in “The Survival of Eros in Poetry”:

Occasionally one discovers a writer who is not satisfied to inhabit his world unconsciously, or by instinct, or whatever the right term is.  Thus Poe’s Eureka is an essay on speculative cosmology which sounds as though it were using scientific or philosophical language, but which Poe himself says at the beginning he wishes to be considered as a poetic product.  Paul Valery’s note on Eureka remarks that cosmology is primarily a literary art: it is based, not on scientific or philosophical ideas of its time, but on metaphorical  analogies to them that appeal to poets.  The purpose of such cosmologies is to give us some notion of the kind of context within which literature is operating, the imaginative counterpart of the worlds explored by intellect and sensation.  Since then a good many such speculative cosmologies have emerged, some disguised as historical or scientific treatises, and eventually, one hopes, we shall have a clearer notion of what kind of world our creative writers are living in. (CW 18, 266)

Wallace Stevens


One of Frye’s favorite poems, “The Snowman,” read by the author

Today is Wallace Stevens‘s birthday (1879-1955).

Frye, in various interviews, on the imperfect as paradise:

Wallace Stevens says “the imperfect is our paradise.”  And that means that any paradise you would try to reach would be an anticlimax.  The real paradise is something you can dream of but it’s no longer there.  (CW 24, 882)

When Stevens wrote that, he was writing a poem called Sunday Morning, in which a woman stays home from church and tries to rationalize the fact that she doesn’t want to go to church.  One of the things she comes up with is the feeling that you cannot imagine a complete happiness or complete beauty apart from change, and that in the world as we know it, change ends inevitably in death.  It is true that the imperfect is our paradise, but most religions, including Christianity, say that all change doesn’t have to be a change in the direction of death.  (CW 24, 561)

The same thing happens when in Wallace Stevens I discover the line “the imperfect is our paradise” — here I immediately understand that a paradox is involved between the word “imperfect” in the negative sense, in the sense of “something less than perfect,” and “imperfect” in the sense of openness, of continuity.  That kind of polysemy, I think, is imbedded in the whole conception of figurative language.  The critic cannot deal with literature unless he has at least some idea about the different viewpoints that can be gathered around any critical theme, exemplified, among other ways, by the different referential contexts of the same word. (CW 24, 1085)

T.S. Eliot


Eliot reading “The Burial of the Dead” from The Waste Land

Today is T.S. Eliot‘s birthday (1888-1965).  Eliot, besides being one of the primary poets of the age, was also the dominant literary critic in English when Frye was a young man, and had a unique position in Frye’s life and career.  While Frye always admired the poetry, he regarded Eliot’s “reactionary” book After Strange Gods as a “betrayal” which made him aware of his “own responsibilities as a critic” (Northrop Frye in Conversation, 107).

Here’s Frye in his 1963 book, T.S. Eliot, on the poet’s anti-progressive view of history and his anti-Romantic view of literature:

The progressive view of history produced the post-Romantic conception of English literature which Eliot challenged.  According to this, originality in poetry is an aspect of individual freedom in life; hence Shakespeare, who drew individuals so well, and Milton, a Protestant revolutionary, express the real genius of English literature.  The era from Dryden to Johnson was an inferior and prosier age, but the Romantic movement re-established the main tradition, which continued in Britain through Tennyson and Swinburne, and in America through Whitman’s conception of poetry as self-expression.

Eliot’s historical view of English literature is a point-for-point reversal of the progressive one.  The post-Romantic conception of “personality,” failing to distinguish the craftsman from the ordinary personality, assumes that the former is the medium or vehicle of the latter, instead of the other way around.  In “Tradition and the Individual Talent” Eliot speaks of the poetic process as “impersonal,” not an expression of personality but an “escape” from it.  The poet’s mind is a place where something happens to words, like a catalyser which accompanies but does not manipulate a chemical action.  In other early essays, though Eliot agrees with Arnold about the immaturity of the Romantic poets, he means by “Romanticism” chiefly the popular post-Romantic residue of their influence which is contemporary with himself.  This Romanticism, he says, “leads his disciples only back upon themselves.”  Romanticism, then, as a creative process emanating from and returning from the ego, occupies the foreground of Eliot’s historical dialectic, the contemporary world at the bottom of the Western mountain, as far as we can get from the “anti-romantic,” “practical sense of realities” in Dante’s Vita nuova. (CW 29, 191)

William Faulkner


Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech.  (Transcript here.)

Today is William Faulkner‘s birthday (1897-1962).

Frye in “Tradition and Change in the Theory of Criticism”:

[B]ecause literature is born of a specific culture and a specific locale, most great literature is intensely localized.  I know of no great literature written about an empire, with the very dubious exception of Virgil’s Aeneid.  William Faulkner, for example, is a great writer today not because he is a citizen of a great power or speaks one of the world’s major languages (although those factors are undoubtedly important for his reputation), but because he deals with a provincial and decaying civilization in Mississippi which most even of his fellow Americans know very little about.  The writer has two centres of gravity: one in his own time and audience; the other in our time and in us.  It is a mysterious but primary fact of literature that a poet remote from us in space and time and culture can still communicate his central vision to us, though we may admire him for reasons quite unintelligible to him or his age.  Literature survives only by virtue of what is communicable across these barriers of culture.  (CW 10, 250)