Category Archives: Blake

Frye on Blake and Money: “The cohesive principle of fallen society”

Blake’s “To Annihilate the Self-hood of Deceit,” 1804-1808

I’ve posted this before, but it is worth looking at again. Frye in Fearful Symmetry takes on the money economy from a prophetic perspective:

Money to Blake is the cement or cohesive principle of fallen society, and as society consists of tyrants exploiting victims, money can only exist in the two forms of riches and poverty; too much for a few and not enough for the rest. La proprieté, c’est le vol, may be a good epigram, but it is no better than Blake’s definition of money as “the life’s blood of Poor Families,” or his remark that “God made man happy & Rich, but the Subtil made the innocent, Poor.” A money economy is a continuous partial murder of the victim, as poverty keeps many imaginative needs out of reach. Money for those who have it, on the other hand, can belong only to the Selfhood, as it assumes the possibility of happiness through possession, which we have seen is impossible, and hence of being passively or externally stimulated into imagination. An equal distribution, even if practicable, would therefore not affect its status as the root of a evil. Corresponding to the consensus of mediocrities assumed by law and Lockean philosophy, money assumes a dead level of “necessities” (notice the word) as its basis. Art on this theory is high up among the nonessentials; pleasure, in society, tends to collapse very quickly into luxury and affection. (CW 14, 82)

Isaac Newton’s “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica”: “God is not a mathematical diagram”

The BBC’s documentary, “Isaac Newton: The Dark Heretic,” on Newton’s secret study of alchemy and his speculations on God and the Bible

Sir Isaac Newton published his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica on this date in 1687. The occasion contributes nicely to our ongoing thread, Frye on God.

Blake and Newton in “The Drunken Boat”:

Blake’s view, in short, is that the universe of modern astronomy, as revealed in Newton, exhibits only a blind, mechanical, sub-human order, not the personal presence of a deity. Newton himself tended to think of God still as “up there”; but what was up there, according to Blake, is only a set of interlocking geometrical diagrams, and God, Blake says, is not a mathematical diagram. Newtonism leads to what for Blake are intellectual errors, such as a sense of the superiority of abstractions to actual things and the notion that the real world is a measurable but invisible world of primary qualities. But Blake’s main point is that admiring the mechanisms of the sky leads to establishing human life in mechanical patterns too. In other words, Blake’s myth of Urizen is a fuller and more sophisticated version of the myth of Frankenstein. (CW 17, 79)

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William Blake: “It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity”

Further to Michael’s previous posts, “What Would Jesus Defund?”, here’s William Blake, the man Frye says taught him everything he knows, on the everyday indifference to the poor in The Four Zoas, “Night the Seventh,” ll. 111-29:

It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer’s sun
And in the vintage and to sing on the waggon loaded with corn.
It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted,
To speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer,
To listen to the hungry raven’s cry in wintry season
When the red blood is fill’d with wine and with the marrow of lambs.

It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements,
To hear the dog howl at the wintry door, the ox in the slaughter house moan;
To see a god on every wind and a blessing on every blast;
To hear sounds of love in the thunder storm that destroys our enemies’ house;
To rejoice in the blight that covers his field, and the sickness that cuts off his children,
While our olive and vine sing and laugh round our door, and our children bring fruits and flowers.

Then the groan and the dolor are quite forgotten, and the slave grinding at the mill,
And the captive in chains, and the poor in the prison, and the soldier in the field
When the shatter’d bone hath laid him groaning among the happier dead.

It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity:
Thus could I sing and thus rejoice: ‘but it is not so with me.’

‘Compel the poor to live upon a crust of bread, by soft mild arts.
Smile when they frown, frown when they smile; and when a man looks pale
With labour and abstinence, say he looks healthy and happy;
And when his children sicken, let them die; there are enough
Born, even too many, and our earth will be overrun
Without these arts. If you would make the poor live with temper,
With pomp give every crust of bread you give; with gracious cunning
Magnify small gifts; reduce the man to want a gift, and then give with pomp.
Say he smiles if you hear him sigh. If pale, say he is ruddy.
Preach temperance: say he is overgorg’d and drowns his wit
In strong drink, though you know that bread and water are all
He can afford. Flatter his wife, pity his children, till we can
Reduce all to our will, as spaniels are taught with art.’


Frye on Blake and Money: “The cohesive principle of fallen society”

Blake’s “To Annihilate the Self-hood of Deceit,” 1804-1808

Whenever we are tempted to believe that our current economic disparities and injustices are just the way it has to be, Frye in Fearful Symmetry takes on the money economy from a prophetic perspective:

Money to Blake is the cement or cohesive principle of fallen society, and as society consists of tyrants exploiting victims, money can only exist in the two forms of riches and poverty; too much for a few and not enough for the rest. La proprieté, c’est le vol, may be a good epigram, but it is no better than Blake’s definition of money as “the life’s blood of Poor Families,” or his remark that “God made man happy & Rich, but the Subtil made the innocent, Poor.” A money economy is a continuous partial murder of the victim, as poverty keeps many imaginative needs out of reach. Money for those who have it, on the other hand, can belong only to the Selfhood, as it assumes the possibility of happiness through possession, which we have seen is impossible, and hence of being passively or externally stimulated into imagination. An equal distribution, even if practicable, would therefore not affect its status as the root of a evil. Corresponding to the consensus of mediocrities assumed by law and Lockean philosophy, money assumes a dead level of “necessities” (notice the word) as its basis. Art on this theory is high up among the nonessentials; pleasure, in society, tends to collapse very quickly into luxury and affection. (CW 14, 82)

Shelley’s Atheism

A page from Shelley’s pamphlet

Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from Oxford for atheism two hundred years ago today after publishing his pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism.

Frye discusses with David Cayley Shelley’s “atheistic” cosmology compared to Blake’s Biblically-based one:

Cayley: How does Blake relate to the Romantic movement?

Frye: I think Blake wraps up the whole Romantic movement inside himself, although nobody else knew it. You can find a good deal of the upside-down universe in all of the other Romantics, most completely, I think, in Shelley, where a poem like Prometheus Unbound everything that’s “up there,” namely Jupiter, is tyrannical, and everything that’s down in caves is liberating.

Cayley: But Shelley takes this in a more atheistical direction than Blake does.

Frye: Shelley doesn’t derive primarily from the Biblical tradition in the way that Blake does. Blake is always thinking in terms of the Biblical revolutions, the Exodus in the Old Testament and the Resurrection in the New Testament.

Cayley: In other words, Blake has a given structure of imagery from the Bible that he works with, and that distinguishes him from the other Romantics.

Frye: It certainly distinguishes his emphasis from Shelley. (CW 24, 959)

Edward III


The sword of Edward III

On this date in 1349 Edward III led the English forces to victory over the French in the Battle of Crécy, one of many battles fought during the Hundred Years’ War through the reigns of four English kings — Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V — and which ultimately ended in English defeat after Joan of Arc appeared on the scene to rally the French in their cause.

Frye on Blake’s “King Edward the Third”:

“King Edward the Third” is an exercise in the idiom  of Elizabethan drama, just as the songs are, if more successfully, exercises in the corresponding lyrical idiom.  It is a very curious piece.  Apparently, if one believes that England has always been the home of democracy and constitutional government, and France — at least until the Revolution — a hotbed of tyranny and superstition, one can also believe that the Hundred Years’ War was a blow struck solely in the interests of progress.  The English are famous for transforming their economic and political ambitions into moral principles, and to the naive mercantile jingoism of the eighteenth century, which assumed that freedom of action was the same thing as material expansion, there seemed nothing absurd in thinking that the unchecked growth of England’s power involved the emancipation of the world.  At any rate, Akenside, in his Ode to the Country Gentlemen of England, seems to have had a vague idea that war with France is somehow connected with the principles of Freedom, Truth and Reason as well as Glory, and refers to the Hundred Years’ War as a crusade in favor of these principles.  Akenside was a Whig; Thomson and Young, who wrote a good deal to the same effect, were also Whigs, the liberals of their time, and it is not really surprising if the young Blake, looking for a historical example of the fight of freedom against tyranny, should have selected the exploits of Edward III.  A good deal of the poem is simply “Rule Britannia” in blank verse. . . . (Fearful Symmetry, 179-80)

Fearful Symmetry Chapter Five: The Word within the Word


Here is Clayton Chrusch’s detailed summary of Chapter Five of Fearful Symmetry:

The greater the work of art, the more completely it reveals the gigantic myth which is the vision of this world as God sees it, the outlines of that vision being creation, fall, redemption and apocalypse.

1. The Bible as archetype of Western culture

For a Christian, the totality of creative power is called the Word of God or Jesus. This creative power sees a vision of all time and space whose mythic shape is the same as that of the Bible: “creation, fall, redemption and apocalypse.” Frye writes, “all works of art are phases of that archetypal vision,” and the greatest art, such as the Bible, most completely reveals this vision.

Blake viewed the central myth of the Bible as a genuine vision of reality, and his work as aligned with it. This Biblical vision is an imaginative one, however, and Blake dismissed as irrelevant questions of historical veracity. Blake also rejected what he considered stupidly orthodox readings of the Bible of the kind that attempted moral justification of God’s Old Testament bloodthirstiness. Rather he saw such passages as true visions of a false god, and he saw such perverse orthodoxy as Anti-Christ. The Bible, though, is not a unique or exhaustive expression of the Word of God, rather all nations, in Blake’s view, had the same genuineness of vision, though the ancient Greeks in particular obscured and forgot theirs.

In art, the most complete vision is cyclic, and in poetry this complete form is called epic and properly covers “the entire imaginative field from creation to the Last Judgement” though, like the Bible, it is most concerned with the the world’s cyclical movement between the opposite states of falleness and redemption. Non-epic forms can be considered as particular episodes within the universal epic vision. As such, literature, at least Western literature, can be seen as more conventional than is commonly acknowledged.

2. The poet’s meaning is often different from what he thought he meant.

Blake sees creative actions as an artist’s real life. Actions and thoughts “on the ordinary Generation plane” may have nothing to do with an artist’s creativity. This is why Wordsworth’s preface to the Lyrical Ballads is “twaddle,” while the poems themselves are clear visions, and why in general we cannot trust or limit the meaning of art to the artist’s conscious intention. The real intentions that produce art are often sub- or super-conscious.

3. “Reality is intelligibility, and a poet who has put things into words has lifted ‘things’ from the barren chaos of nature into the created order of thought.”

Blake held diction to be very important though he makes few statements about it. His position begins, as it usually does, with a rejection of Locke, in particular, he rejected the notion that words are inadequate substitutes for real things. On the contrary, words make things intelligible and therefore more real. The meaning of a word, beyond generalities, is undefinable because it depends both on its context and its relation to human minds. The sounds, rhythms, and associations of a word–attributes that have little to do with its general definition–are functional in poetry and can give a word a meaning that is beyond the capacity of any dictionary to capture.

As for rhyme and meter, Blake insists that “the sound, sense and subject are to make a complete correspondence at all times” which means that fixed stanzaic patterns may be appropriate for short lyrics but rhyme is dropped in the longer works and meter and line length are varied according to the content.

4. Right and wrong kinds of allegory

We should understand poetry by unified and immediate perception. We might have to do hard intellectual work in order to unify the poem in our minds, but it is the direct experience that is the meaning of the poem. The intellectual scaffolding that helped us achieve that experience should just fall away. “For,” as Blake writes, “[a poem’s] Reality is its imaginative Form.” The wrong kind of allegory is “merely a set of moral doctrines or historical facts, ornamented to make them easier for simple minds.” The wrong way to read allegorical literature is to reduce it to such a set of abstractions. Great allegorical writing exists, and it is great not because of the quality of ideas it represents but because of the imaginative power of its vision.

5. The power of religion lies in its poetry.

We cannot hold to art as good or true because art envisions both good and bad, true and false. Religion does claim sure and reliable knowledge of truth and goodness, but there is something false about this claim. The power of religion lies not in dogma but in the visionary masterpieces that the dogma is derived from. The poet’s task is to go back to the symbols of those masterpieces and to recreate them. The meaning of these symbols (for example, the gods of ancient Greece) becomes more vague over time and the artist’s function is to clarify it.

This is what Blake does. One of his tactics is to use unfamiliar names for his characters. Though he could have called his sky father Zeus, Blake called him Urizen to head off the vagueness that comes with Zeus’s large cloud of associations.

Christianity is not more true than other religions, but its imaginative core, what Frye calls, “its vision of the humanity of God and the divinity of risen Man” is that characteristic imaginative accomplishment of Christianity that “all Christian artists have attempted to recreate.” Even secular writers like Shakespeare and Chaucer are informed by “the universal Word of God, the archetypal vision of ‘All that Exists.'” This vision provides the most profound kind of signficance to all worthwhile art and makes such art allegorical in the sense Dante used when he spoke of anagogy.

6. In art, all creatures are human.

Frye writes, “It is the function of art to illuminate the human form of nature.” By this he means that art “interprets nature in human terms.” Only a human being can create a design, but that does not stop art from seeing design in the pattern of a snowflake. Blake’s tiger has a human creator that makes the tiger’s form, which is therefore a human form.

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Summary of Chapter Four of Fearful Symmetry: A Literalist of the Imagination


Here is Clayton Chrusch’s excellent summary of Chapter Four of Fearful Symmetry:

A Poet, a Painter, a Musician, an Architect: the Man Or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian.

1. Blake’s view of art: “proud and demonic”

In this chapter, Frye explains Blake’s views about art in general and specifically about visual art.

Blake was a practicing artist which distinguishes him from other thinkers who otherwise had similar views. His views about art are highly developed, central to his thought, and distinguish him as a thinker. For Blake, art stabilizes our experience by removing it from the world of time and space where everything is necessarily blurred. It does not seek to escape from reality but to perceive it clearly and recreate it as a permanent and living form.

Art is superior to abstract thought because it addresses the whole person, not just the conceptual intellect, and demands a total response, including a physical response. A generalization never has the vividness of an example or an illustration. Christ, in this sense, was an artist. Frye writes,

Christ brought no new doctrines: he brought new stories. He did not save souls; he saved bodies, healing the blind and deaf that they might hear his parables and see his imagery. He stands outside the history of general thought; he stands in the center of individual wisdom.

By wisdom, Frye means, “the application of the imaginative vision taught us by art.”

Some people have knowledge without wisdom, which means they possess an unorganized collection of information. Wisdom takes knowledge, abstract or otherwise, organizes it according to a grand pattern, and fits it into a universal imaginative vision. We cannot be satisfied by acquiring knowledge until we have a universal vision that it all fits in.

Here Frye turns to the relationship between art and religion. He recognizes that art cannot give the objective support to religion that dogma can be, but he prefers it that way. Frye claims this kind of objective support leads to a perpetual spiritual infancy and the worship of nature. It is okay to rely on dogma in our most difficult moments, but otherwise dogma must itself be treated as an art form, infinitely suggestive but also flawed and provisional. Frye writes,

The state of Eden [the free and exuberant creativity of an artist] to [dogmatic religions] is proud and demonic, a state in which one forgets God. But one forgets God in that state only in the sense in which one forgets one’s health by being healthy: one is merely released from the tyranny of “memory.”

And so Blake is clear that one cannot be a true Christian without being an artist.

2. Art builds up a permanent structure above time.

Culture or civilization is the totality of art, and art is every worthwhile task done well. Though culture supports society, society, being fallen, constantly resists and attacks culture. Art is ornament, it requires and manifests a freedom above the restrictions of necessity, but the fallen world attempts to eliminate all ornament and to bind people in the chains of necessity. People can only achieve happiness by being artists, that is, by living a free and creative life. Compulsion cannot result in order because it develops out of anarchy which itself develops out of Selfhood or self-absorption.

So divinity is the origin of inspiration; art arises from inspiration; culture and civilization are built up by art; and culture, being the totality of eternal imaginative acts, builds up a permanent structure above time called Golgonooza in Blake’s mythology.

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Summary of Chapter Three of Fearful Symmetry: Beyond Good and Evil


Here is Clayton Chrusch’s excellent summary of Chapter Three of Fearful Symmetry. Beyond Good and Evil:

But as only the worst of men would torture other men in hell endlessly, given the power, those who believe God does this worship the devil, or the worst elements in man.

1. Evil is turning away from the imagination and restraining action.

I’ll let Frye introduce this chapter:

We now come to Blake’s ethical and political ideas, which, like his religion, are founded on his theory of knowledge. It is impossible for a human being to live completely in the world of sense. Somehow or other the floating linear series of impressions must be ordered and united by the mind. One must adopt either the way of imagination or the way of memory; no compromise or neutrality is possible. He who is not for the imagination is against it.

This whole introductory section is worth reading in the original. In short, evil is turning away from perception rather than passing through it to vision. Evil is an attempt to restrain the imagination, to restrain life, and so it is ultimately a death impulse. Restraint is what characterizes all evil–restraining oneself or restraining another. Evil is not active except where the purpose is to frustrate further activity. And so all vices are negative things–negations of action, negations of one’s senses, negations of imagination. It follows, as Blake writes, “all Act is Virtue.”

The negation of the imagination can also be thought of as a perversion of it. A perverted imagination descends quickly into either fear or cruelty. Cruelty is mischievous curiosity, and fear “is not so much the horror of the unknown as a fascinated attraction to it.” In society, the cruel become tyrants and the fearful become victims. Imaginative people are rare enough that history in retrospect looks very much like an unchanging parasitic relationship between tyrant and victim, a relationship supported as much by the cowardice of the victim as the cruelty of the tyrant.

The imagination is self-development, which “leads us into a higher state of integration with a larger imaginative unit which is ultimately God.” What is egocentric in us is incapable of the expansion outward that characterizes self-development. And so Blake accepts a view of original sin in which there are two parts to us, a part capable of only good, and a part capable of evil as well as good. So Frye writes, “Man has within him the principle of life and the principle of death: one is the imagination, the other the natural man.”

The cure for original sin is vision, a recognition that the world we live in is fallen but not final–that a better world and a better humanity are possible. Good, honest people who lack this vision are on the right side, but still have not achieved all they can. A person with vision is a prophet. Prophecy is not a mysterious ability of telling the future, it is simply the imaginative activity of “an honest man with a sharper perception and a clearer perspective than other honest men possess.” This perception reveals an “infinite and eternal reality.”

2. State religion is that of the self-righteous prig who is the Prince of this world.

The source of all tyranny is not in the temporal world, but in the sense of “a mysterious power lurking behind” powerful people. Generating this sense of mystery is the work of state religion and the caste of priests who administer it. So as pernicious as tyrants are, we cannot end tyranny by overthrowing tyrants. Tyranny is founded on false religion and the only cure for it is true religion.

You can tell false religion because it posits a God “who is unknown and mysterious because he is not inside us but somewhere else: where, only God knows. Second, it preaches submission, acceptance and unquestioning obedience.” False religion is state religion and exists to rationalize power, but it is constantly under attack by the imagination. The imagination causes false religion to constantly alter and solidify its form and eventually can succeed in forcing false religion into a consolidation of error, which is a perfect negation of truth. This consolidation of error makes false religion much more vulnerable than would the vagueness and fog which are its preferred anti-imaginative weapons.

False religion achieves its highest form in the God of official Christianity who was invented to counter the genuine teachings of Jesus. Frye writes,

This God is good and we are evil; yet, though he created us, he is somehow or other not responsible for our being evil, though he would consider it blasphemous either to assert that he is or to deny his omnipotence. All calamities and miseries are his will, and to that will we must be absolutely resigned even in thought and desire. The powers that be are ordained of him, and all might is divine right. The visions of artists and prophets are of little importance to him: he did not ordain those, but an invariable ritual and a set of immovable dogmas, which are more in keeping with the ideas of order. Both of these are deep mysteries, to be entrusted to a specially initiated class of servants. He keeps a grim watch over everything men do, and will finally put most of them in hell to scream eternally in torment, eternally meaning, of course, endlessly in time. A few, however, who have done as they have been told, that is, have done nothing creative, will be granted an immortality of the “pie in the sky when you die” variety.

Frye then qualifies this by saying, “It is easy to call this popular misunderstanding, but perhaps harder to deny that orthodox religion is founded on a compromise with it.” Worshipping a God who, among other things, tortures men forever, means worshipping the devil. This devil does not exist except as bogeyman projected by priests and rulers, and yet somehow this does not prevent him from being the “Prince of this world.”

As the Prince of this world, the devil demands obediance, uniformity, and mediocrity, all of which are called good in official morality. Thus, “all that is independent, free and energetic comes to be associated with evil.” Satan, who is the accuser of sin, is “not himself a sinner but a self-righteous prig.”

For Blake, engaging in good vs. evil battles, whatever one’s conception of good and evil, is an expression of a death impulse. Life requires a battle, but it is a battle between truth and error.

Satanism, in Blake’s time, was most perfectly expressed as Deism, characterized by a belief in the physical world as the only real one and an almost enthusiastic resignation to the conditions and restrictions the physical world imposes on human life. Though contentment seems like a reasonable approach to life, it fails spectacularly in practice, leading to hysteria and warfare. Furthermore, the imagination can never accept the fallen world that it finds itself in.

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Don Harron: My Frye, His Blake

Don Harron

Some years ago one of Frye’s former students, Don Harron, sent me a copy of My Frye, His Blake, saying that it had been rejected by a university press because it was not academic enough.   Harron’s summary of Frye’s Fearful Symmetry, however, was intended not for an academic audience but for the common reader.  Harron calls his 279‑page summary a down‑sizing of Frye’s complicated and sometime difficult exposition of Blake’s prophecies.  My Frye, His Blake is an abridgement of Fearful Symmetry.  It is not so much an effort to simplify Frye as to make him more accessible to the nonspecialist by presenting, in Pound’s phrase, the “gists and piths” of Frye’s book––a concentrated form of its argument, combining his own summaries with Frye’s words.  I’m hopeful that it might yet find a publisher.

Here’s Harron’s preface:


To deal first with that somewhat presumptuous and proprietary title: I am one of Northrop Frye’s former students, but can lay no special claim to him.  Like James Hilton’s fictional “Mr. Chips,” he and his wife Helen remained childless throughout their lives, but bred thousands of devoted, surrogate progeny like myself, who considered them both as role models during that green island in our lives we call college days.

I was heartened by the announcement that all of Frye’s literary output is to be re-issued in a thirty‑volume collection.  At the same time I worried that his legacy might be confined to academic circles, and miss the larger public he freely sought during his lifetime.  This attempt of mine to summarize the first of his many books may be construed by some as a kind of Blake for Dummies, but that is not my intention.

The origin of My Frye, His Blake stems from the first essay I ever wrote for the great man back in 1946.  I forget the subject of my paper, but I will never forget the mark he gave me.  It was a C‑minus.  He added the words: “This is mostly B.S. , but you do have a gift for making complex ideas simple.”  The latter half of that cryptic statement is the reason for this book.

I was a freshman at Victoria College, University of Toronto, in 1942, but since I was enrolled in a course known as Sock and Fill (Social and Philosophical studies), I didn’t have any lectures with Northrop Frye that first year.  It was months before I got to hear him in a public lecture on “Satire: Theory and Practice.”  I sat beside two nuns from St. Michael’s College who rocked back and forth with delight as Frye quoted Pope and Swift and Dr. Johnson and added more than a few ripostes of his own.  They nearly rolled in the aisle when he quoted Dante reaching the dead center of evil and passing through the arse of the Devil to the shores of Purgatory.

When I returned to Vic in 1945 after two years’ undistinguished service in the RCAF, it was general campus knowledge that the book Northrop Frye had been thinking about and writing for more than ten years was on the English poet and engraver William Blake (1757–1827).  Fearful Symmetry is considered by many to be the most complex of Frye’s writings.  It was his second book, the Anatomy of Criticism written ten years later, that gave him his international reputation as a literary critic.  When I took courses with him in Spenser and Milton during my undergraduate years 1945–48, he was in the throes of preparing the Anatomy, and a good deal of that book came out in his lectures to us.

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