Category Archives: Call for Papers

Frye on the Goldberg Variations


The video posted Saturday night of Glenn Gould performing Bach’s “Aria” inspired me to track down some of Frye’s references to the Goldberg Variations.

From Frye’s diary entry of 25 March 1949:

[O]ff to the Forum, where I had a most delightful surprise: Lew [Lou Morris] had bought a lot of dusty old music on spec, & in it were two volumes constituting a complete Bischoff Bach. I need hardly say how I felt the rest of the day, with the Brother Capriccio, the Goldberg Variations, the Sonatas, the French Overture & the A minor Fugue all falling into my lap at once. I must find out what a fair price on it would be.

From Frye’s Notebook 38, par. 46:

In music there’s something profound about the working up of a dramatic narrative structure, rising to an analytic climax in the slow movement, & then a finale that gives the initial impression of comic anticlimax. Mozart’s G m quintet [String Quintet in G minor (1787), op. 516]. In Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto [G minor, op. 58] the tetralogy ending in satyr-play structure is clearer. The reason for it in music is easier to see in the classic variation form, where the dramatic climax is usually penultimate & the very last one a ‘let-down’ (Goldberg & Diabelli). The variation form is not only cyclic but explicitly circumferential, & has to deny narrative advance. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism 144)

From Frye’s Notebook 31, par. 36:

The numbers from 28 to 34 are the chief sparagmos numbers. 28 & 29 are lunar & Chaucerian, & V [A Vision] is a kind of lunatic (in the strict sense) Chaucerian (see ref. to Chaucer above [par. 29]) arrangement of what Jung would call psychological types. 30 & 31 are solar & recall the sons of Egypt [Blake’s Book of Urizen, pl. 28, ll. 8–10]. 32 & 33 bring us to the points of the compass & the recurrent Goldberg–Diabelli variation form (counting the theme in G) in music. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance 102)

From Frye’s “Wallace Stevens and the Variation Form”:

The long meditative theoretical poems written in a blank tercet form, Notes toward a Supreme Fiction, The Auroras of Autumn, An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, The Pure Good of Theory, are all divided into sections of the same length. An Ordinary Evening has thirty-one sections of six tercets each; the Supreme Fiction, three parts of ten sections each, thirty sections in all, each of seven tercets; and similarly with the others. This curious formal symmetry, which cannot be an accident, also reminds us of the classical variation form in which each variation has the same periodic structure and harmonic sequence. Even the numbers that often turn up remind us of the thirty Goldberg variations, the thirty-three Diabelli waltz variations, and so on. (Spiritus Mundi 276)

Query: Alphabet of Forms?


A number of Frye’s books now housed in the Frye Collection at Victoria University have laid in a small sheet or card on which Frye constructed a table of twenty-six lines, beginning with the seven-letter sequences “y o u a u o y,” “y o u b u o y,” “y o u c u o y” and continuing through the alphabet to “y o u z u o y.”  Occasionally he made one of these grids with the “y” omitted, making a five-letter sequence (“o u a u o,” o u b u o,” etc.), and in at least one case there is a chart with only three letters in the twenty-six line column: “u a u,” “u b u,” and so on.  The grids are almost always incomplete: one or more of the slots will be blank, the initial letter having been omitted.  Some of the grids have the letter “a” added to the right and left sides.  There are dozens of these mysterious palindromic sequences, and they can be found as well scattered throughout Frye’s notebooks and other manuscripts in the Frye papers.  Might a blogger out there know what this “alphabet of forms” is all about?  Might it have some connection to the secret name of the seven-day week that Robert Graves deciphers in The White Goddess or to one of Graves’s other alphabet riddles? (Pictured above, a rendering of Robert Graves’ symbolism representing the essential nature of the White Goddess.)

Frye Poems


Jeffery Donaldson’s wonderful poem, “Museum,” encourages me to list some of the poems about, featuring, or otherwise related to Frye:

•  Irving Layton, “The Excessively Quiet Groves” in Cerberus: Poems by Louis Dudek, Irving Layton, and Raymond Souster (Toronto: Contact Press, 1952), 55. 
•  R.G. Everson, “Report for Northrop Frye” in Delta [Montreal] (January 1959): 28.
•  J.K. Halligan, “Northrop Frye” in The Belfast of the North and Other Poems (Belfast, Ireland: Lapwing, 2005), 43.
•  Jay Macpherson, “The Anagogic Man” in Poems Twice Told: The Boatman & Welcoming Disaster (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1981), 42.
•  Jay Macpherson, “Notes and Acknowledgements” in Poems Twice Told: The Boatman & Welcoming Disaster (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1981), 96.  This poem appeared in a slightly different form in the original edition (Toronto: Saanes Publications, 1974).
•  Caroline Knox, “Angels” in Massachusetts Review 26, no. 4 (Winter 1985): 579.
•  Anonymous, “Reflections on Spending Three Straight Hours Reading ‘Anatomy of Criticism.’”  A bit of doggerel that circulated among Victoria College students.  Published in Toronto (October 1986): 8. 
•  John Updike, “Big Bard” in American Scholar 70, no. 4 (2001): 40.
•  Florentin Smarandache, “The Philosophy of Psychology”
•  Roy Daniells, Untitled, Enclosed with Daniells’s letter to Frye of 27 April 1976, which is partially in response to the letters Frye wrote to him during the summer and fall of 1976 when Daniells was in Rome [“I dreamed the final Judgment came”].  In the Roy Daniells Fonds, University of British Columbia.
•  Roy Daniells, “On Reading ‘The Varsity’ for October 22nd, 1976 [“How doth our Norrie sit and smile”].  Enclosed with Daniells’ letter to Frye of 16 October 1976.  In the Roy Daniells Fonds, University of British Columbia.
•  Roy Daniells, Untitled, 2 November 1976 [“This envelope has come to hand”].  In the Roy Daniells Fonds, University of British Columbia.
•  Roy Daniells, Untitled, 9 September 1976 [“Dear Norrie, Do not softly swear!”].  In the Roy Daniells Fonds, University of British Columbia.
•  Roger Angell, “Greetings, Friends” in New Yorker (29 December 1980): 35.
•  Richard Outram, “In Memory of Northrop Frye,” in Globe and Mail 16 February 1991, and Northrop Frye Newsletter 3, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 36.
•  Margaret Atwood, “Norrie Banquet Ode.”  Composed on the occasion of the banquet held on the final day of the conference “The Legacy of Northrop Frye,” 31 October 1992, Victoria College, Toronto.  Published in The Legacy of Northrop Frye, ed. Alvin Lee and Robert D. Denham (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), 171–73; rpt. in Northrop Frye Newsletter 6, no. 1 (Fall 1994): 38–9.
•  Jeffery Donaldson, “Museum” in Palilalia (Montreal & Kingston: McGill Queen’s University Press, 2008), 17–26.
•  Kildare Dobbs, “On Seeing a Snake at Villa Epidaurus” in The Eleventh Hour: Poems for the New Millennium Oakville, ON: Mosaic Press, 1997), 68–9.
•  Kildare Dobbs, “Dracula Verses: 1. The governess” in The Eleventh Hour: Poems for the New Millennium Oakville, ON: Mosaic Press, 1997), 88.
•  Finkelstein, Norman.  “A Tomb for Northrop Frye” in Passing Over.  New York: Marsh Hawk Press, 2007): 11–12.

The Play’s the Thing: Frye and “Homo Ludens”


Yves Saint‑Cyr has recently completed a Ph.D. dissertation entitled The Glass Bead Game: From Post‑Tonal to Post‑Modern (University of Toronto).  It’s an intellectually ambitious and stimulating romp through a wide range of complex literary, critical, and musical texts, painting, and mathematical theory.  In his chapter 3 Saint‑Cyr turns to Frye in order to illuminate Hermann Hesse: Frye’s theory of modes and his theory of the phases of the mythoi of comedy can, Saint‑Cyr argues, help reveal the formal structure of Hesse’s Das Glasperlenspiel.  But as Saint‑Cyr says early on, the ends and means of this project can be reversed: he wants to investigate the implications of Hesse’s Glass Bead Game “to model the role of recursive paradox in literary criticism.”  This seems to point in the direction of Frye as a Glass Bead Game player.  Saint‑Cyr does say that Frye might well conceive of literary criticism rooted in mythology as a Glass Bead Game, an inference he makes from one of the three places in his writing where Frye refers to the Glass Bead Game, but he never really develops the idea that Frye’s critical constructs are themselves a Glass Bead Game.

Not that he should have, but there is certainly enough in Frye’s published works to make such a case.  Bloggers interested in the topic should consult Graham Forst’s “‘Frye Spiel’: Northrop Frye and Homo Ludens,” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 36, no. 3 (September 2003): 73–86.  Forst argues that “play is reading’s central motif and that for Frye, readers see things holistically only when “playfully” detached: literature “is the quintessential ‘playful’ medium because it is ‘detached from immediate action.’”  But I suspect the last word on Frye and homo ludens [“man at play”] will have to take account of what he both says and implies about play in the notebooks, considering such constructs as the Great Doodle, the ogdoad (which began when Frye was nine as a dream of writing eight concerti), and the omnipresent HEAP (Hermes‑Eros‑Adonis‑Prometheus) scheme.  These are all like a giant board game, a centripetal structure on which Frye continually moves the pieces as he works to show how imaginative patterns inform self and society, cultural creations, history and philosophy––indeed, everything in the poetic and religious cosmos. 

The notebooks reveal the expansive free‑play of Frye as himself as homo ludens.  His own comments on his expansive “game” illustrate that in the tradition of both Huizinga and Schiller (and of the anatomy form itself) playing the game is serious business.  The game has scores of lesser doodles––permutations, based on schema that Frye has drawn from alchemy, the zodiac, the chessboard, musical keys, colors, the omnipresent “four kernels” (commandment, aphorism, oracle, and epiphany), the shape of the human body, Blake’s Zoas, Jung’s personality types, Bacon’s idols, the boxing of the compass by Plato and the Romantic poets, the Greater Arcana of the Tarot cards, the seven days of Creation, the three stages of religious awareness, numerology, among other schema.  Then there’s Frye’s enigmatic “chess‑in‑bardo,” which involves a dialectic of two opposing forces: agon and anagnorisis, choice and chance, descent and ascent.  All of these things can be seen as a web or net of interconnected imaginative processes, like the jeweled net of Indra.  To use Saint‑Cyr’s phrases, it’s a “conceptual model” and an “epitome of symbolic construction.”  The game involves the organizing of cultural symbols, literary ideas, poetic motifs, philosophical categories on a two‑dimensional grid, like a game board.  Its form is both dialectical and cyclical and at times, when Frye speaks of the gyre or vortext, it’s even three‑dimensional.  It’s not unlike the description of the Glass Bead Game that Hesse’s Knecht provides in his letter to Tergularius, where “every symbol and combination of symbols led . . . into the center, the mystery and innermost heart of the world, into primal knowledge” (Magister Ludi, 104–5).  This sounds like a description of Frye’s own ogdoad. 

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Frye’s Epiphanies


In his account of the thematic modes in Anatomy of Criticism Frye says that the general theme in the ironic mode is the pure, timeless moment of vision, and the examples of such vision he gives are “Rimbaud’s illumination, Joyce’s epiphany, the Augenblick of modern German thought, and the kind of nondidactic revelation implied in such terms as symbolisme and imagism.”  Frye himself had several of these moments of vision.  The earliest, reported in John Ayre’s biography, was during his early high school years in Moncton when he suddenly realized that he could shed without consequence the moral and religious dogmas of the fundamentalist envelope in which he had been raised.  Frye did not recall what triggered the revelation: he simply realized on a walk to school one day that the albatross of fundamentalist teaching “just dropped off into the sewers and stayed there.” 

There were other epiphanies: one in Edmonton (1932), one (perhaps two) with Blake (1933), another in Seattle (1951), and still another on St. Clair Avenue in Toronto (early 1950s).  The “Third Book” Notebooks contain a hint of a fifth epiphany––in 1944 on a walk down Bathurst Street in Toronto.  A final epiphany may have occurred in Yugoslavia only four months before Frye’s death: he speaks of “that loud flash I got in Zagreb: the ideal of spontaneity, where the moment of composition and the moment of performance are the same” (The Late Notebooks of Northrop Frye 1:415).

Frye refers to these moments variously as intuitions, epiphanies, illuminations, and enlightenments.  Most of them were experiences of unity––experiences, as he says, “of things fitting together” in a momentary flash of insight (Northrop Frye in Conversation 48).  Although Frye did speak about the Blake and Edmonton epiphanies in several interviews, he never mentioned them in his books and essays.  But in his notebooks there are more than thirty references to one or another of these experiences, the most important of which seem to have been what he calls his Seattle and St. Clair illuminations.  I have found Frye’s accounts of these experiences to be as endlessly fascinating as they are enigmatic.  The references are often quite cryptic.  In Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary I took a stab at analyzing the Seattle and St. Clair epiphanies (90–6), but the different kinds of recognition that came to Frye on these occasions remain something of a riddle.  Perhaps some blogger out there would be interested in sifting through the various notebook entries with the aim of providing illumination of these illuminations.  What follows are the relevant passages.  The references at the end of each entry are to the volumes in the Collected Works of Northrop Frye.  Page breaks and other editorial insertions are within square brackets. Continue reading

“100 Great Books”

great books

In 1973 Frye was asked by The Franklin Mint to become a member of the advisory panel that would select one hundred great books.  In a telegram from the Franklin Mint 2 October 1973, one of several urgent messages imploring Frye to join the project, he was told that Willard Thorp of Princeton (who had recommended Frye to the advisory board), Alan Heimert of Harvard, Albert Guerard of Stanford, Frank Kermode of Cambridge, and Richard Ellmann of Oxford had already signed on.  The Mint even sent a representative, Darby Perry, to visit Frye in his office at Victoria College.  He eventually consented and was sent a checklist with certain titles already on the list and with instructions that it was possible to add alternate titles.  Along with nine others, Frye duly constructed his list.  He was paid $1000 for agreeing to participate in the venture.  Shortly after the Franklin Mint made its list of titles available, Frye began receiving mail, criticizing him for lending his name to such a cheap commercial enterprise and noting that the gimmicky advertising brochure of the Franklin Mint did not indicate the titles selected or the editions used.

Frye responded to one of his critics by saying, “My connection with the Franklin Library scheme was confined to agreeing to serve as an ‘advisor’ for their list of titles.  They sent their list of titles to me; I sent them back my own notion of what a hundred ‘great books’ might be, and they went ahead with their original selection.  In other words, consulting me was pure ritual.  If you were to say that I should have known in advance that this was the case, you would doubtless be right.”  To another he wrote, “You were quite right about the participation: I should never have lent myself to such a business, and much regret having done so.  I am not at my most perceptive on the end of a long distance telephone, and the proposal to ask for my advice in selecting a list of books, accompanied with various distinguished names who are friends of mine, looked at the time more innocent than it is, and than I should have known it would be.”

Nevertheless, Frye did take his assignment seriously and his list of recommendations was accompanied by this note of 23 October 1973 to Ron Wallace of the Franklin Mint: “I am sending with this the form sent me, marked up according to instructions.  As I considered the list, however, I found myself drafting a more analytical table of what I would consider the hundred essential books of Western culture, following your own categories closely.  I hope it will be more helpful than confusing.”

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Frijeeyin? Frigeeyin? Fryin?


Several years back Glen R. Gill, author of Northorp Frye and the Phenomenology of Myth, emailed me (and I think others) to ask if I had an opinion on the proper adjectival form of “Frye.”  For some reason this struck my funny‑bone, and so I dropped my pedantic inquiry into what Frye meant by “chess‑in‑bardo” or whatever I was doing to pen this bit of doggerel:


So what’s the adjective for “Frye”?
Do you pronounce your “g” as hard?
Do you, like Gill, just wonder why
The “g” is sometimes soft as lard?

At other times it disappears,
With triplet vowels aligned in row.
The folks must surely have tin ears
Who say the “g” has gotta go.

For precedent consider “Styx”:
Its adjective requires a “g.”
For even Appalachian hicks
“Norwegian” works phonetically.

But why restrict phonetic rule
To followers of Norrie Frye?
Does not the pedant, simple fool,
Induce, then universify?

Thus, “Frygean” applies to texts,
To arguments and archetypes,
To all the Spirit/Word contexts.
The lightest and the darkest types.

But I will quiz the linguist Kris
(My daughter): she may know the rule
To cure our ignorance of bliss
And send us back to suffix school.

Meanwhile, methinks that Glen R. Gill
Should forego adjectives for Jung
And Freud and Frye, and just fulfill
What Norrie craved—a simple tongue. Continue reading

Frye and the Tale of Genji


In both Anatomy of Criticism and The Secular Scripture Frye refers to Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji as an example of an “endless” romance, the conclusion of which does not preclude Lady Murasaki from adding any number of additional episodes. Frye annotated his own copy of this expansive eleventh century Japanese tale of court life (trans. Arthur Waley [London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957] 1135 pp.) Frye’s annotations are more expansive than the notes he ordinarily scribbled in the margins of his books. If he were to have written an essay or a more extended commentary on The Tale of Genji, the essential core might well have come from his annotations, which are transcribed in what follows. (The numbers in parentheses following each entry are to the pages in Frye’s edition.)

The title “dwellers above the clouds” indicates that courtiers were thought of, & wished to be thought of, as leading a severe & untroubled life of pleasure & privilege. Murasaki shows them as spoiled, frustrated, and boring each other (with the women often quite literally) to death. Is the brutal selfishness of the men something she accepts as a datum of life, or something she is satirizing? The latter by implication, certainly. (46)

Interesting to know if the original has anything of the Virginia Woolfish quality of the translation. (81)

Genji reminds me of the flower known as the red-hot poker. If I were a Japanese I could make a poem out of that. (108)

When night lets fall her sable hood
How may one know which dame one scrood? (153)

The most startling feature of this wonderful story is the sense of social security—no reference to torture, imprisonment, beatings, violence, executions, or even war. In the court, life is like a modern university: when the emperor gets bored with emperoring he just quits, with no questions or upsets. Murasaki makes it clear that this security extends only to a stratospherically elevated group, but within that group, civilization is complete. (184)

The story is realistic in the sense that nothing supernatural or incredible (in her terms) occurs & in the sense that all human foibles & weaknesses are fully displayed. But there’s another feature that makes it a romance in my sense—or one of my senses. That’s her acceptance, not of her own society only, but of that society’s idealized picture of itself. People who are socially the best people, in other words, really are the best people. The exact degree of a girl’s beauty (except for Kiritsubo) depends primarily on her heredity, like a knight’s chivalry in Malory. (184).

The jealous mistress Rukujo sets up a Ligeia pattern, killing Yugao & Aoi by projecting a part of herself & bewitching them. She even speaks through them just as Ligeia does. After her death she becomes more formidable, a prowling ghoul who seizes on Murasaki. Yugao is a sleeping beauty archetype: the incarnate dream of the perfect mistress discovered in a completely isolated spot. (Not completely isolated: she’d already been discovered by Genji’s brother-in-law, who’d had a child by her, but that doesn’t bother Genji: he just wants to adopt the child. Civilized buggers.) (359) Continue reading