Category Archives: Educated Imagination



Joe’s post on abduction as hunch reminds me of how often Frye uses the word “hunch.”  It doesn’t appear in Fearful Symmetry or Anatomy of Criticism, but in The Educated Imagination there are two apposite passages:

Imagination is certainly essential to science, applied or pure. Without a constructive power in the mind to make models of experience, get hunches and follow them out, play freely around with hypotheses, and so forth, no scientist could get anywhere. But all imaginative effort in practical fields has to meet the test of practicability, otherwise it’s discarded. The imagination in literature has no such test to meet. You don’t relate it directly to life or reality: you relate works of literature, as we’ve said earlier, to each other. Whatever value there is in studying literature, cultural or practical, comes from the total body of our reading, the castle of words we’ve built, and keep adding new wings to all the time.  (CW 21, 470)

You can’t distinguish the arts from the sciences by the mental processes the people in them use: they both operate on a mixture of hunch and common sense. A highly developed science and a highly developed art are very close together, psychologically and otherwise. (CW 21, 442)

In his notebooks Frye repeatedly writes about his hunches: I count 158 instances of the word strung out over the eight volumes.

Germaine Warkentin: “How might ‘The Educated Imagination’ lead us forth into the 21st Century?”


From the Frye Literary Festival, Moncton: Germaine Warkintin’s opening remarks at a roundtable discussion on April 22, 2009. We will shortly be archiving material from the Frye Festival in a dedicated area.

A few months ago I was asked by a colleague to lecture at an American university of good repute, and he asked me to send him several different topics to choose from. I produced four, one of which was a paper on Northrop Frye. About a week later he got back to me. “I think we’d like you to talk about the 17thC Jesuit,” he said; “I can’t find anybody here who is interested in Frye.”

That’s an academic response, and it came from young people who are still in grad school, people who were probably about six or eight years old when Frye died in 1991. And it’s contradicted by the excellent sales figures of Frye’s books, from Fearful Symmetry (1947) to The Double Vision (1991). Forty-four years of work, still being attended to by someone out there, as this wonderful festival clearly shows. What’s going on here?

The first thing to note is that the loss or diminution of the repute of a major intellectual figure is almost inevitable in the years after his or her death; we can all think of examples. But this is clearly a diminution in only one area, the academic study of literary theory. It doesn’t seem to be the case with a wider audience. As a matter of fact, Northrop Frye is almost alone among critics in commanding a wider audience in this day of intensely specialized academic critical discourse.

Perhaps my own response to The Educated Imagination offers a clue here: I edited it, with his other early critical writings, for the “Collected Works,” and I asked for the job because I love it as a piece of writing. It operates on me in just the way Jean Wilson just described in her presentation. Frye can be a marvelous writer: coolly compassionate, sometimes slangy, immensely literate of course, and as engaging as a favourite uncle. In life he wasn’t much like an uncle — he was actually rather shy, at least when I knew him, between his early fifties and his death. But his writing created that uncle-like impression.

This is one of the best examples I know of Frye’s own theory about how literature functions: the writer’s imagination creates not a mirror of the external world, but a possible model of experience for the reader to work with — and within. In his writing Frye provided the model of an immensely wise and witty reader of the canonical works of western literature. It’s a model that invites the reader into that imagined world, composed of King Lear, The Divine Comedy, the poetry of Paul Valery and Wallace Stevens, the criticism of Edgar Allan Poe, and of course what for him were the really big books: Blake, Finnegan’s Wake, the Bible.

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Tom Willard’s Study Guide for The Educated Imagination


Tom Willard has generously given us permission to publish his study guide for The Educated Imagination, which he prepared for a freshman seminar back in the nineties and posted at his website; the page references are to the Indiana UP edition. Tom teaches in the department of English at the University of Arizona; you can visit his website, which features a beautiful photo of Frye taken by Tom’s wife.

Study Guide for The Educated Imagination

Northrop Frye (1912-1991) read his Massey Lectures over the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC radio) in 1962. First published by Indiana University Press in 1964, the six lectures present key concepts from Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton University Press, 1957).

Chapter One. “The Motive for Metaphor.”

Frye begins by exploring the relation of language and literature. “What is the relation of English as the mother tongue to English as a literature?” he asks (p. 16), and before he can give an answer, he has to explain why people use words. He identifies three different uses of language, which he also terms types or levels of language.

1. “The language of consciousness or awareness” is our means of “self-expression,” our means of responding to the natural environment: “the world as it is.” This language produces conversation.
2. “The language of practical sense” is our means of “social participation,” our means of taking part in our civilization. This language produces information.
3. “The language of literature” is our means of entering the world of imagination: “the world we want to have.” This language produces poetry, first of all.

Science and literature move in opposite directions. Science begins with the external world and adds imagination. (Mathematics is the imaginative language of science, Frye suggests in a later chapter.) Literature begins in the imaginative world and becomes involved in civilization.

Frye now deals with the distinctive feature of literary language. When language implies an identification of the speaker and the object, it becomes metaphoric. “The desire to associate,” and to find connections between inner experience and the external world, is what Wallace Stevens calls “The Motive for Metaphor.”

This chapter provides an introduction to the book. It raises questions that will not be answered until Frye has set out a general theory of literature. These include the question of education–“What is the place of the imagination … in the learning process?” (p. 16)–answered in chapter 5. They also include a series of questions about the social function of literature and literary education, to be answered in chapter 6:

“What good is the study of literature?” (p. 13)

“Does it help us to think more clearly, or feel more sensitively, or live a better life than we could without it?” (p. 13)

“What is the relation of English as the mother tongue to English as a literature?” (p. 16)

“What is the social value of the study of literature?” (p. 16)

What is “the relevance of literature in the world of today?” (p. 27)

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Study Guide: Some Notes and Questions on The Educated Imagination


With the school year beginning, a lot of students out there will be encountering Frye for the first time, and The Educated Imagination is likely to be their first encounter.  Here, therefore, is a study guide and some questions for them to consider as they read.

The spatial or schematic form of chapter 1:

Levels of Mind
1.  (Theoria or dianoia) Speculative or contemplative: one’s mind is set over against nature.  Separating, splitting, or analytic tendency: me vs. not me; intellect vs. emotions; art vs. science.
2.  (Praxis)  Social participation: motivated by desire (one wants a better world); intellect and emotions now united; necessity (work what one has to do); adapting to environment; transforming nature.
3.  (Poesis)  Vision and imagination: also motivated by desire but here it’s a desire to bring a social human form into existence, i.e., civilization; freedom.

Corresponding Levels of Language
1.  Language of consciousness or awareness; the language of nouns and adjectives.  Language of thinking.
2.  Language of practical sense and skills (work, technology); language of teachers, preachers, advertisers, lawyers, scientists, journalists, etc.); language of necessity.  Language of action.
3.  Language that unites consciousness (level 1) with practical skill (level 2); language of imagination; literary language; language of freedom. Language of construction.

1.  Awareness that separates one from the rest of the world
2.  Practical attitude of creating a human way of life in the world.
3.  Imaginative attitude or vision of world as imagined or desired.

Chapter 1, “The Motive for Metaphor” (phrase from title of a Wallace Stevens poem)

1.  What are the two points—one simple and one complex—Frye makes in connection with the relevance of literature for today (pp. 16ff.)?
2.  What is the motive for metaphor?
3.  What does Frye mean by “a world completely absorbed and possessed by the human mind”?
4.  What does Frye mean my transforming nature into “something with a human shape”?   What does he mean by “the human form of nature,” which he seems to say is the same thing as “the form of human nature.”

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Video: “A Tribute to Northrop Frye”

This is pretty funny. This video claims to be part of a high school student seminar on chapter 3 of The Educated Imagination, “Giants in Time.”  As far as I can tell, it’s really just three guys looking for a reason to perform a card trick:


Now, to be fair, the boys themselves have this to say about the video:

This was a video made for a seminar analyzing Chapter 3: Giants In Time, of Northrop Frye’s “The Educated Imagination.”
We linked his concept of poetry with a “voodoo” magic illusion for the visual aspect of our seminar.
– Andre, Jay, and Josh.

I’m just psyched that high school kids are still reading The Educated Imagination.  Although I’d really have to hear the rest of their presentation on the “voodoo magic” qualities of “Giants in Time.”