Category Archives: Fearful Symmetry

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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Thanks to Clayton Chrusch


Fearful Symmetry was the very last of Frye’s major works that I read, and by the time I  first read it, I had re-read just about everything else a few times over. I don’t know why I put it off for so long. I rationalized that it is a youthful work (even though it is clearly not that), a mere precursor to Anatomy where the “real work” begins, and a study narrowly focused on a still somewhat obscure poet. So, predictably enough, when I finally came to read it, it blew open all the doors and sent my carefully arranged mental furniture flying. It’s a book that still haunts me. Fearful Symmetry possesses all of Frye’s runic power to summon up the fearsome but benign authority of the Magus/prophet: not, as he says elsewhere, the oppressive mystery that conceals, but the liberating mystery that reveals.

I am therefore very grateful that Clayton Chrusch has undertaken to provide us with a weekly summary, chapter by chapter. By the time I reach the end of each installment, I’m a little breathless with excitement. Such is the power of the book that Clayton’s lucid exposition effortlessly taps into it. I look forward to his next.

Summary of Chapter Two of Fearful Symmetry: The Rising God


Here is Clayton Chrusch’s summary of the second chapter of Fearful Symmetry.  (His summary of chapter one can be found here):

Fearful Symmetry Chapter Two: The Rising God

Man is All Imagination. God is Man & exists in us & we in him.

1. God is the fully developed human imagination.

This chapter presents Blake’s theology. His theology is based on the identity of God with humanity and in particular with the fully developed human imagination. God must be human because we cannot perceive anything greater than human. Since existence is perception, nothing superhuman can exist. Furthermore, the fact that Jesus was fully God and fully man means that God posseses no attributes which are not human.

We are God in our perceptions. No one can perceive God, but when we perceive the particular, we perceive as God. An egotistical perception sees a general reality, but a divine perception sees a particular reality. Blake calls the perception of a general reality experience, and the perception of a particular reality innocence.

What is true of perception is true of creation–when we create, we create as God. Frye writes, “all creators are contained in the Creator.” For Blake, worshipping God means honouring the creativity of human beings, and honouring most those with the most developed imaginations. The more people suppress their imaginations, the more they turn their backs on God, that is, their own divinity. But turning our backs on our divinity also means turning our backs on our humanity–it is what is great in us that makes us human, not what is small. God is the species, and humans are individuals of that species. God is the essence, and we are the identities arising from that essence. God is the body, and we are the limbs.

2. Against God as a designer

It’s wrong to look to Blake for an informed opinion of all things. There are some things that Blake was simply not interested in. He was not interested in mathematics, for instance, and though he may seem to disparage it, a sympathetic reader will realize that Blake is really attacking superstitious uses of mathematics. These include occult math, that is, numerology, and the kind of scientific reductionism that sees reality as merely an abstract mathematical design rather than the concrete mental creation that it is.

In some of Blake’s poems, Blake uses numbers and diagrams, but these are part of the imaginative unity of the poems and do not indicate “any affinity with mathematical mysticism.”

Blake could not bring himself to believe in a God that is a designer rather than a creator.

3. Against God as an impersonal and mechanical power

Blake dislikes Newton partly because of the kind of theology that Newton’s universe suggests. Such a vast universe governed by mechanical laws suggests a God that is a great impersonal and mechanical power. Such a theology would be further encouraged by the 19th century discovery of “the immense stretch of geological time, in which nothing particularly cheerful seems to have occurred.” Such a God is distasteful to Blake not only because it must be a tyrant, but because it reduces the whole universe and all of life to less than conscious activity.

Blake agrees with the followers of the Newtonian Gods that God is the essence of life. But the followers of Newtonian Gods discover the essence of life by abstracting life until they get to the simple idea of motion. This is the same lowest-common-denominator approach to discovering reality that Blake hates so much in Locke. Blake sees that, of all beings, humans are most alive and so the essence of life is found in human attributes such as intelligence, imagination, judgment, and conscious purpose. And so God must possess all these attributes.

As for evolution, a Blakean must interpret it not as a mechanical process of stimulus and response, and certainly not as intelligent design, but as an exuberant imaginative development in all possible directions.

Blake did not idealize nature and possessed no illusions about “noble savages” living in a state of nature. Nature is cruel, and anything living in a state of nature is savage. Nature achieves its highest form where both it and people are cultivated. For Blake, the central symbol of the imagination is a city, in other words, a world and a nature with a human form where the imagination “has developed and conquered rather than survived and ‘fitted.'”

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A Summary of Chapter One of Fearful Symmetry: The Case Against Locke


Clayton Chrusch has generously provided us with a lucid summary of the first five chapters of Fearful Symmetry; hopefully, a complete summary of the book is in the offing. We begin today with chapter one, and will make a weekly posting of each of the next four chapters.

Fearful Symmetry Chapter One: The Case against Locke

“The world we desire is more real than the world we passively accept.”

1. Blake wanted his poetry to be understood.

Frye’s project is to produce a commentary on William Blake’s poetry and thought. Partly this means placing Blake in his context: Blake is original, but he is emphatically part of a tradition, and it is important to set out what that tradition is. This also means placing the emphasis where Blake himself spent most of his creative effort: Blake is known for his short lyrics, but his long, difficult poems called “prophecies” form the largest part of his work, and Frye thus focuses on them. Though the prophetic works are difficult, Blake did not make them deliberately obscure. On the contrary, he wanted them to be understood. Energetic, determined readers will be able to understand these poems and will be richly rewarded.

Blake was a poet, and his poems should be treated as poetry and not as a veiled form of something else. Blake is a visionary, not a mystic or occultist. Blake parts ways with mystics in his belief in the power of words, a power that is not just expressive but also creative. He parts ways with occultists in his rejection of mystery. Positively speaking, a visionary like Blake perceives this world “with a new intensity of symbolism.” Blake was an artist first, before any spiritual commitments, and he pragmatically and irreverently used the spiritual world as a source of energy and material. Nevertheless Blake was a Christian and his views develop out of his Christianity.

2. Learning to read poetry means learning the language of poetry.

Blake adopted the Elizabethan view that the greatest poetry is allegorical. This allegory must be “addressed to the Intellectual powers” rather than “the Corporeal Understanding.” The corporeal understanding is understanding that is merely an explanation. If a poem means no more than its explanation, then it should have been written as an explanation in the first place. The “Intellectual powers,” on the other hand, refer to the acquired discipline of reading poetry as poetry. This discipline is founded on the principle that a poem is an imaginative unit. Learning this discipline means learning the language of poetry so that poetry no longer has to be translated into an explanation in order to be understood. Blake can teach us this language because he makes a corporeal understanding of his poems very difficult. But once we learn this poetic language, we will experience much greater pleasure in reading literature.

Frye also brings up Blake’s supposed madness. Madness must be understood as a “sterile, chaotic, and socially useless deviation from normal behavior.” In this sense, a creative genius like Blake is immeasurably saner than a commonplace mind.

3. Blake was a consistent thinker.

Blake was extremely consistent in his principles, and believed strongly in “obstinacy in maintaining what he believed to be true.” Not only was he consistent but he went to great pains to engrave and illustrate a carefully selected subset of his poems. These then should be considered as an official and unified canon in which we can expect to find a common structure of ideas. Blake set these ideas out very early in two series of aphorisms: All Religions Are One and There is No Natural Religion. These aphorisms deal largely with Blake’s theory of knowledge, and so the rest of this chapter will attempt to explain this theory–Blake’s epistemology.

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Bob Rodgers: “Recovering William Blake”


A memoir of Blake, Frye and the 60s from Bob Rodgers.  Bob is a former grad student of Frye’s who became a documentary filmmaker.

When I set out for university my motives were not entirely laudable. Movies about universities made their social life look appealing and I wanted a way out of Flin Flon anyway. Also, in the 1950s,  if you managed to scrape through matriculation with a B average university was just something you did.  Tuition was cheap, summer jobs plentiful and lucrative, so why not? What friends who had gone before me said was: “Don’t take Science or Engineering. They’re hard. Take Arts”.

By second year I was having a splendid time. I played basketball for the University of Manitoba Bisons and endless hands of Bridge in the student union cafeteria. I got fake ID so I could drink at the Pembina beer parlor. I went to movie previews on Academy Road every Thursday, and to curling bees and dances on weekends, and there was a whole residence of pretty girls to date so long as you got them in by eleven. In all of these things I don’t remember being much different from anyone else I knew in Arts.

With one exception. One fellow called Lennie who sat beside me in my poetry course was unlike my basketball friends and my home town friends. He was a Ukrainian from the mysterious “North End”, a section of Winnipeg beyond the CPR tracks that was as foreign to me as Bukovina. If a professor assigned a library book and you got round to looking it up it was always gone. I’d find out later Lennie had it.

Sitting in the cafeteria one day Lennie said: “What do you make of William Blake?” I was circumspect. I remembered reading “The Tyger”, “Ah! Sunflower”,  and “The Chimney Sweep” in High School, and we had all grown up singing Blake’s “Jerusalem”on occasions of patriotic fervor for the British Empire. I wasn’t ready to admit to him that I had been trying to read Blake’s epic poem, ‘Jerusalem’, and found it impenetrable. He pushed the book he’d been reading toward me and went for coffee refills. It was The Collected Works of William Blake, the Keynes edition of 1956. He knew I fancied Milton, which he didn’t. He left a page open where I read: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” I read the lines several times, trying to figure out what Blake was saying.

My new friend returned with coffee and sat watching as I skipped through the passages he had flagged in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell section.

Exuberance is beauty. (I liked that idea. For the same reason I preferred Anthony to Octavius.)

How do you know but evr’y bird that cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five? (That was the one I couldn’t get my head around at all.)

The cistern contains: the fountain overflows. (Same thing.)

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. (Whoa there. I was learning about excess in my extra-curricular activities, and thought it more likely they led in the opposite direction.)

What is now proved was once only imagined. (Well all right. So you don’t invent or discover anything without having imagination.)

The cut worm forgives the plough. (Is that what they meant when they said you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs? Not exactly. A worm isn’t like an egg and a plough isn’t like an omelette.)

Better murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires. (That was an unsettling one. Like some Nietzsche things I’d been reading it sounded dangerous.)

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Clayton Chrusch: Frye, Sin, and Desire


Clayton Chrusch responds to both Merv Nicholson and Russell Perkin on what makes Frye different.

I once argued with a Frye scholar about original sin. I claimed that Frye was the biggest apologist for the doctrine of original sin that I knew, and I was told I was completely mistaken, that Frye thought the doctrine was one of the worst ideas ever invented.

What I realized after that conversation was that Frye insists (like Blake) on the reality of the Fall, but never equates the Fall with original sin. As Frye puts it in Fearful Symmetry, the fall and creation are the same event. For Frye, it is self-evident that we live in a fallen world, and it is hard for me to imagine a sane person who would not agree with him. But that falleness is not the result of human sin, but rather the matrix of human sin. There is no primordial guilt for Frye. I think Frye in general had little interest in guilt, and that is not because he denied the reality of sin, but like Blake, he accepted the reality of sin but denied the reality of Judgement (this is probably his biggest departure from orthodoxy).

As for desire, it seems to me that his abandonment of the term, in favour of “concern,” was an attempt at greater precision, but it seems to correspond with a loss of some of the explosive energy we see in his Blake book.

But even in Fearful Symmetry, I don’t think desire is seen as a good in itself. Rather, what is good is action, and action is conceived of as desire seeking form. And there are even more caveats. If the desire is to frustrate or impede action, the resulting action is not worthy of the name. And desire that is not acted upon is pestilent.

And also it is specifically the desire feeding creation that is good. Any desire for a created thing is “the cry of a mistaken soul”. Even the erotic delights of Beulah are temporary and must give way either to creation or alienation.