Category Archives: Literary Criticism

Jacques Derrida


An interview with Derrida on love and being. (This video cannot be embedded; click on the image, and then hit the YouTube link that appears.)

Today is Derrida‘s birthday (1930 – 2004).  Here is a selection of Frye’s references to Derrida in various interviews.  (Imre Salusinszky’s interview with Derrida in Criticism in Society here.)

In a 1979 interview, “The Critical Path”:

Herman-Sekulic: What, in your opinion, are the major trends in the theory of literature today?  In what direction is literary criticism heading now?

Frye: I think that the word “direction” is over-optimistic.  I think there is a good deal of mining and blowing up being done, and that after the dust settles the context of a foundation may become visible.  I think Lacan’s conception of the subconscious as linguistically structured is worth following up; so is Derrida’s conception of metaphysical presence; and there are many things that interest me in the work of the new Marxist critics who have got away from the old notion that ideology is something that only non-Marxists have.  But I am not capable of making a unifying theory out of this mess, and I doubt if anyone else is either. (CW 24, 481)

In a 1985 interview, “Criticism in Society”:

Salusinszky: If Bloom has, to some extent, challenged the Christian direction of English literary studies, it is Derrida who has challenged the persistent Platonism that one can also see running through English literary studies.  Criticism has always tended to think of any great literary work as possessing unity, with some sort of closure, and as being, in some sense seminal.  Now Derrida seems to have opened up a whole range of new possibilities, where instead of closure and insemination he has his concepts of dissemination, of trace, of displacement.  Derrida, however, is a philosopher, and I wonder if you regard his present influence as merely one of those enclosure movements which you describe in the Anatomy, as coming from outside and wanting to take it over.

Frye: It certainly seems to be the way his influence has operated, yes, but I don’t think it’s entirely fair to Derrida that it has operated that way.  I think he’s genuinely interested in opening up, as you’ve just said, new possibilities in criticism.  The thing is that I don’t see why the sense of an ending and the sense of wholeness and unity, and the kinds of things he’s talking about, should be mutually exclusive.  I don’t see why you have to have an either / or situation.  It’s like those optical puzzles you look at, which change their relationship when you’re looking at them.  (CW 24, 756-7)

In a 1986 interview, “On the Media”:

Interviewer: What about McLuhan’s distinction between the visual and aural societies?

Frye: It’s very difficult to avoid metaphors.  If, for example, you’re reading something, you frequently use metaphors of the ear.  And that’s what critics like Jacques Derrida are attacking: the convention that somebody is speaking, But, still, when you’re following a narrative, you are in a sense listening.  And then at the end you get a sort of Gestalt: you “see” what it means.  When somebody tells a joke, he leads in by saying, “Have you heard this one?” and then, if he’s lucky, by the end you see what he means.  But these are just metaphors.  The hearing is something associated with sequence and time; the seeing is something associated with the simultaneous and the spatial.  (CW 24, 768)

In a 1987 interview, “Frye, Literary Critic”:

Innocenti: Some new trends in criticism, such as deconstruction, deny that we can reach the meaning of a literary work or even that there is a meaning.  All efforts to interpret are ways to proliferate structures and senses in an infinite chain of nuances and differences.  In my opinion, this sceptical position reduces all criticism to a solipsistic and narcissistic exercise.  In your opinion, do literature and criticism possess a sense that might be saved from nihilism?

Frye: The deconstructionists will have to speak for themselves, but I think the “anything goes” stage is headed for the dustbin already.  Derrida himself has a “construal” basis of interpretation that he starts from, and I think his followers will soon discover that there is a finite number of “supplements” that can be based on that.  In another decade they should have rediscovered the polysemous scheme of Dante, or something very like it.  (CW 24, 827-8)

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W. B. Yeats


Today is Yeats‘s birthday (1865 – 1939).

Frye in “The Top of the Tower: The Imagery of Yeats”:

In Byzantium the imagery is again Heraclitean and alchemical, the vision of Sailing to Byzantium seen from within as a process.  We start out in the sea, the beginning and the end of life, and move from the “fury and mire” of human passion upwards to the “changeless metal.”  This is the movement of discarnation, opposite to the birth-to-death movement of incarnation, in which the spiral wrappings of the dead mummy are unwound, a movement that takes us beyond the world that is “by the moon embittered,” and where the gong never ceases to strike.  Perhaps, then, the intuition of so many poets, including Dante, that this journey of the soul is also connected with another life after ordinary death has something to be said for it.  If man has invented death, as Yeats says, he can recover what he has projected, and find his home in the “translunar Paradise” which he himself can make, and has made.

The poet of the Byzantium poems has gone far beyond the mystery of the fifteenth phase of A Vision, presented there as something forever beyond human capacities.  The fifteenth phase is guarded, we are told, by Christ and Buddha.  Christ descended into the bottom of the cyclical world–made himself of no account, as Paul says–then rose out of it, with a great company following.  Buddha meditated on the deliverance of man from his own Narcissus image, “mirror on mirror mirrored,” the genuine Hercules in heaven liberated from its shadow in Hades.  Just as in Eliot’s Burnt Norton the summit of vision and the depth of annihilation are the same point, the still point of the turning world, so in Yeats the top of the tower is both the rag-and-bone shop of the heart and the translunar Paradise that the heart alone has created.  (The Stubborn Structure, 276-7)

Frye and Apocalyptic Feminism


On this date in 1913, militant suffragette Emily Davison was struck by King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby.  She died four days later.  She ran out onto the track (as you can see from the footage above) with a suffragette flag, which she evidently intended to attach to the king’s horse.

One of Frye’s entries in notebook 44 consists of this single sentence: “I don’t think it’s coincidence or accident that feminism and ecology should become central issues at the same time” (CW 5, 206).

A modified version of the phrase appears again in chapter six of Words with Power, “Second Variation: The Garden”:

Here we are concerned with the oasis-paradise of gardens and fountains that derives from the Biblical Eden and the Song of Songs.  It may be an impossibly idealized vision of a very tame aspect of nature, especially when in Isaiah it extends to a world in which the lion lies down with the lamb (11:6 ff.).  But it is the beginning of a sense that exploiting nature nature is quite as evil as exploiting other human beings.  Admittedly, the Bible itself has done a good deal to promote the conception of nature as something to be dominated by human arrogance, for historical reasons we have glanced at.  Contact with some allegedly primitive societies in more modern times, with their intense care for the earth that sustains them, has helped to give us some notion of how skewed many aspects of our traditional ideology are on this point.  But even in the Bible the bride-garden metaphor works in the opposite direction by associating nature and love, and I doubt if it is an accident that feminism and ecology have moved into the foreground of social issues at roughly the same time.  (WP 225)

As a matter of myth manifesting primary concern, the equalization of the sexes is implicit in biblical typology.  As a social and historical development, of course, it is all too often an ugly business typical of issues pertaining to power.  But the equalization of the sexes also has an apocalyptic dimension, as Frye’s rendering it in chapter six of Words with Power suggests.

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“The Perennial Philosophy”


One of Frye’s primary sources for mystical texts was Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, where he found his “oft-thought good ideas well-expressed as well as [his] bad ones” (CW 13, 24).  The philosophia perennis, a phrase popularized by Leibnitz, was for Huxley the timeless and universal ground of all Being––what he calls “the divine Reality.”  Metaphysically, the divine Reality underlies everything in the world, including human minds.  Psychologically, it is the same thing as the soul.  Ethically, the ultimate end of the human enterprise is to be found in the immanent and transcendent ground of Being.  Huxley proposes that this ground of Being in all religions is one and the same and that it constitutes the essential core of each religion.  His book, which Frye read shortly after it was published in 1945 (New York: Harper), is an anthology of selections from the tradition of the philosophia perennis, sandwiched between Huxley’s commentary. What follows are Frye’s notebook entries that refer to the perennial philosophy.  For an account of Frye’s reading of Huxley, see Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World, pp. 176–80.


Thus, without losing its specific historical orientation through Judaism and Christianity, the Bible is an archetypal model of a perennial philosophy or everlasting gospel.  At least, that’s what I’d call it if I were writing a book on religion.  We really do move from creation to recreation. (CW 5, 28)

I have an old note about eros and logos, creation by desire and creation by the Word.  It may be linked with another which quotes Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy as saying that the soul is female and the spirit male.  Note that the new heaven and the new earth is the real Tao, yang & yin in perfect balance. (CW 5, 10)

Wisdom in the Bible is an outgrowth of Torah, instruction, the completion of the knowledge of good and evil in its genuine form.  Biblical wisdom is not just wisdom, not the wisdom of Egypt or Sumeria, any more than its Yahweh is Ptah or Enki.  It has affinities, of course, but not to the point of blurring its identity.  That’s why Hebrew wisdom develops dialectically into prophecy, which again is Biblical prophecy, not Zoroaster or Tiresias prophecy.  All religions are one, not alike: a metaphorical unity of different things, not a bundle of similarities.  In that sense there is no “perennial philosophy”: that’s a collection, at best, of denatured techniques of concentration.  As doctrine, it’s platitude: moral maxims that have no application.  What there is, luckily, is a perennial struggle. (CW 5, 110)

In the third lecture I want to proceed from the gospel to the Everlasting Gospel, and yet without going in the theosophic direction of reconciliation or smile-of-a-fool harmony.  The synoptics make Jesus distinguish himself from the Father, as not yet more than a prophet: it’s in the “spiritual” gospel of John that he proclaims his own divinity.  (That’s approximately true, though one has to fuss and fuddle in writing it out.)  Yet John is more specifically and pointedly “Christian” than the synoptics: the direction is from one spokesman of the perennial philosophy and a unique incarnation starting a unique event.  Buddhism and the like interpenetrate with the Everlasting Gospel: they are to be reconciled with it.  I don’t quite yet know what I mean. (CW 6, 618–19)

Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy is a book I must keep in touch with: my point about the soul as female & the spirit as male (p. 174) is there in full force. (CW 13, 360)

The second stage is the mind’s withdrawal from creation into the death-consciousness of contemplation and observation.  God here becomes a first cause and (as in St. Thomas) a clearing-house of absolute terms—essence, being omni- this and that.  Here everything is focussed on the judgement that accompanies death, which in turn is the inevitable consequence of an act of creation, a making of the world.  As it proceeds, its one God becomes less personal, & the stage ends in “Thou art That” mysticism, the so-called perennial philosophy.  It starts with a personal Creator & ends in a “hid divinity,” a God beyond God. (CW 13, 100)

The third, as I now see, is an essay on the typology of the Bible leading up to the question of what comparative religion compares, or, what does religion as a whole say, when considered, not as religio or social observance, or as symbolism, which doesn’t say anything, but as doctrine, in the sense of an imaginative vision which is also existential and committed?  I don’t believe in a “perennial philosophy,” but there is something here. (CW 13, 110)

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Frye on “The Critic as Artist”


Yesterday’s Quote of the Day was from Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist.”  Here’s what Frye has to say about it in Creation and Recreation:

In my first chapter I quoted a passage from Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Critic as Artist.”  This essay builds up an argument that seems to make an exaggerated and quite unrealistic importance out of the reader of literature, the critic being the representative reader.  He is paralleled with the artist in a way that seems to give him an equal share at least in what the artist is doing.  Here again Wilde is writing from the point of view of a later generation.  For many centuries the centre of gravity in literature was the hero, the man whose deeds the poet celebrated.  As society slowly changed its shape, the hero modulated to the “character,” and in Wilde’s day it was still the creation of the character, as one sees it so impressively in Shakespeare, Dickens, and Browning, that was the primary mark of poetic power.  At the same time the Romantic movement had brought with it a shift of interest from the hero to the poet himself, as not merely the creator of the hero but as the person whose inner life was the real, as distinct from the projected, subject of the poem.  There resulted an extraordinary mystique of creativity, in which the artist became somehow a unique if not actually superior species of human being, with qualities of prophet, genius, wise man, and social leader.  Wilde realized that in a short time the centre of gravity in literature critical theory would shift again, this time from the poet to the reader.  The dividing line in English literature is probably Finnegans Wake, where it is so obvious that the reader has a heroic role to play.  (CW 4, 75)

Oscar Wilde


Wendy Hiller as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest

On this date in 1895 Oscar Wilde was convicted of “gross indecency with other males” and sentenced to two years hard labor.

Frye in Creation and Recreation:

A year or so ago, after agreeing to help teach an undergraduate course in Shakespeare, I settled down to reread one of my favorite pieces of Shakespeare criticism, Oscar Wilde’s essay on “The Truth of Masks.”  The essay, however, was one in a collected volume of Wilde’s critical essays, and I find it easy to get hooked on Wilde.  His style often makes him sound dated, and yet he is consistently writing from a point of view that is at least half a century later than his actual time.  He is one of our few genuinely prophetic writers, and, as with other prophets, everything he writes seems either to lead up to his tragic confrontation with society or reflect back on it.  Partly because of this, he deliberately restricts his audience.  He sets up a palisade of self-conscious and rather mechanical wit, which not only infuriates those who have no idea what he is talking about but often puts off those who do.  We may get so annoyed at his dandies waving their hands languidly at thick volumes labeled “Plato” or “Aristotle” that we may forget that Wilde could, and did, read Greek, and that his references to Classical authors are usually quite precise.  So before long I was back in the world of the essay called “The Decay of Lying,” now widely regarded to have said a great deal of what modern theories of criticism have been annotating in more garbled language ever since.

The main thesis of this essay is that man does not live directly and nakedly in nature like animals, but within an envelope that he has constructed out of nature, the envelope usually called culture or civilization.  When Wordsworth urges his reader to leave his books, go outdoors, and let nature be his teacher, his “nature” is a north temperate zone nature which in nineteenth-century England had become, even in the Lake District, largely a human artifact.  One can see the importance, for poets and others, of the remoteness and otherness of nature: the feeling that the eighteenth century expressed in the word “sublime” conveys to us that there is such a thing as creative alienation.  The principle laid down by the Italian philosopher Vico of verum factum, that we understand only what we have made ourselves, needs to be refreshed sometimes by the contemplation of something we did not make and do not understand.  The difficulty with Wordsworth’s view is in the word “teacher.”  A nature which was not primarily a human artifact could teach man nothing except that he was not it.  We are taught by our own cultural conditioning, and by that alone.  (CW 4, 36-7)

Frye on Leonard Cohen


“Hallelujah,” performed live in London during Cohen’s recent world tour

At 75 Leonard Cohen remains a potent cultural force: his song “Hallelujah” has become something of a universal hymn over the last decade or so, and has been covered many times by people like Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Jeff Buckley, John Cale, k. d. lang, Rufus Wainwright — as well as by a handful of American Idol contestants looking to up their game.  Below is a selection of Frye’s comments on Cohen’s work, beginning when he first appeared on the scene with Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956).

Leonard Cohen, Let Us Compare Mythologies (McGill Poetry Series; [Toronto:] Contact Press) is the first in a series of books featuring McGill poets, which we owe, as we owe so much, to the generous enthusiasm of Louis Dudek. The poems are of very unequal merit, but the book as a whole is a remarkable production. The erotic poems follow the usual convention of stacking up thighs like a Rockette chorus line, and for them Mr. Cohen’s own phrase, “obligations, the formalities of passion,” is comment enough. But it is an excess of energy rather than a deficiency of it that is his main technical obstacle. Sometimes moods and images get tangled up with each other and fail to come through to the reader, or allusions to books or paintings distract the attention and muffle the climax, as in Jingle. In short, this book has the normal characteristics of a good first volume.

To come to his positive qualities, his chief interest, as indicated in his title, is mythopoeic. The mythologies are Jewish, Christian, and Hellenistic. The Christian myth is seen as an extension of the Jewish one, its central hanged god in the tradition of the martyred Jew (“Saviors”), and Hellenism is the alien society which Christianity has come to terms with and Judaism has not. The mythical patterns of the Bible provide some of the paradigms of his imagery:

The sun is tangled

in black branches

raving like Absalom

between sky and water,

struggling through the dark terebinth

to commit its daily suicide.

Other mythical figures, such as the femme fatale at the centre of Letter, Story, and Song of Patience, and the dying god of Elegy, are of white‑goddess and golden‑bough provenance. Mr. Cohen’s outstanding poetic quality, so far, is a gift for macabre ballad reminding one of Auden, but thoroughly original, in which the chronicles of tabloids are celebrated in the limpid rhythms of folksong. The grisly Halloween Poem, with its muttering prose glosses, is perhaps the most striking of these, but there is also a fine mythopoeic Ballad beginning “My lady was found mutilated,” which starts with a loose free verse idiom and at the end suddenly concentrates into quatrains. The song beginning My lover Peterson is simpler but equally effective, and so is another disturbing news item called Warning. In Lovers he achieves the improbable feat of making a fine dry sardonic ballad out of the theme of a pogrom. No other Canadian poet known to me is doing anything like this, and I hope to see more of it-‑from Mr. Cohen, that is. [“Letters in Canada”]

Once technique reaches a certain degree of skill, it turns into something that we may darkly suspect to be fun: fun for the writer to display it, fun for the reader to watch it. In the old days we were conditioned to believe that only lowbrows read for fun, and that highbrows read serious literature to improve their minds. The coming of radio did a good deal to help this morbid situation, and television has done something (not enough) more. We now live in a time when Leonard Cohen can start out with an erudite book of poems called Let Us Compare Mythologies, the chief mythologies being the Biblical and the Classical, and evolve from there, quite naturally, into a well‑known folk singer. [“Conclusion” to Literary History of Canada]

The verbal wit that comes through in, say, Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, in some of Needham’s essays (see Mr. Conron’s article), in the concrete poets, is a sign of the presence of seriousness and not the absence of it, the serious being the opposite of the solemn.  [“Conclusion” to Literary History of Canada]

A parenthetical remark in Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers links a similar feeling of guilt to the colonial mentality of Canadians: “Some part of the Canadian Catholic mind is not certain of the Church’s victory over the Medicine Man. No wonder the forests of Quebec are mutilated and sold to America.” [“Haunted by Lack of Ghosts”]

While I was reviewing English Canadian poetry during the fifties, I noticed how many of the best people were turning erudite, allusive, even academic. I felt that this indicated the growth of an unforced and relaxed sense of a cultural tradition, one which could now be absorbed instead of merely imitated or echoed. Of course all the anxieties listed above were still in the air, and I was widely regarded as encouraging a new form of inhibited provincialism. But what I saw in, for example, Leonard Cohen’s Let Us Compare Mythologies, Jay Macpherson’s The Boatman, Margaret Avison’s Winter Sun, James Reaney’s Suit of Nettles seemed to me an attitude to cultural tradition that looked forward rather than back.  [“Culture as Interpenetration”]

“The Key to all Mythology”



In one of the notebooks for his first Bible book Frye writes, “For at least 25 years I’ve been preoccupied by the notion of a key to all mythologies. I used to call this the ‘Druid analogy,’ & its components included Atlantis, reincarnation, cyclical symbolism.  But surely that’s all in the Bible, & the Bible as is (Atlantis-flood, reincarnation = historical repetition, etc.).  I think I have to make this book [The Great Code] the key to mythologies” (CW 13, 198).  By “Druid analogy” Frye means the religious myths and rituals of natural religion in its most primitive forms.  In another of his Bible notebooks he calls it the “pagan synthesis,” which is an analogy to the Biblical and Christian mythology.

In Fearful Symmetry Frye speaks of the myths of inspired bards of the ancient Druid civilization and the earlier myth of Atlantis, combined with the myths of the giant Albion and of Ymir, as containing “the key to all mythologies, or at least to the British and Biblical ones” (CW 14, 178).

In The “Third Book” Notebooks Frye writes that “Part One of this book, the Book of Luvah, to some extent recapitulates AC [Anatomy of Criticism] by taking the mythos of romance as the key to all mythical structure.  This incorporates the epic & the sentimental-romance speculations that got squeezed out of AC.  From here one could go either into Urizen, speculative mythology in metaphysics and religion, by way of Dante & the church’s thematic stasis of the Bible & the Druid analogy, or (as I favor now) into the applied mythology of contracts & Utopias (Tharmas) by way of Rousseau, William Morris,  & various second-twist prose forms, including those of St. Augustine. (CW 9, 63)

Frye made a valiant effort to provide a key to all mythology, trying to fit everything into what he called the Great Doodle, which was primarily his symbolic shorthand for the monomyth.  Originally Frye conceived of the Great Doodle as “the cyclical quest of the hero” (CW 9, 214) or “the underlying form of all epics” (ibid., 241).  But as he began to move away from strictly literary terms toward both religious language and the language of Greek myth and philosophy, another pattern developed, one with an east-west axis of Nous-Nomos and a north-south axis of Logos-Thanatos.  At this point the Great Doodle took on an added significance, becoming a symbolic shorthand for what he called the narrative form of the Logos vision: “the circular journey of the Logos from Father to Spirit” (ibid., 260) or “the total cycli­cal journey of the incarnate Logos” (ibid., 201). But the Great Doodle is never merely a cycle.  Its shape requires also the vertical axis mundi and the horizontal axis separating the world of innocence and experience.  These, with their numerous variations, produce the four quadrants that are omnipresent in Frye’s diagrammatic way of thinking.  In Notebook 7 he refers to the quadrants as part of the Lesser Doodle (par. 190), mean­ing only that the quadrants themselves are insufficient to establish the larger geometric design of the Great Doodle.

The Great Doodle has still further elaborations.  In the extensive notes he made for his Norton Lectures at Harvard (The Secular Scripture) Frye remarks self-referentially that in book 14 of Longfellow’s Hiawatha the heroine “invents picture-writing, including the Great Doodle of Frye’s celebrated masterpieces” (Notes on Romance, weblog).  The reference is to Hia­watha’s painting on birch-bark a series of symbolic and mystic images: the egg of the Great Spirit, the serpent of the Spirit of Evil, the circle of life and death, the straight line of the earth, and other ancestral totems in the great chain of being.  Frye elaborates his Great Doodle in a similar way, the Hiawathan “shapes and figures” becoming for him points of epiphany at the circumference of the circle—what he twice refers to as beads on a string (CW 9, 241, 245). The beads are various topoi and loci along the circumferential string.  They can be seen as stations where the questing hero stops in his journey (CW 5, 416) or as the cardinal points of a circle (CW 9, 147–8, 159, 177, 198, 200, 204, 249, 254).  Frye even over lays one form of the Logos diagram with the eight trigrams of the I Ching, saying that they “can be connected with my Great Doodle” (ibid., 209), and one version of the Great Doodle recapitulates what he refers to throughout his notebooks as “the Revelation diagram” (CW 13, 193), the intricately designed chart that Frye passed out in his Bible course.

The Great Doodle, then, is a representation, though a hypothetical one, that contains the large schematic patterns in Frye’s memory theatre: the cyclical quest with its quadrants, cardinal, and epiphanic points; and the vertical ascent and descent movements along the chain of being or the axis mundi. It contains as well all of the lesser doodles that Frye cre­ates to represent the diagrammatic structure of myth and metaphor and that he frames in the geometric language of gyre and vortex, centre and circumference.

There are other large frameworks that structure Frye’s imaginative uni­verse, such as the eight-book fantasy—the ogdoad—that he invokes re­peatedly throughout his career, or the Hermes-Eros-Adonis-Prometheus (HEAP) scheme that begins in Notebook 7 (late 1940s) and dominates the notebook landscape of Frye’s last decade.  The ogdoad, which Michael Dolzani has definitively explained (“The Book of the Dead: A Skeleton Key to Northrop Frye’s Notebooks,” in Rereading Frye: The Published and Unpublished Works, ed. David Boyd and Imre Salusinszky [Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1999], 19–38), is fundamentally a conceptual key to Frye’s own work, though it is related in a slippery and often vague way to the Great Doodle.  The HEAP scheme, in its half-dozen variations, is clearly used to define the quadrants of the Great Doodle, and there are countless other organizing devices, serving as Lesser Doodles, that Frye draws from alchemy, the zodiac, musical keys, colours, the chess board, 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, numerological schemes, and so on.

All of these schematic formulations are a part of the key to all mythologies.  But where did they come from?  The came, of course, from Frye’s extensive knowledge of the literary tradition, the myths of literature arranging themselves in his expansive memory theater.  But they also came from Frye’s reading of the mythographers.

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Emily Dickinson and the Furnace Archetype


Frye liked to say that he intended his work to be treated as a source of isolated insights that might help others, even if one felt reluctant to swallow the rest whole. He was thinking of something as simple as assisting a reader or scholar in the business of practical criticism.

I just had the experience of that usefulness as I was working today on a reading of a poem by Emily Dickinson for today’s class. The poem is the famous “Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?”

Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?
Then crouch within the door—
Red—is the Fire’s common tint—
But when the vivid Ore
Has vanquished Flame’s conditions,
It quivers from the Forge
Without a color, but the light
Of unanointed Blaze.
Least Village has its Blacksmith
Whose Anvil’s even ring
Stands symbol for the finer Forge
That soundless tugs—within—
Refining these impatient Ores
With Hammer, and with Blaze
Until the Designated Light
Repudiate the Forge—

And here is the illuminating passage from Frye’s Words with Power:

The smith often represents a destructive force, as apparently in Zechariah 1:20. In this verse the AV reads “carpenters”: in Biblical Hebrew it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the worker in wood from the worker in metal except by the context. But just as there can be benevolent carpenters, like the New Testament Joseph and traditionally Jesus himself, so there can be creative smiths, like the forger of the new Jerusalem in Isaiah 54:16. This smith, who creates a new city glowing with gems and gold, represents perhaps the closest Biblical parallel to the symbolism of alchemy, and is the Biblical basis for Blake’s conception of his culture-hero, the blacksmith Los working with his furnaces.

The image of the furnace may be used for either the negative or positive aspects of the lower world. The negative or demonic world is the traditional hell which is a furnace of heat without light. The positive one is purgatorial, a crucible from which the redeemed emerge purified like metal in a smelting operation. Thus the Egypt from which Israel has been delivered is spoken of several times as a “furnace of iron,” and the purity of the spiritual body is sometimes symbolized by metal (Revelation 1:15). Images of refinement and purification in a furnace recur in connection with language (Psalm 12:6) as well as in the afflictions of life (Proverbs 17:3; Isaiah 48:10). The best known of these purgatorial furnaces is the one constructed by Nebuchadnezzar for his attempted martyrdom of the three faithful Jews in the Book of Daniel. Their song in the Apocrypha is a highly concentrated praise to God for the beauty and glory of the original creation, which their purification in the furnace has evidently enabled them to see. Obviously, in this extension of furnace symbolism, we have modulated from the technological to the purgatorial, and the furnace has become the human body.

Dickinson was often focused on that moment called the transitus–the transition from this world to immortality or eternity–which she treated with awe. She  came to conceive of her life of passionate longing and loss as a crucible, which is also how she thought of her poetry: as a purgatorial process, a refining of the “impatient ores” of her intense emotional life into artistic form. Hence her persistent emphasis on the moment of transit when “the Designated Light/Repudiate the Forge.” She often thought of this process in Blakean terms: of preparing her ultimate“face” or “form” in the mirror of the human form divine.

Frye’s essay on Dickinson and his seminal essay “Charms and Riddles” are replete with startlingly useful insight about the literary conventions used by Dickinson, but this particular instance illustrates the way in which Frye’s “ear” for archetypes–in this case the biblical furnace archetype that is the focus of last chapter of Words with Power–is enormously helpful in unpacking the richest implications of the  imagery of a poem, implications that might otherwise elude us. Dickinson’s poem takes a simple New England blacksmith’s forge, which even the “least village” has, and makes it the most apposite analogy for the purgatory–as the poet conceived it–of human life and the perfecting of the human soul through poetry and art, awakening, if we have the ear for it, all the echoes and reverberations–in the Bible, in Dante, in Blake and Yeats’s Byzantium–that the conventions of a particular archetype, as Frye puts it in The Secular Scripture, “set up within our literary experience, like a shell that contains the sound of the sea.”