Category Archives: Oxford

Query Regarding Frye Marginalia in Dante’s “Divine Comedy”

Nicholas Graham sent us this email a couple of days ago:

Here is one of the many highlights to be found among Frye’s Dante annotations.

I would like to share it with anyone who is able to throw some light on Frye’s distinctions.

I have asked some of my theologian friends to explain Frye’s distinction between “the Maritains & the Barths”. Also I would like to know a little more about each of the types of visions that Frye presents here.

Maybe you could start an annotations corner on your wounderful blog?

You can see Graham’s transcript of the annotation here. Please have a look, and if you have anything to add, leave us a comment.

The answer to Nick’s question is, yes. We will set up a dedicated space for annotations.  We’ll let you know once we get it up and running.,

And, of course, queries of any sort are welcome.  We are always glad to post them.

Here are two responses to Graham’s query.

From Bob Denham:

Isn’t the Maritain/Barth distinction simply that Maritain accepted the analogia entis and Barth rejected it.  See Barth’s Church Dogmatics, vol. 3, pt..2, trans. Knight et al. (Edinburgh: Clark, 1960), 220.  See also Keith L. Johnson, Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis (2010).

I have a brief discussion of Frye and the analogia entis in “Frye and Giordano Bruno,” which has been posted on the Frye blog.  In a “General Note: Blake’s Mysticism,” Fearful Symmetry, CW 14:415–16, Frye contrasts Blake’s analogia visionis with “the more orthodox analogies of faith and being.”

Frye’s aligning the four forms of analogia with Dante’s four levels of meaning is a pretty ingenious schematic.  Of course Frye’s ultimate commitment is to anagogy, where the principle of identity, as opposed to analogy, operates.

From Michael Dolzani:

My knowledge here is highly limited, despite growing up Catholic; I thought analogia was a girl I went to high school with. However, I think Bob is basically right. The Catholic Maritain accepts the analogia entis and is thus trapped in reason; the Protestant Barth rejects it and manages thereby to open a path to the analogia visionis, to vision, via the Logos. I wonder when these notes were written:  this all seems an outbreak of Norrie’s visceral antipathy to Catholicism, which I’ve never really understood.

I know that the Catholic Church of his youth was extremely reactionary, and that he disliked the potential authoritarianism of the neo-Thomist movement, which he saw as parallel to something like Eliot’s Anglo-Catholic insistence on “orthodoxy,” but Catholicism really seems to have been a sore spot. After all, Aquinas may be dryly Scholastic, but I find Augustine’s obsession with sin, damnation, predestination, and the like as repellent as anything in the Inferno. When Benedict recently abolished half of Limbo (the unbaptized infants), there were a lot of articles talking about the historical background; I don’t know if it’s true that where Aquinas said the souls of unbaptized infants were merely denied heaven, Augustine went further and said that they shared to a degree the punishments of the damned–but it sounds like something he’d say.

In short, Norrie saw the shadow side of Catholicism, but seems to minimize the shadow side of Protestantism. It was the Augustinian tradition of obsession with sin and guilt and the corruption of the human will that led to Luther’s tormented ferocity; to Calvinism’s making predestination practically the whole of the Christian message; to the burning of witches; and, after all, Barth’s theology was itself called “neo-orthodox.” Hardly a line of vision. If you wanted to be unfair in the other direction, you could counterpoise all this against enlightened Catholics like Erasmus and Nicholas Cusanus and Rabelais. Norrie knows all this–in fact, he says some of it in Fearful Symmetry. But when he gets emotional he tends to think only of the bad side of Catholicism and the good side of Protestantism.

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Duns Scotus

On this date in 1308, the scholastic theologian and philosopher Duns Scotus died.

In October 1936, Frye, newly ensconced at Merton College, Oxford, wrote Helen about the college legend that the ghost of Duns Scotus haunted his room:

Apparently the tradition I think I mentioned, that the ghost of Duns Scotus haunts this room and the one above it as well as the library (which is really an extension of my staircase) is quite well-known and of some standing.  He has a long and cold way to come, as he’s buried in Cologne, but I can see where the legend of his haunting the library would originate: Merton had the best library in England during the Middle Ages and all of Scotus would be here, being the greatest English scholastic and a Merton man.  Then the Reformation came, this library was plundered, the manuscripts torn to pieces and thrown into the quad, and of all authors the one singled out for especial destruction was Scotus.  I asked my scout if he had ever sensed a ghost on this staircase, and he said no, but various people have put on surplices and awakened people by putting cold hands on them.

Saturday Night at the Movies: “Duck Soup”


Given the state of our politics these days, this may be the perfect film to watch on this particular Saturday night. (Video not embedded: click on the image and then hit the YouTube link.)

The 24 year old Frye in a letter from Oxford to Helen Kemp relates a story involving a classmate, a somewhat addled aristocrat, and the Marx Brothers’ 1933 classic, Duck Soup:

The other night in the lodge our only sprig of nobility, the Honourable David St. Clair Erskine (one of our tame homosexuals as well) came in from the Dramatic Society’s performance of Macbeth and met Baine, who had just come in from seeing the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup.  The Honourable David St. Clair Erskine was tanked up just enough to be affable to anybody–when he woke up the next morning and realized that he had spoken to an American Freshman Rhodes Scholar to whom he hadn’t been introduced he probably went on the water wagon for life.  He said: “I enjoyed the show (meaning Macbeth) very much, didn’t you?”  Baine: “Very much (meaning Duck Soup).  “I remembered that I had seen it before, but I enjoyed it very well the second time anyway.” The Honourable D. St. C.E. (somewhat staggered): “I — I understand they didn’t get it all rehearsed in time, and are adding a few scenes at each performance.”  Baine: “Yes, I noticed it had been cut a good deal, but thought it had been censored.”  The Honourable Et Cetera: “I like the leading lady — she’s new to Oxford, but she did very well.”  By this time, there being no leading lady in the Marx Brothers picture, the first faint roseate blush of dawn began to appear in Baine’s mind, but he wisely decided the situation would be too much for the H. D. St. C. E.’s  bewildered brain to cope with at that point.  (CW 2, 702-3)

The rest of the film after the jump.  This is the Marx Brothers at their very best.  Many will no doubt be amazed just how many of the classic Marx Brothers scenes come from this one movie.  About the best way I can think of to spend 80 minutes.  As a bonus, this is also a pristine, high definition version of the film.  Enjoy.

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Merton College, Oxford

On this date in 1214 The University of Oxford received its charter.

Frye attended Merton College (established 1264), completing his studies for an MA in the spring of 1939.  During the summer and fall of 1982 Frye was interviewed by Valerie Schatzker as part of an oral history of the University of Toronto.  Here he talks about his experience at Oxford.

Schaztker: How did [study there] compare with what you remember from the Honour Course [at Victoria College]?

Frye: It was very largely a repetition of what I’d done.  I read more intensively, but, as I said, my real reason for taking it was that I wanted to become fresher in the whole English area.  If you ask about instruction: of course it was tutorial, and my tutor was Edmund Blunden, who was a rather shy, diffident man.  For some bloody reason, which I’ve never figured out, he was pro-Nazi.  I didn’t know who was to blame for that.  But in any case, I seemed to meet fascists everywhere I turned at Oxford, so I was poltically and socially extremely unhappy for that time that I was there.  England’s morale seemed to be the lowest in its history.  If you read Howard K. Smith’s Last Train From Berlin (he’s a CBS announcer, and he was a classmate of mine at Oxford), the first chapter is about his experiences at Merton College and it will give you some idea of what I myself found extremely uncongenial about the place…

It may have been pure accident.  But if I found myself just meeting people casually, I seemed to keep running into fascist groups all the time.  I knew that the Labour group was the largest single group at Oxford, but the general feeling at Merton, certainly, and I think at several other colleges as well, was very much not to my liking…

I wouldn’t say that it was more politially active, but the undercurrents were beginning to swirl around and they were very ugly ones.  There was one man who had gone up to Merton on a scholarship which had been donated by Oswald Mosely [of the British Union of Fascists] and his job was to recruit people as far as he could.  I felt that if England had not been forced into an anti-Hitler position it would have gone in a very sinister direction or at least the intellectual leadership would have done so.

Schatzker: Did you find yourself ostracized?

Frye: No, I didn’t.  That’s too strong a word.  I didn’t find myself ostrasized.  And of course there were very intense left-wing people both in Merton College and elsewhere.  Howard Smith was one, and another was a tough egg from Yorkshire who came home drunk to his room and found four or five Fascists roughing it up.  So his head cleared and he went into action and pretty soon the air was thick with Fascists flying out of windows. (CW 24, 599-600)

Who Was Elizabeth Fraser?

Fraser's ullus.2

Illustration by Elizabeth Fraser

In mid‑October 1936 Frye has a chance encounter with Elizabeth Fraser, a Canadian graphic artist and book illustrator with whom he and Helen Kemp had had a passing acquaintance in Toronto and who was living in London and (sometimes) in Oxford.  “We parted with expressions of esteem,” Frye writes to Helen, “and promises to come together later.  I may give a tea for her and [Douglas] LePan soon.  She looks interesting.”  But before he can send an invitation, Fraser asks him over for a meal, which he accepts, showing up at her place two weeks later.  Thus begins the most intriguing relationship Frye has during the year.  Fraser, a pipe‑smoking free spirit who is twelve years older than Frye, is trying to survive in Oxford by illustrating books, always living on the brink of insolvency.  One of her projects, described in some detail in Frye’s letter of 3 November 1936, mystifies him because he cannot imagine why she is drawn to the turgid prose of the text.  Fraser completes twenty or so extraordinary drawings for the book, which turns out to be Plato’s Academy: The Birth of the Idea of Its Rediscovery by Pan Aristophron, published in 1938 by Oxford University Press.  Frye says that Fraser is “a very remarkable girl” and is attracted to her ideas, which he says “have been gradually developing the way mine have on Blake, into a more and more objective unity all the time,” as well as to her drawings, which he sees “as sincere as the book is faked, and as concrete as the book is vague.”

Aristophron says nothing at all in his preface about Fraser’s drawings, which are identified only by her stylized initials—EF—tucked away in the corner of several of the illustrations.  The book was printed by John Johnson, “Printer to the University” and also a friend of Fraser’s.

Fraser was also interested in preserving wall paintings in medieval churches, and so she and Frye would go to churches in and around Oxford and sketch the paintings, which are in various states of disintegration.  They share each other’s company on a number of occasions during November and December 1936, having tea together, going on a “pub‑crawl,” hiking to the countryside and surrounding villages on numerous occasions, and seeing plays and movies together.  “God knows what one can make of the girl,” Frye tells Helen. “Her relief at finding someone who wouldn’t blush and look the other way when she powdered her nose and who wouldn’t think she was a fallen woman if she wanted to go find a bush in the course of the walk suggested that she had been making rather a fool of herself in front of Englishmen recently—I suspect she has a genius for that.”  They continue to see each other frequently throughout the 1937 Easter term.  Toward the end of the term Frye writes to Helen that Elizabeth is “a lonely girl with lots of courage, pride and sensitiveness, but she is a swell girl.  She hits hard and rubs people the wrong way, in a way I think you understand, after six years of me, but she’s more honest and straightforward than I am and has more guts.  You’ll love her when you meet her.”  Both Frye and Fraser frequently borrow money from each other, and each is attracted to the other’s creative bent, even though Frye hardly knows how to respond to some of her illustrations and designs.

After completing his examinations at the end of his first term at Oxford, Frye finds himself miserable and penniless, waiting to receive the next instalment of his Royal Society grant so he can go to London for the Christmas vacation.  But his spirits are lifted by the arrival of ₤50 from the Royal Society and by “a fairly concentrated dose” of Elizabeth Fraser.  On 19 December he escapes to London for the holidays, staying with Edith and Stephen Burnett, friends of Kemp through Norah McCullough, the educational supervisor at the Art Gallery of Toronto.  Elizabeth Fraser shows up in London on 26 December for a five‑day visit, and she and Frye attend two performances of Murder in the Cathedral. (Fraser gets sick at the first performance and has to be hauled home in a taxi). They also wander out to Hampton Court to see a painting by Mantegna.

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Rodney Baine and Charlie Bell


Merton College Chapel

Rodney Baine, mentioned in the 1950 diary entry for 23 August, was a U.S. Rhodes Scholar studying at Oxford, whom Frye met during his early days at Merton College in 1936 –– one of several fellow students he chummed around with.  Other friends were Joseph Reid from Manitoba, Alba Warren from Texas, Charles Bell from Mississippi (all Rhodes Scholars) and a hard‑drinking New Zealander, Mike Joseph.  In 1937 Frye spent time between terms touring Italy with Baine and Joseph and once back in Oxford he took up residence in a boarding house some distance from Merton College, sharing a suite with Baine and Joseph.  Frye apparently had not seen Baine between their Oxford days and the 1950 chance encounter on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, where Frye was studying during his Guggenheim year.  After stints at MIT, the University of Richmond, and Delta State University of Alabama at Montevallo, Baine landed a teaching position in 1962 at the University of Georgia, where he became a distinguished eighteenth‑century scholar.  Among his publications were books on on William Blake, Daniel Defoe, Robert Munford, and James Oglethorpe.  In 1981 Baine’s son James established the Rodney M. Baine Lecture Fund to commemorate his father, and in April 1982 Frye presented the Rodney Baine Lecture, “An Illustrated Lecture of Blake’s Jerusalem” at the University of Georgia.  Baine died in 2000.

In the full diary entry for 23 August 1950 Frye wrote, “Evidently he [Baine] was closely involved in the Charlie-Mildred bust up: in fact he had a hand in drawing up the articles of separation, & is still friendly & still corresponds with both.  He says that when we saw them they probably weren’t even living together, as Mildred had kicked him out of the house soon after he got back from Italy.”  The reference is to the divorce of Charlie Bell and Mildred Winfree, with whom he had lived during his year at Oxford.  Frye adds: “Charlie’s present wife [Diana (Danny) Mason] is a Quaker, & he reports that he has had the happiest year of his life.  Bell later taught at Princeton, the University of Chicago, and St. John’s College in both Annapolis and Santa Fe.  Several years back Charlie Bell sent me his reminiscences about Frye from the time of their Oxford years.  I reproduce it here, with editorial insertions in square brackets:

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Some Notes on Frye and Blunden (1)

Edmund Blunden in 1938

Edmund Blunden in 1938

The relationship between Frye and his Oxford tutor is, like most human relations, complex.  Frye’s attitudes toward Blunden emerge during the course of his correspondence with Helen Kemp (Frye).  Blunden’s view of Frye is more difficult to untangle.  Other than Frye’s statements about Blunden in the Frye‑Kemp letters, I think Frye makes only five references to his tutor.  In a 1942 diary entry, he mentions Blunden in passing: “I’d like to write an article on Everyman prudery sometime.  Geoffrey of Monmouth; the translator’s smug sneer on p. 248.  Malory, according to Blunden” (Diaries 33).  The meaning here is uncertain, but perhaps Frye is remembering a remark of Blunden’s that the Everyman edition of Malory’s Arthur had been bowlerdized.”  There’s another passing reference in Frye’s foreword to Robin Harris’s English Studies at Toronto. In his 1952 diary he remarks that Douglas LePan had visited Blunden in Tokyo (504).  The fourth reference comes in a review of C. Day Lewis’s translation of Virgil’s Georgics: Frye writes that the translation has “much in common with the best of the English bucolic school: with Shanks, Blunden, Edward Thomas, and Victoria Sackville-West’s The Land” (Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 71 [March 1948]: 337-8).  Then in a review of Robert Graves’s Collected Poems Frye writes that Graves is closer in technique to Blunden than to Eliot (Hudson Review 9 [Summer 1956]: 298).

These remarks are inconsequential for understanding the Frye‑Blunden relationship.  In an interview with Valerie Schatzker Frye reports that Blunden “was a rather shy, diffident man.”  At least they had those traits in common.  Then Frye adds, signaling an enormous difference, “for some bloody reason, which I’ve never figured out, he was pro‑Nazi.  I didn’t know who to blame for that.”  In a letter to Helen (28 May 1937) Frye wrote that “Blunden came back from Germany full of enthusiasm for the Nazis.”  Blunden was in fact accused in 1939 of being a Nazi sympathizer.  Here’s the way his politics is presented on the Edmund Blunden website, established by his family:

In April 1940 Edmund wrote to the Times to deplore plans to bomb German cities, fearing for the inevitable killing and wounding of civilians. As a result, Annie’s [Annie was the German wife of Blunden’s brother] home in Tonbridge was raided by the police who took all [his wife] Sylva’s letters to Edmund, and returned to the house to go through all Edmund’s books.  Edmund told the Warden of Merton that he had already written to his old Commanding Officer, [Col. Harrison in Undertones of War] to offer his services, and soon found himself in uniform again as an officer in the University’s Officers Training Corps.

Blunden was not interested in politics but was vehemently opposed to war. He refused to be drawn into the politics of pacifism. His refusal to politically engage in the late 1930’s led to him being labelled a Nazi and subsequently, in the 1950s, a communist, following his visit to China, shortly after the end of the Korean war.  His belief in the fundamental goodness of the ordinary man and the need to avoid war at all costs, consistently led him to being politically misunderstood, particularly during the tumultuous events of the 1930s.  He used his writing, public speaking and visits to Germany in an ambassadorial attempt to influence opinion against any recurrence of the 1914-18 conflagration.  This was emphatically not a political voice but one that believed in bringing nations together by talking to each other and building strong human ties.  He was convinced that were his battle-weary generation in positions of power, war would naturally be averted.  He was devastated when it became clear that lessons from the tragedy of the Great War were being ignored and in many cases trodden upon. (

It would be interesting to see what Barry Webb’s biography of Blunden has to say about this.

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A Note on C. S. Lewis and Northrop Frye


“…the sophisticated allegories of Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis in our day . . . are largely based on the formulas of the Boy’s Own Paper”  (Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Second Essay

My reading was now mainly rubbish. . . .  I read twaddling school-stories in The Captain”  (C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Chapter 2)

Northrop Frye attended C.S. Lewis’s lectures during the time he spent in Oxford in the late 1930s; much later he would recall Lewis as the only lecturer in Oxford worth listening to.  The two men would not seem to have much in common: Lewis took a leading role in the revival of a consciously orthodox form of Christianity that is poles apart from Frye’s visionary Blakean Protestantism.  Nor does Frye seem to care for Lewis’s fiction: in the diary for 1949 he expostulates against Charles Williams, noting that “C.S. Lewis must be an influence too, & a bad one” (Feb. 26).  The passage from the Anatomy quoted above, identifying the fiction of the Inklings with the formulas of the Boy’s Own Paper, is hardly complimentary.  But the lectures Frye heard at Oxford were later published as The Discarded Image, a study of medieval cosmology that outlines a “Model” that persists until the end of the seventeenth century.  The affinities with the cosmological schemes in Frye’s work are readily apparent. 

Recently I was struck by another passage in Lewis, this one in his 1955 autobiography Surprised by Joy.  Lewis gives a fascinating account of his development as a reader, and in so doing he assumes something very like Frye’s conception of all of literature comprising a single system, an idea that was most extensively formulated in the Anatomy of Criticism (1957).  Lewis writes of his time at Campbell College in Belfast:

Much the most important thing that happened to me at Campbell was that I there read Sohrab and Rustum in form under an excellent master whom we called Octie.  I loved the poem at first sight and have loved it ever since. . . .  Arnold gave me at once (and the best of Arnold gives me still) a sense, not indeed of passionless vision, but of a passionate, silent gazing at things a long way off.  And here observe how literature actually works.  Parrot critics say that Sohrab is a poem for classicists, to be enjoyed only by those who recognise the Homeric echoes.  But I, in Octie’s form room (and on Octie be peace) knew nothing of Homer.  For me the relation between Arnold and Homer worked the other way; when I came, years later, to read the Iliad I liked it partly because it was for me reminiscent of Sohrab.  Plainly, it does not matter at what point you first break into the system of European poetry.  Only keep your ears open and your mouth shut and everything will lead you to everything else in the end.  (Chapter 3) 

There are also, of course, similarities with T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” For Eliot, “the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer . . . has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”  In the Introduction to the Anatomy, Frye calls this passage from Eliot “very fundamental criticism.”