Chapter 1: Theory of Modes

Historical Criticism: Heroic Powers of Action

Because literary critics have often used different words to mean the same thing and the same word to mean different things, understanding critical theory requires close attention to the language critics use. This is especially true in Frye’s case: he is not only, to use his own phrase, a “terminological buccaneer,” pirating words from the critical tradition and redefining them to suit his own purposes, he is also a terminological innovator, creating his own categories whenever he needs them. Frye’s argument in the First Essay of Anatomy of Criticism will be better understood, then, if we examine his special terminology and his redefinition of some familiar critical terms. The aim of the First Essay, entitled “Historical Criticism,” is to develop a theory of literary modes. It is built upon four fundamental categories:

Fictional: Relating to literature in which there are internal characters, apart from the author and his audience; opposed to thematic.

Thematic: Relating to works of literature in which no characters are involved except the author and his audience, as in most lyrics and essays, or to works of literature in which internal characters are subordinated to an argument maintained by the author, as in allegories and parables; opposed to fictional.

Ethos: The internal social context of a work of literature, comprising the characterization and setting of fictional literature and the relation of the author to his reader or audience in thematic literature.

Mode: A conventional power of action assumed about the chief characters in fictional literature, or the corresponding attitude assumed by the poet toward his audience in thematic literature. Such modes tend to succeed one another in historical sequence.1 

{2} The opposition between “fictional” and “thematic” provides the basis not only for the general organization of the First Essay but also for the two meanings which the word “mode” comes to assume in this section. “Mode” is a category defined broadly in relation to what Frye calls the ethical elements, or the ethos, of a literary work. The ethos, an expansion of Aristotle’s “character,” refers on the one hand to the literary hero and his society and on the other to a writer and his audience. The constant term, then, in Frye’s definition of both fictional and thematic modes is ethos, though the meaning in each case is different, since the point of reference is either the hypothetical characters or the author-audience relationship. “Fictional” works are those in which the characters are internal, existing primarily as functions of a plot. And a “fictional mode” refers to the power of action which a character possesses.

This distinction enables Frye to classify fictional works according to the position of the hero on a spoudaios-phaulos continuum, beginning with the hero as a god and ending with him as inferior to ourselves. He then develops an elaborate pattern through which his five fictional modes (myth, romance, high mimesis, low mimesis, and irony), in both their tragic and comic forms, are said to have cyclically moved.

Since “every work of literature has both a fictional and a thematic aspect” (AC, 53), “fictional” and “thematic” are relative terms. Lying behind Frye’s elaboration of the various fictional modes, for example, is always an awareness of the author-audience relationship (ethos in the second sense). “In literary fictions,” he says in the first paragraph of the First Essay, “the plot consists of somebody doing something. . . . The something he does or fails to do is what he can do, or could have done, on the level of the postulates made about him by the author and the consequent expectations of the audience” (AC, 33). These “postulates” and “expectations,” which indicate a concern for both the creative process and the audience’s response, are rhetorical considerations, or what Frye would refer to as “thematic” aspects of a literary work; for they depend on choices the author must make to manipulate his reader’s response. But the important point for the dialectic of Frye’s categories is that they are internally rhetorical: their essential reference is to the way an author causes his audience to respond not to the external world but to the self-contained world of the fictional hero. The values obtained from the response are therefore primarily final rather than instrumental.

This is not the case, however, with works in the “thematic mode,” for here the internal characters more or less disappear, having been subordinated to the dianoia of the writer’s argument. Works in the thematic mode are therefore external fictions in which the dominant “Poetry may be as completely absorbed in its {3} internal characters” Frye remarks, “as it is in Shakespeare, or in Homer. . . . But as soon as the poet’s personality appears on the horizon, a relation with the reader is established which cuts across the story, and which may increase until there is no story at all apart from what the poet is conveying to his reader” (AC, 52). Whereas the typical question asked about a fictional work is, Frye claims, “How is this story going to turn out?” the question for thematic works becomes “What’s the point of this story?” (AC, 52). In the latter mode, therefore, mythos and ethos (in the first sense) are subordinated to dianoia, as Frye’s definition of “thematic” indicates.

At times the primary criterion underlying the fictional-thematic dichotomy appears to be one of ends, so that Frye’s division of literature into two basic modes comes to resemble the mimetic-didactic categories of the Chicago Neo-Aristotelians.2 At other times, however, his criteria become so far-ranging as to amount to a distinction between aesthetic systems themselves. This is the case at the end of the First Essay where he aligns Aristotle’s view of art with the fictional mode and Longinus’s with the thematic. Such a distinction then permits him to set up a series of dialectical opposites which he sees as corresponding in a general way with his two modal categories: literature as product versus literature as process, artifact versus quality, catharsis versus ecstasis, detachment versus absorption (AC, 66–67). Here the method used to define the fictional and thematic categories has gone far beyond “ethical” relationships and rhetorical ends, for it involves the juxtaposition and then the merging of different critical methods, even of entire critical traditions. This syncretic tendency, as we shall see, occurs throughout Frye’s criticism.

From Myth to Irony: The Taxonomy of Fictional Modes

Having set down the principle that fictions may be classified according to the power of action possessed by the fictional hero, Frye proceeds to develop his theory of fictional modes. His principle for differentiating the modes is the relationship of the hero both to other men and to his natural environment, a principle which yields the five categories that appear throughout Anatomy of Criticism: (1) myth, in which the hero’s superiority is different in kind from that of other men and their environment; (2) romance, in which the hero’s superiority is one of degree; (3) high mimesis, where the hero is superior in degree to other men but not superior to nature; (4) low mimesis, in which the hero is more or less equal to other men and not superior to his environment; and (5) irony, where the hero’s power of action is inferior to that of ordinary men (AC, 33–34). The relationship of the hero to society provides the basis, {4} moreover, for a further distinction between tragic and comic aspects of fictions. “Tragic,” in the First Essay, refers to those stories in which we witness the death, fall, or isolation of the hero; and “comic,” to those in which the hero is somehow integrated into society. Thus Frye is able to differentiate ten fictional modes, each of the five primary categories possessing what he calls a “comic” and “tragic” categories as “tendencies” one toward integrating the hero into society, the other toward isolating him (AC, 54). These principles of differentiation will yield, to organize the matter visually, the simplified diagram of Figure 1. This chart, however, even if it were to include all of Frye’s examples, would scarcely account for the subtle and complex nature of his argument. The principles of differentiation outlined thus far operate only at the highest level of generality; but when Frye turns to elaborate the various kinds of fictional works appropriate to each broad category, his argument calls upon a number of other criteria.3 

Tragic Forms Comic Forms

Figure 1. Fictional modes. {p. 4}


Dionysiac stories: about dying or isolated gods

Apollonian stories: about heroes accepted by society of gods

Effect: “solemn sympathy” of nature

Effect: experience of imaginative vision of eternal world

Theme: imaginative alignment between man and nature

Theme: integration of society, salvation, acceptance, assumption

Naive examples: stories about Hercules, Orpheus, Balder, Christ

Naive examples: stories about Mercury, Hercules

Sentimental examples: The Dream of the Rood, Kingsley’s ballad in Alton Locke

Sentimental example: The Paradiso


Nature reduced largely to animal and vegetable world

Nature as pastoral world

Effect: elegiac; pity and fear absorbed into pleasure

Effect: idyllic mood

Naive examples: Beowulf, Song of Roland, stories of martyred saints

Naive examples: modern popular westerns

Sentimental example: Tennyson’s The Passing of Arthur

Sentimental example: pastoral poems


Combination of heroic and ironic, of the incongruous and the inevitable

Combination of heroic and ironic (in Old Comedy)

Effect: catharsis of pity and fear

Effect: catharsis of sympathy and ridicule

Naive examples: Greek tragic drama, The Mirror for Magistrates

Naive examples: Old Comedy of Aristophanes (The Birds)

Sentimental examples: tragic drama of Shakespeare, Racine

Sentimental example: The Tempest


Effect: pity and fear communicated externally as sensations; pathos

Effect: resolution involving social promotion

Typical character: the alazon

Typical character: the picaro

Naive examples: Gothic thrillers, popular fiction with its mad scientists

Naive examples: New Comedy of Meander, Cinderella, Horatio Alger stories

Sentimental examples: Lord Jim, Madame Bovary, Pierre, Balzac, Dickens

Sentimental examples: Shaw’s Sergius, Synge’s playboy, Balzac, Stendhal


Hero as pharmakos

Pharmakos driven out

Effect: dispassion (pity and fear not raised)

Effect: relief; experience of the element of “play”

Two poles: archetypes of Adam and Christ

Two poles: enemy either inside or outside society

Naive examples: Plato’s Apology, Job

Naive examples: The Clouds, detective stories, Graham Greene, comedy of manners

Sentimental examples: The Trial, Crime and Punishment

Sentimental examples: Volpone, Tartuffe, Merchant of Venice

This can be illustrated by a closer look at his discussion of tragic fictional modes, where the argument depends not so much upon the bare fact that the hero and his environment can be found to exist in varying relationships as it does upon the kinds of effects which these relationships produce. Frye observes that in the Dionysian stories of dying gods, the “association of a god’s death with autumn or sunset does not, in literature, necessarily mean that he is a god ‘of‘ vegetation or the sun, but only that he is a god capable of dying, whatever his department” (AC, 36). But because of the god’s superiority to nature, the effect of his death is often shown in what happens to nature as a result: an effect captured by such expressions as the “solemn sympathy” of nature or “all creation weeping at the death of Christ.” “Effect” here does not refer to what an audience feels but rather to what is shown, internally in a myth, to be the “natural” result of a god’s death. The so-called pathetic fallacy, in other words, can indicate that we are in the presence of the tragic mythical mode when the alignment between man and nature comes from an aspect of the plot which is tragic (AC, 36).

In his discussion of tragic romance Frye uses “effect” in a somewhat different sense. The death or isolation of the romantic hero, he says, “has the effect of a spirit passing out of nature, and evokes a mood best described as elegiac. . . . The elegiac is often accompanied by a diffused, resigned, melancholy sense of the passing of time, of the old order changing and yielding to a new one” (AC, 36–37). This melancholic mood, created by the death of the hero, is a fact of emotional importance, so that Frye is here speaking not of internal effects but of the affective significance which the death of the hero has upon us as readers. In fact, Frye’s discussion of both tragic romance and tragic high and low mimesis dwells more upon principles relating to affective response than upon any other principle. He turns to Aristotle once again, taking the traditional concept of catharsis to express the central position of high-mimetic tragedy within the five modes; and he expands this doctrine, applying it to tragic romance and to low-mimetic tragedy, through a discussion of the “two general directions in which {6} emotion moves.” In high-mimetic tragedy, pity and fear are the emotions representing these two directions, the former moving us toward an object, the latter away from it (AC, 37). There are, Frye claims, two parallel affective movements in tragic romance:

Naive romance [e.g., Beowulf and The Song of Roland], being closer to the wish-fulfillment dream, tends to absorb emotion and communicate it internally to the reader. Romance, therefore, is characterized by the acceptance of pity and fear, which in ordinary life relate to pain, as forms of pleasure. It turns fear at a distance, or terror, into the adventurous; fear at contact, or horror, into the marvellous, and fear without an object, or dread (Angst) into pensive melancholy. It turns pity at a distance, or concern, into the theme of chivalrous rescue; pity at contact, or tenderness, into a languid and relaxed charm, and pity without an object (which has no name but is a kind of animism, or treating everything in nature as though it had human feelings) into creative fantasy. (AC, 37)

Low-mimetic tragedy, on the other hand, depends on still different emotions. Here Frye argues that “pity and fear are neither purged nor absorbed into pleasures, but communicated externally, as sensations” (AC, 38). Pity becomes pathos, because we sympathize with the isolated hero who is one of us; and fear becomes “a kind of pathos in reverse,” the sensational response we have to the tradition of such characters as Heathcliff and Dickens’s villains (AC, 38–39). Finally, in ironic tragedy pity and fear completely disappear, as we respond dispassionately to the typical victim, the pharmakos or scapegoat. As in the case of tragic myth, Frye appeals to principles other than effects in defining tragic irony. The point to be emphasized, however, is that a simple combination of his general definition of tragedy, coupled with his definition of any one of the modes, is not sufficient to account for the nature of a given kind of tragic work. Kenneth Burke maintains that such concepts as pity and fear are incidental to the development of Frye’s argument about tragic modes.4 But such categories as these, rooted in our affective response, give a more specific content to the various modes than permitted by Frye’s general framework in this part of the First Essay. In addition, other important criteria enter Frye’s discussion; the categories of hamartia, inevitability, and incongruity, for example, are used to define high-mimetic tragedy. Frye gives extended accounts, moreover, of the various kinds of heroes peculiar to each mode, accounts which employ a host of examples as well as the character-type terms which he helped to popularize: alazon, miles gloriosus, eiron, and pharmakos—about which more later.

{7} Frye does not employ a single method for defining the tragic fictional modes. Nor does he always base his definitions upon the same categories. Although some of his principles are more important than others, he can without warning change the categories which underlie his definitions. He can move easily, for example, from a discussion of the literary effects of low-mimetic tragedy into an account of the writer himself when the subject becomes ironic tragedy (AC, 39–40). Specifically, the difference between alazon and eiron as the respective names for the low-mimetic and ironic heroes of tragedy appears initially to be a distinction for making the various relations between a hero and his society more explicit. Yet the self-deprecating eiron refers in this context not to the fictional hero but to the ironic writer himself (AC, 40). In other words, the criteria which underlie the terms alazon and eiron and the objects to which they refer are different: one is a matter of character type; the other, of rhetorical technique.

Frye’s account of the five comic fictional modes follows a pattern similar to that of the tragic, each of the tragic principles being represented by a corresponding comic one. The death of a god, which in mythical tragedy was called Dionysiac, becomes Apollonian, or “the story of how a hero is accepted by a society of gods” (AC, 43). The elegiac effect of romantic tragedy becomes, in romantic comedy, the idyllic. The catharsis of pity and fear in high-mimetic tragedy becomes the catharsis of sympathy and ridicule, the corresponding comic emotions. The two poles of tragic irony, the archetypes of Adam and Christ, become the two poles of comic irony, or the internal and external social enemies. Since Frye devotes twice as much space to discussing ironic comedy as he does to the other four modes combined, I have singled out this last comic mode for more detailed analysis.

“In studying ironic comedy,” Frye says, “we must start with the theme of driving out the pharmakos from the point of view of society” (AC, 45). That we must begin here, apparently, is because ironic comedy offers a special problem. If, on the one hand, the theme of the comic is the integration of society, how is it, on the other hand, that in the ironic phase of this mode one of the typical characters is shown to be driven out of society, rather than integrated into it? Frye’s answer to this problem is largely in terms of effects, or how we respond to ironic comedy. We respond with relief, for example, when a character like Tartuffe is hauled off to prison. But unless such a conclusion is handled deftly by the poet, our sense of social revenge may become so great as to preclude comedy altogether. The same feeling can arise when the comic entertainer like Falstaff or Charlie Chaplin is rejected, a feeling that can produce “one of the most terrible ironies known to art” (AC, 45). There is a point, in fact, where comedy approaches the {8} world of hate and fear which we know in the real world as savagery; and when ironic comedy actually reaches this point—the nadir of its cycle—we have passed beyond the bounds of art into existential reality. But, Frye argues, what keeps art and life separated at this point is the element of play. “Playing at human sacrifice,” he says, “seems to be an important theme of ironic comedy” (AC, 46). Thus, whereas in tragic irony the detachment of the audience’s response results from the catharsis of pity, in comic irony it results from barriers which play throws up between the pharmakos and our response to his rejection. Ridicule, in other words, is purged in comic irony because the element of play delivers the audience from unpleasantness. We see this process at work in such currently popular forms as the detective story and melodrama, both of which aim to expel the enemy from society, yet neither of which can be taken seriously because, in Frye’s words, the “protecting wall of play is still there” (AC, 47).

The nature of the enemy of society is Frye’s principle for distinguishing three basic forms of ironic comedy: melodrama, the parody of melodrama, and the comedy of manners. In naive melodrama the enemy is the villain. The very act of our hissing the villain, however, is a mark of his absurdity, or of our unwillingness to take him seriously as a threat to society. Thus the irony results from the game we play at being serious. In the second stage the enemy is not so much the villainous person as it is a malignancy within society itself. When viciousness of this sort is viewed ironically it produces comic parody and ridicule. Melodramatic formulas can be parodied, as in Graham Greene; or the melodramatic spirit itself can be the butt of ridicule, as in Jonson, Congreve, Wilde, and Shaw. Finally, a third stage can be seen in works where a kind of standoff results between the comic fool and his slanderous or snobbish society. The villain here is society itself, and thus we sympathize with the comic hero, who, however much a fool, possesses something more valuable than his society does.

We have seen that throughout his discussion of ironic comedy Frye appeals most often to criteria relating to the audience’s response. Unless we can recognize and respond to the element of play, Frye is saying, the irony will pass us by. But the three types of comic irony are also distinguished on the basis of affects—how we respond to the varying relationships between the ironic hero and his society.

We must conclude then that Frye’s method of defining the tragic and comic modes is not a simple one. When dealing with the large categories, those on the two axes of the chart, he works with broad genus-differentiae distinctions. But when he elaborates the ten modes themselves a number of other categories are pressed into service, including literary effects, typical forms and characters, various {9} representations of nature, plus a long list of illustrations for each of the ten fictional modes. The point needs emphasizing because critics of Frye’s modal taxonomy, by ignoring all but the large categories, have made his definitions simpler than they in fact are.5 

From Myth to Irony: The Taxonomy of Thematic Modes

As already indicated, thematic modes are external fictions in which the dominant “ethical” relationship is between the poet and his society or his audience. Although Frye’s modes are distinct from genres or literary species, he does see a correlation on the one hand between fictional modes and novels, epics, and plays, and on the other between thematic modes and essays and lyrics. Another way Frye makes the distinction is to adapt Aristotle’s terminology once again, referring to the primary interest of thematic works as dianoia, a term he translates here as “theme” or “conceptual interest” (AC, 52). (The word takes on a variety of other meanings in the Second Essay.)

“Thematic” is a term which operates in Frye’s argument at the highest level of generality. Even though all works of literature have both fictional and thematic interests, there is often no satisfactory way, he admits, of determining which is the constitutive principle of a given work. One may try to determine the primary interest or end, or the main emphasis, or the dominant “ethical” relationship, but whether the fictional or the thematic interest is finally more important “is often simply a matter of opinion or emphasis in interpretation” (AC, 53). Thus Frye’s “thematic” category is a highly relative one, as indicated by the following comparative exercise:

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, is a novel named after its plot; Sense and Sensibility is named after its theme. But Fielding has as strong a thematic interest (revealed chiefly in the introductory chapters to the different books) as Jane Austen has in telling a good story. Both novels are strongly fictional in emphasis compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Grapes of Wrath, where the plot exists primarily to illustrate the themes of slavery and migratory labor respectively. They in turn are fictional in emphasis compared to The Pilgrim’s Progress, and The Pilgrim’s Progress is fictional in emphasis compared to an essay of Montaigne. (AC, 53)

Frye’s discussion of the various thematic modes follows a pattern similar to that of his analysis of the fictional modes. Corresponding to the “tragic” and “comic” aspects of fictional modes are the “episodic” and {10} “encyclopaedic” tendencies of thematic literature.6 To define these two types of works, Frye once again employs several criteria:

[Episodic] [1] In thematic literature the poet may write as an individual, emphasizing the separateness of his personality and the distinctness of his vision. [2] This attitude produces most lyrics and essays, a good deal of satire, epigrams, and the writing of “eclogues” or occasional pieces generally. [3] The frequency of the moods of protest, complaint, ridicule, and loneliness (whether bitter or serene) in such works may perhaps indicate a rough analogy to the tragic modes of fiction.

[Encyclopaedic] [1] Or the poet may devote himself to being a spokesman of his society, which means, as he is not addressing a second society, that a poetic knowledge and expressive power which is latent or needed in his society comes to articulation in him. [2] Such an attitude produces poetry which is educational in the broadest sense: epics of the more artificial or thematic kind, didactic poetry and prose, encyclopaedic compilations of myth, folklore, and legend like those of Ovid and Snorri, where, though the stories themselves are fictional, the arrangement of them and the motive for collecting them is thematic. [3] In poetry which is educational in this sense, the social function of the poet figures prominently as a theme. (AC, 54)

Although the isolation-integration (or tragic-comic) distinction may be implicit in some parts of these definitions, only in a vague way can it be said to differentiate the two categories, for, to take only one example, a poet can emphasize his distinctive vision without being isolated from society. Rather, the principles here are more specific. The bracketed numbers in the passage above indicate that Frye bases his distinction on three principles: first, the role of the poet (personal versus social); second, examples of the kinds of works he produces (lyrics, essays, etc., versus artificial epics, didactic works, compilations of myth, etc.); and third, the prominent mood or theme which is communicated (complaint and protest versus social and educational integration). These distinctions, rather than being neat formulas for sharply differentiating between thematic works, represent simply Frye’s attempt to distinguish what he sees as two main tendencies in nonfictional literature. Communicating as an individual, the poet tends, he says, to produce discontinuous forms; and as a social spokesman, he tends to produce more extended patterns (AC, 55). That this is more than a simple distinction between short and long works of literature is clear from Frye’s more detailed discussion of thematic modes.

{11} Because the ethical relationship of thematic literature is between poet and reader, Frye’s point of departure for defining the five thematic modes is to distinguish the several functions which poets have traditionally served. Where the poet, for example, is an inspired visionary, serving as a vehicle for the voice (or will) of a god, we are in the presence of the mythical mode. Where his function is chiefly one of memory, we have thematic romance. In the high-mimetic mode, he is seen principally as the courtier or counselor, the preacher or orator, functioning in some relation to the theme of leadership. The poet as his own hero, or as an extraordinary personality like the “fictional” hero of romance, is typical of the low-mimetic mode. And finally, when the poet is seen essentially as a craftsman with the literal function of making poems, the resulting mode is irony. The nature or function of the poet, in short, is the chief, though by no means the exclusive, criterion Frye uses to differentiate among the thematic modes. Some of the other principles he employs, like stipulating the central or typical theme of each mode, are indicated in Figure 2.

Encyclopaedic Episodic

Figure 2. Thematic modes. {p. 12}


Poet: functions as inspired visionary, voice of god

Example: sacred scripture

Examples: oracle, commandment, parable, prophecy, aphorism

Develops from oracle


Poet: function is to remember

Poet: passes from one world to another

Central theme: marvelous journey

Central theme: boundary of consciousness

Human analogy of myth: divine knowledge

Examples: Divine Comedy, Gower, Cursor Mundi

Examples: Widsith; poems of exile (memory vs. experience), of vision (experience vs. dream), of revelation (old dispensation vs. vita nuova)


Poet: preeminently a courtier, orator, counselor, preacher; functions in relation to theme of leadership

Central theme: centripetal perspective

Central theme: cynosure, centripetal gaze

Human analogy of myth: ideal world (literary Platonism)

Examples: Faerie Queene, The Lusiad, Jerusalem Delivered, Paradise Lost

Examples: metaphysical poetry


Poet: becomes his own subject, becomes the fictional hero of romance, the extraordinary person

Central theme: psychological or subjective states of mind

Central theme: analysis of subjective mental state

Human analogy of myth: individual creation

Examples: Faust, Blake’s prophecies, mythological poems of Shelley, Keats

Examples: Rousseau, Romantic lyrics


Poet: literal function of making poems; a craftsman

Central theme: vast panorama of history (temps perdu)

Central theme: pure but transient vision; the aesthetic or timeless moment

Human analogy of myth: the epiphany

Examples: Proust, The Waste Land, Woolf’s Between the Acts

Examples: Rimbaud’s illumination, the German Augenblick, imagism, symbolisme

One matter, however, deserves special commentary: the principle of analogy, which figures so importantly at other places in Frye’s system. The encyclopaedic form of the mythical mode is sacred scripture, and Frye maintains that “in the other modes we should expect to find encyclopaedic forms which constitute a series of increasingly human analogies of mythical or scriptural revelation” (AC, 56). That we should expect to find them is only because of Frye’s prior assumption that in the cyclical sequence of modes the center of gravity moves progressively from the divine toward the human world. What Frye is saying, in other words, is that “as myth moves toward romance and then toward the two mimetic modes we continue to encounter something which corresponds, in the less-than-mythical literary worlds, to divine revelation: thus the expression “human analogies.” For example, the encyclopaedic knowledge found in thematic romance (catalogues of kings and tribes, genealogies of gods, historical traditions, etc.) is not scriptural revelation; but, because this knowledge can be regarded as a kind of sacramental testament by the poet whose function is to remember, it can be seen as a “human analogy of divine knowledge” (AC, 57; see also pp. 315–24).

Similarly, in the literary Platonism of the high-mimetic mode, the human analogy of myth is the ideal world, the poetic dianoia which, as Sidney says, “the poets only deliver.” In the low-mimetic, where the typical aim is to communicate certain psychological or subjective states of mind, the human analogy of myth is the act of individual creation (AC, 59). And finally, in the ironic mode, the analogy is the nondidactic revelation of the epiphany, the Augenblick, the illumination of symbolisme, or “the repetitions of certain experiences at widely scattered intervals [which] create these {12} timeless moments” out of temps perdu, as in Proust (AC, 61). “Analogies of revelation,” as we shall see, figure importantly in the Fourth Essay, where the thematic mode becomes a part of Frye’s definition of specific encyclopaedic forms.

The conception of the cyclical nature of literature enters briefly into the discussion of thematic modes. Irony, Frye says, returns to myth in the fictional modes. There is a parallel movement in the thematic modes where the craftsman of irony completes the cycle by becoming the oracular visionary of myth. As examples of this tendency, Frye {13} points to Yeats’s cyclical history, Joyce’s Viconian theories, the oracular, internal voice of Rilke, the Promethean persona of Rimbaud, and Nietzsche’s notion of the new divinity of man (AC, 62).

One final principle of Frye’s discussion of thematic modes relates to what he calls the “fallacy of existential projection.” The initial distinction here is another set of dialectical poles. At the fictional end of Frye’s continuum, writers in every mode are seen as imposing the same kind of mythical form on their content: the same stories get told and retold, only in different modes. At the other pole is the writer who imitates dianoia, but only in the sense of imposing a literary form on whatever his “theme” or conceptual interest happens to be. What Frye in effect is trying to work out here is a relationship between form and content which frees him from the claim that poets directly express dianoia. To take this position, he argues, is to risk the fallacy of projecting back upon a thematic work whatever we might discover the poet’s actual thought or beliefs to be. This problem can arise also in our response to fictional works. We have already noticed how the element of play functions to control our reaction to ironic comedy. If we are oblivious to the play, however, then we will tend to view this particular mode as an existential projection of something neither comic nor ironic, but of pure savagery or maliciousness. It is natural, Frye observes, for tragic and comic forms “to throw their shadows” into philosophies of fate and providence. But as the critic is concerned only with the literary form imposed on a work, he commits the fallacy of existential projection if he argues back from the poem’s dianoia to the philosophy which lies beyond it. The dianoia actually projected in thematic works like The Faerie Queene and Faust, for example, is not the personal beliefs of Spenser and Goethe but two forms of “as if” thought, one “a quasi-Platonic philosophy of ideal forms” and the other “a philosophy of genesis and organicism” (AC, 64, 65). And it is the literary mode imposed in these projections, not their truth, which is the business of the literary critic. The form-content dualism here, as old as Horace himself, coupled with the solution to the problem of poetry and belief, which is reminiscent of Coleridge’s doctrine of suspension, is one of the clearest expressions in the First Essay of Frye’s kinship with the New Critics.

Recurrence in Literary History

As the title of the First Essay suggests, literary modes tend to succeed one another in time. But Frye does not use the expression “historical criticism” conventionally; his concern is not to show that literature is related to particular social and political events but rather to suggest {14} that the five modes correspond to five epochs of both Greco-Roman and Western European writing. He argues that there is a noteworthy correlation, for example, between myth and premedieval works, and between romance and the literature of the Middle Ages; and this correlation is seen as continuing through the high-mimetic development of the Renaissance, the low-mimetic of the nineteenth century, and the ironic of the twentieth. The most explicit indication of the mode-period correlation is in the section on thematic modes where Frye uses the words “mode” and “period” synonymously. He speaks, for example, of the “literary Platonism of the high mimetic period.” He practically equates the low mimetic with Romanticism, and he refers to the modes as “epochs” and “ages.” Frye’s point, however, is not merely that literature, on a linear scale of modes, “has steadily moved its center of gravity down the list” (AC, 34) but also that the modal paradigm is cyclical. “Our five modes,” he says, “evidently go around in a circle” (AC, 42). In writers like Kafka and Joyce, tragic irony moves toward the emergence once more of the mythical mode. The same kind of movement is seen in the comic modes where works such as science fiction frequently try to imagine “what life would be like on a plane as far above us as we are above savagery. . . . It is thus a mode of romance with a strong inherent tendency to myth” (AC, 49). Historical criticism thus refers to the sequence of modes, the movement being a circular rather than a strictly linear succession.

The metaphor of the cycle (or circle) derives chiefly from Spengler, whose theory of the organic growth of cultures attracted Frye early in his career.7 According to this theory cultures behave exactly like organisms: they grow, mature, decline, and die; and they all last about the same length of time. . . . The culture to which we belong is a “Western” one, which had its spring in the Middle Ages, its summer in the Renaissance, its autumn in the eighteenth century, and began its winter with the French Revolution. Previously there had been a classical culture which went through the same stages. The heroes of Homer correspond to those of our own age of chivalry; the era of the Greek city-states to our Renaissance, and the last glories of Athens to our age of Bach and Mozart. With Alexander the “civilization” phase of world empires begins, for Alexander corresponds to our Napoleon.8 

This view is analogous to Frye’s theory of the parallel phases of cultural history. “I have never been very clear about the shape of the history of literature,” he says, “apart from the shape of history in general.”9 Frye acknowledges that Spengler “provided the basis for the {15} conception of modes” outlined in the Anatomy (SM, 113), but it is not so much Spengler’s cyclic view that is important for him as it is the idea of an organic cultural growth and aging. In fact, while the seasonal metaphor might lead us to call the parallel phases “cycles,” it is actually inappropriate, Frye points out, to label Spengler’s view of history a cyclical one, even though he sometimes gives the illusion of holding such a view. “Spengler has no theory of cycles at all.”10 Frye prefers to say simply that modes tend to move toward or return to earlier forms; thus he avoids the fatalistic overtones which have frequently been sounded by cyclical theories of history. In an earlier version of the First Essay, he observes that his survey does not “justify us in predicting that the cycle of modes will go around again.”11 But the history of literature does show us that the broad modal patterns Frye describes have occurred, and it is the idea of recurrence he prefers, so long as it is dissociated from suggestions of mechanistic and inevitable repetition. Spengler helped Frye to see that the linear, progressive view of history was dead, that recurrence is to be understood as organic rhythm, and that cultures age rather than decline.12 

The Purpose of Modal Taxonomy

The principles of the First Essay now before us, we can inquire into the function of Frye’s modal taxonomy, beginning with the several claims Frye himself makes. The first is that an understanding of the cyclical nature of modes can help explain the structure of modern literature. “Irony,” says Frye, “descends from the low mimetic: it begins in realism and dispassionate observation. But as it does so, it moves steadily towards myth, and [in the tragic mode] dim outlines of sacrificial rituals and dying gods begin to reappear in it” (AC, 42). This manner of argument permits Frye to combine the first and last vertical elements of the modal scale, so that for him it is not inconsistent to speak of “ironic myth” as one of the fictional modes; after all, he claims that we must learn to recombine the modes once we have learned to distinguish them (AC, 50). The point is that if we try to judge (say) The Altar of the Dead by the low-mimetic standards of those nineteenth-century realists from whom James learned his craft, then we will have to call his story “a tissue of improbable coincidence, inadequate motivation, and inconclusive resolution.” But if we look at it from the perspective of fictional modes “as ironic myth, a story of how the god of one person is the pharmakos of another, its structure becomes simple and logical” (AC, 42–43). In other words, the study of modern fiction cannot rely solely upon the critical procedures which were developed to study the realistic novel. And insofar as the novel-centered view of narrative structures {16} has recently become something of a norm (what Frye calls the low-mimetic prejudice), then his claim that the study of all narrative need not follow the canons of nineteenth-century realism is an effort to encourage a more pluralistic set of norms for critical inquiry.13 

This is related to a second function which the sequence of fictional modes is designed to achieve. It should do something, Frye says, “to give a more flexible meaning to some of our literary terms” (AC, 49). He points out that the words “romantic” and “realistic” are relative terms, with little exactness as descriptive adjectives; and then, by way of illustration, he observes that “if we take the sequence De Raptu Proserpinae, The Man of Law’s Tale, Much Ado About Nothing, Pride and Prejudice, An American Tragedy, it is clear that each work is ‘romantic’ compared to its successors and ‘realistic’ compared to its predecessors” (AC, 49). The implication here is not that the vocabulary of Frye’s own scheme is not relative or that his own terms can be used descriptively with exactness, but that he despairs of such terms ever being used with exactness. Rather, he is recommending for such terms as “romantic” and “realistic” a wider and less judicial frame of reference than has traditionally been the case. The purpose of this flexibility is to help us distinguish among conventions; and if we can learn to recognize the several modes—so runs Frye’s argument—then we will be less likely to impose value judgments on those works which do not conform to our own social norms. The fact that the ironic mode, for example, is less reticent than the low-mimetic about accepting stable social values is no reason for attacking either low-mimetic conventions as prudish or hypocritical, or ironic conventions as unwholesome or elitist. Rather we should be content only to observe “that the low mimetic is one step more heroic than the ironic, and that low mimetic reticence has the effect of making its characters, on the average, more heroic, or at least more dignified, than the characters in ironic fiction” (AC, 50). In short, Frye wants his modes to be descriptively flexible and free from the constrictions he sees in judicial criticism.

In the third place, Frye observes that the theory of modes can be applied to the principles of selection used by writers of fiction. The claim is based upon an interesting illustration about the various uses of ghosts in fiction. In the low-mimetic mode, for example, a writer would be unlikely to represent a ghost because, as Fielding observed, it would tax the reader’s credulity. But in the high-mimetic mode he can easily choose to introduce such spirits because the fictional world is on a plane above our own, where they do not violate the canons of plausibility. Similarly, there is no problem in myth, where ghosts and human beings inhabit the same world (AC, 50). Thus the conventions that a writer adopts depend on the particular mode he has selected. And Frye {17} believes his system will help us correlate and thus better understand the relationship between general modes and particular conventions.

A fourth function of modal analysis, according to Frye, is that it helps us to realize both the traditional and the contemporary aspects of a work of art. Whereas the tone of a given work is characterized by a primary mode, the others may also be present. The Canterbury Tales, for instance, is chiefly a romance, but Chaucer is also a master of techniques peculiar to the low-mimetic and ironic modes. Through an analysis of the various modes simultaneously present in fictional works—what Frye calls “modal counterpoint”—we can better understand “that the two essential facts about a work of art, that it is contemporary with its own time and that it is contemporary with ours, are not opposed but complementary facts” (AC, 51). Thus the analysis of modes serves to remind us—and this is the point Frye never tires of emphasizing—that the literature of any period is both conventional and traditional, a part of “the total order of words.”

The analysis of fictional modes thus illustrates this central principle in Frye’s theory: although there are two poles of literature (the mimetic and mythical), the structural principles of narrative remain constant. The social context of a literary form may tend toward realism and accurate description at one pole or toward myth, with no concern for plausibility, at the other: but low-mimetic and ironic formulas are “plausible adaptations” of fictional conventions which are rooted in the earliest of stories (AC, 51). “Displacement” is the term Frye uses to describe the tendency of fictions progressively to move, throughout the sequence of modes, from myth toward verisimilitude. Although this term is meant to describe rather than explain the phenomenon of progressive plausibility, it is another of Frye’s important critical principles (about which more later). Frye believes that the analysis of fictional modes provides a kind of inductive proof for his claim that narrative structure is always a conventional, displaced form of an earlier story.14 

Finally, the analysis of modes represents Frye’s plea for a less provincial attitude among critics. “As for the inferences,” he says, “which may be made from the [survey of modes], one is clearly that many current critical assumptions have a limited historical context” (AC, 62). The era of the New Criticism he sees as a time of “ironic provincialism, which looks everywhere in literature for complete objectivity, suspension of moral judgements, concentration on pure verbal craftmanship, and similar virtues.” And he implies that there are critics who use as their norm for interpreting all literature the principles peculiar to a given mode; all of this leads to the conclusion “that no set of critical standards derived from only one mode can ever assimilate the whole truth about poetry” (AC, 62).

Modal Theory and Literary History

{18} Frye argues that “there is a place for classification in criticism, as in any other discipline” (AC, 29). His classification of modes, like the other taxonomies developed in the Anatomy, is based on the assumption that in order to talk sensibly about literary texts we need a systematic ordering of the properties they share with each other. In this respect, his taxonomies represent an approach to the study of literature which has long been fundamental to criticism. Yet among the various attempts to classify heroes and character types, on the one hand, and the relationship of the poet to his audience, on the other, Frye’s effort is unique. The uniqueness results from his providing not simply a set of synchronic distinctions about heroic powers of action but also a diachronic interpretation of these powers. In other words, Frye’s theory of modes—as the title of the First Essay suggests—is also a theory of literary history.

The word “mode,” however, is not an unequivocal term in contemporary criticism, having come to signify so much in some cases as to signify almost nothing. Allan Rodway, drawing ostensibly upon Frye’s First Essay to develop his own theory of modes, concludes finally that a “work’s mode . . . is whatever it seems to be in its most general aspect.” “[It is] largely a matter of attitude or tone rather than style or form of writing.” Although Rodway finds Frye’s modal schema to be “useful as well as beautiful” and almost successful, his own imprecise definition of “mode” is quite different from Frye’s.15 Because Frye employs several criteria to distinguish each of his five modes, his use of the term, though multireferential, is more specific. His usage, moreover, depends upon the original meaning of the word: the measure is man, whether “man” is taken fictionally as the hero or thematically as the poet. Such usage, as Angus Fletcher reminds us, is appropriate, “because in each of the five [modes] the hero is a protagonist with a given strength relative to his world, and as such each hero—whether mythic, romantic, high mimetic, low mimetic, or ironic—is a modular for verbal architectonics; man is the measure, the modus of myth.”16 Frye’s own claims about the value of modal criticism are borne out by the uses which others have made of the First Essay. These can be separated into three general, though not unrelated, areas: the theoretical, the practical, and the historical.

Among contemporary critics, Robert Scholes has devoted the most attention to Frye’s modal criticism. His earliest treatment of the topic is in The Nature of Narrative, and in several later works he expands his analysis of modes into a theory of literary types which is similar to Frye’s.17 Both critics provide a framework for clarifying literary {19} similarities and differences; both are able to discover a limited number of ideal literary types; both develop a theory with a diachronic and a synchronic thrust; both recognize the value of organizing their categories schematically. The chief difference between the two theories is the principle used to differentiate the various modes. For Frye, the principle is the hero’s power of action (for fictional works) and the poet’s attitude toward his audience (for thematic works). Scholes distinguishes his modes, however, on the basis of the differing relationships between the fictional and the external worlds. “All fictional works,” he says, “are reducible to three primary shades. These primary modes of fiction are themselves based on three possible relations between any fictional world and the world of experience. A fictional world can be better than the world of experience, worse than it, or equal to it. These fictional worlds imply attitudes we have learned to call romantic, satirical, and realistic.”18 

Scholes refines this simple scheme, producing finally a spectrum of seven fictional possibilities: satire, picaresque, comedy, history, sentiment, tragedy, and romance. Although he refers to these ideal types as “forms,” he is careful to point out that they do not refer “to any form of story customarily associated with the term.” They refer rather to the ethical quality or value of the fictional world. “Our ‘real’ world,” he says, “(which we live in but never understand) is ethically neutral. Fictional worlds, on the other hand, are charged with values. They offer us a perspective on our own situation, so that by trying to place them [by using a theory of modes] we are engaged in seeking our own position.” Thus for Scholes the difference in quality or value between the real world and fictional representations is what distinguishes the modes in his synchronic chart of theoretical literary types. But his starting point is quite different from the basic principles underlying Frye’s modal taxonomy, where the relative power of the hero is measured not by the real world but by his own fiction. In addition to Frye, Auerbach looms large behind Scholes’s theory of modes, for the variations in “the representation of reality” form his modal differentiae. Nonetheless, he depends heavily on the First Essay, which, along with the Fourth, he sees as having provided “a major contribution to one of the most interesting critical enterprises in recent years—the attempt to organize a system of narrative genres.”19 

While acknowledging his debt to Frye’s system (one that rings “deeply true in its essence“), Scholes views the system as “being plainly wrong in much of its substance.” He finds Frye’s classification of heroic powers of action to be unsystematic and internally inconsistent.20 The thrust of his critique, however, is directed not so much at what Frye’s theory contains as at what it doesn’t, and he considers his own theory, {20} the details of which are omitted here, to be superior mainly because “it is more aware of specific and historical generic considerations.”21 He means that Frye’s modal criticism remains at too high a level of generality, that Frye is reluctant to discuss the historical relationships of specific literary types, and that his theory of genres (Fourth Essay) is not well enough integrated with his theory of modes. In an effort to improve on Frye’s scheme, Scholes proposes that the act of critical reading should pass from modal criticism (an awareness of the ideal types, essentially a deductive procedure) through generic criticism (an inductive organization of the empirical phenomena which make the ideal types possible) to, finally, a criticism which accounts for the unique qualities of the individual work.

Although Scholes speaks of modal criticism as “heady, conceptual wheeling and dealing,” he is firmly convinced of its value. In fact, the claims he makes for his modal scheme are not unlike Frye’s own. It “can help to tell us where we are and to explain how we got there. In doing so, it should serve to make us more sympathetic and open to the varieties of fiction, old and new. It can also serve us pedagogically as a way of teaching literary history as a living and ongoing process, and as a way of putting historical learning in the service of interpretation. . . . No student has finished a proper initiation into a generic poetics of fiction until he has experienced the gap between generic knowledge and modal ideas, and has some notions of his own about how to reshape modal theory to close that disturbing space.”22 

Taking issue with Frye’s theory of modes, Tzvetan Todorov proposes that we distinguish between historical genres (those which “result from an observation of literary reality“) and theoretical genres (those which result “from a deduction of a theoretical order“). The latter are based on an abstract hypothesis which assumes one element of literary works to be fundamental; this element then becomes the basis for differentiating among theoretical genres. For Todorov, Frye’s modes are abstract, theoretical genres and thus not altogether satisfactory; like Scholes, Todorov believes that an adequate modal and generic theory must give more emphasis than Frye’s does to the practical, empirical order, that it should work back and forth between the theoretical and the historical. “The genres we deduce from the theory,” says Todorov, “must be verified by reference to the texts. . . . [and] the genres which we encounter in literary history must be subject to the explanation of a coherent theory.”23 

Frye’s theory of modes may not meet the requirements for an ideal theory of literary types: after all, the First Essay is restricted to one kind of convention.24 But to suggest that he gives little attention to the empirical order is inconceivable. Frye says he has been “rigorously {21} selective in examples and illustrations” (AC, 29), but even so, his grasp of literary history is immense. On the other hand, Frye has proceeded deductively. All that need be acknowledged here is that the bases of his classification of fictional modes do constitute important elements in literary works. Christine Brooke-Rose argues that Todorov’s criticism is unjustified because Frye’s theory is a theory of historical rather than theoretical modes.25 Still, it is clear that Frye does work back and forth between the historical and the theoretical. Bruce Bashford is closer to the truth in saying that the First Essay “is primarily a formal history in that, beginning with certain formal features of literature, it works out the permutations of their various components, and then looks at the empirical history of literature to see how the resultant categories actually turn up.”26 Frye’s modes exist at a high level of generality, and they may come to be refined as we learn more about literary history. But knowledge of ideal types, whether described as modal or generic or pregeneric, is, as E.D. Hirsch convincingly argued, essential to interpretation. Types serve both a constitutive and a heuristic function.27 They have the power to determine how we understand the meaning of a text by fulfilling our expectations and helping us to perceive individual literary traits as components of whole works. T hey help to establish meaning on the one hand and to discover it on the other.

The test of Frye’s theory of modes is that it has had practical consequences for what he calls “specific criticism” (AC, vii)—the analy sis and interpretation of individual literary works. Scores of critics have been able to use his modal and generic distinctions in their practical criticism. The most fully developed application is in Robert Foulke and Paul Smith’s An Anatomy of Literature, an anthology which takes its prin ciples of organization directly from Frye.28 Like Frye, they conceive of modes in analytic and historical (rather than in descriptive or structural) terms:

We will define the term mode as a conventional assumption about the nature and limits of a central character’s power of action. The definition implies something like an agreement between the author’s preliminary ideas and the reader’s consequent expectations of a fictional world. When we read a literary work and respond to its mode, we attempt to reconstruct the conditions or terms under which such a concept of action is possible. We become part of that audience contemporary with the writer to the extent that we understand and for the moment assent to his assumptions about what men can do or think that they can do. Partly because these assumptions are first principles and partly because they are so deeply embedded in the historical ground on {22} which the work rests, they are like those unspoken beliefs the author can count on his audience knowing and to which he need do no more than allude—perhaps the surest indication of their cultural importance.29 

Foulke and Smith reduce Frye’s five modes to four: the romantic (Frye’s mythic and romantic combined), the formal (Frye’s high-mimetic), the natural (Frye’s low-mimetic), and the ironic. Their description of each of the modes is a simplified version of Frye’s complex analysis, yet their account of the hero’s power of action remains essentially the same as his. They do add, however, that the definition of a mode should include, in addition to the central character’s power of action, “his relationship to society and nature, and the underlying concepts or models that give shape and coherence to his world.”30 

Unlike Scholes and Todorov, who seek a correlation between Frye’s modal and generic theories, Foulke and Smith concentrate on the affinities between the modes and Frye’s pregeneric narrative patterns (romance, comedy, tragedy, and irony). Moreover, they understand modal criticism, as Frye does, both synchronically and diachronically. Altogether, their discussion of literary modes is the most complete account to date of the principles of Frye’s First Essay. One of Scholes’s complaints about Frye’s system is, as indicated above, that it remains too distant from the intractable realities of specific literary works and their historical relationships. While the complaint against Frye may remain (even though it lies outside his purpose), Foulke and Smith do show how Frye’s modal categories can be used practically. In the “General Introduction” of An Anatomy of Literature, in the introductory essays to each of the four sections of the book, and in their analyses of eight separate works, they illustrate how a modal awareness can help to organize some of our intuitions about literature and clarify the conceptions of action, society, and nature we encounter in literary works. Foulke and Smith argue, finally, that “the most effective use we can make of the concept of mode is to think of it as representing those general historical presuppositions that modify or shape narrative patterns to the tastes of a particular period.”31 They emphasize, even more strongly than Frye, the historical character of the sequence of modes, which brings us to the third use of modal criticism—what Scholes refers to as “a way of teaching literary history” and “a way of putting historical learning in the service of interpretation.”32 

Literary history, Foulke and Smith remind us, has two principal meanings: (1) literature in history, a centrifugal concept relating to external history—temporal and spatial contexts in which literary works are written; and (2) history in literature, a centripetal concept relating {23} to internal history—the dynamic and evolutionary aspects of literature itself. Literature in history “directs our attention outward from the world to the world that produced it, and we consider such questions as the influence of Coleridge on Wordsworth or of Elizabethan theatrical conventions on Shakespeare”; whereas history in literature directs our at tention “through periods of time and usually within the limits of some literary form or genre; then we entertain such problems as the development of the pastoral ode or the novel or ‘nature poetry.’” Foulke and Smith argue that an awareness of literary modes can help us see the intricate relationship between literature in history and history in literature: “The modes fix our attention on the intersection of two lines of critical interest, one outward to the history that surrounds literature and one inward to the history of literature itself. That point of intersection is, of course, the literary work, where we witness the effects of its historical environment and its modal heredity.”33 

Foulke and Smith are aware, just as Frye is, of the dangers of using the modal scheme too rigidly, thereby imposing on literature an artificial history. They are aware also that the modes can be understood synchronically: they “may transcend, or in some way be independent of, history.”34 Nevertheless, it is what they have learned from the theory of literary history in the First Essay which causes them to emphasize the affinities among the four modes, the four narrative patterns and the kinds of works characteristic of the major periods of English literary history: the romantic mode and the epics and narrative poems of the medieval period, the formal mode and the tragic dramas of the Renaissance, the natural mode and the comic novels and dramas of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the ironic mode and the fiction and drama of the modern age.

Todorov claims, as we have seen, that the system of the First Essay is composed of theoretical rather than historical modes. T he number of modes—five in Frye’s case—are fixed, he says, not because Frye has observed them but because the principles of his system impose that number.35 But this is to overstate the case. Frye’s many illustrations indicate that in his inductive survey of literature he has in fact observed the modes. And the attention he devotes in the First Essay to displacement and to the historical sequence of modes does not support Todorov’s neat disjunction between theoretical and historical categories. Foulke and Smith have a more balanced understanding of Frye’s modal theory and its application, because they recognize both the diachronic and the synchronic thrusts of the First Essay. Angus Fletcher, who has written the most illuminating account of Frye’s theory of history, recognizes this too. “Theoretical networks like the Anatomy,” he remarks “are always called ‘antihistorical,’ since they openly resist the {24} uncontrolled evolution of historically changing cityscape, on which they impose a simpler, reductive, more efficient system of intercommunication.” But Fletcher argues in general that the Anatomy does present an intelligible view of history and in particular that the theory of the First Essay is not “too schematic or rigid to allow for actual human history.” He concludes that Frye’s theory of modes is “no less a type of history for combining induction and deduction,”36 even though the deductive framework of Frye’s modes, in his view, emerges as a Utopian informing pattern, creating what Frye calls that “final unification of material which is the mark of a completely realized history” (CL, 155).

Fletcher alludes several times to various critics—they remain unnamed—who claim that Frye’s modal system denies “the fluid texture of history.” His rebuttal is twofold. On the one hand, he claims that the First Essay

can be described as a prolegomena to a more meticulous periodization of literary history, and it remains deliberately rough, without giving up the hope that each mimetic phase could be distinguished and analyzed in great detail. The theocentric basis of medieval thought could be closely handled, to test its bearing on romance; the courtly cult of the prince in the Renaissance could be related to the methods of high mimetic; the rationalism of modern science to the canons of low mimetic; and so on, through much subtler inquiries than these. I n principle there is no reason why Essay I could not form the basis for a freely conducted practical investigation of historical fact.37 

In other words, the deductive foundations of Frye’s view of literary history can be tested, revised, and completed by a series of inquiries into historical fact. This is his immediate answer to the objection that Frye is not writing a properly detached, inductive literary history.

On the other hand, Fletcher argues that a purely inductive history is impossible anyway and that by using a metahistorical plot to develop his view of the literary past Frye is simply engaging in a procedure followed by any other historian. To be sure, some historians are more universalizing and theoretical than others. But the notion that there is a purely inductive history, Fletcher suggests, is a chimera. Frye, then, is no less a historian for engaging in speculative or philosophical historiography, the kind of history where, in the words of Isaiah Berlin, “the pattern, and it alone, brings into being and causes to pass away and confers purpose, that is to say, value and meaning, on all there is. To understand is to perceive patterns.”38 Frye has “always suffered from acute historical consciousness,” according to William Rueckert; he has “freed himself from history in order that he might, from within and by {25} means of the timeless coordinates of his system, reenter history, properly, powerfully equipped to study it, cope with it, move around in it, and protect himself from being so mercilessly victimized by it.”39 History, for Frye, is the direct verbal imitation of praxis, the world of events, just as philosophy and science are the primary or direct verbal imitations of theoria, the world of images and ideas. History, therefore, is set over against poetry, which is the secondary imitation of action (mythos) and of thought (dianoia). As Frye says, “the historical is the opposite of the mythical.”40 This is true, however, only as it relates to what Frye calls the “historian proper,” that is, the historian who “works inductively, collecting his facts and trying to avoid any informing patterns except those that he sees, or is honestly convinced he sees, in the facts themselves” (FI, 54). Frye’s historical consciousness has been in influenced not so much by the historians proper as by the metahistorians, those whose accounts of human action are carried along by the comprehensive mythical patterns they impose upon their material. When such patterns occur, the distance between the historical and the poetic tends to collapse. Frye observes that “there are romantic historical myths based on a quest or pilgrimage to a City of God or a classless society; there are comic historical myths of progress through evolution or revolution; there are tragic myths of decline and fall, like the woks of Gibbon and Spengler; there are ironic myths of recurrence or casual catastrophe” (FI, 54). The study of such metahistorical patterns becomes especially appropriate for the literary critic because the informing principles behind them are akin to those of poetry and myth. This why Spengler has been a formative influence on Frye’s thought. “If The Decline of the West were nothing else,” he says, “it would still be one of the world’s great Romantic poems” (SM, 187). The reason for Spengler’s appeal, then, is the poetic imagery upon which his vision of history is constructed. Frye is drawn toward the work of Toynbee and Vico for the same reason. Metahistorians such as Spengler and Vico are important for him not simply because he can read their expansive narrative patterns in the same way that he reads the plots of an epic, novel, or historical romance, thereby demonstrating the resemblance between the metahistorical and the poetic universes. They are important also because of the ways in which they enter and inform his own critical theory.

Yet the difference between the inductive “historian proper” and the deductive metahistorian is a distinction which Fletcher, drawing on contemporary historiographers, suggests is untenable. Similarly, Hayden White observes that critics of historiography as a discipline have gone “so far as to argue that historical accounts are nothing but interpretations, in the establishment of the events that make up the chronicle of {26} the narrative no less than in assessments of the meaning or significance of those events for the understanding of the historical process in general.” White, himself a historian, believes that although Frye wants to support the distinction between proper history and metahistory, “on his own analysis of the structures of prose fictions, he must be prepared to grant that there is a mythic element in ‘proper history’ by which the structures and processes depicted in its narratives are endowed with meanings of a specifically fictive kind.” White, in fact, finds Frye’s ideas about pregeneric plot structures (romance, comedy, tragedy, and satire) useful in “identifying the specifically ‘fictive’ element in historical accounts of the world.”41 

The diachronic thrust of the First Essay appears to have raised more questions than the synchronic: Todorov claims that Frye’s modes are theoretical, not historical, and Fletcher refers to those who believe the First Essay to be historically naive. Some of the force is taken from these objections, however, not only by those critics, such as Foulke and Smith, who have found Frye’s modal scheme to be genuinely useful but also by those, such as Fletcher, who believe that the diachronic elements in the First Essay rest firmly in a tradition of interpretation championed by many historiographers. With Hayden White we come full circle, for here is a historian who finds in a literary critic a model for analyzing not literary history but historical interpretations in general. White’s essay offers an excellent example of the uses to which others have put Frye’s ideas and of the ways thinkers continue to engage him in dialogue—a dialogue which has moved far beyond the ironic provincialism Frye saw in the criticism of the 1940s and 1950s.

Frye’s view of history, literary and otherwise, is an integral part of his continuous vision of culture, which is a vision that does not make radical distinctions among the products of culture. What most attracts Frye are the metaphors which historians project upon the flux of human events in order to make sense of them. When such metaphors are absent, as in, say, Bonamy Dobrèe’s history of eighteenth-century British literature, the historian’s account suffers. Dobrèe covers the subject (a revealing metaphor itself), but what one misses in his book, Frye says, is “that final unification of material which is the mark of the completely realized history in whatever field” (CL, 155). Such final unification, however, may frequently take forms which are unacceptable because deterministic or one-sided. Thus just as Frye rejects progressive histories of literature, which manifest themselves in the cult of the original, so he rejects those attitudes toward history based solely upon metaphors of growth-toward-perfection. At the other extreme, he has little use for ironic views of history, especially the deterministic one he has sometimes described as the Great Western Butterslide: “the {27} doctrine of a coordinated synthesis in medieval culture giving place, at the Renaissance, to a splitting and specialized schizophrenia which has got steadily worse until it has finally landed us all in that Pretty Pass in which we are today” (CL, 132).

Frye’s own view of history is founded upon an organic and rhythmic metaphor of cultural aging. Its philosophical foundation, like that of Spengler’s own analogical schema, is Romantic, which means that the realities of time, life, and history are to be discovered “by feeling, intuition, imaginative insight, and, above all, by symbolism” (SM, 180). But its ultimate source is Blake, who believed that history, like daily sense experience, has to be ordered by the imagination. For Blake, as well as for Frye, “history is imaginative material to be synthesized into form.”42 The First Essay of the Anatomy is one such formal synthesis of imaginative material.

Pluralism and the Question of Frye’s Aristotelian Debt

Attacks on critical provincialism, as well as the claim that an adequate criticism must employ a variety of principles, appear throughout Frye’s work. Although critical pluralism makes the same kind of claim, Frye’s status as a pluralist is more apparent than real. The implication of saying “that no set of critical standards derived from only one mode can ever assimilate the whole truth about poetry” (AC, 62) is that a number of different sets of standards might achieve such a goal. But the underlying assumptions in this passage, partially betrayed by the word “assimilate,” are those of a critical syncretist, not a pluralist. Syncretism implies that there are several partially valid critical systems and that the best elements from each approach can be welded into a metacriticism able to deal adequately with any work. The syncretist, unlike the pluralist, does not hold that the critical method one uses depends upon the kind of question asked. Frye’s syncretic tendency is seen clearly in a passage from the end of the First Essay:

Just as catharsis is the central conception of the Aristotelian approach to literature, so ecstasis or absorption is the central conception of the Longinian approach. This is a state of identification in which the reader, the poem, and sometimes, at least ideally, the poet also, are involved. We say reader, because the Longinian conception is primarily that of a thematic or individualized response: it is more useful for lyrics, just as the Aristotelian one is more useful for plays. Sometimes, however, the normal categories of approach are not the right ones. In Hamlet, as Mr. Eliot has shown, the amount of emotion generated by the hero is too great for its objects; but surely the correct conclusion {28} to draw from this fine insight is that Hamlet is best approached as a tragedy of Angst or of melancholy as a state in itself, rather than purely as an Aristotelian imitation of an action. On the other hand, the lack of emotional involvement in Lycidas has been thought by some, including Johnson, to be a failure in that poem, but surely the correct conclusion is that Lycidas, like Samson Agonistes, should be read in terms of catharsis with all passion spent. (AC, 67)

What Frye is saying is that some works are best approached by using the assumptions and method of Aristotle, and some by using those of Longinus. Frye extends the approaches of these critics to represent the two chief views which run throughout the history of criticism (AC, 66), and what he hopes to do by assimilating them is to erect an inclusive system for interpreting all literature: whatever poems cannot be accounted for by the Aristotelian approach are adequately handled by the Longinian. The critical pluralist, however, maintains that one’s approach depends upon the kind of problem he is seeking to solve. If one wants to analyze the plot of Hamlet, for example, then the Poetics, the pluralist would argue, provides a useful method for doing so. But if one wants to isolate the peculiar qualitative mood of the play, then perhaps the principles of Longinus’s essay can be of assistance. In other words, the pluralist would claim, disregarding altogether the question of whether Eliot’s judgment of Hamlet is right, that the play is not “best approached” at all, and that the correct conclusion to be drawn from both Eliot’s and Johnson’s judgments can be determined only in relation to the questions they are asking.

The argument for a pluralism of critical methods has been best articulated by the Chicago Aristotelians, particularly R.S. Crane, whose observations about critical method lead him to conclude that no one critical theory “can be completely subsumptive of the truth about literature.”43 Crane argues that there are many valid sets of methodological principles, each of which has its own powers and limitations; and that critical methods themselves are “immune to theoretical questioning,” since a critic’s choice of a subject matter and his method of reasoning are, more than anything else, practical decisions, stemming from his own interests and from the kinds of problems he wants to solve. The pluralistic critic holds, therefore, that the principles and methods of critical discourse “are tools of inquiry and interpretation rather than formulations about the “‘real’ nature of things.”44 Perhaps the clearest statement of Crane’s position is in The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry where he proposes as his major premise that literary criticism is “a collection of distinct and more or less incommensurable ‘frameworks’ or {29} ‘languages,’ within any one of which a question like poetic structure necessarily takes on different meaning and receives a different kind of answer from the meaning it has and the answer it is properly given in any of the rival critical languages in which it is discussed.”45 Crane and Frye are in agreement, then, that no one approach can answer all critical questions, but they differ in the directions they move after having made this assumption. Frye wants an interpenetration of critical approaches Crane, using Aristotelian principles, wants sharply to separate critical approaches on the basis of what each of them can specifically do.

Frye has frequently been labeled an Aristotelian. Many of his readers have seen him as a modern-day Aristotle, systematically laying out a new Poetics. As already indicated, the presence of Aristotle is felt throughout the First Essay. Frye calls upon Aristotle’s distinction between spoudaios and phaulos to provide the basis for his classification of fictional modes. Aristotle’s mythos, ethos, and dianoia are used to help differentiate between fictional and thematic modes. Frye draws upon catharsis, which he refers to as Aristotle’s “central conception” (AC 66), to help define the tragic fictional modes. The First Essay in fact is replete with references and allusions to the Poetics (see AC, 34, 40, 41 44, 65–67). But the omnipresence of Aristotle does not represent a significant a debt as it may at first seem; for neither does Frye draw upon the philosophic method of the Poetics, nor are the problems hi confronts Aristotelian. The real influence of the Poetics is one of critical vocabulary. Yet even this influence may be misleading unless we realize not only that a word like dianoia functions one way in the Poetics and another way in the Anatomy but also that most of the language itself which Frye has appropriated from Aristotle has a meaning different from the original. The following examples will illustrate the differences.

The first, found in the Polemical Introduction, raises the question of general method. Frye says that “a theory of criticism whose principles apply to the whole of literature and account for every valid type of critical procedure is what I think Aristotle meant by poetics” (AC 14). It is not at all clear, however, that Aristotle is seeking to arrive a principles which “apply to the whole of literature.” Only some work of art, he says in chapter 1 of the Poetics, “happen to be imitations.” And since Aristotle nowhere attempts to define all art or even all literature, it would be more accurate to say that the principles in the Poetics are specific principles: they apply to Aristotle’s inductive study of literary kinds. He is concerned with knowledge not about “poetry” in general but about poetic species. Nor is it clear that the Poetics is an attempt to account for “every valid type of critical procedure.” Such a claim overlooks the crucial principle in Aristotle’s work of a sharp {30} division among the sciences; so that “poetics” deals only with questions which have to do with the making or construction of literary works. This means that for Aristotle other valid types of critical procedure, which would be used to solve different literary problems, are reserved for other disciplines.46 

A second illustration comes from Frye’s use of the Aristotelian distinction relating to character, the distinction between spoudaios and phaulos. Whereas in Aristotle these words refer specifically to an ethical quality of the object imitated, indicating whether the agent is morally better or worse than ordinary man, in Frye the terms are used to refer quite generally to the relationship of a character to other men and to his environment. The distinction which serves as the basis of Aristotle’s usage all but disappears in Frye, who, recognizing the figurative meaning of the two words (AC, 33), changes their reference from a moral application to one of natural law.

A third example is Frye’s use of the word “catharsis,” one of the central concepts he employs to differentiate tragic modes on the basis of their effects. His use of the word to define the high-mimetic mode appears closely to approximate the meaning which the term has in the Poetics, though, again, the function of the word in the two discourses is not at all similar. The main point of difference is that Frye believes the principles of catharsis can be applied to fictional forms other than tragedy, such as comedy and satire. Thus, whereas in Aristotle the word stands for the quality or power (dynamis) peculiar to a given poetic species, in Frye it comes to mean “emotional or intellectual detachment” characteristic of literary kinds in general (AC, 66).

Frye’s debt to the Poetics, as we shall continue to see in what follows, is more apparent than real. The Aristotelian influence is not one of doctrine, still less of method. It is primarily one of terminology, but even here, despite the continuing deference to Aristotle, most of the resemblances are superficial.47 To anticipate a part of my later argument, the more important figure looming behind Anatomy of Criticism is Plato, both his philosophical idealism and his analogical method. If Plato is not the organizing force behind the First Essay, at least his treatment of art, in Frye’s view, is completely consistent with a theory of modes, for it was Plato who saw literature as myth (in the Phaedrus), as romance (in the Ion), as high mimesis (in the Symposium), as low mimesis (in the Republic), and as irony (in the Cratylus) (AC, 65).


1. {233} Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957), pp. 365, 367, 365, 366. Hereafter cited as AC.

2. {234} R.S. Crane, for example, although he offers no criteria for defining all poetry, does maintain that literature can be generally classified into mimetic and didactic kinds, or into what he sometimes refers to as representational and discursive forms. The distinction is based on differences of a formal nature, which are, in turn, determined by the respective final causes of the two types. See The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1953), pp. 47–49, 156; Critics and Criticism, ed. R.S. Crane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), pp. 18, 21; The Idea of the Humanities, 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 1: 183–89; 2:59–60. Elder Olson makes the same mimetic-didactic distinction in Critics and Criticism, pp. 65–70, 588–92. For Frye’s views on the Chicago neo-Aristotelians see “Content with the Form,” University of Toronto Quarterly 24 (1954): 92–97, and Shakespeare Quarterly 5 (1954): 78–81.

3. This observation needs underlining, for much of the recent discussion of the theory of modes, which has centered on Frye’s failure to represent all the modal possibilities which would seem to follow from his premises, simply ignores nine-tenths of the modal theory. The objection has been that Frye is highly selective in deducing the number of modes which logically follow from his categories of superiority, inferiority, and equality. John Holloway was the first to lodge a complaint, saying that Frye’s theory of modes “ought to yield several hundreds of sensible and consistent combinations” (The Colours of Clarity [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964], p. 155). Tzvetan Todorov, less given to overstatement, guesses that there are thirteen theoretical possibilities (The Fantastic [Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1973], p. 13). Robert Scholes, whose critique of Frye derives from Todorov, cannot settle upon the exact number but thinks there is “a minimum of nine modal categories and a maximum a good deal higher” (Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974], p. 119). And Christine Brooke-Rose, agreeing with Todorov that thirteen is the proper number, charts the possibilities for us in binary code (“Historical Genres/Theoretical Genres,” New Literary History 8 [Autumn 1976]: 147). The failure of these readers to agree comes from the fact that the way Frye’s categories can be applied is open to interpretation. Yet the entire discussion, by fastening upon only one of at least a half-dozen principles Frye uses to define the literary modes, seems rather insignificant when we look closely at what comes after the opening pages of the First Essay. (My own reckoning of the logical possibilities is that the six relationships among Frye’s categories, with their differences of degree and kind, actually yield twenty-five possible modes: the superior and inferior relationships produce sixteen combinations; the relationships of equality, nine more.)

4. “The Encyclopaedic, Two Kinds of,” Poetry 91 (1958): 325.

5. Todorov, for example, makes Frye appear to have introduced no distinctions other than those of superiority and inferiority (The Fantastic, p. 15), and Brooke-Rose makes the curious statement that “Frye abandons the principle [of naive and sophisticated forms] for modes other than romance, presumably because there happened to be naïve romances in his corpus, but not naive tragedies, etc.” (“Historical Genres/Theoretical Genres,” p. 148). The fact is, however, that Frye gives naive and sentimental examples for each of the ten modes (see Figure 1). Cf. Bruce Bashford, “Literary History in Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism,” Connecticut Review 8 (October 1974): 48–55. One of the few readers who have analyzed closely the argument of the First Essay, Bashford shows how Frye’s initial distinction of heroic powers of action is related to emotional qualities.

6. This is a schematic correspondence, relating to the bipolar structure of Frye’s argument and not to any common principles underlying the two pairs of categories.

7. As early as 1936 Frye declares that the theses of The Decline of the West “have become inseparable from our present modes of thinking” (“Wyndham Lewis: Anti-{235} Spenglerian,” Canadian Forum 16 [1936]: 21). And four years later he refers to “Spengler’s irrefutable proof of the existence of organic culture growths” (“War on the Cultural Front,” Canadian Forum 20 [1940]: 144). See also “Oswald Spengler,” in Architects of Modern Thought [1st series] (Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1955), pp. 83–90; “Toynbee and Spengler,” Canadian Forum 27 (1947): 111–12; reprinted as “The Shapes of History” in Northrop Frye on Culture and Literature: A Collection of Review Essays, ed. Robert D. Denham (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 76–83, hereafter cited as CL; “New Directions from Old,” in Myth and Mythmaking, ed. Henry A. Murray (New York: George Braziller, 1960), pp. 117–18, reprinted in Fables of Identity (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1963), pp. 53–54, hereafter cited as FI; and The Modern Century (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 42, hereafter cited as MC. Frye’s most recent treatment of Spengler, which he describes as “an effort to lay the ghost to rest,” is “The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler,” Daedalus 103 (Winter 1974): 1–13, reprinted as “Spengler Revisited” in SM, 179–98.

8. CL, 77. The other obvious debt which Frye owes to Spengler, seen also in this passage, is the metaphor of the four seasons, each referring to one part or “culture” of the historical cycle.

9. “Letter to the English Institute,” in Northrop Frye in Modern Criticism, p. 142.

10. “Oswald Spengler,” p. 86. See also SM, 113, 185. Frye, however, does use the word “cycle” to refer to Spengler’s theory of history in “The Rising of the Moon: A Study of ‘A Vision,’” in An Honoured Guest: Essays on W.B. Yeats, ed. Denis Donoghue and J.L. Mulryne (London: Edward Arnold, 1965), p. 15; reprinted in SM, 254.

11. “Towards a Theory of Cultural History,” University of Toronto Quarterly 22 (July 1953): 341. Frye does not use the word cycle in the First Essay to refer to his own theory, though he does observe that as ironic literature moves toward myth, it is often accompanied by cyclical theories of history, as in Nietzsche, Joyce, and Yeats. See also SM, 113.

12. Frye also appeals to Vico’s ricorso view of history to illustrate his understanding of cultural movement. See SM, 113. On the influence of Vico, see also The Critical Path (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971), p. 34. Hereafter cited as CP.

13. Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg, owing a clear debt to Frye, have developed this idea in some detail in The Nature of Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966).

14. Displacement can move in the direction of the moral as well as the plausible. See below, pp. 64–66.

15. “Generic Criticism: The Approach Through Type, Mode and Kind,” in Contemporary Criticism, ed. Malcolm Bradbury and David Palmer (London: Edward Arnold, 1970), pp. 94, 95, 92. Rodway remarks that Frye “tries to define mode solely in terms of character status” (p. 92), and he suggests that “we need to give Frye’s technical definition of mode a psychological dimension” (p. 94); this latter refers apparently to literary effect—how a work “will strike the reader” (p. 95). Frye’s classification of modes, however, does not at all rely solely on character status; and since literary effect is one of the central principles he uses to differentiate the modes, he does not deny the “psychological dimension.”

16. “Utopian History and the Anatomy,” in Northrop Frye in Modern Criticism, pp. 34–35.

17. The Nature of Narrative, pp. 13–15, 242–45. See also The Elements of Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 1–14; and “Towards a Poetics of Fiction: An Approach through Genre,” Novel 2 (1969): 101–11. This last essay appears in an expanded form in Scholes’s Structuralism in Literature, pp. 117–41.

18. Structuralism in Literature, p. 132.

19. Ibid., pp. 133, 118.

20. {236} Ibid., pp. 118, 119–22. Scholes’s critique depends heavily on Tzvetan Todorov’s chapter on Frye in The Fantastic.

21. “Towards a Poetics of Fiction,” p. 109.

22. Structuralism in Literature, pp. 138, 139.

23. The Fantastic, pp. 13–15, 21.

24. Todorov complains that it is impossible for Frye to combine the systems of classification in his First and Third Essays, and Brooke-Rose echoes the complaint in “Historical Genres/Theoretical Genres,” p. 148. There is no reason, however, that the taxonomies here should be or need to be combined: Frye is simply treating two different kinds of literary conventions. For an analysis and critique of Todorov’s own theory of literary types, see David H. Richter, “Pandora’s Box Revisited,” Critical Inquiry 1 (December 1974): 471–74. See also Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. 136–37.

25. “Historical Genres/Theoretical Genres,” p. 148.

26. “Literary History in Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism,” p. 53.

27. Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), pp. 78, 265–74.

28. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972. See also Paul Smith, “Criticism and the Curriculum: Part I,” College English 26 (1964): 23–30, an essay on curricular revision based on principles similar to Frye’s; and Robert D. Foulke, “Criticism and the Curriculum: Part II,” College English 26 (1964): 30–37, an outline of four critical approaches to teaching literature, each of which has a parallel in Frye’s work.

29. An Anatomy of Literature, p. 14.

30. Ibid., p. 15.

31. Ibid., p. 18.

32. Structuralism in Literature, p. 138.

33. An Anatomy of Literature, pp. 14, 19.

34. Ibid., p. 19.

35. The Fantastic, p. 14.

36. “Utopian History and the Anatomy,” in Northrop Frye in Modern Criticism, pp. 32, 34, 56.

37. Ibid., pp. 34 (see also p. 43), 53.

38. Historical Inevitability (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), p. 14, as quoted by Angus Fletcher in “Utopian History and the Anatomy,” p. 52. In “Northrop Frye: The Critical Passion,” Critical Inquiry 1 (1975): 741–56, Fletcher reexamines Frye’s under standing of history, qualifying his earlier judgment about its Utopian character but still maintaining that the First Essay is “based on a theory of literary history. Essay I is not a history of literature: it is a theoretical history of literature, that is, it presents the past of our literature under the guise of a hypothetical formation of series of eventualities” (p. 753). The view that the First Essay “gives a shape to history, rather than discovering one in a wholly empirical manner” is also argued by Bruce Bashford in “Literary History in Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism,” pp. 48–55.

39. “Literary Criticism and History: The Endless Dialectic,” New Literary History 6 (Spring 1975): 507.

40. “New Directions from Old,” in FI, 55.

41. “Interpretation in History,” New Literary History 4 (1973): 287, 291, 295. See also Metahistory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), pp. 7–11, 231–33, where White draws upon Frye’s theory of myths to identify four different modes of plotting which he then uses as a part of his framework for analyzing nineteenth-century historians. Cf. Frye’s remark in “Reflections in a Mirror”: “The only shaping principles of history in literature itself I have dealt with . . . are those of displacement, the oscillating {237} of technique from the stylizing of form to the manifesting of content and back again, and of what I call existential projection, the attributing of poetic schematism to the objective world, which takes different forms in different historical epochs” (Northrop Frye in Modern Criticism, pp. 142–43).

42. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947), p. 29. Hereafter cited as FS.

43. Critics and Criticism, ed. R.S. Crane, abridged ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. iv.

44. Critics and Criticism, ed. R.S. Crane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), p. 9, and The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry, p. 31. For Frye’s reviews of these two books, see note 2 above.

45. P. 13. The chief source of Crane’s formulation of pluralism is Richard McKeon, “The Philosophic Bases of Art and Criticism,” in Critics and Criticism, ed. R.S. Crane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), pp. 463–545. On pluralism, see also Wayne C. Booth, Now Don’t Try To Reason with Me (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), pp. 103–49, and Elder Olson, “The Dialectical Foundations of Critical Pluralism,” in “On Value Judgments in the Arts” and Other Essays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), pp. 327–59. There is a lively discussion of critical pluralism by Booth, M.H. Abrams, and J. Hillis Miller in Critical Inquiry 2 (Spring 1976): 411–64, and 3 (Spring 1977): 407–47. The most complete account of pluralism is in Booth’s forthcoming book, Critical Understanding (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

46. But compare this remark: “Aristotle is the only philosopher known to me who not only talks specifically about poetics when he is aware of larger aesthetic problems, but who assumes that such poetics would be the organon of an independent discipline. Consequently a critic can use the Poetics without involving himself in Aristotelianism (though I know that some Aristotelian critics do not think so.“) (AC, 357).

47. See Leon Golden, “Aristotle, Frye, and the Theory of Tragedy,” Comparative Literature 27 (1975): 47–58. Golden observes that in comparing the approaches of Frye and Aristotle “we are struck by their wide divergence in method and conclusion,” yet he wants to argue, like the syncretist, that the strengths of Frye’s observations about the range of tragic works can be combined with Aristotle’s definition of the genre to produce a more adequate theory of tragedy.