Denham Intro: CW 25, Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings

Preface and Introduction to Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings

Robert D. Denham and Michael Dolzani

[from Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings. Ed. Robert D. Denham and Michael Dolzani. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. Collected Works of Northrop Frye, 25]


This is the eighth and final volume of Northrop Frye’s notebooks—a miscellany of material that did not fit neatly into one of the other volumes, though in several cases the notes found here might well have gone into one of the previously published volumes: Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks (2 vols., ed. Denham), Northrop Frye’s “Third Book Notebooks (ed. Dolzani), Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts (ed. Denham), Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance (ed. Dolzani), Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Renaissance (ed. Dolzani), Northrop Frye’s Notebooks for Anatomy of Criticism (ed. Denham). We began this project thirteen years ago, spending the first three or four years transcribing and organizing the notebooks and Frye’s other previously unpublished manuscripts, and we have collaborated throughout the project. It seemed appropriate then, as we bring this undertaking to a close, that we share the editing of the final volume. This too has been collaboration, though Robert Denham has been primarily responsible for the editing and introductory remarks for sections 1, 2, and 6, and Michael Dolzani, sections 3, 4, and 7. We shared the editing of section 5.

A large proportion of the material in what follows comes from either Frye’s holograph notebooks or from his typed notes. We have commented on the form and function of his notebooks in the introductions to the other notebook volumes. But in addition to Frye’s notebooks the present volume also contains nine typescripts that are not notes, and it includes as well transcriptions of two lectures from tapes. Too, we thought it appropriate to include in the section on fiction all eight of Frye’s short stories—fables and dialogues, as he called them—even though six of these were published in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The advantage of having all of Frye’s fiction, finished and unfinished, in one place seemed obvious. These stories, two of Frye’s music reviews, and his two-part lecture “Reconsidering Levels of Meaning” are the only instances of our including previously published material.

Most of Frye’s notes served as the basis for his essays and books, and the material in the present volume is like Frye’s other holograph and typed notes: they present topics in a more or less discontinuous form that he later expanded, contracted, or abandoned altogether.

The division of the material in this miscellany is somewhat arbitrary, though by settling finally on seven we have astrology, the Kabbalah, and the Book of Revelation on our side. Frye’s lecture “Reconsidering Levels of Meaning,” in which he lays out another version of his theory of polysemous meaning, could just as easily have found itself in section 7—on the Bible and Religion. The eulogy for John Robins and his talk on the occasion of the centenary of Moncton, N.B. could have been placed with the Canadian material (section 4). Similar rearrangements were possible for other items, but whatever disadvantages might follow from our placing an item in one of the sections rather than another will be, we hope, forgiven.

We have continued the practice of using notebook numbers to designate the holograph notebooks, though for most of these we have given subtitles in square brackets, which are intended to provide readers with a general indication of their contents. For the typed notes, however, we have abandoned the practice used in the previous notebook volumes of assigning numbers to each unit of typed material, based on its location in the Northrop Frye Fonds at the Victoria University Library, a procedure that caused more confusion than clarity. Again, we have supplied short titles for these materials, feeling that a title will be more useful to identify a unit of typed notes, the location of which in the Frye Fonds will be found in the headnote. Of course, as with the other notebook volumes, the index is an indispensable tool, and the table of contents provides at a glance the units we have placed in each of the seven sections.

We have transcribed the notebooks and reproduced the typed notes with the intent of replicating exactly what Frye wrote, retaining his own spellings, capital letters, and punctuation, even when his practice on these matters varies, and not adding accents to words in his typescripts that should have them. There are three exceptions: we have regularized his use of double quotation marks with periods and commas, following the usual North American practice, we have italicized the words and phrases he underlined, and we have replaced his occasional use of square brackets with braces: { }.

Editorial additions are in square brackets. These include, in addition to titles, paragraph numbers, and question marks for words that we have been unable to decipher (question mark only) or that are conjectures (question mark following the inference). We have also used square brackets to expand Frye’s abbreviations that are not immediately obvious, but when an abbreviation appears more than once in an entry, only the first instance is expanded. From time to time Frye uses a symbolic code, explained both in the notes to the present volume and in the introductions to the notebooks already published, to refer to various parts of his lifelong writing project. He occasionally refers to this project as his ogdoad, the eight parts, as outlined in “Autobiographical Notes II” in the present volume, being Liberal, Tragicomedy, Anticlimax, Rencontre, Mirage, Paradox, Ignoramus, and Twilight. When Frye uses one of his shorthand symbols, we have given its name in square brackets following the symbol, though again we have not repeated the name if the symbol reappears within a single paragraph. The titles we have supplied in square brackets have not been used in the table of contents.

In the introduction to Frye’s fiction Robert Denham has recycled two paragraphs about the bardo novel from his Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World, and from his introduction to Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks several paragraphs having to do with Frye’s book of aphorisms.



The autobiographical reflections that introduce this collection begin with five units of material, drawn from Frye’s holograph notebooks and typed notes, that we have called “Autobiographical Notes.” The earliest, written between 1942 and 1944, is similar in form to Frye’s other notebooks in that he lets his mind play freely with a host of diverse subjects. It differs insofar as Frye has no particular critical project in mind, though the novel he had begun working on during these years does get brief mention here and there (pars. 23, 24, 31, 52). The sundry topics are as wide ranging as in Frye’s other notebooks—from buttocks and bathing suits toward the beginning (pars. 7–8) to Arnold Toynbee at the end (par. 72). In between we encounter scores of miscellaneous speculations. Among these, to mention only a few, are reflections on Roman Catholicism (pars 63–7), Disney’s Fantasia (par. 45), radicalism (par. 17), the German war machine (par. 61), the possibility of leaving Toronto for a job in Asia (par. 14), female bodies (pars. 22, 27), radicalism (par. 17), nineteenth-century prose writers (par. 26), the bankruptcy of the Ph.D. degree (pars. 48–9), making money (par. 52), the unity of mind and body (par. 51), centaurism (par. 71), women students (par. 25), mystery stories (par. 10), and the cult of the useful (par. 15). Frye’s wife Helen makes several appearances, and we meet a dozen or so of Frye’s colleagues, as well as other contemporaries. Notebook 42 is one of Frye’s earliest notebooks (he is just past thirty), but like his later notebooks, it is expansive, frank, witty, iconoclastic, and filled with acute observations. As is the case with almost all of Frye’s writing, it widely allusive: by the thirteenth entry we have encountered Aristotle, Plato, Montaigne, Pepys, Boswell, Plotinus, Blake, Trollope, Dostoevsky, Poe, Wilkie Collins, Dickens, Byron, Veblen, Wyndham Lewis, Ellery Queen, Rilke, Mahler, Bax, Wagner, Socrates, and Chopin; and by the time we get to the final entry Frye has had occasion to refer to fifty more writers, philosophers, and musicians.

Notebook 42 does contain some self-analysis, but it is less explicitly autobiographical, or at least less personal, than the other four documents, except as it reveals the way in which Frye’s mind works. He occasionally does become quite explicitly personal, as in the injunctions he delivers to himself in Notebook 30r, the fifth set of notes in section 1.

The other three sets of autobiographical notes are all typescripts. The first of these, which dates from the 1950s, is an exceptionally valuable explanation of Frye’s lifelong desire to produce eight major works. More than a decade and a half later, Frye felt compelled to bring his account of the history of the ogdoad up to date, and so he wrote a more detailed explanation, “Work in Progress,” which was published in 2002 in Northrop Frye’s “Third Book” Notebooks. These two documents provide clear evidence that Frye knew his notebooks would eventually find readers, and he was aware these readers would be baffled by his shorthand references to parts of the ogdoad (Liberal, Paradox, Rencontre, and so on) and by their hieratic codes. Thus, the two explanations. Without these documents it would have been exceedingly difficult for the editors of Frye’s notebooks to have deduced the general shape and the separate parts of Frye’s own great code.[1]

The third set of autobiographical notes is an outline of a talk Frye gave about his early life. The notes are condensed, containing very little elaboration, and some of the references are uncertain, but they do provide details, not available elsewhere, for Frye’s next biographer. “Autobiographical Notes IV” is also a series of notes Frye typed for a talk—this one presented at the meeting of the Learned Societies in 1972. As far as we know, he did not prepare a manuscript from his notes: no such typescript, in any event, is extant. The talk was, however, taped, and later transcribed and published. In these notes Frye focusses on the influence of his Victoria College professors, his early teaching career at Victoria, and the honour course at Toronto. The notes include several matters that Frye chose not to include in his talk, such as his ambition to enter the ministry, his reading of “theology” at Emmanuel College (Frazer’s Golden Bough), and his learning from Wilson Knight the importance of relying on primary sources. The remaining four items in the autobiographical section are a eulogy for his teacher and colleague John Robins, which dates from 1952; notes for a talk on Victoria College’s contribution to Canadian culture; Frye’s memoir recounting the life of his wife Helen, presented at her memorial service in September 1986; and the transcript of a talk Frye gave in November 1990, only two months before his death, on the occasion of the centenary of the incorporation of the town of Moncton, where Frye spent is early years..

Frye remarked to an interviewer that “everything I write I consider autobiography, although nobody else would” (On Education, 211). He was speaking here, of course, about his critical works. He always seemed nervous in replying to questions about his own life, and in writing his book on Eliot, he objected to the requirement that his first chapter be biographical: “I didn’t want to write a biographical sketch, because I didn’t think Eliot’s biography was relevant to his poetry” (Northrop Frye in Conversation, 108). Frye remarked to another interviewer that while the life of somebody like Byron is important to an understanding of his poetry, in his own case “it’s a matter of very incidental interest.”[2] Whether that is the case or not, Frye’s next biographer will have to take account of the portrait of Frye that emerges from all of his previously unpublished work—his letters, diaries, student essays, typescripts, notebooks, and the autobiographical reflections collected here, which necessarily belong to the category “everything I write.”


Frye’s eight pieces of short fiction, six of which he published over a five-year period beginning in 1936, hardly qualify as short stories, at least in the main tradition of that form as practiced by Chekov and Maupassant or James and Mansfield.[3] The genre is admittedly difficult to define, and in Anatomy of Criticism, Frye’s analysis of the genre amounts mostly to pointing out the forms that are shorter versions of his four forms of fiction: the tale, of the kind that Poe wrote, is a short form of romance; the short story, a terse form of the novel; the essay, a short version of the confession; and the dialogue or colloquy, a brief Menippean satire or anatomy. This means that the dialogue or colloquy, which Frye sometimes refers to as the cena, is, like the anatomy, an extroverted and intellectualized form. His stories are fundamentally brief anatomies. He has no interest in character development and very little in plot: ethos and mythos are displaced almost completely by dianoia. The point of Frye’s little anatomies, four of which he called “dialogues,”[4] is to make a point. He remarked to David Cayley, that he was attracted to satire at an early age and that when he wrote the stories he “knew more about ideas than . . . about people,” adding that “[i]f somebody like Borges had been known to me at the time, I would have tried to pick up that kind of tradition (Northrop Frye in Conversation, 71). As a young person, Frye immersed himself in Shaw, with his theatre of vital ideas and his comic and ironic tone. While the Blakean vision replaced the Shavian one as the point around which his literary universe revolved, he never discarded the ironic and satirical mask.

In addition to the anatomy form, five of the stories have supernatural features, though Frye treats the visitation of various spirits with such matter-of-factness that the distinction between the supernatural and the natural seems to collapse. We meet a ghost in the story with that title, a daimon in the allegorical “Fable . . . in the Nineteenth-Century Idiom,” an angel in “Affable Angel”; and Paris and the Greek goddesses in a retelling of the golden apple myth in “Prelude.” In “Face to Face” we have a dialogue on the idea of God among South Sea islanders, and a Phrygian (the pun seems to be intended) marriage rite in “Incident from The Golden Bough,” in which Attis makes a very natural appearance. The point of several of these stories involves some cosmological, philosophical or theological debate. Are ghosts corporeal or not (“The Ghosts”)? The punch line of the story suggests they are. Are the seven secrets of successful writing virtues or not” (“Fable . . . In the Nineteenth-Century Idiom”)? The punch line indicates they are all vices. Is God to be conceived better in a colorful intellectual universe of either-or opposites on in a universe where everything is conceived as a gray golden mean (“Face to Face”)? The punch line favors the latter. Similarly, the “message” of “Affable Angel” is that we should not sell short the power of angels. The angel that appears, again, matter-of-factly in this story, joining in conversation with two drunks and a barkeeper, ends up causing a Nazi airplane to crash into the Thames. These stories are pure little anatomies. The characters are simply mouthpieces for ideas, and we have no concern for them otherwise. About “Face to Face” Frye remarked to some unidentified inquirer who was writing a paper about his work that the “story reflects some of my difficulties with the enthusiasm for Thomism on the campus in the 30’s, when Gilson and Maritain were on campus.”[5] This story, then, is personally allegorical, and others reflect events of the time, such as the Nazi threat in “Affable Angel” and the remark of the priest in “the Ghost” about beating up a medium, which comes from a story by Thomas Mann and is related to a strange experience suffered by Frye’s mother.[6] Frye’s interest in the ghost story can be traced back at least as far as his reading of Henry James in the 1930s.[7] The supernatural also suggests a link with Poe’s tales, though not of the spine-chilling Gothic variety.

“Interpreter’s Parlour” is an ostensible dialogue between a poet and an unnamed interlocutor, but the latter makes no contribution to the dialogue, serving only to punctuate the poet’s clever interpretation of one of his own “difficult poems.” It is a satirical tour de force, even though the poem is hardly a poem at all: the creativity emerges not from the poem but from the poet’s creative reading, which becomes an elaborate exercise in comparative religion, illustrating that if you stare at the words long enough you can make coherence out of an incoherent riddle. The monologue prefigures the close readings that the New Critics would later develop into critical orthodoxy, though the monologue is of course a parody of such readings.

The two stories that have more than a vestige of a plot are also the longest, “The Resurgent” and “Incident from The Golden Bough.” The former is about the destruction of an artist, Andrew Larabian, who abandons his mode of abstract expressionism and enlists his talents in the service of a fascist political movement. The war in his soul caused by the impossibility of reconciling his genuinely artistic vision with the kind of soviet realism he is required to produce leads to insanity and then to death, apparently by suicide. The first person narrator is the artist’s sister, a true believer in propagandistic art; she lets the last half of the story be told from the entries in her dead brother’s diary. The story, which has parallels to Balzac’s “Unknown Masterpiece”—about another mad artist[8]—is really an exemplum or cautionary tale about the dangers of the artist’s selling out to political ends.

“Incident from The Golden Bough” is, like “Prelude,” a retelling of an ancient myth, this one borrowed from Frazer’s account of the spring festival of Attis and Cybele, primarily a Roman festival but also a Phrygian one. In describing the third day of this festival Frazer writes of how other Asiatic goddesses were served in manner similar to the grisly ritual of Cybele, which involved a great deal of blood-letting. “These feminine deities,” writes the euphemistic Frazer, “required to receive from their male ministers, who personated divine lovers, the means of discharging their beneficent functions: they had themselves to be impregnated by the life-giving energy before they could transmit it to the world.”[9] Frye engages in a number of displacements, making the goddess into a beautiful bride-to-be who is offered to a passing stranger before she can go to her husband. The Phrygian explains to the Greek stranger that Attis originally performed this service but that his “appearances have become rather irregular in this degenerate age.” The bridegroom, not surprisingly, objects to this prostituting practice, and he tells the Greek that there is a growing opposition to it in the community as well. As it turns out Attis does make an appearance and performs the act the Greek had been charged with carrying out. The next day the young woman tells the assembled Phyrgians that it was Attis, not the Greek stranger, with whom she had slept. The movement toward reforming what the people think is an outmoded and superstitious custom then comes to a grinding halt. In the somewhat mystifying conclusion, it appears that the presence of Attis has changed the minds of the people: an old priest emerges to lead a hymn to the god, and the bridegroom accepts the intervention of Attis. What began as a move to abolish an embarrassing ritual fails and the displacement is reversed. The point seems to be that it is difficult to kill off the gods: when Attis appears, the enlightened opposition to outmoded religious ritual disappears.

Frye’s effort to produce as series of brief anatomies, while not without some interest as experiments, will turn out for most readers to be not altogether successful, which is doubtless why Frye abandoned them. He did not, however, abandon his interest in writing fiction, as we see in the second unit of material, which are the earliest of examples of Frye’s life-long desire to write a more extensive work of fiction

When Frye was nine he dreamed of writing eight concerti, and at the same age, after reading Scott’s novels, he imagined writing a sequence of historical novels. This was followed by his reading of Dickens and Thackeray, at which point his goal became “a sequence of eight definitive novels.” When he was fourteen, he gave each of these novels a one-word descriptive name, and these names remained with him over the years: as mentioned above, they appear hundreds of times in his notebooks as a shorthand designation for his books, both those completed and those anticipated. While he abandoned his brief anatomy experiment, he never really abandoned his fiction-writing dream: as late as 1990 there are hints—in Notebook 50—that he wanted to transform the final installment of his ogdoad, which he called Twilight, from a critical work into a book of creative aphorisms.

As for his novel, in an undated letter to Roy Daniells from mid-July 1935, Frye wrote: “I come up blushing shyly to confess that I am taking advantage of my unaccustomed freedom to start working a bit on a novel. Its provisional title is Quiet Consummation. It’s not much of a novel, but I want to get it out of my system. No plot or theme or thesis or anything, just yet. It’s laid out in sonata form. Amusing, I think, if it comes off at all. I am beginning to realize that while I may and probably will turn out some fairly decent things on Blake and Shakespeare and Augustine and the rest critically, the larger problem they refer back to, the relation of religion and art in symbolism, will require fictional and dramatic treatment.” Two years later Frye’s ambition has expanded: he tells Daniells that he is “going to write a tetralogy of four novels.”[10] In Notebook 5, which apparently dates from about this time, Frye sketched on the flyleaf, “Quiet Consummation / A Novel in Sonata Form / Eratus Howard / Part One, Exposition”; on the second leaf is an “Analysis” of the novel, outlined as the exposition, development, and recapitulation.[11] We hear nothing more about Quiet Consummation until fifty years later, when, as we shall see, it takes another form.

Three months before his letter of July 1935 to Roy Daniells Frye confessed his novel-writing ambition to his girlfriend Helen Kemp:

I think I am giving birth to a novel, but maybe that’s only because of the relief of exams being over, as one might think he was travelling through interstellar space because his bedclothes slipped off. I don’t know anything about it, except that it’s going to be a dead secret between us for a long while. And it’s NOT going to be about a young misunderstood genius who finally wins through to fame and success through the inspiration of a pure woman. I am going to avoid a writer-hero like a venereal disease. But it’ll be a long time before anything exciting happens. I shall never write a novel until I reach maturity, which will be whenever the summation of my past experiences takes on a significant unity. . . . There’s a novel I should like to write, but I’m not yet old enough. Something about two people, man and woman, as courteous, intelligent, and altogether ideal as I can make them, deeply in love, tremendous mutual respect, common cultural interests. One consolidates on a religious tradition and the other on Communism and the theme of the book would be the struggle between them. A child would grow up, and as neither parent would force his or her ideals down its throat, it would be interesting to see what it would make of the situation. Sometime I shall go to bed with Henry James and spawn it. (NFHK 1: 443, 446)

Two years later he reported to Helen that the novel is still “hanging fire” (The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, 2:689), and in May 1939 he wrote to Helen—now Helen Frye—”I want to get a novel written and published. I’ve got the stuff of an unusually good writer in me” (ibid., 2: 899).

Frye’s initial effort, begun in the early 1940s, to realize his ambition was a more or less realistic piece of fiction, though with a strong satirical thrust, called The Locust-Eaters.[12] He never completed the project, but he made extensive notes on the plot, character, and themes and produced a typescript of four brief chapters and the portion of a fifth, amounting to about 5500 words. The notebooks reveal that there were to be eight chapters in one projection (NB 30m, par. 1) and nine in another (NB 30m, par. 19), and there is a sufficient body of notes—another 9500 words—to suggest that Frye could have fleshed the story out into a full blown novel. As best we can tell, it would have been a novel in the tradition of nineteenth-century realism, though, again, with a heavy dose of satire. The genre would be about as far as he could move from his later preference for romance. Frye recognizes that the central tradition of fiction, beginning with Richardson and continuing through Bennett, Wells, and Maugham, is realism, and his nascent story takes place, as we learn from his notes, in the late nineteenth century. Frye writes in one notebook, “I’m falling somewhere between the pure novel, the bourgeois study of personal relationships that has no ideas, on the one hand, & a Peacock cena on the other” (NB 2, par. 49).[13] And he also writes that while he knows all about Joyce, he won’t try “to produce sniggering imitations” of the modernists (NB 1, par. 52).

What we have of the novel centres on Rev. Lyman Kennedy, who had been brought up in western Canada, went east to Champlain, an imaginary province north of Ontario between Manitoba and Quebec, for his university training (B.A. and M.A), and then returned to a church in a western town called Pilkey. Kennedy’s wife is introduced in what we have of the opening of chapter 5, and his children, Vanya (age 17) and Horace (age 10) in chapter 1. The central presence in Kennedy’s church, the widow of a Methodist circuit-riding preacher, Sarah Goremont Megill, is felt early on, though we meet her only through the omniscient narrator: her death is announced at the end of chapter 1. Sarah Megill’s extended family includes her daughter (a Mrs. Lauder), her son referred to in the notes only as Megill and his two children (Ada and Jack, whose mother has died), Sarah’s adopted son (John Goremont), and Ada’s fiancé, Harvey Oclose. The portraits of these characters are sketchy at best, but the extensive notes Frye made for The Locust-Eaters, beginning with those from as early as his final year at Oxford (1939), round out the characters somewhat, and the vignettes found in these notes give a sense of the direction that the plot—a matter that seems to have given Frye the most difficulty—would take. In the notes we gain more insight into several of the characters that appear in the typescript chapters, such as Aunt Haggie and the church pianist Helen Grodenus, and some who do not, such as Formius, the shadowy father of John Goremont.

The notes indicate that the novel will contain discussions of World War II and totalitarian ideologies. The characters of the two young women, Ada and Vanya will receive expansive development, as will the relationship between characters: Vanya’s relationship with John Goremont (who goes off to war), the Lauders with each other, and Ada Megill with Harvey Oclose, the latter or which Frye intends to develop as a major them alongside the Kennedy one. In addition to politics, the novel will introduce the other two universal themes, religion and sex (NB 1, par. 51).

Throughout all of this readers will discover quite a few similarities between events and attitudes in the novel and Frye’s own life. The hamlet of Bad Land is not at all unlike the villages in southwestern Saskatchewan that he served as a student circuit-rider in 1934—Stone, Stone Pile, and Carnagh: Frye initially proposed calling it Bad Land or “Rockpile” (NB 30m, par. 5). Sarah Megill’s husband was, like Frye’s maternal uncle, Donald Howard, a circuit-riding preacher. Sarah Megill was “the object of close scrutiny, sometimes with field-glasses, from all the neighbouring farmhouses,” just as Frye had been during the summer of 1934 (Ayre, 99). Rev. Kennedy hated prayers, just as Frye confesses in his diary that he himself did.[14] The music played in the living room in Champlain, which is the name of both the province and its capital city, was all music that Frye himself had played. And there are smaller things, like the phrase “rutting in rubber,” which Frye repeats in his diaries (D, 466).

Frye had enough doubts about his novel that it seems unlikely he could have pulled it off. He remarks in one note that he simply does not have the inclination to collect the kind of data needed for realistic fiction, so that what he does produce remains “pedantic.” He is too introverted and cannot relate his fiction-writing with his other activities (NB 1, par. 60).

Anything that would so integrate would have to be mock-pedantic, intellectual slapstick as I call it. I feel that the Locust-Eaters, though clever, is mediocre, fits a too-well-established pattern, & would embarrass my friends. It’s crotch-bound: it hasn’t the Frye swing & confident brilliance, & represents the sort of careful synthetic wit I should have been producing at twenty & couldn’t. As a novelist I suffer from abnormally arrested development. I’d do better in something closer to Waugh than Forster, closer to Surtees, Borrow, Peacock & Lever than to Thackeray or Trollope: something more bookish than Rabelais and less so than Burton: something that strikes a glancing blow at fiction but is fundamentally a reader’s synthesis of life. (NB 1, par. 60)

The realistic novel, by Frye’s own account, simply doesn’t fit into his “high spirits,” pathos, and sardonic wit (NB1, par. 61). Still, he did not abandon his desire to be a novelist. In a notebook written at least twenty-five years after his drafts for The Locust-Eaters, Frye remarks:

All my life I’ve had an ambition to write fiction, either as a series of novels, or as one big novel. Some of the motivation is dubious: I want to prove to myself and to others that I can be “creative” in the conventionally creative genres. The idea of a series of novels has gradually faded or has left me with the desire to leave, like Santayana, a single work of fiction behind me. (NB 28, par. 1)

Exactly when Frye abandoned his Locust-Eater project is uncertain. Sometime between 1942 and 1944 he writes, “I have always been primarily ambitious to write ‘creative’ literature—i.e. novels or whatever I invent in place of them. So deep an ambition must surely have some justification, yet when I try I show no satisfactory ability as a novelist. But there’s enough ‘promise’ there to make me wonder if the only reason I can’t write them is that I have to fish this critical stuff out of me first, & if after having done so I could. If I put that beyond my horizon it may focus my perspective instead of foreshortening it. Once drained of all learning my creative power might then emerge without being befogged by pedantry” (Northriop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance, 17). But showing “no satisfactory ability” does not mean that Frye abandoned his fictional efforts or at least his designs for such. In the late 1940s, perhaps as late even as 1950, he is still fantasizing about a tetralogy of novels in sonata form, of which The Locust-Eaters will be the scherzo. He confesses about the same time that his creativity might best manifest itself in a book of aphorisms or in a Tolkien-like “recreated world of deep consciousness . . . that all prose romance gropes for,” adding that “[i]t’s clear from all this how completely I’m still a critic. But I’ve always felt that the only kind of book I’d want to write in fiction would be the one I’d most like to read for relaxation. And that book would go straight down to this dream of the red chamber at the heart of a fairy world full of golden lamps in a green night.”[15]

Still, there were other forms of fiction that Frye wished to experiment with: the thriller (NB 1, par. 24); the Thorne Smith kind of fantasy; the detective story; “the intellectual comedy of understatement, deadpan mental slapstick” (NB 1, par. 60); a novel based on the “theme with variations” formula, “each variation a treatment of it in relation to a certain conceptual framework of Western society” (NB 1, par. 55); an academic novel in a university setting (NB 1, pars. 64–70); a symposium (NB 30j); a novel about the discovery of a fifth gospel (NB 34, par. 12) and a form in which the central character journeys through various states of being (NB 30o). This latter is related to perhaps most interesting Frye’s fictional fantasy—the bardo novel which he contemplates writing over a period of some thirteen years (1949–1962).

Frye had gotten glimpses of the bardo world in Yeats, Gogol, Joyce, and Morris. These and other writers trigger the desire that continues for some years of writing a bardo novel himself, bardo being the “in-between period” that connects the death of individuals with their following rebirth, as this is formulated in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Frye first entertains the notion in the 1940s, when he proposes writing a novel story from the point of view of a dead narrator looking at the world—a supernatural novel, but one based on intellectual paradox and without morbidity. He writes that all of his fictional ideas

tend to revolve around Rilke’s idea of the poet’s perceiving simultaneously the visible & the invisible world. In practice that means a new type of ghost or supernatural story, possibly approached by way of some science fiction development. The idea is a vision of another life or another world so powerfully plausible as to make conventionally religious & anti-religious people shake in their shoes. I’ve begun notes on this many times, but threw away my best notebook, written in Seattle, in a London (Ont.) hotel. By “shake in their shoes” I don’t mean threats, but the ecstatic frisson or giggle aroused by plausibility. (NB20.1).

By 1949 Frye has begun to find some models for such a work: Robert Nathan’s Portrait of Jennie, a romantic fantasy about a young girl who, defying time, mysteriously vanishes and reappears, and Henry James’s A Sense of the Past, an unfinished ghost story in which characters disappear from one century and resurface in another. When Frye discovers Charles Williams’s All Hallows’ Eve, a supernatural tale that explores a world parallel to our own, with its characters, some dead and some alive, interacting with our own, then he temporarily loses his ambition to write the bardo novel: Williams has already done it. But in 1962 the idea gets resurrected: “How the hell would one write a good Bardo novel?” Frye asks (NB 2, par. 13), and he then proceeds to outline in some detail the narrative of a character who prepares for death, does die, and wakes up in bardo not knowing that he had died but living in some vision of a liberated world. Just as All Hallows’ Eve had dissuaded Frye earlier from pursuing his fiction-writing project, so now the appearance of Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools (1962) makes him realize, again, that he has been pre-empted.[16] Thus he concludes, “My Bardo novel is not something to write, but a koan to think about and exercise the mind.” And exercise his mind he does: once he has abandoned the novel project, he engages in a series of speculations about bardo.[17]

There is little question that Frye’s decision to devote himself to criticism rather than fiction-writing was the correct one. His considerable creativity manifests itself in his criticism, and he always insisted anyway that there should be no sharp distinction between the critical and the creative. It manifests as well in his notebooks, which are discontinuous and often aphoristic. The desire to complete a book of aphorisms emerges from a dozen or so entries in Frye’s Late Notebooks. “I wonder,” he writes, “if I could be permitted to write my Twilight book [the final book in the ogdoad], not as evidence of my own alleged wisdom but as a ‘next time’ (Henry James) book, putting my spiritual case more forcefully yet, and addressed to still more readers” (Late Notebooks, 1:417) The reference here is to James’s The Next Time, the story of a writer whose work is admired by a small coterie but who is frustrated by his failure to reach a large audience. As we have seen, he proposes several models for his anagogic book, and he says, “I wouldn’t want to plan such a book as a dumping ground for things I can’t work in elsewhere or as a set of echoes of what I’ve said elsewhere.” “Such a book would feature,” he adds “completely uninhibited writing” and “completely uninhibited metaphor-building,” and some of the entries might even be fictional.[18] Toward the end of Notebook 50, when Frye realizes that he may not live much longer, he suggests still another variation on the final book. He scribbles somewhat cryptically, “Opus Perhaps Posthumous: Working Title: Quintessence of Dust. Four Essays.” And then, a dozen entries later, he adds, “Quintessence and dust; Quarks or pinpoints; Quest and Cycle: Quiet Consummation” (Late Notebooks, 415, 417). “Four Essays,” the subtitle of Anatomy of Criticism, hints at the conventions of the anatomy as a genre, and “Quiet Consummation” (the phrase comes from Guiderius and Arviragus’s song in Cymbeline, 4.2. 280) was of course the earliest title for his projected novel. For Twilight, then, Frye is looking for a form that would combine the creative and the critical—something aphoristic, anagogic, erudite, imaginative, even fictional that would be a calm consummation of his life’s work.

The interesting thing about Frye’s last-book fantasies is their correspondence to the notebooks themselves. Frye himself makes the connection between the “aphoristic book” and his “notebook obsession” (Late Notebooks, 172–3), and the notebooks are a Promethean exercise in uninhibited writing and metaphor-building. His notebooks are, of course, not Twilight, not the anagogic book of aphorisms that he dreamed about—”‘my own’ book of pensées,” as he called it (Late Notebooks, 1:372). But it is possible that the core of Twilight would have come from a selection of his notebooks. When Frye says that Twilight is “ideally . . . a book to be put away in a drawer and have published after my death” and that he always thought of the final book in his ogdoad fantasy as “something perhaps not reached” (Late Notebooks, 1:238, 173) possibility moves in the direction of likelihood.


With a few exceptions, Frye’s writing on music is largely confined to the period 1933–42, the discussion in Anatomy of Criticism of melos, or the rhythmic aspect of verse, being largely an adaptation of his article “Music in Poetry” from 1942.[19] Most of it, to be properly understood, has to be seen in the light of the larger context of cultural theory out of which it emerged; this is true even for reviews of performances or what appear to be exercises in music history. The young Frye draws the terms of his cultural perspective from Spengler’s Decline of the West, which said that cultures at their peak have an organic unity, the basis of which is religion in its root sense of religio, to bind together (Student Essays, 328). A primary manifestation of this organic unity is communal art, specifically music and drama: “Music and drama are both group art forms: that is, they are ensemble performances for audiences. The ensemble performance in music may be only an ensemble of ten fingers, and the dramatic performance may be a monologue; but the group concept is there; both arts are presented rather than read, interpreted by some performer or group of performers intervening between the audience and his public. Both music and drama, therefore, flourish chiefly in an integrated society” (Student Essays, 328). Frye accepts the view of the Cambridge school of anthropology that Western music and drama developed, in both ancient Athens and the late Middle Ages, if not directly out of religious ritual, at least within its close proximity: “Just as tragedy is an artistic development of the sacrifice, so comedy is an artistic development of the carnival” (Student Essays, 334), the festival of disorder which is nonetheless part of the cycle of religious renewal. Most of Elizabethan drama drew away from the religious content of medieval drama, “But Shakespeare, by the intuition of transcendent genius, approached nearer and nearer the sacerdotal drama as his genius developed” (Student Essays, 336), ending with The Tempest, which Colin Still called Shakespeare’s Mystery Play.

Nevertheless, “From the Renaissance onward, music rather than the strict drama took over the task of the artistic presentation of the religious impulse already dealt with. First, we have the development of the opera, in the early seventeenth century, with Greek tragedy as a model. Out of this early opera grow the later opera and the oratorio. . . . At the climax of the oratorio comes Bach, who, working in music, was able, in a way that Shakespeare was not, to present, in his two greatest works, the St. Matthew Passion and the B Minor Mass, the supreme sacrifice and the supreme symbol of it. The oratorio proper keeps the Greek tragedy form of recitativo or narration and chorus. The oratorio is, thus, an essentially tragic form. The opera, when similarly brought to its artistic culmination by Mozart, was established as a comedy or carnival-form. Along with these vocal forms go the strict instrumental forms of the fugue and the sonata, the development of each being also brought to its culmination by Bach and Mozart respectively” (Student Essays, 341–2).[20]

That last remark brings us to the most remarkable productions in the present section. Notebooks 5 and 17, respectively on Elizabethan music in general and William Byrd in particular, exist in part because English culture refused to cooperate with Frye’s theory of cultural history. English drama, unlike Greek, Indian, Japanese, or even Spanish drama (e.g., Calderon’s autos sacramentales), not only developed away from its religious origins but in some ways repudiated them. The greatest Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, including Marlowe, Jonson, Middleton, and Webster, are hardly what Frye’s theory is looking for: they show little interest in the abiding preoccupation of Greek drama, namely, humanity’s relationship to the gods, or at least to a transcendent dimension beyond itself.[21] If Shakespeare’s romances did not exist, Frye would have had to invent them. Worse, Elizabethan music seems the antithesis of what Frye’s theory calls for: instead of large-scale communal compositions we get madrigals, airs, and keyboard music appropriate for private performance: “Elizabethan music is, it is true, domestic, intimate & restricted in scope. It has nothing in King Cambyses’ vein, & it supplies no counterpart to Tamburlaine or Macbeth or The Duchess of Malfi” (NB17 par. 4). Frye gets around this as best he can by, for one thing, defining “communal” in terms of “performance based” rather than “ensemble production”: in the quotation above, the ensemble performance “may be an ensemble of only ten fingers.”

But his second line of defense consists in his identification of the religious roots of Western music not only in sacred ensemble performance but in counterpoint. At one point, his student essay “Religion and the Art Forms of Music and Drama” makes what seems like an astonishing statement: “There has only been one systematic development of a musical tradition in the world and that was produced by Western culture under the spiritual leadership of Christianity” (SE, 338).[22] Even if we grant that knowledge of world music around 1936 was no doubt comparatively small, the seeming ethnocentricity of the assertion makes us uncomfortable. One systematic development? Compared to, say, the enormous complexity and subtlety of the Indian raga system? It is not the sort of remark Frye would have made in later years, and not just because he became more cautious. If he is saying that other music is simpleminded compared to Western music, then it is the statement itself that is simpleminded. But if there is something worth thinking about in his argument, it is that no other culture seems to have developed anything like Western counterpoint. And, to him, counterpoint, like communal drama, seems related to religion: “Counterpoint was a product of Christian genius through and through: the development from Greek mode to Western scale, which made counterpoint possible, was largely the work of two great Doctors of the Christian Church, St. Ambrose and St. Gregory” (Student Essays, 339–40). Why should counterpoint be uniquely Christian? Because, to him, Christianity is life more abundantly; life is, as Blake tells us in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, energy; and energy, which is “eternal delight,” is expressed through contraries: “Without Contraries is no progression.” Thus, “In consequence our civilization formulates its supreme artistry in a dynamic accented art, moving, like life, in time. . . . To us, music is the epitome of life, and comprehension of it brings a quicker and more intuitive comprehension of life than any other approach can possibly do” (Student Essays, 53). In more intellectualized—i.e., spatialized—language, “the dynamic nature of Christianity works out, in theology, to the idea of a tension of opposites. This opposition finds perhaps its most direct theoretical formulation in the doctrine of the Trinity, in which the eternal creative activity of the Father and the temporal activity of the Holy Spirit are brought together by the impact of Jesus” (Student Essays, 340). It follows that “[t]he ‘religious’ element in music is, therefore, counterpoint, melody and harmony mingled. Rhythm is its distinguishing temporal force” (Student Essays, 54). To rephrase, vertical harmony and horizontal melody are united by a third force that cannot be located on the spatializing axes of a Cartesian graph—the purely temporal element of rhythm. This leads Frye to some conclusions that not all musical authorities accept: “The rhythmic force of music is incarnated and symbolized in the dance. Hence, men like Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, were all dance composers” (Student Essays, 55). But, if we cannot “see” what he is getting at, in the sense of strict logic or empirical verification, we can feel it. Music is fundamentally rhythm, what Blake called “the pulsation of an artery,” and rhythm is life.

It is not too much to say that, during the 1930s and early 1940s, Frye’s interest in literature at times seems overshadowed by his interest in two things, music and history, the key to both of which lay in Christianity. He wrote to Helen Kemp, in April 1934, that “There are two things which are absolutely unique about the Christian religion and which guarantee its truth—one is music, the other a philosophy of history, and, though I’ll do them both eventually, I don’t care which I start on. They’re intimately connected, of course, and it may be better to get a solid musical background first. We’ll see how things turn out. The Catholic Church has four great ‘doctors of the Church’—St. Ambrose, St. Gregory, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome. The first two were musicians, the second two philosophers of history” (Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, 1:199). In October 1934 Emmanuel College approved Frye’s plan for a B.D. (Bachelor of Divinity) thesis on “The Development of the Christian Tradition in Music.” If Frye had written the thesis, it would have articulated many of the ideas laid out above. Simultaneously, or a bit later, he seems to have contemplated writing a complementary essay or book on Elizabethan music, with William Byrd as its culmination, stressing its contrapuntal vitality and inventiveness, whether in the tradition of the madrigal or in keyboard music. Notebooks 5 and 17 record his research for such a project; if at times they seem more like a book report than original analysis, we should remember that, in the 1930s, such a project was perhaps still a little ahead of its time: the sources Frye cribs from, William Barclay Squire, Edmund Horace Fellowes, and Bruce Pattison, had only recently begun to renew public appreciation for English Renaissance music. We should also keep in mind the fact that, though his repertoire was of a later period, Frye was himself a keyboardist and collector of keyboard music; this no doubt gave him a more immediate relationship with the “private and domestic” English tradition than with the full-scale public productions of Bach or Mozart.[23]

Until he was well past thirty, Frye seems to have had surprisingly little affinity for any cultural development, literary, musical, or otherwise, beyond the cut-off point represented by Blake. Romanticism was to him basically a disease, a cancer of individualism, fragmentation, and alienation metastasizing through the organic unity of Western culture; Victorianism and Modernism were further stations of a deathwatch, the only question being whether the birth of some new cycle was to follow. He is far from being the only cultural theorist to derive pessimistic, anti-Romantic conclusions from Romantic premises. For the Spenglerian idea that culture is “objective” in its heyday and declines into various forms of subjectivity and self-consciousness in its decadence is itself a Romantic idea: it stands behind Schiller’s contrast between spontaneous “naive” and self-conscious “sentimental” poetry; behind Keats’ guilt in being influenced by the dream-world of Spenser or the epic sublime of Milton and Wordsworth when he should have been influenced by the self-effacing Shakespeare; behind the obsession of poets as opposite as Eliot and Yeats to create a communally popular poetic drama for modern times. To make matters worse, the artist who came closest to realizing Frye’s ideal of reviving a communal, religiously-based public art was Wagner, the ultimate post-Romantic decadent and a precursor of the Nazis to boot. Frye’s later work progressively evolves beyond the prejudices of his earlier, and the essay “The World as Music and Idea in Wagner’s Parisfal,” for which the notes are included here, is a milestone in that development. A remark in the Late Notebooks not only links two works that Frye comments on in the present volume but suggests that the source of his interest is how many post-Romantic writers are drawn by a descent quest that reverses the traditional Christian direction of redemption: “Auden’s For the Time Being is a useful example of a Christian construct on a Schopenhauer basis, but Wagner’s Parsifal, considered as the epilogue of the Ring cycle, is a better one” (10).

In his younger days, however, Frye was still sniffing the air for signs of any revival of communal art, feeling that he scented them in two directions. One of them, no doubt partly because Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had recently inaugurated Modernism in music, was the ballet; a number of Frye’s early music reviews speculate about ballet as the possible future of music drama.[24] The other was film, particularly the kind of silent film, like the comedies of Charlie Chaplin, which was so obviously akin to the ballet.[25] But ballet did not develop beyond itself in the way Frye had hoped for, and the development of film was in a direction in which Frye was not interested until the last twenty or so years of his life—namely, downward and inward, following the post-Romantic descent quest mentioned earlier. Although communal, film is, as Frye realized, introverted: the audience sits in the dark and enters a dream-world akin to the otherworld of romance. The rehabilitation of romance that is such an important achievement of what we could call Frye’s second career, after the Anatomy of Criticism, might well have included, at least theoretically, a new interest in film: as early as 1941, he committed himself to the statement that “the movie is capable of the greatest concentration of any art form in human history. The possibilities of combining photographic, musical, and dramatic rhythms leave all preceding arts behind in their infinity” (Northrop Frye on Modern Culture, 99).

Film is a visual medium, however, and the visual arts never struck Frye with quite the intensity that the musical arts did, probably because he encountered them at a considerably later age. In the notes for “Literature and the Visual Arts” (1985) he tells us that “My first experience of painting was coming to Toronto and looking at the Group of Seven, along with [Tom] Thompson, and, later, Emily Carr” [par. 1]. The visual arts are represented here only by that single text because he wrote about them less often, despite Blake’s being an artist and despite the fact that, in Canada, painting was the first art to come to maturity. Possibly another barrier was painting’s long association with the idea of holding a mirror up to nature; Frye’s essay stresses the symbolic over the representational powers of the visual arts.


The section on Canada in the present volume is a microcosm of what Frye had to say over a half century about his country and its culture. It will be convenient to speak of these notes in terms of the framework that organizes the notes for “Levels of Cultural Identity” (1989), which, coming at the very end of Frye’s career, summarize his understanding of Canadian identity in terms of three levels of culture.

The lowest one, Frye says, “is the way people eat, dress, talk, marry, produce goods. On this level Canadian life is largely indistinguishable from (northern) American life” (par. 56). The middle level is defined as “the culture formed by tradition and history, and present in social, political, religious institutions and in the main currents of ideology” (par. 57). Frye has often made the point that American identity on this ideological level was deliberately constructed, and fixed into a written Constitution. The sense of a fixed American identity doubtless facilitated America’s growth from nation-state into superpower, but it has had the drawback of making ideological absolutism a permanent feature of American civic life. Frye often cites the phrase “one hundred percent American”; the phrase may be dated, but the sentiment is not. Nothing made this clearer than the presidential election of 2004, which was widely understood to be a with-us-or-against-us referendum on American values, each side accusing the other of arrogant intolerance. The day after George W. Bush was re-elected, some American newspapers reported a large increase in the number of hits on the part of the Canadian Embassy’s website devoted to immigration to Canada, Canada evidently being seen as a more civil and civilized country by those interested in a both-and rather than an either-or ideology.

Canadians of Frye’s generation, by contrast, felt haunted by a lack of identity; the refrain of George Grant’s Lament for a Nation (1965) was that Canada had gone from British colony to American economic satellite without ever having had an identity as a nation. Lacking the coagulating agent of an overall ideology, Canada remained a set of communities isolated from one another, from the mother country, from the native inhabitants, and from the natural environment itself. In characterizing the paranoia induced by such deep alienation, Frye coined a phrase that became more famous than anything else he ever said about Canada. In “Conclusion to the First Edition of Literary History of Canada” (1965),[26] he observed that “Small and isolated communities surrounded with a physical or psychological ‘frontier’ . . . are bound to develop what we may provisionally call a garrison mentality” (Northrop Frye in Conversation, 351). He goes on to say, “A garrison is a closely knit and beleaguered community, and its moral and social values are unquestionable,” thus leaving earlier Canadian culture afflicted with an intense conformism. The phrase “garrison mentality” became widely known, especially after the “Conclusion” was reprinted in The Bush Garden (1971), but also widely controversial.[27] Some Canadians feel that Canada has outgrown its garrison mentality; others are not so sure, feeling that much Canadian rhetoric about regional autonomy, multiculturalism, and a cultural “mosaic” is only an imposed political correctness that represses underlying resentment. However he would have responded to such a sentiment, Frye himself does suggest that ideological ambivalence can manifest itself as repression rather than as open conflict. In a section of the notes for “Culture as Interpenetration” that has no direct counterpart in the published essay, he lists four kinds of repression: “Rousseau and the repression of nature”; “Marx and the repression of the people”; “Freud and the repression of the unconscious”; “Imperialism and the repression of violence in Canada” (pars. 8–11). He goes on to speak of a need, and not just a Canadian need, for “repression becoming creative” (par. 7). We need to inquire what such an expression means.

The sense of isolation led a significant number of Canadian intellectuals—Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, Eric Havelock—to become communications theorists. Hence the notes collected here for Frye’s introduction to the first volume of Innis’ unfinished A History of Communications; hence also the inclusion of two sets of notes on television and media violence.

The latter are related to Frye’s association with the CRTC, the Canadian Radio-Television Commission, as it was originally called.[28] As he explains in the present volume, “I joined the CRTC in 1968, when a new Broadcasting Act, which made a good deal of sense at that time, was trying to shore up some Canadian control of electronic communications, magazines, movies, books, having all been sold down the American river long ago” (“Canadian Literature and Culture,” par. 3). The electronic media unite the various isolated garrisons as part of a globalized world, but Innis by the time of his death had come to see that such a development had its sinister side. In the notes just quoted from, Frye says, “Innis’ thesis about the control of communications by an ascendant class never came through clearly, because Innis himself wasn’t committed enough to understand his own real argument. The university was his garrison, and he was perhaps the last major example of that in Canadian life” (par. 6). Perhaps as a result, Innis’ former student Marshall McLuhan went in the opposite direction, extolling the virtues of a “global village.” As Frye points out, McLuhan’s qualifications and cautions were lost in a media frenzy. Innis himself had looked towards what he called the “oral tradition” as a counterforce to the control of the media by advertising, big business, and other special interests. Yet one wonders what an “oral tradition” could possibly be in the present day, other than a piece of helpless nostalgia. Frye’s view is that “his oral tradition is really a symbol for something else: the fact that as economic and political developments centralize, culture decentralizes into smaller and smaller units” (“Harold Innis,” par. 16). In terms of cultural identity, this reference takes us to the third and “Top level: the culture of our literature, painting, film, architecture, scholarship, philosophy, radio drama, etc.” (“Notes for ‘Levels of Cultural Identity,'” par. 58).

On this level, “creative repression” means the repression of the ideological itself, as opposed to the “privileging” of the ideological, not only in the United States but in the realm of post-structuralist critical and cultural theory. Canada pragmatically refuses to allow ideology to become absolute, as opposed to the United States, where Truth, Justice and the American Way are so often held to be at stake in every ideological eruption, with no compromise or tolerance possible. What Americans get are, instead, the “culture wars.” What “creative repression” does, at least potentially, is drive the Canadian imagination to a level deeper than that of the ideological either-or. In his Moscow talk on Canadian literature, Frye describes how earlier Canadian writers seem trapped in a sense of guilt-ridden alienation from both the land and its native peoples. But then he goes on to speak with evident wonder of how “The younger writers are talking very differently. They are trying to attach themselves to the indigenous culture which preceded them. There is a very considerable part of the most serious Canadian literature, both Eskimo and French, devoted to the struggles of Indian and Eskimo, or Inuit people as they are called now, to achieve some kind of identification in the white man’s society. I think of the remarkable young woman in British Columbia, Susan Musgrave, brought up in the Queen Charlotte Islands which are largely inhabited by the Haida Indians, and of the way in which her earliest poetry recaptures the spirit of Haida mythology” (par. 25). Similarly, Frye goes on to say, the younger generation dares to think less in the sense of an either-or domination of or by nature, and more in the sense of an identification with nature. This sense of identification is what Frye means by interpenetration.

In contemporary identity politics, there are plenty of voices warning us that any attempt to identify with the Other culturally can only be “appropriation”; there are also plenty of “social constructionist” critics telling us that any claim to feel akin to nature must be “demystified” in order to reveal the sentimental bourgeois urge to escape from ideology and history. Frye’s trenchant response: “But one of the worst mental diseases in our society is panpoliticism, the doctrine, especially favored among ‘radicals,’ that there’s no activity in society except politics. That’s because the people who hold this doctrine don’t want to do anything except agitate” (“Notes for ‘Levels of Cultural Identity,'” par. 15). This is not to deny that appropriation and sentimentalism are very real dangers; they clearly are. Yet they are worth risking, if only because panpoliticism is an equal but opposite danger. As an example of what he is talking about, Frye cites the “Interpenetration of [Leonard Cohen’s] Beautiful Losers: a Montreal Jew writing with genuine compassion about a seventeenth-century Algonquin woman turned Catholic saint, with twentieth-century themes mixed in” (“Notes for ‘Culture as Interpenetration,'” par. 12).

A male Montreal Jew is not an Algonquin woman or a Catholic saint. On an ideological level, these identifications are not only irrational but suspect. Culture as interpenetration makes sense only on the third, imaginative level, not on the level of the ideological, which can only oscillate between repression and violence. That is because any such epiphany of identity-in-difference involves the imagination’s spark leaping a gap, the terrifying and wonder-evoking leap whose traditional name is metaphor. Where do we find metaphors? Embedded in songs and stories. In If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?: Finding Common Ground, a book that makes use of some of Frye’s ideas in refreshingly original ways, J. Edward Chamberlin tells us that exposure from childhood to the contradictions in songs and stories teaches us how to keep from getting caught in false dilemmas about belief and disbelief: “That’s their great gift to us. They do so by constantly negotiating between belief and doubt, and between reality and the imagination, finally embracing both in a contradiction that brings us back to our babbling and doodling days.”[29] He continues: “‘It was, and it was not,’ the storytellers of Majorca begin. . . . ‘Infinity is a place where things happen that don’t,’ say mathematicians. . . . Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? asks the French classicist Paul Veyne in the title of his book. Yes and no, he answers. ‘Believe it and not’—rather than ‘believe it or not’—is the challenge of every metaphor, of every myth, of every religion, of every community. When we forget that challenge, myth degenerates into ideology, religion into dogma, and communities into conflict.”[30] This is deeply in the spirit of Frye’s work, not only about Canada but also about the Bible and literature—an example of the interpenetrating nature of Frye’s recurrent themes.

Such an attitude is the only way to deal with any of the inescapable contradictions that simultaneously fissure and structure literature and life. For instance, one of the commonest criticisms of Frye is that he advocates an intellectualized, elitist poetry based on myths, archetypes, and conventions rather than a poetry based on real human experience. He is held to contradict himself by advocating an “international style” in modern literature based on common conventions and at the same time the decentralization of culture into local and individual units as mentioned above (“Canadian Literature and Culture,” par. 6). Should writers write out of their own individual and regional experience, or should they write as practitioners of an international style? The moment of a writer’s maturity is the moment she realizes that this alternative is deeply, destructively false. No Canadian writer, possibly no writer of short stories in the English language, is presently more revered than Alice Munro. Is Munro a major writer because she writes out of her personal and Ontario experience, or because she has mastered the contemporary literary techniques so dazzlingly yet unpretentiously displayed in stories such as “Friend of My Youth”? When it is cast in this way, we can instantly see how wrong such a distinction must always be.


The thirteen items in the literature section are a miscellany of material about English writers from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. Except for Shakespeare, they include very little about Frye’s central preoccupations (Blake, literary theory, the Bible, the tradition of romance), but they do illustrate the breadth of Frye’s intellectual and imaginative interests—from the Renaissance through nineteenth-century prose writers to the high modernists and Auden. Four of the entries are notes Frye made for essays that were later published: the Shakespeare notes were preparation for the introduction to Northrop Frye on Shakespeare (1986); “Eighteenth-Century and Culture” for “Varieties of Eighteenth-Century Sensibility” (1990); “Vico, Bruno, and the Wake” for “Cycle and Apocalypse in Finnegans Wake” (1987); and “The Lyric” for “Approaching the Lyric” (1985). One set of notes—”The Reversal of Reality”—outlines themes for part 3 of the Myth of Deliverance (1983). No published essay issued from the other eight entries. One piece is self-contained, a transcription from a holograph notebook (30l) of a radio talk Frye presented on W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being.[31] The notes on Carlyle, Arnold, and Mill are also from holograph notebooks (30a–c). The other nine units come from Frye’s extensive typescript notes.

When the material in the present section did not eventuate in a publication, it is obviously and expansion of the Frye canon. When it did, we have examples of what Frye called, as we will see shortly, the “original aphoristic form,” though original in this context means independent and originative, rather than a source from which something else derives. The question naturally arises, why should Frye’s notes be preserved when we have the published books and essays that eventually emerged from the notes? Three principal reasons suggest themselves. First, they provide insights into Frye’s thinking and writing processes, revealing the different ways he achieved the structured form of his prose, with its rhythm of continuity. Second, as just indicated, the notes contain material that never made its way into print, and so they enlarge the body of Frye’s prose. Third, and perhaps most important, the notes are a genre in their own right, offering moments of discontinuous illumination not found in the published work. As Frye himself says,

[T]he metaphor of sparagmos or tearing to pieces . . . runs through my whole writing. The way I begin a book is to write detached aphorisms in a notebook, and ninety-five percent of the work I do in completing a book is to fit these detached aphorisms together into a continuous narrative line. I think that Coleridge worked in the same way, though he seems to have had unusual difficulty when it came to the narrative stage, and so instead of completing his great treatise on the Logos he kept much of the best of what he had to say hugged to his bosom in the form of fifty-seven notebooks. Holism is not only not the end of the critical enterprise: it is an axiom pursued for its own rewards which at a certain point may turn inside out. I may work hard enough to weld my books into a narrative unity, but it is possible that many of my readers tend to find their way back to the original aphoristic form, finding me more useful for detached insights than for total structures. However, if bits and pieces of me float down to Lesbos with the head still singing, it doesn’t matter to me if some of those pieces (I’m mixing metaphors violently here, but the mixing seems to fit the context) get swallowed by someone and grow up again from inside him.[32]

While Frye never entertained the notion of publishing his notebooks himself, it is clear that he knew they would eventually be published.[33] In any event, it is difficult to see how readers could “find their way back to the original aphoristic form” without releasing the material, far more extensive than Coleridge’s notebooks, that he clutched to his bosom.

The passage just quoted comes from Frye response to papers by Eric Rothstein and J. Paul Hunter at a special session on “Northrop Frye and Eighteenth-Century Literature” at a meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in Minneapolis, April 1990. Frye presented the plenary address at the meeting, “Varieties of Eighteenth-Century Sensibility, ” which was published in the journal Eighteenth-Century Studies, along with expanded versions of the papers by Hunter and Rothstein and a critique of Frye’s earlier essay, “Toward Defining an Age of Sensibility,” by Howard D. Weinbrot.[34] Frye’s notes in the present volume on “Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture,” which he used to develop “Varieties of Eighteenth-Century Sensibility,” are typical of the way he worked. Consider the opening entries in this set of notes.

In the first paragraph Frye announces his intention to expand upon one of his central theses—Blake’s role in showing that “literature is the art of inscribing verbal patterns inside a mythological cosmos.” But Blake makes only a few cameo appearances in the essay, none of which has to do with verbal patterns or a mythological cosmos. Then we get the interesting claim that Boileau, because of his insistence that the critic is greater than the poet, is the first poststructuralist critic, a point that Frye discarded when he came to write the essay. In the second paragraph Frye remarks, “The transitional figures [in the Age of Sensibility] are Berkeley, especially the Berkeley of Siris, Lowth, and Young. They all in different ways represent the transition from what Arnold later called the Hellenic (or rather the Roman-Augustan) to a Hebraic attitude, making literature into a form of prophecy.” But while all three writers get mentioned in the essay, none is in connection with the transition to literature as a form of prophecy, even though Frye does speak elsewhere in the essay about prophecy.

Frye opens the third paragraph by writing, “Start by dismissing that idiot’s ‘reconsideration’: naturally I don’t regard process and product as separate things, but only as differences of emphasis.” This remark is a reference to Weinbrot’s critique, “Northrop Frye and the Literature of Process Reconsidered.”[35] Not only does Frye not begin his essay with a dismissal of Weinbrot’s reconsideration: he says nothing at all about Weinbrot in either “Varieties of Eighteenth-Century Sensibility” or in his “Response” to the papers in Eighteenth-Century Studies. Frye seldom reacted to criticism of his work, and he would never in his published writing make such an uncharitable reference to a living person. Here, as so often in the notebooks, he drops his mask of proper academic manners. The published work, then, contains a good measure of self-censorship, and we would of course be unaware of this without the “original aphoristic form.”

The fourth paragraph does contain several observations that get expanded in “Varieties.” The reading that led up to Fearful Symmetry affected his later work, Frye notes, by giving him the conception of the archetype, which he found in James Beattie’s Minstrel. No one would have ever guessed that a footnote in a relatively obscure poem by an obscure poet (and moral philosopher) would have been the source of Frye’s conception of the archetype, given many obvious possibilities from Plato on, and we might think Frye to be engaging in a bit of leg-pulling here were it not for his more extensive discussion of his debt to Beattie’s footnote elsewhere. [36] In any event, Frye goes on to say that in his reading for Fearful Symmetry he was also led into a wide range of eighteenth-century anatomies. In the published essay he mentions five anatomists (Swift, Sterne, Fielding, Amory, and Blake) and their influence on Johnson and Brooke. In the notes, we have only Swift, Blake, Amory, and Bage, the latter of whom enters “Varieties” much later, in a discussion, not about the anatomy, but about the status of female protagonists in eighteenth-century fiction. The point in the notes is that that Amory’s John Buncle reflects a new discovery, “that women might be something more than pet animals.” In the essay, the illustration of this point falls to Robert Bage’s The Fair Syrian (though Frye does not mention the title) and Hermsprong. The fifth paragraph, on the difference between the prerevolutionary mentality in England that preserved “a genuine radical vision” and the attitudes in countries that did have a revolution, is unique to the notes: Frye does not raise the issue in the essay.

These examples illustrate some of the major differences between Frye’s notes and his published work. He expands many notebook topics; many more he drops altogether, such as this brief entry on the sublime: “The 18th c. sense of the sublime incorporates the alienating and forbidding aspect of nature into a context that’s exhilarating rather than humiliating. It expresses the fact that the ‘beautiful’ by itself envisages an over-tamed nature, a kindergarten like Adam and Eve’s playpen” (par. 20). Frequently, things that appear in the published work are treated more extensively in the notebooks. If we want to know what Frye thought about Bage’s Hermsprong, we will find more illumination in the notes (pars. 18–19) than in “Varieties.” If we want to know how Frye saw his treatment of eighteenth-century literature as a parallel to Arthur Lovejoy’s conservative view of Romanticism, then we have to rely solely on the notes (par. 11).

Frye’s notes and notebooks on literature are not so much units to be read continuously as items to be consulted for what they tell us about Frye and about his subjects. In the notes on Joyce, for example, we have a much more illuminating account (par. 10) than we get in the published essay about the relation between oracle and wit, a central point in Frye’s numerous efforts to define the experience of the descent to the bottom of the axis mundi: What Frye says about the Incarnation in his notes on both Eliot and Auden add to our understanding of his longstanding effort to find the proper verbal formulas for this metaphorical mystery. His notes on John Stuart Mill, which date from the late 1930s, provide a rather detailed reading of Mill’s Autobiography, and they illustrate the kind of preparation Frye did for teaching his course in Nineteenth-Century Thought (English 4k). The notes on Arnold provide us a much fuller account of Frye’s judgments about Culture and Anarchy than we get in The Critical Path, the only other place he engaged the work in any detail. In his notes on Theseus’s speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream we get a more complete reading than we have in “The Expanding World of Metaphor” (Myht and Metaphor, 113–14). His notes on Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus are his fullest reaction to that odd work of prose, and his argument that it combines the confession and the anatomy is made more extensively in the notes, written at least eight years before Fearful Symmetry appeared, than in Anatomy of Criticism. Readers will find numerous other examples of expansions and contractions of what Frye apprehends and what he comprehends, to use the language of Shakespeare’s Theseus that Frye so ingeniously unravels in the second unit of this section.


The items in “Criticism, Language, and Education” are bits and pieces, reminding us that a miscellany is literally a mixture. The occasion for each of these pieces, when it can be established, is indicated in the headnote. Nine of the entries have fewer than one thousand words; the longest, ‘Reconsidering Levels of Meaning” (1979) runs to more than 11,000 words. “Reconsidering” and the notes on education, which appear to date from the 1960s and 1970s, form the bookends of this section. The other items are arranged chronologically, as best the chronology can be determined.

The second item, a preface to the aborted volume of essays in myth criticism, gives us a general sense of what Frye considered to be the principal documents in the use of mythology to study literature in the English tradition from Gower to Ruskin. While we do not have a table of contents for the projected volume, in the correspondence related to it and in the preface itself, Frye mentions twenty mythographers, some familiar (Bacon, Shelley, and Ruskin) and others less so (William Camden, David Mallet, J.F. Newton, and James Payn). One wishes that Frye had said more about the texts to be anthologized than that his aim was “only to relate the study of mythology to the criticism of literature.” But at least we have a fairly complete list of the writers, from scientists like Bacon to the Zodiacal mythologist J.F. Newton, he thought belonged to this “greatly neglected and misunderstood area of criticism.” There are two additional introductory statements to books that were never published—Frye’s remarks on W.A.C.H. Dobson’s translation of Li Po’s poems, which is a commentary on translatability, and his preface to a translation of some of his late essays into Russian. Frye lectured in Russia in October 1988. His secretary Jane Widdicombe, who accompanied him on the trip, remembers his being intercepted in Moscow by a Russian scholar who wanted to do a translation of his occasional essays into Russian. The project was never completed, but Frye went so far as to write a preface to the collection, which provides a thumbnail sketch of his two main interests, the relation of literature to mythology and the centrality of the biblical myth in Western culture. The failure of the publication project is regrettable, for it would have made Frye’s work accessible to a Russian audience just at the time that the political upheavals in Eastern Europe were occurring.

The notes on Charles Poncé illustrate Frye’s interest in the symbolic, archetypal, schematic, and mythical import of the Kabbalah. Poncé’s book is one of ten on the Kabbalah that Frye annotated, and his interest in the Kabbalah, as we know from the twenty or so references to Kabbalism in his published work and the more than three-dozen in his notebooks, was in its apocalyptic patterns and visionary power. Even though he sometimes gets annoyed with Poncé’s claims, Frye read the Kabbalah, as these notes indicate, as an imaginative construct of first-phase language.

The form of the notes entitled “Literature and Language” is atypical—a series of talking points in clipped syntax rather than the usual rhetorical unit of the paragraph. (Frye’s notebook entries contain about seventy-five words on average.) It is possible to trace parallels between these notes and the talk Frye gave at a comparative literature conference, but the four principles that will provide the structure for the talk as outlined in the notes (charm and riddle, imagination and reality, A and B structures, and myth and metaphor in Plato and Aristotle) almost completely disappeared when Frye produced the typescript. Again, Frye sometimes adhered fairly closely to his preparatory notes, and sometimes he did not, as is the case here.

A number of themes in his notes “The Reversal of Reality” are familiar—the recovery of myth, reconciliation with nature, the Hermes descent, the Promethean archetype. “Ten” at the beginning of paragraph 4 is Frye’s typical way of marking material for a section or chapter for the books he is writing, but none of his books (including The Myth of Deliverance, one chapter of which is entitled “The Reversal of Reality”) contains more than a couple of the themes in these notes. The most likely candidate, then, is Frye’s unwritten “Third Book,” the notebooks for which do contain entries paralleling those in paragraphs 4, 5, and 6 in the typescript. Frye’s reflection on the imperialist and racist implications of clothes in these notes is unique.

This section also contains several sets of notes for talks for which we have no completed manuscript (“Critical Views” and the three entries on education) and one for which we do (“Framework and Assumption”). Early in his career Frye was a prolific book reviewer, reviewing hundreds of titles, mainly for the Canadian Forum and the University of Toronto Quarterly. But after Anatomy of Criticism was published he reviewed only two books, Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology and Paul de Man’s The Rhetoric of Romanticism. The notes for the latter are included in this section. “On Language,” brief reflections on the sexist and other offensive encodings in language becoming outmoded over time, appears to be the latest set of notes Frye wrote: some of this material was incorporated into his posthumous The Double Vision. The three sets of notes on educational subject are difficult to date, but they appear to have been written in late 1960s and 1970s in preparation for talks, the occasions for which are unknown.

“Reconsidering Levels of Meaning,” the longest piece in this section, deserves a brief commentary. It comes from the transcription of a two-part lecture Frye gave in 1979, which was a rather extraordinary performance. Frye lectured on successive evenings with only two pages of rather sketchy notes in front of him. This was during the time that he was trying to complete his work on The Great Code, and many of the arguments in the lectures closely parallel those in the book. Here is one of many examples:

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire . . . was a book that was intended to be a history rather than a work of literature. It was supposed to be a book of words which followed events in the late Roman Empire. Yet it has a narrative. You can read it page by page. And you begin to discover that it has a narrative principle, which is indicated in the title, “decline and fall.” Here was Gibbon, sitting on the steps of the capitol hill in Rome—a comfortable little eighteenth-century agnostic suddenly being picked up by some mysterious force that he never turned around to look at and stuck in a library to scribble frantically for the rest of his life about the decline and fall of the Roman empire. Well, the operation confronted him with a vast, amorphous pile of documents. But he had the magic wand: he had the myth of “decline and fall.” That was the principle on which he selected his material. That was the magic wand by which he could make this vast mass of documents obey his will. Without the myth the book would have been entirely shapeless and, of course, would never have been written at all. So whether a story is factual or regarded as such or not has no effect on its possession of myth. That is what it must have, regardless of anything else. (“Reconsidering Levels of Meaning”)

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was intended to be a history, a faithful account of the fortunes of the later Roman Empire, with all the scholarly virtues of documentation and the like attached to it. Gibbon was also essentially a third-phase descriptive writer, concerned with the difference between the reality of what was happening to Rome, as he saw it, and the illusions, whether pagan or Christian, that the Romans themselves held about their place in history. But the phrase “decline and fall” in the title indicates the narrative principle on which Gibbon selected and arranged his material: that is his mythos, and without such a mythos the book could have had no shape. The extent to which the Bible is historical in the same way is a more complicated matter, but not many would disagree with the statement that it tells a story; and for me the two statements “The Bible tells a story” and “The Bible is a myth” are essentially the same statement. (The Great Code, 32)

The assumption that literature can be interpreted on different levels was one that Frye had explored for a number of years, beginning in the late 1940s and continuing for the next fifty years. In Words with Power (1990), the four modes of language (perceptual, conceptual, ideological, and poetic) are said to correspond to the medieval levels (literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogic). Frye first uses the phrase “levels of meaning” in his published writing in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1949).[37] Two years earlier in one of his notebooks for Anatomy of Criticism he jots down an early characterization of the four levels, with their analogues in Blake’s Four Zoas and their sources in four mythographers: “The four levels of meaning are psychological (Urthona), historical (Luvah), mythological (Tharmas) & theological (Urizen). This is erect or unfallen Albion. Our sources for them approximate Jung, Spengler, Frazer & Kierkegaard respectively” (NB 7, par. 155). In Notebook 32, written at about the same time or perhaps even in 1946, Frye gives a fuller account of the four levels, remarking that he had taken Dante’s conception and developed them on his own. In 1950 he reinterprets Dante’s four levels for his own purposes in “Levels of Meaning in Literature.”[38]

The fullest development of polysemous meaning comes in the Second Essay of Anatomy of Criticism, where Frye expands Dante’s four levels into five. Here he redefines Dante’s literal level and establishes it as a separate phase in this theory of symbolism. The then calls Dante’s literal level “descriptive,” Dante’s allegorical level “formal,” and Dante’s moral level “mythical,” while retaining Dante’s “anagogic” for the highest level. In Dante the medieval scheme is most fully articulated in his famous letter (Epistle 10) to Can Grande della Scala.[39] Throughout Frye’s writing we also encounter the Latin tags for the last three levels— quid credas, quid agas, and quo tendas—which he appropriated from a fourth-century jingle attributed to Augustine of Denmark: ” Litera gesta docet,/Quid credas allegoria,/Moralis quid agas,/Quo tendas anagogia” (The letter teaches what was done, allegory what to believe, morals teach how to act, anagogy where you should go).

In each of the places that Frye writes about the four levels of meaning he redefines them for his own purposes. This process of redefinition is typical. Frye’s use of Dante is not different from his use of Aristotle, whose six qualitative parts of tragedy in the Poetics Frye greatly expands for his own ends. Frye’s changing representation of the four levels over the course of fifty years is worthy of a full study, and in that study “Reconsidering Levels of Meaning” would be one of the central texts.[40]


The notes in the area of the Bible and religion show an interconnectedness similar to that of the present volume’s other topic areas, despite a five-decade span of composition. The oldest item, a one-page “Summa,” cannot be dated precisely, but its contents, along with the manual typewriter and yellowed paper it was written on, point to an early date, in all probability after 1933 when Frye entered Emmanuel College for theological and ministerial training. Frye’s essays for his courses at Emmanuel, collected in the Student Essays, attempt to do for Protestant theology what his undergraduate essays for classes at Victoria College did for literature: namely, to construct Frye’s own theoretical perspective on the subject, one essay at a time. The projected “Summa” would presumably have been a synthesis of what his theological essays had tackled piecemeal.

The next piece jumps thirty years, to 1964, when Frye abandoned a review of the third volume of Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology. Moving from Frye’s to Tillich’s attempt at a Protestant Summa, the reader is at first puzzled. Not only does Frye seem to reverse himself, but his views about the systematic study of any subject seem contradictory to say the least, coming from the man who had published Anatomy of Criticism, one of whose key words is “systematic,” a mere seven years before:

Our own age is one of fragmentation, both in knowledge and in experience. This fact is widely regarded as a deficiency which can and should be corrected: a great deal is said about the dangers of specialization, the loss of communicability, and the necessity of achieving some kind of overall view of our culture, usually through philosophy, religion or history, but it is clear that fragmentation represents better the real genius of our age. We do not really believe in the arguments for synthesis: we realize that in these days the only highly specialized thinker is likely to know what he is talking about. What co-ordination we do achieve is epiphanic, to use Joyce’s term: moments of focussed consciousness emerging from something which is itself transient and fragmented. (par. 2)

If we keep reading, though, we come only a few lines later to a sentence that, almost twenty years before The Great Code, provides a crucial insight into Frye’s way of understanding the Bible: “The sense of religious experience as an interruption of continuity is expressed in one of the central theological conceptions of our time, ‘kerygma’ or proclamation, again an epiphanic and anti-systematic conception” (par. 2). Frye is not denying the unity of the Bible, which he worked so hard to demonstrate in The Great Code; nor, by implication, the unity of literature that he worked so systematically to outline in Anatomy of Criticism. Both the conception of the Word in the Protestant tradition and the conception of an “order of words” in literary criticism are based on a sense of a total pattern and coherence. However, as Frye states in the notes for “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision,” “The GC, vulnerable as it was, did make the point that two aspects of the Bible were of primary importance: its unity and its disunity” (par. 5). What kergyma, the sudden and unpredictable epiphany of the Word, can do for us is to subvert, or deconstruct, our present understanding of that Word, confined as it inevitably is to the narrow dimensions of our intellectual limitations, our social conditioning, our individual neuroses. The two greatest Protestant theologians of Frye’s time were arguably the liberal Paul Tillich and the neo-orthodox Karl Barth. One might have expected him to incline towards Tillich, yet Frye is only wistfully sympathetic towards Tillich’s encyclopedic ambitions. What gripped him more powerfully is Barth’s vision of the infinite Word bursting through all our finite understandings, shattering what Blake, in his poem “London,” called the “mind-forg’d manacles.” In the heartfelt words of the undated “Prayer” that ends the present volume, he asks the divine to “Teach us the real meaning of doubt and despair; lead us to doubt our own understandings and despair of our own good intentions.”

What happens when the kerygmatic Word breaks into the fallen world is a reversal of perspective: human perception passes through what Blake called a “vortex,” and turns inside out. We see this happening in Blake’s illustrations to the Book of Job, where the process becomes an epitome of the central myth of the Bible, that of death and resurrection. Included here are notes for a lecture on Blake’s illustrations, dating from sometime after 1966. They supplement Frye’s essay of 1969, “Blake’s Reading of the Book of Job,” with extensive commentary on the details of each engraved design.

The “Summa” in fact espouses a Blakean Christianity that would seem strange to many Protestants, because its basis is neither morality nor faith in the sense of belief. Morality is a form of social convention, or what Frye would later call secondary concern; reduction of religion to morality turns it into a form of social hysteria. Instead, in a phrase written perhaps fifty years before Words with Power, “New Testament ethics are concerned with a release of power”; sacrifice and atonement are actually “immoral acts” because they are expressions of the guilt-and-control anxieties of the social group. “Hence the Protestant rejection of morality as connected with religion. . . . In other words, the Protestant tends to deny free will and individual responsibility. Imputes sin and righteousness to concrete historical situations and states of mind, not to individuals in the abstract” (par. 2). This may sound less strange in an era in which, for example, emphasis has shifted from individual to “systemic racism,” the bias that is not a product of individual will but an effect of the social system itself. Similarly, Marxists have shifted from thinking of ideology as a consciously held belief to ideology as a largely unconscious set of socially conditioned assumptions. At any rate, the late notes for the 1986 lecture “Crime and Sin in the Bible” continue Frye’s attempt to define the relationship between the legal and the visionary.

As for faith, acceptance of the Bible’s truth as kerygmatic rather than historical or doctrinal entails a re-definition of faith as something more than mere belief in a set of facts or concepts. In the notes for his essay of 1985, “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision,” Frye postulates a dialectical process by which “belief must absorb the possibility of non-belief before vision is possible” (par. 5). The notes disclose something invisible in the published essay, namely, that “this argument turns on my seven stages in GC [Great Code]. Also on the conception underlying them: pursuing a narrative through time with the ear, followed by the Gestalt simultaneous vision of the eye” (par. 1). In other words, the struggle of belief to pass beyond itself by wrestling with its opposite is not merely an individual one: it structures the Biblical narrative itself. Early notes for Words with Power show that Frye’s initial organizing scheme for the book was to demonstrate that the seven phases of revelation in The Great Code—Creation, Exodus, law, wisdom, prophecy, gospel, apocalypse—are not merely a chronological sequence but a typological progression, a progressive recreation and expansion of perspective through history. We begin with belief in something invisible and unprovable, but only reach a vision that is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen (Hebrews 11:1) by incorporating the inevitable possibility of disbelief. It took Frye many years to come up with the final organization of Words with Power: we see him working at it in some of the sets of notes here, as well as in a draft introduction that is much different from the final one. But the idea of a dialectic of the unseen and the seen, the believed and the imagined, remains central to the book.

If we ask how we can believe and disbelieve at the same time, the interpenetrating nature of Frye’s thinking returns us to J. Edward Chamberlin’s comments quoted above in relation to Frye’s writings on Canadian themes. Frye himself says that “When we’re reading, we’re not necessarily believing what we read, but we are accepting, and the question of belief or rejection is a part of the final conceptual process. The confusion between belief and acceptance in reading the Bible is obvious enough” (“Notes for ‘The Dialectic of Belief and Vision,'” par. 9). We have to begin by reading the Bible imaginatively, setting aside the issue of its correspondence to any historical or doctrinal “truth,” and accepting the stories with a willing suspension of both belief and disbelief. Still, the Bible is more than a work of literature. Again the notes to a published essay reveal something subdued in the final work: one of the things that drove Frye to write his essay “The Bride from the Strange Land” was the scholarly debate over the Book of Ruth. Contemporary scholarship, skeptical of the earlier theory that the book was written in order to preach tolerance of marriages to non-Israelites in a xenophobic era, tends to view it simply as a fiction, and its author’s intentions as purely literary; anxieties about racial purity or the Davidic line have been attached to it artificially by others. Without entirely disputing this, Frye nonetheless insists several times that “Nobody invents a story” (par. 29; see also pars. 2 and 59). What storytellers do, knowingly or not, is to recreate a story: as Frye puts it, “the greatness of a story lies in its resonances” (par. 11). The Book of Ruth has haunted later writers too strongly to reduce it to a “charming idyll.” It gains some of its mysterious suggestiveness from the way it retells in warmly human terms a story whose original versions were myths of fertility and harvest. Why do such stories insist on being retold? Because there is something in them—what Frye elsewhere calls the kerygmatic—that lifts them beyond both entertainment and instruction into something genuinely “post-literary” (par. 28), even if we can only get to it by way of the literary or imaginative. As we conclude this introduction—and conclude our editing of Frye’s previously unpublished work—we are reminded of how central the imaginative recreation that leads to the kerygmatic was in the concluding decade of Frye’s own career.


[1] For a fuller account of the ogdoad, see Michael Dolzani, “The Book of the Dead: A Skeleton Key to Northrop Frye’s Notebooks,” in Rereading Frye: The Published and Unpublished Works, ed. David Boyd and Imre Salusinszky (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 19–38, and Robert Denham, Introduction, LN, xli–xlv.

[2] From an unpublished interview with Morris Wolfe.

[3] There seem to have been other stories. In the NFF, 1993, box 3, file 11 is a three-page typescript entitled “Two Preludes,” followed by Roman numeral I. The typescript includes all but the last few lines of the story that was published as “Prelude.” What happened to the remainder of the typescript, which presumably included as second ‘Prelude,” is unknown. And we know from NF’s correspondence with his wife Helen that in 1938 he submitted at least two stories to the Atlantic Monthly (NFHK, 2:800).

[4] The cover sheet preceding four of the stories in the Northrop Frye Fonds, 1991, box 37, file 5, is entitled ‘Four Dialogues.”

[5] Uncatalogued typescript in the editors’ possession.

[6] “[My mother] has always regarded her mind as something passive, worked on by external supernatural forces, and is very unwilling to think that anything might be a creation of her own mind—besides, it flatters her spiritual pride to think of herself as a kind of Armageddon. She told me that once she was working in her kitchen when a voice said to her ‘Don’t touch the stove!’ So she jumped back from it, and something caught her and flung her against the table. Half an hour later the voice came again, ‘Don’t touch the stove!’ She jumped back again and this time was thrown violently on the floor. When Dad came home for dinner he found her with a black eye and a bruised shin. I have read a story by Thomas Mann in which he tells of seeing a similar thing in a spiritualistic séance: that story was the basis of the priest’s remark to the ghost in my Acta Victoriana sketch: ‘If you are very lucky, you may get a chance to beat up a medium or two'” (Letter to Helen Kemp, 13 August 1936, in Correspondence, 2:526–7). The Thomas Mann reference apparently points to the episode involving Ellen Brand toward the end of The Magic Mountain—the section entitled “Highly Questionable” in chap. 7.

[7] For the reading of James’s occult fiction, when NF was a student at Oxford, see “Henry James and the Comedy of the Occult,” in The Eternal Act of Creation, 109–10.

[8] Balzac’s story, about a seventeenth-century artistic genius named Frenhofer, does not have the political twist that NF’s does. Frenhofer, the greatest master of his day, works frenetically on his masterpiece for ten years, but when it turns out to be a chaotic failure, he burns it and dies. Picasso was fascinated by Balzac’s story as well and produced a series of strange illustrations for an arts du livre edition of the book.

[9] Sir James George Frazer, The New Golden Bough, ed. Theodor H. Gaster (New York: Criterion Books, 1959), 311.

[10] Roy Daniells Fonds, University of British Columbia Archives, box 42, file 5, and box 3, file 2.

[11] NF apparently adopted his brother’s name—Eratus Howard—as a pseudonym. Notebook 5, which is in the Northrop Frye Fonds, 1991, box 22, contains nothing more about the novel.

[12] The significance of the title is never made clear. It has some connection apparently with either Yahweh’s instructions to Moses about the kinds of locusts the Israelites are permitted to eat (Leviticus 11:22) or with the wilderness theme of John the Baptist, who ate locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4, Mark 1:6). NF did experience the grasshopper plague during his circuit-riding summer in Saskatchewan, and there appears to be a connection between the people he encountered during that sojourn and the characters of his novel, who find themselves in a similar fictional locale.

[13] The cena [dinner, main meal] was a symposium form, as in Plato’s dialogue of that title, and in the tradition it spawned, from Petronius’s Cena Trimalchionis to the miscellaneous prose satires of Thomas Love Peacock, many of which take place over the dinner table.

[14] “I understand very well the remark attributed to McNaughton: he didn’t mind preaching sermons: it was the goddam prayers that got him down” (Diaries, 286).

[15] Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts, 69–70. These words come from a section of Notebook 3 that was written about 1948.

[16] NF felt pre-empted on other occasions: “I’ve noticed a curious form of e.s.p. in me: whenever I dream of writing something in fiction somebody else who really does write gets the idea instead. This has happened to me so often that it was no surprise to me after thinking about a historical novel situated at Trebizond, to find that Rose Macaulay had the same idea” (RT, 68). The reference is to Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond (1956).

[17] For a survey of NF’s bardo interests, see my Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004), 136–42.

[18] Late Notebooks, 1:238. For NF’s additional speculations on the anagogic book, see Late Notebooks, 1: 172–3, 238, 372.

[19] See “Music in Poetry,” University of Toronto Quarterly 11 (January 1942): 167–79.

[20] The quotations in the discussion above have been taken from “The Relation of Religion to the Art Forms of Music and Drama,” an essay that NF wrote for one of his Emmanuel college classes around 1936; see Student Essays, 313–43. But many of the ideas about healthy communal art versus decadent individualistic art had already appeared in the third section of his essay on “Romanticism” in 1933; see Student Essays, 60–5. NF turned that section into a paper called “The Social Significance of Music,” omitted here because it follows the “Romanticism” essay with only minor verbal changes. This paper was presented on 10 February 1935, to a group in Toronto called the Society of Incompatibles. George Johnston recalls the presentation: “I remember [Frye’s] giving a brilliant paper on something to do with musical counterpoint to an improbable sort of intellectual society that was the mushroom brainchild of an equally improbable first-year student with outsize intellectual pretensions whose name was Proust—I think his first name was George. He called the society The Incompatibles, soon renamed the Nincompoopdoopables by some of its own members, & persuaded some of the brainiest intellectuals among the faculty & students to take it seriously. Norrie’s paper was a dazzling fireworks of wit, delivered at great speed with hardly a flicker to acknowledge the wit of which he was nevertheless obviously aware” (George Johnston to Robert D. Denham, 15 May 1994).

[21] NF’s later interest in the masque, with its dramatization of the Chain of Being, evident in his essay “Romance as Masque,” can be seen as one attempt to fill this vacuum.

[22] See also Student Essays, 136–7.

[23] For NF’s particular keyboard and other musical interests, see his interview with Ian Alexander, “Music in My Life,” World in a Grain of Sand, 269–79.

[24] In Northrop Frye on Modern Culture, see “Ballet Russe” (76–8), “The Jooss Ballet (79–82), “Music and the Savage Breast” (89–91).

[25] NF’s essays on Chaplin, “The Great Charlie” and “The Eternal Tramp” appear in Northrop Frye on Modern Culture, on pp. 98–102 and 116–22 respectively. Also collected there are “Reflections at a Movie” and “Music in the Movies” (103–7, 108–11).

[26] See Northrop Frye in Conversation¸ 339–2.

[27] For further discussion see Northrop Frye in Conversation, Introduction, xxxvi–xxxvii.

[28] In 1976 it was renamed the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

[29] See J. Edward Chamberlin, If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?: Finding Common Ground (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2003), 32.

[30] Finding Common Ground, 34.

[31] The Auden talk proved to be extraordinarily difficult to transcribe—perhaps the most difficult of all of the material in Frye’s holograph notebooks.

[32] “Response” [to Papers on “Northrop Frye and Eighteenth-Century Literature”], Eighteenth-Century Studies, 24 (Winter 1990–91): 249.

[33] See “Introduction,” Late Notebooks, 1:xxii–xxiii.

[34] See Eighteenth-Century Studies: A Special Issue: Northrop Frye and Eighteenth-Century Studies, 24 (Winter 1990–91). Weinbrot’s essay had been presented as the plenary address at the meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in the year before.

[35] Eighteenth-Century Studies, 24 (Winter 1990–91): 173–95.

[36] “Criticism, Visible and Invisible,” in The Stubborn Structure, 82.

[37] University of Toronto Quarterly, 19 (October 1949): 12.

[38] Kenyon Review, 12 (Spring 1950): 246–62. For Notebook 32, see Notebooks on Romance, 152–9.

[39] “The meaning of this work is not simple. . . for we obtain one meaning from the letter of it and another from that which the letter signifies; and the first is called the literal, but the other allegorical or mystical. And to make this matter of treatment clearer, it may be studied in the verse: ‘When Israel came out of Egypt and the House of Jacob from among a strange people, Judah was his sanctuary and Israel his dominion.’ For if we regard the letter alone, what is set before us is the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt in the days of Moses; if the allegory, our redemption wrought by Christ; if the moral sense, we are shown the conversion of the soul from the grief and wretchedness of sin to the state of grace; if the anagogical, we are shown the departure of the holy soul from the thralldom of this corruption to the liberty of eternal glory. And although these mystical meanings are called by various names, they may all be called in general allegorical, since they differ from the literal and historical. The subject of the whole work, then, taken merely in the literal sense is ‘the state of the soul after death straightforwardly affirmed,’ for the development of the whole work hinges on and about that. But if, indeed, the work is taken allegorically, its subject is: ‘Man, as by good or ill deserts, in the exercise of his free choice, he becomes liable to rewarding or punishing Justice'” (trans. Dorothy Sayers).

[40] Such a study should also include Francis Fergusson, Dante’s Drama of the Mind (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), which seems to be the source of medieval rhyme, quoted above. Frye reviewed Fergusson’s book (“Ministry of Angels,” Hudson Review, 6 [Autumn 1953]: 442–9), and he even chides Fergusson for transposing Dante’s second and third levels in his structural analysis of the Purgatorio. See Fergusson, chap. 20.

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