Denham Intro: CW 5-6, Late Notebooks

Preface and Introduction to Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks

Robert D. Denham

[from Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks, 1982–1990: Architecture of the Spiritual World. 2 vols. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Collected Works of Northrop Frye, 5–6. The endnotes are not included in this version of the text.]


The notebook, from Leonardo to Camus, is an established genre, its species as varied as those of other genres. Some notebooks, such as Coleridge’s, move in the direction of the diary and the confession: they not only chronicle the events of the writer’s daily life but probe the hopes and fears of the psyche as well. While Frye’s notebooks do contain material that will be of considerable interest to his biographers, their form is altogether different from the diaries he kept in the 1940s and 1950s, and their intent is neither to record his personal life nor to explore his own psyche. The notebooks are first and foremost the workshop out of which Frye created his books. After Anatomy of Criticism Frye produced books at the rate of about one per year, giving the impression perhaps that writing for him was a facile enterprise. But the process was anything but that for his four major books. Fearful Symmetry (1947) and the Anatomy (1957) were each more than ten years in the making; The Great Code (1982) was begun more than a decade before it appeared; and Words with Power (1990), as Frye notes in the introduction to The Great Code, was “in active preparation” in the early 1980s (The Great Code, xi). The hammering out of Words with Power was, therefore, no less laborious a process than that required for Frye’s other major books, and the notebooks in the present two volumes provide an extraordinary record of that process.

These volumes contain four large units of material (Notebooks 27, 44, and 50 and Notes 52) that relate primarily to Words with Power: these units constitute about eighty-five per cent of the present edition. These are followed by two sets of typed notes (Notes 53 and 54.1) for The Double Vision: they originated with Frye’s lectures at Emmanuel College, presented in May 1990 and published posthumously. The first of these contains his ideas for the three lectures at Emmanuel; the second is for the fourth chapter of The Double Vision, a chapter he wrote before he submitted the book for publication. Finally, there are six brief units of material (holograph and typed) (54.2, 46, 47, 48, 11h, and 55.1) containing speculations on, among other things, both Words with Power and The Double Vision. While the focus of the entries in all of the notebooks is on Frye’s book project at the time, he continually, like the Wife of Bath, wanders by the way, composing entries on scores of topics that have no obvious connection to the project at hand. An entry will be triggered by a detective story he is reading, a newspaper article, a lecture or sermon he has to prepare, a Latin quotation, a glance at the books on his shelves, a quotation he remembers, a letter received, a memory from a trip, and occasional personal reflections—thoughts about his own status as a critic, about the difficulties of writing, about the bankruptcy of contemporary criticism.

It is clear that Frye wrote in more than one notebook at any given time. He kept some of his notebooks in his office at Victoria College, but most of them were discovered at his Clifton Road home. Although no records were kept to indicate which notebooks were found in which location, my hunch is that Frye composed some entries in his office and others at home. But he may well have written in two or more notebooks at his home, picking up whichever happened to be handy, whether upstairs at his writing table or downstairs in his sitting room. Writing, in any case was, if not an obsession for Frye, as essential a part of his life as eating and sleeping. Frye wrote because he could do no other, and the process was not always liberating. “I know from experience,” he writes, “and I’ve read the statement often enough, that if one could turn off the incessant chatter in one’s psyche one would be well on the way to freedom. In all my life I’ve never known an instant of real silence.” Several times Frye expresses a deep desire for the apophatic and contemplative life, or at least for certain moments when he could “turn off the chatter in [his] mind, which is making more noise than a punk rock band (“drunken monkey,” the Hindus call it) and relax into the divine knowledge of us which is one of the things meant by a cloud of unknowing.” More than forty years before the period of the late notebooks, Frye ruefully wondered “what it would really be like to get one’s mind completely clear of the swirl of mental currents. It would be like walking across the Red Sea to the Promised Land, with walls of water standing up on each side.” The fact that Frye was never really able to turn off the “drunken monkey” is what accounts for both the sheer mass of material in the late notebooks and the constant repetition of ideas, hunches, insights, poetic passages, and illustrations. Still, Frye approached the discipline of note-making with Benedictine zeal: “working at what one can do is a sacrament,” he writes at the beginning of Notebook 44. Or again. “My whole life is words: nothing is of value in life except finding verbal formulations that make sense.”

The disadvantage of reproducing the notebooks in their entirety is obvious: life is short, and some of the notebook entries are much more engaging and more central to understanding Frye’s mind than others. But the assumption behind the project called the “Collected Works of Northrop Frye” is that it is important for readers to have reliable texts for the whole of Frye, and so be enabled to decide which parts of his works are of interest or use to them, or are necessary to an overall understanding of his life and works. Beyond that purpose, however, the advantages of having an unabridged record of the late notebooks outweighs the disadvantages of their bulk. With the notebooks, the process is as important as the product, one form of which we already have: the books that resulted. Frye, like Hegel, is on a monumental quest. The quest is not toward absolute knowledge, as he says several times, but toward absolute vision. Its goal is a vision beyond both the kerygmatic and the poetic, a form of vision that Frye characterizes in dozens of ways, but most revealingly as interpenetration. The late notebooks are a kind of labyrinth that Frye is both building and trying to extricate himself from: he sometimes ascends to moments of pure illumination; he sometimes descends into the dark abyss; he often gets lost in the maze; he is beleaguered by false starts and dead ends; he is haunted by a multitude of ghosts that keep flashing across his inward eye, which is clearly not the bliss of solitude. He describes the quest as a purgatorial journey:

My whole conscious life has been purgatorial, a constant circling around the same thing, like a vine going up an elm. I note that I’m repeating even things from earlier pages of this notebook. And “purgatorial” is only a vague hope: maybe I’m not really going up to a final apocalyptic vision but just going in circles, like a senile old man who thinks the two-hundredth repetition of the same old story is new. Perhaps the end is the choking of the host. Well, when it’s vertigo to look down and despair to look up, one can only keep going. But there again I’m assuming an up and a down, and assuming I’m going somewhere. Actually I keep revolving around the same place until I’ve brought off a verbal formulation that I like.

The depth and complexity of Frye’s purgatorial journey could be only dimly perceived in a selection of the notebooks.

Notebooks are generally a private form of writing, and Frye certainly never entertained any notion of publishing them himself. “I don’t need to unscramble that silly parenthesis: I’m not publishing this,” he says at one point, reminding himself that he need not worry himself with stylistic propriety. And in the course of a series of poignant entries following the death of his first wife, he remarks, “It’s a good thing this notebook is not for publication, because everyone else would be bored by my recurring to Helen.” But there is a difference between the absence of an intent on Frye’s part to use the notebooks for anything other than his own writing projects and the knowledge, which he seems clearly to have had, that the notebooks would some day be published. The very fact that we have seventy-six notebooks, along with the files of typed notes he preserved, provides some evidence of Frye’s awareness that these documents would someday be read by others. He appears to have considered this form of his writing as of a different order from the countless reams of manuscripts, including thousands of pages of holograph and typed drafts, that he consigned to the dustbin. Moreover, while the notebooks occasionally contain a laconic entry, a hasty jotting, an outline, almost all of the paragraphs are syntactically complete units. They are not the polished prose of Frye’s published work, but they do reveal a genuine concern for the rhetorical unit that can stand by itself. Such care in the construction of the prose would hardly seem required if Frye were writing only for himself. In addition, the notebooks are rather meticulously laid out, their pages numbered and each entry separated from the next by a blank line. Frye even revised his notebooks, correcting mistakes, inserting an omitted word here and there, and cancelling some of the repeated passages.

But the clearest clue to what I believe was Frye’s awareness of the probable eventual disposition of the notebooks is his sense of an audience. When Frye writes, “See the title of my Festschrift,” or “See my notes on The Ivory Tower,” he is providing instructions to an implied reader. When he feels guilty about a particularly vulgar outburst and later rewrites it in “a more polite way,” he does so for the sake of an eventual reader. When he says, “I have very few religious books, & those I have stress the mystics,” he is certainly not writing to remind himself about the nature of his own library. When he identifies his own allusions, he is not providing the gloss for his own sake. There would be no reason for Frye to tell himself what he writes in the Coda of the present edition or what he records in this entry: “It doesn’t matter how often I’m mentioned by other critics: I form part of the subtext of every critic worth reading.” There would be no reason for Frye to say to himself, “I’ve written a paper on Stevens as a variation-writer.” Hundreds of passages such as these betray Frye’s consciousness of a reader other than himself.


Frye’s late notebooks are the record of a religious quest, and in the course of that quest he writes here and there about the intent of the process. He speaks, for example, of the relation between his obsessive note-taking and the books that eventually emerge: “All my life I’ve had the notebook obsession manifested by what I’m doing at this moment. Writing in notebooks seems to help clarify my mind about the books I write, which are actually notebook entries arranged in a continuous form. At least, I’ve always told myself they were that.” In the same notebook Frye refers to the discontinuous form of his entries as aphorisms: “I keep notebooks because all my writing is a translation into a narrative sequence of things that come to me aphoristically. The aphorisms in turn are preceded by ‘inspirations’ or potentially verbal Gestalten. So ‘inspiration’ is essentially a snarled sequence.” While the notebook entries are ordinarily not as brief as an aphorism (they contain about seventy-five words on average), they do consist on the whole of discontinuous reflections. But, as “snarled sequence” suggests, the entries are by no means unrelated to each other. Frye will often devote a succession of paragraphs to a single topic, and he frequently refers to previous sections of the notebook in which he is writing at the time and occasionally to other notebooks.

Frye puts “inspiration” in quotation marks because the actual genesis of the notebook entries is often somewhat mysterious. “I think in cores or aphorisms, as these notebooks indicate, and all the labor in my writing comes from trying to find verbal formulas to connect them. I have to wait for the cores to emerge: they seem to be born and not made.” In one of his notebooks for Anatomy of Criticism, he speaks of these aphorisms as auditory epiphanies: they are, he says, “involuntarily acquired” and have “something to do with listening for a Word, the ear being the involuntary sense.” If the birth of the aphorisms comes from things “heard,” the connections among them come from things “seen.” Realizing the potential of a “verbal Gestalten” or a pattern of continuous argument, Frye says, has something to do “with the spread-out performance of the eye.” But, as the notebooks unequivocally reveal, the pattern of continuity is never achieved without a mighty struggle: once Frye got hold of the building-blocks, “the spread-out performance” was never necessary or even predictable. In his words, “Continuity, in writing as in physics, is probabilistic, and every sequence is a choice among possibilities. Inevitable sequence is illusory.” The sequence that Frye eventually achieved in his published work came only after revisions of numerous drafts, sometimes as many as eight or nine revisions. Some of the chapters in Words with Power were, in their early form, as long as a hundred pages, so Frye’s revisions involved a great deal of cutting. He would typically type three or four drafts himself before giving them, often with holograph additions and corrections, to his secretary Jane Widdicombe to type or enter on a word processor. Once he received the draft back, he would revise again, and this process would be repeated as many as five times. But the notebooks themselves are by no means drafts: they reveal a stage of Frye’s writing before, sometimes years before, he began even to work on a first draft.

Frye was obviously an intuitive thinker. In Notebook 11f he says, “In my speeches I often speak of earlier moments of intensity. They were usually not moments of intensity, but only look so when I remember them. In a sense, therefore, I’m simply lying.” A half-dozen of these moments, nevertheless, were important enough for Frye to continue to refer to them: an experience in high school when the albatross of Methodist fundamentalism fell from his neck, an illumination about Spengler during the summer of 1931 in Edmonton, a sudden intuition about Blake during his second year at Emmanuel College, a vision of the shape that Fearful Symmetry would finally take, and two epiphanies referred to more than twenty times in the notebooks—one in Seattle during the summer of 1951 and the other on St. Clair Avenue in Toronto. Frye refers to these moments variously as intuitions, epiphanies, illuminations, and enlightenments. They were experiences of unity—experiences, as he says, “of things fitting together” in a momentary flash of insight. Such experiences are best described, not as mystical or even religious, but as visionary or spiritual. “Above the soul,” Frye writes,

is the spirit, and when the “body” makes contact with that, man possesses for an instant a spiritual body, in which he moves into a world of life and light and understanding that seemed miraculous to him before, as well as totally unreal. This world is usually called “timeless,” which is a beggary of language: there ought to be some such word as “timeful” to express a present moment that includes immense vistas of past and future. I myself have spent the greater part of seventy-eight years in writing out the implications of insights that occupied at most only a few seconds of all that time.

These insights are an important part of Frye’s visionary poetics, but they should be distinguished from what Frye calls the aphoristic “cores” that he sets down in the notebooks. The latter, which he often refers to as “hunches,” are essentially discontinuous. They are not epiphanic wholes, but epiphanic parts which, Frye hopes, will find their proper whole. Frye’s epiphanies may be involuntarily acquired, but scores of them, once they have made their appearance, recur with regularity throughout the notebooks. The intuitions get repeated, reformulated, and refined, as Frye returns to his “repetitive & endlessly recycled thoughts” in his search for the proper verbal formula to build what he calls his “palaces of criticism.”


If Frye is an intuitive thinker, he is also a schematic one. It would be misleading to think of what he calls “the spread-out performance”—his effort to arrive at a continuous argument—as occurring only when he began to organize his aphorisms for a first draft. The deductive framework for Frye is always prior. While it is true that he thinks “in cores or aphorisms,” it is no less true that he thinks geometrically, and such thinking is a feature of Frye’s mental life that was with him from the beginning. Even in his student days he could hardly put pen to paper without a diagram in his head. He refers to his own work as possessed by “a mandala vision,” the mandala being “a projection of the way one sees.” In Frye’s grammar of the imagination the mental diagrams are what provide the syntax or ordering principle for the aphorisms. Or, to borrow another pair of Frye’s terms, while the aphorisms belong to mythos, or experience in time, “the spread-out performance” is a matter of dianoia, or representation in space. “I have proceeded deductively,” Frye announced in Anatomy of Criticism, and thirty years later he is still proceeding deductively. “In the next few days,” he writes with no sense of irony, “I must do a blitz on this infernal book, get its main construction lines blocked out, & then start reading.” Or again, “I’ve got stuck in my noddle the two names Prometheus and Hermes, and am beginning to feel that, apparently just for reasons of symmetry, there must be a second cycle incorporating the bulk of the imagery of modern poetry that doesn’t get into the Eros-Adonis cycle. I’m putting it in the strongest terms a hostile critic would apply: because I’ve got a pretty pattern to apply, the facts have simply got to conform to it, and naturally with that attitude I’ll succeed sooner or later.” And then Frye adds, “You can’t be original unless you work with hunches and treat them exactly as a paranoiac would do. Of course I find what I want to find in the texts themselves: what else does the double meaning of `invention’ mean?” This is the typical Frygian approach: first, to set up the organizing framework and then to look around for the myths and metaphors to give body to the structure.

The defining feature of the Late Notebooks is Frye’s continuous effort to develop the organizing pattern for Words with Power and The Double Vision. The doggedness with which Frye pursues various schema for the conceptual framework of Words with Power is obvious even in the first of the late notebooks. One early formulation comes from the phases of revelation in chapter 5 of The Great Code. Another is a series of dialogues between word and spirit. But the most prominent scheme meets us early in the first of the Late Notebooks—paragraph 13 of Notebook 27—what Frye calls the “HEAP scheme,” the acronym for Hermes, Eros, Adonis, and Prometheus. Frye is devoted almost to the point of obsession to exploring the metaphorical and thematic implications of these four gods. They are, he says following Blake, “the spectres of the dead” because they have no concentering vision, and Frye sets out like a questing knight to discover such a vision for them, the four quadrants of which will be, when the code is finally deciphered, Hermes Unsealed, Eros Regained, Adonis Revived, and Prometheus Unbound. Each of the four gods represents a cluster of numerous thematic associations: the number of entries dedicated to the HEAP cycle in all of the notebooks exceeds eight hundred, and in the late notebooks Frye devotes almost three hundred separate paragraphs to one or more of these “spectres of the dead,” or, what he calls, borrowing Emily Dickinson’s phrase, “our confiscated gods.” The four gods are also called “emblems” and “informing presences,” and they eventually become, in the second part of Words with Power, “variations on a theme.”

The four gods had been a part of Frye’s consciousness from an early age. His interest in the Adonis archetype can be traced all the way back to his undergraduate reading of Frazer, Prometheus to his reading of Shelley, Eros and Hermes to his reading of Plato. Adonis, Prometheus, and Eros figure importantly in his account of the Orc cycle in Fearful Symmetry, and these three also make their way into Anatomy of Criticism. Hermes is the odd god out, so to speak, during the years Frye was writing the Anatomy. He does speak of Hermes’ role as the angel-messenger or Covering Cherub in one of the important notebooks during the decade between Fearful Symmetry and the Anatomy, but this role is not connected with the archetypes of the other three gods. It is not until Notebook 7 (late 1940–early 1950s) that we get a spatial representation of the gods as a cycle of archetypes, with Orpheus now joining Eros, Adonis, and Prometheus as the fourth god, Frye locating them as cardinal points on a circular diagram with horizontal and vertical axes. This diagram was one of the many components of what Frye called the “Great Doodle.” In his diagrammatic way of representing the HEAP cycle, the gods eventually took their places within the quadrants, rather than at the cardinal points. By the 1980s Frye’s mental diagram of the cycle tended to take the shape of a four-quadrant circle, with Eros in the northwest quadrant, Eros in the northeast, Prometheus in the southeast, and Adonis in the southwest.

The HEAP scheme remained in a state of flux for a number of years: it “keeps reforming & dissolving,” as Frye says in Notebook 44. He experiments with three additional sequences: AEHP, PEAH, and EAPH, before finally settling on the order Hermes, Eros, Adonis, and Prometheus. These archetypes—what the four gods represent apocalyptically as well as demonically—help direct and give shape to the last four chapters of Words with Power, which is clearly the more creative and dynamic half of the book. What, then, do the four “spectres of the dead” represent for Frye? The question cannot be answered in a word. The four gods, as already said, are slippery categories, and the associations that the gods trigger in Frye’s mind are long-standing and part of what he himself calls his “dizzily complex constructs.” But the following chart will perhaps provide a kind of map for the themes and analogues that Frye attaches to the spectres in the late notebooks, the awakening of which the last half of Words with Power is designed to achieve.

The Spectres of the Dead: Variations on a Theme

Axis Mundi Image Mountain—higher wisdom Garden—higher love Cave—lower love Furnace—lower wisdom
Awakened Spectre Hermes Unsealed (Gospel) Eros Regained (Wisdom) Adonis Revived (Prophecy) Prometheus Unbound (Law)
Phases of Revelation Creation, Law Gospel and Participating Apocalypse Prophecy and Participating Apocalypse Exodus, Wisdom
Word Manifestation / Spirit Response Law / Wisdom Panoramic Apocalypse / Participating Apocalypse Prophecy / Gospel Creation / Exodus
Cosmological Principle Authority Polarity Cycle Revolt
Object of Epiphany Logos Spirit Logos Spirit
Narrative Direction Tragic Comic Tragic Comic
Feminine Aspect Mother (Juno) White & red bride (Magdelen) Black bride Sister (Athene)
Blakean Analogue Tharmas [or Urizen] (natura naturata world) Urizen [or harmas](world of cycles) Orc (world of cyclical revolt) Los [Urthona](world of titanic revolt)
Biblical Analogue Authority Redemption Renewal Revolt
Primary Concern Freedom (play) or construction Sex Food (place of seed) Shelter (construction) or freedom of action & thought
Primary Element Descent to water Ascent in air Descent to earth Ascent in fire
Epiphanic Principle Logos Spirit Logos Spirit
Colour Indigo Green Blue Yellow
Associated images & themes Ark, way (path), the occult, dream world, systole-diastole movement, Grail legend, “everlasting gospel,” Atlantis, tower & winding stair patterns Fire, radical spur, reversal in time, courtly love, naturata naturans, source in Plato & Ovid, Eve-as-garden, Song of Songs, centre, Bruno brother struggles Seed, conservative spur, cycle of time, Graves/Frazer themes (dying-god sequence), Rabelaisian themes, sacrifice, Sabbath contemplation, circumference, white goddess pattern, Spenglerian cycle Fire-seed, fire in fennel stalk, technology, education (forethought), Albion-Finnegan figure, communication, utopias, trickster, drunken-boat pattern, network (DeQuincey), Blake & Shelley
Eliot’s Four Quartets Analogy Burnt Norton Little Gidding East Coker The Dry Salvages
Analogues of Modern Consciousness Heidegger Freud Nietzsche Marx
Verbal Cosmos of Literary History Pre-Romantic hierarchy Romantic reversal Pre-Romantic hierarchy Romantic reversal
Temporal Analogue Past Future Past Future

One striking difference between the late notebooks and Words with Power is that the HEAP cycle, so prominent in the former, practically disappears in the latter. Adonis makes only a cameo appearance, Hermes remains completely offstage, and Eros and Prometheus have only minor roles at best. The primary reason for this is that Frye, who conceived the four gods as each occupying the quadrant of a cyclical diagram, decided, in one of his late revisions of the book, to abandon the cycle as his fundamental organizing image and to replace it with the axis mundi. Ascent and descent along a vertical axis become the primary structural metaphor of Frye’s “variations on a theme.” But he cannot completely abandon the four gods with whom he has had such a longstanding and intimate relation, and all four do, in fact, come on stage toward the beginning of the final chapter of Words with Power. “Each of our axial surveys,” Frye writes, referring to the mountain, garden, cave, and furnace archetypes,

may be linked to a god or informing presence: the presiding deity of the ladder of higher wisdom, outlined in the fifth chapter, is Hermes the psychopomp; of the ladder of higher love, Eros; of the descent and return theme of lower love (i.e. fertility), Adonis. Our present hero of lower wisdom is Prometheus, the titan who created man, in some accounts, and the defier of the gods, who overthrew (or reduced to absurdity) the cult of sacrifice, and brought man to the fire that made his civilization possible.


As for the rhetoric of the notebooks, one can naturally detect features of Frye’s style on every page: the wit, the koan-like utterances that capture some paradox, the attention to the shape of the periodic sentence, the grace and elegance of the prose, the ironic tone. But the difference between Frye’s notebook entries and his published work will be apparent to readers as well, for here Frye is wearing everything on his sleeve. He feels no need for the detachment that was almost always a feature of what he presented to the public, no need to create that sense of assurance that comes with a distanced academic presence. It is true that Frye insisted for many years that the antithesis between the scholarly and unscholarly, between the personal and impersonal was an antithesis that needed to be transcended. Still, the reader will recognize immediately that the voice in these notebooks is not Frye’s public voice. There is, on the one hand, the direct expression of belief. Frye’s own beliefs were, of course, implicit in all his writing, from Fearful Symmetry on. But in the notebooks they are explicit: one could compile from these entries what would amount to a confession of faith. On the other hand, at the level simply of diction, Frye’s not infrequent use of coarse and indecent language may surprise, even confound, some readers. Most will doubtless discover, however, that Frye’s four-letter words are used fairly innocently, serving him as a kind of shorthand for referring to sex, which is of course one of his “primary concerns,” to the male and female principles in Genesis 1 and 2 that are really the starting point of the mountain and garden archetypes, and to bodily functions. Still, Frye’s language often deflates the most sober of reflections. Thus, while there is not so much as a whisper of the mock-heroic in these notebooks, there is a good measure of the Swiftian burlesque, which is one of the ways that Frye, never without a sense of irony, brings his soaring speculations back down to earth.

If we cannot always with assurance follow the sequence of the arguments in Frye’s published work or always understand clearly why one paragraph follows the next, we nevertheless have the impression that he knew where he was going. But this confident sense of direction is often absent from the notebooks. “God knows,” he writes at one point, “I know how much of this is blither: it makes unrewarding reading for the most part. But I have to do it: it doesn’t clarify my mind so much as lead to some point of clarification that (I hope) gets into the book. Hansel & Gretel’s trail of crumbs.” Or again, when speculating on the relation between the dialogues of word and spirit and the four levels of meaning, Frye remarks, “I don’t know if this is anything but bald and arbitrary schematism.” Or still again, “I’m again at the point in the book where I wonder if I know what the hell I’m talking about.” Remarks such as these are sprinkled throughout the notebooks, and there are entries in which Frye begins to explore an idea but, by the time he gets to the end of the paragraph, forgets the point he was going to make. Over and over we see the persona of a Frye who is human, all-too-human. There is nothing particularly surprising in this: writing for Frye was a discovery procedure, and we should not expect that every aphorism that came to him should issue in a “verbal Gestalten.” In this respect Frye’s notebooks are like Nietzsche’s own book of aphorisms, Human All-too-Human, an exercise in free thinking; and free thought, by definition, is under no obligation always to issue in certitude. The persona of the writer is revealed too in the occasional intemperate epithets (“fool,” “idiot,” and the like) that Frye hurls at himself for overlooking the obvious or for a lapse in memory, and in the self-deprecating remarks (“By the standards of conventional scholarship, The Great Code was a silly and sloppy book”).

I have indicated that the notebooks do not really belong to the genre of the diary or personal journal. But from time to time Frye does move away from direct speculations about Words with Power and other writing projects. He occasionally worries, for example, about his status and reputation. He sometimes takes swipes at other critics (e.g., Frank Kermode and Terry Eagleton, Francis Sparshott), something Frye almost never did in his published work: only on the rarest of occasions would he even politely mention a critic or detractor by name. But the most personal of all the entries, as well as the most poignant, are motivated by the death of Frye’s wife Helen in Cairns, Australia. About one-fifth of the way through Notebook 44 Frye announces that Helen, his wife of forty-nine years, has died. For the next ten entries he writes of his grief and of his love for her, of his hope to see her in the invisible world across death, of his desire for her peace, of her apotheosis into sainthood. Helen’s presence continues to be felt through the remainder of the notebook. Frye expresses the guilt he has about having taken her on the long trip to Australia, and he even entertains the notion that this decision was tantamount to murder. But as his guilt begins to wane, Helen emerges as his Court of Love mistress—his Laura or Beatrice. And as the distance from her death increases, he can write,

The Helen I now love is someone whose human faults & frailties count for nothing: the word “forgiveness” I shrink from, because it implies that I’m in a superior position. I think (with Keats) that life may be purgatorial in shape, only I’d call it a vale of spirit (not soul) making. I think of her as someone for whom the full human potential is now able to emerge. Perhaps my love and the affection so many had for her helped to do that for her, being the same kind of thing that the R.C.’s [Roman Catholics], with their mania for institutionalizing everything, identify with masses & prayers for the dead. If so, then she’s an angel, not to be worshipped, according to the N.T., but an emancipated fellow-creature.

Frye even sees Words with Power becoming “a memorial to my lost love,” a book that must be “worthy of God and of Helen,” a new Word born to them, and Notebook 44 ends with his declaring Helen to be an angel.

The death of Helen affected Frye deeply, and it helps, I think, to account for the prominence of death as a theme in those parts of the notebooks written after August 1986. One has only to compare the relatively few entries about death in entries of Notebook 27, which dates from 1985, to those in the subsequent notebooks, where it becomes a major theme. It is a major theme in Words with Power as well. Frye writes often about death not merely as a theme in literature and religion but as an apprehension in his own consciousness: he is clearly anxious about his own death, worries whether he will live to see his various projects completed, and speculates about, as he puts it, “life across death.” This is one of the few cases in the notebooks where we see an event in Frye’s life helping to determine the direction of his writing in both the notebooks and his published work.


The late notebooks provide a fairly full account of what Frye was reading during the last five years of his life. With a dozen or so exceptions (e.g., Dante, Rabelais, Henry James, Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster) his reading did not centre on literature: with his prodigious memory, he already had a formidable grasp of the literary tradition anyway. But there are writers he devotes substantial attention to in the notebooks who are left behind in Words with Power. The significance that the French symbolists, for example, had for Frye—Rimbaud and Laforgue and especially Mallarmé—is not apparent in his published work. Mallarmé enters Frye’s argument in Words with Power six times: in the late notebooks he appears in sixty-nine entries, mostly in connection with Frye’s fascination with Igitur, Cantique de Saint-Jean, Un Coup de Dés, and Mallarmé’s letters to Henri Cazalis. Frye is attracted to Mallarmé because, like Blake, he has the imagination of a religious visionary. (At one point Frye refers to “the pan-literary universe which only three people understand: Blake, Mallarmé, and myself.”) He is a poet, writes Frye, “who will take me through the third great crisis of the birth of the spirit out of the depth of fallen spirits,” who sometimes talks “as though literature was a `substitute’ for religion,” who sees the pure poem as a symbol of “something transcendent,” who “tries to sink himself in myth & metaphor so completely that the kerygmatic will speak through,” and who believes “there really is some kind of resurrection by faith in myth.”

With all the attention given to Mallarmé one naturally wonders why he was never the subject of an essay by Frye or why he is used only in the published work for an occasional illustration. But this points to one of the features of the notebooks—the material they contain that was never developed in Frye’s books and essays. If Mallarmé and the HEAP scheme disappear into the background in Words with Power, so do a number of other topics we encounter in the notebooks, topics which Frye seems utterly committed to exploring but which we know almost nothing about from his published work. The long list of such topics, some of which Frye even plans to write essays on, would include Schelling’s philosophy of mythology and revelation, De Quincey’s network image from The English Mail-Coach, “fairies and elementals,” the American Romantics, the Vedic myth of Hiranyagarbha (especially the seed of fire in the midst of the waters), and Poe (“the greatest literary genius this side of Blake”).

When Frye says that the few religious books he has focus on the mystics, he is referring to Eckhart and Boehme and Joachim of Floris, writers who appear with regularity in the notebooks. He is perhaps also referring to certain Eastern texts. Before completing his work on Fearful Symmetry, Frye had flirted with the East. Large portions of Notebook 3, written in 1946, are devoted to his reading of the Lankavantara Sutra, to his speculations on the Bardo state in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and to Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra. He even sets out to follow Patanjali’s eight-fold path, devoting a number of pages of the notebook “to codify[ing] a program of spiritual life” for himself. Frye’s published work provides only the scantest evidence of his interest in things Eastern. But in the late notebooks we find him speculating on such things as the I Ching, the yin-yang balance of Taoism, the Rig Veda, Jnana yoga, the Avatamsaka Sutra, and Gopi Krishna’s K undalini (“a book that impressed me”).

Some of Frye’s reading is, if not altogether odd, at least surprising—books such as Merezhkovsky’s Atlantis/Europe and Maureen Duffy’s Erotic World of Fairie. Frye admits that Merezhkovsky comes “close to a lot of the von Daniken mythology,” but then, he adds, “yesterday’s kook book becomes tomorrow’s standard text.” There are in the notebooks, as one might expect, a number of Frye’s old chestnuts—books such as Graves’s The White Goddess, Frances Yates’s studies in hermeticism, the mythical speculations of Gertrude Rachel Levy, Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy, Carroll’s Alice books, the novels of Bulwer-Lytton and Rider Haggard. But some readers will no doubt think it strange that Frye would even be curious about such books as Michael Baigent’s The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Robert Anton Wilson’s The Cosmic Trigger, Marilyn Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy, Itzhak Bentov’s Stalking the Wild Pendulum, and A.E. Waite’s Ques t of the Golden Stairs, T he Pictorial Key to the Tarot, and The Holy Grail—”kook books” all. It would be difficult to imagine Frye citing such esoterica in Words with Power, but he does justify his interest in such writers as Waite, who is only “superficially off-putting”:

I’ve been reading Loomis and A.E. Waite on the Grail. Loomis often seems to me an erudite ass: he keeps applying standards of coherence and consistency to twelfth-century poets that might apply to Anthony Trollope. Waite seems equally erudite and not an ass. But I imagine Grail scholars would find Loomis useful and Waite expendable, because Waite isn’t looking for anything that would interest them. It’s quite possible that what Waite is looking for particularly doesn’t exist—secret traditions, words of power, an esoteric authority higher than that of the Catholic Church—and yet the kind of thing he’s looking for is so infinitely more important than Loomis’ trivial games of descent from Irish sources where things get buggered up because the poets couldn’t distinguish cors meaning body from cors meaning horn. Things like this show me that I have a real function as a critic, pointing out that what Loomis does has been done and is dead, whereas what Waite does, even when mistaken, has hardly begun and is very much alive.

The notebooks also reveal Frye’s attraction to neo-natural theology, represented by his interest in Erwin Schrödinger and David Bohm, the latter of whose theories on the implicate order do get cited in The Double Vision. But from reading such recognized physicists Frye moved in the direction of “pop-science” writers, as he calls them. These include Lyall Watson and “the Tao of Physics people”: Fritjof Capra, Rudy Rucker, and Ken Wilber. Frye’s reading does not always take such a curious course, and his published work provides no hints of his interest in new-age science. As one might expect, Frye devotes a substantial amount of energy in the notebooks to engaging the great speculative minds in the Western tradition. Heraclitus, Plato, and Aristotle are the classical philosophers to whom he most often recurs. Among modern discursive thinkers Hegel is his great hero, though he admires the Phenomenology of Spirit as an Odyssean quest, not as an introduction to Hegel’s system: “If Hegel had written his Phenomenology in mythos-language instead of in logos-language a lot of my work would be done for me.” Frye keeps returning to Kant’s idea of “purposiveness without purpose” in the Critique of Judgment. He spars with Kierkegaard, wrestles with Nietzsche, engages Freud and Marx throughout, argues with Jung, assimilates Lacan’s “alienated moi” into his own system, finds Samuel Butler to be captivating and the “chain-thinking” in Berkeley’s Siris compelling, debates with Julian Jaynes about his theory of the bicameral mind, draws on Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, and worries repeatedly about Derrida (because of his attack on the Logos) and Bultmann (because of his attack on myth). The index reveals just how extensive and wide-ranging the dialogue is that Frye carries on with the intellectual tradition—its philosophers (e.g., Schopenhauer), its mythographers (e.g., Eliade), its theologians (e.g., Tillich, Buber, Barth), its literary critics (e.g., Bloom, Bahktin).

A number of the writers to whom Frye devotes attention in the late notebooks—Samuel Butler, James Joyce, Thomas More, William Blake, Baldassare Castiglione, William Morris—became the subject of essays he produced during the late 1980s. These essays eventually made their way into Myth and Metaphor, along with several other essays Frye wrote in the late 1980s, such as “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision,” for which the notebooks were also the workshop.


Almost thirty-five years ago I picked up Anatomy of Criticism, read it, and realized I was in the presence of an extraordinary mind. For a number of years I was convinced that this was the central work in the Frye canon, even though in the 1960s the canon was not all that large. I was attracted to, among other things, the Anatomy’s schematic ingenuity, its power as a teaching manual, and, as I had come under the sway of the new criticism, its claims for the autonomy of both literature and criticism. Had I come to Frye by way of Fearful Symmetry, I suspect that my view of his work would have been different. In any case, as I have followed the contours of Frye’s career, I have become more and more convinced that what is fundamental to his work is not so much the principles outlined in the Anatomy, though that is surely a book that will remain with us, but the principles we find in those books that serve as the bookends of his career, Fearful Symmetry at the beginning and fifty years later the two Bible books and The Double Vision. I have had a developing intuition that the central feature of the superstructure Frye built is its religious base. There are hints in the Anatomy (in Frye’s account of anagogy, for example) that he takes spiritual vision seriously, but no one, I think, would argue on the basis of that book that such vision is central. My feeling about the essentially religious foundations of Frye’s work has been strengthened during the six years I have been pondering the late notebooks, which, incidentally, begin with an entry on original sin and, 3684 entries later, end with one on the Sabbath vision. The notebooks, as I have already indicated, are, beyond the obvious practical function they had for Frye, a record of his religious quest.

I will not repeat what I have said elsewhere about such a view, but it does deserve a brief comment. To begin with a few passages from the notebooks where Frye remarks on the telos of his own undertaking:

Any biography, including Ayre’s, would say that I dropped preaching for academic life: that’s the opposite of what my spiritual biography would say, that I fled into academia for refuge and have ever since tried to peek out into the congregation and make a preacher of myself.

For a long time I’ve been preoccupied by the theme of the reality of the spiritual world, including its substantial reality.

I’m an architect of the spiritual world.

Art is not simply an identity of illusion and reality, but a counter-illusion: its world is a material world, but the material of an intelligible spiritual world. . . . the dialectic of belief and vision is the path I have to go down now.

I’ve been called a mystic as well as a myth critic, because some people think that’s an even more contemptuous term. If myth is really mythos, story or plot, then mysticism is being initiated in the mysteries.

I’ve been using the Bible to help me get to a plane of metaphor beyond hypothesis.

I’m no evangelist or revivalist preacher, but I’d like to help out in a trend to make religion interesting and attractive to many people of good will who will have nothing to do with it now.

I’m still in search of a genuinely “charitable” vision of spirit that can unite everybody.

Frye’s religious vision is firmly rooted in the Protestant Christian tradition and in the prophetic vision of William Blake, for whom the “Everlasting Gospel” was the gospel of love. But Frye’s religious views are often expressed unconventionally. He eschews all theological doctrines, systems, and institutions. When he does resort to theological language, it is almost always in the context of an event or an experience, such as the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Crucifixion, the Apocalypse, and he understands such events or experiences, as the notebooks clearly reveal, in terms of myth and metaphor. His view of religion is, therefore, what he calls counter-logical and counter-historical. While his views locate themselves in the Christian tradition, they are nevertheless often idiosyncratic. But that gives him little pause:

I haven’t the least objection to having it said that my religion is essentially my own creation. I feel that it must be that way because my understanding of anything is finite; but I think the position I do hold is one that enables me to crawl a little farther and discover a bit more. Faced with a Jew, a Moslem, a Catholic, an atheistic humanist, I should not deny for a second that they also have positions from which to advance. All this is very elementary: one assumption I’ve so far left aside. I am what I am because of certain historical events: the Protestant Reformation, the Anglican settlement, the Methodist movement, the transfer of religious energies to the New World. Hence if I express a tolerance that grants to any position the capacity of moving nearer whatever truth is, I am also annihilating history, assuming that all religious theory and practice today begins in a kind of apocalypse in which past history has exhausted its significance as such. The nineteenth-century obsession with conversion, mainly from Protestant to Catholic positions, was a desperate effort to keep history continuous: I think it no longer works, if it ever did.

What Frye calls vision often leans in the direction of mysticism, something that in the intense moment of recognition lies on “the other side of consciousness.” In such moments, Frye writes, “what’s below consciousness, traditionally called the body, may suddenly fuse with what’s above consciousness, or spirit. These are the moments of inspiration, insight, intuition, enlightenment, whatever: no matter what they’re called or what their context is, they invariably by-pass ordinary consciousness.” One of the functions of the critic is not simply to translate poetic language into another, lesser language but “to establish the relations of poetry with its wider verbal context. A different kind of activity is suggested at that point. The awareness of language may begin with the awareness of ordinary consciousness, but it soon becomes clear that language is a means of intensifying consciousness, lifting us into a new dimension of being altogether.” This intensifying or expanding of consciousness is sounded as a refrain throughout the notebooks.

The first chapters of both The Great Code and Words with Power seek to outline a theory of language that will account for how a sacred text, such as the Bible, which is fundamentally a complex tissue of myths and metaphors, goes beyond the poetic. In The Great Code he defines this meta-step as kerygma. In Words with Power, it is the mythical and imaginative mode which always gets excluded from ideology, a mode presided over by, in Frye’s curious locution for the gods, “the non-human personal.” Kerygma and the relation of identity captured by metaphor are the terms Frye sometimes uses in the notebooks to capture the ultimate aim of the poetic. At other times he wants to press even farther to a “kerygmatic breakthrough.” This is a state of being that goes beyond what he calls in both Bible books the panoramic apocalypse. The movement beyond kerygma and metaphor is a movement from Word to Spirit. In Frye’s words,

the panoramic apocalypse, the thematic stasis, the myth as dianoia or picture, represents the end of experience as knowledge. It’s normally as far as literature can go, and the dianoia it reaches is a design of hypothetical metaphor. To move on to the seventh phase of participating apocalypse one has to move back to existential metaphor, and let the preceding narrative structure one’s life. To do this is to repeat the incarnation, the Word becoming flesh. When the Word’s mythos is complete it discarnates, & we attach ourselves to the Spirit that works by metaphor.

This is what faith means for Frye. Throughout the notebooks he keeps returning to Hebrews 11:1 almost to the point of fixation, trying to translate into his own terms the meaning of elenchos and hypostasis and the relation between them. “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision” includes his most fully developed commentary on the passage. But the notebooks also contain some extraordinary entries on faith, including the following: “Faith is the recurring sense of revelation, i.e., an existential reality beyond the hypothetical [poetic]. This revelation is the vision of a “new” creation—new to us, that is. Such a faith, if attained, redeems and justifies all literature.” The vision about which Frye speaks is the interpenetrating universe of symbol and spirit.

The paradox of interpenetration is the verbal formula Frye most often calls upon in the notebooks to define his vision of the new creation and the participating apocalypse. The idea of interpenetration, which, as Frye records in his notebooks, he first encountered in Whitehead, Spengler, and the Mahayana sutras, is used in several different contexts, but the most frequent is a religious one. “The Holy Spirit,” he writes, “who, being everywhere at once, is the pure principle of interpenetration.” Frye associates interpenetration with anagogy, apocalypse, spiritual intercourse, the vision of plenitude, the everlasting gospel, and the incarnation. It is finally one of Frye’s many efforts to define metaphorical literalism, which is based on the principle of identity (x equals y), to get beyond subject-object categories, to push language as far as it can go in its struggle to explore the ineffable silence that surrounds, even helps to define, the religious experience.


Frye carried on this exploration until the very end, never able to give his pen a moment’s rest. Even before he had completed Words with Power, he had begun to lay plans for his next books. One is what he calls his Utopia book, a book he sees emerging from the themes of creative ascent in the last chapter of Words with Power. It would be a book focussing on social models and on education, issues Frye had already treated in four essays from the 1980s (on More, Butler, Castiglione, and Morris). These essays, in fact, would provide the core of the book, which, Frye speculates, might even turn into one of the volumes of his ogdoad project. Because references to this project appear occasionally in the late notebooks, it deserves a word of explanation.

The ogdoad was an eight-book vision that Frye used as a kind of road map for his life’s work. As with all of his organizing patterns, the ogdoad was never a rigid outline, but it did correspond to the chief divisions in his conceptual universe over the years. Throughout the notebooks he repeatedly uses a code to refer to the eight books he planned to write. The original plan was actually eight concerti that Frye dreamed of writing—a dream he had at age nine. At about the same time, after reading Scott’s novels, he imagined writing a sequence of historical novels, and after he had made his way through Dickens and Thackeray, this modulated into “a sequence of eight definitive novels.” When Frye was fourteen, each of these novels acquired a one-word descriptive name, and these names, along with their hieratic forms, remained with Frye over the years, appearing hundreds of times in his notebooks as a shorthand designation for his books, both those completed and those anticipated. In the 1940s the eight books were reduced to what Frye called his Pentateuch, but they expanded shortly after that into the eight once again. Frye himself provides several keys to the ways that the ogdoad shaped his preoccupations over the years. In one of them he says,

Suddenly, & simultaneously with the final & complete conversion to criticism, my old adolescent dream of eight masterpieces rose up again and hit me finally and irresistibly. Blake became Liberal, the study of drama Tragicomedy, the philosophical book, now a study of prose fiction, became Anticlimax, Numbers became Rencontre, Deuteronomy Mirage, & three others took nebulous shape. For several years I dithered, doodled, dawdled, dreamed & dallied. It was silly to let an adolescent pipe-dream haunt me like that: on the other hand, it did correspond to some major divisions in my actual thinking. So I kept on with it. When I finished the Blake, it became zero instead of one, & its place was taken by a study of epic. In my notes the initial letters of the eight books were cut down to hieratic forms: [L] for Liberal; [7] for Tragicomedy; [inverted V] for Anticlimax; [inverted Y] for Rencontre; [V] for Mirage; [sideways T] for Paradox; [upside-down T] for Ignoramus; [T] for Twilight.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the scheme continued to change, but Frye never abandoned it. Some of the principal features of the ogdoad are summarized in the chart on pp. xlii–xliii of the Late Notebooks..

As the bald summary of the chart reveals, the various parts of the ogdoad changed over the years, and by the time we come to Frye’s late notebooks, the ogdoad undergoes two additional transformations. The first of these results from Frye’s study of the Bible having become two separate volumes. On the first page of Notebook 47 we are confronted with a rather cryptic list of hieratic codes and book abbreviations. Deciphering the code cannot be done with certainty, but it appears that Frye initially takes The Great Code and Words with Power to be, respectively, Anticlimax and Rencontre, thus bringing to completion the first half of the ogdoad. But then there is a second hieroglyph, where it is clear that The Great Code and Words with Power are taken to be the beginning of the second sequence of eight, Mirage and Paradox respectively. That would leave Ignoramus and Twilight to be the last two books of the entire sequence. One of these, as we know from Notebook 44, Frye intends to be the Utopia or social models book. For the eighth book—Twilight—he does entertain the notion of writing a book on communication, but the most intriguing proposal for the last book he plans to write is what he calls his anagogic book, a book of aphorisms.

The desire to complete a book of aphorisms emerges from a dozen or so entries in Notebooks 44 and 50. “I wonder, Frye writes, “if I could be permitted to write my Twilight book, 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.” 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. Frye even proposes several models for his anagogic book: Anatole France’s Jardin d’Épicure, a series of learned reflections on sundry topics; Dmitry Merezkovsky’s Atlantis/Europe, Nietzsche’s Gaya Scienza, Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave: A Word Cycle by Palinurus; or the final book might be modeled, Frye muses, on Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations. “I wouldn’t want to plan such a book,” Frye writes, “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. 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.” “Four Essays,” the subtitle of Anatomy of Criticism, hints at the conventions of the anatomy as a genre, and “Quiet Consummation” was the title of a novel that he planned to write, in fact began writing, in the 1940s. He even speaks of writing a Bardo novel, resurrecting another fantasy from the 1940s. For Twilight, then, Frye is looking for a form that will combine the creative and the critical—something aphoristic, anagogic, erudite, imaginative, even fictional.

The striking 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,” and the notebooks are a Promethean exercise in uninhibited writing and metaphor-building. The notebooks in the present volumes are, of course, not Twilight, not the anagogic book of aphorisms that Frye dreamed about—”‘my own’ book of pensées,” as he calls it. But it is possible that the core of Twilight would have come from a selection of these late 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,” possibility moves in the direction of likelihood.

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