Denham Intro: CW 23, Anatomy Notebooks

Preface and Introduction to Northrop Frye’s Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism”

Robert D. Denham

[from Northrop Frye’s Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism.” Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. Collected Works of Northrop Frye, vol. 23]


This is the seventh and penultimate volume of Frye’s notebooks to appear in the Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Those unfamiliar with the form and intent of Frye’s notebooks can find those matters discussed at some length in the introductions to the volumes already published: Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks, 1982–1990: Architecture of the Spiritual World (2 vols.), The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye, 1964–1972: The Critical Comedy, Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts, Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance, and Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on the Renaissance. The notebooks in the present collection were written over the course of more than a dozen years. Frye began writing in Notebook 7 in the late 1940s and the last half of Notebook 18, which was begun about the time Frye had completed the manuscript for Anatomy of Criticism in 1956, was begun about 1960 and continues at least two years beyond that. Had my co-editor Michael Dolzani and I not decided to keep each notebook as a discrete unit, part of Notebook 18 could well have been included in The “Third Book” Notebooks. In any event, it provides a transition to that notebook volume. Most of the material in the present notebooks, however, was written before 1956 and relates to Anatomy of Criticism.

Because some of the notebooks are difficult to date precisely, arranging them according to strict chronology is difficult. Nevertheless, I have let Notebooks 7 and 18 serve as bookends for Notebooks 37, 38, 35 and 36, which is the chronological sequence as best as can be determined. (No significance should be attached to the notebook numbers themselves, which were simply assigned sequentially when I catalogued the notebooks in 1992.) Between Notebooks 38 and 35 are Frye’s holograph notes for chapter three of Anatomy of Criticism, along with a chart, written on the front and back of a luncheon program for Lester B. Pearson’s installation as chancellor of Victoria University. Presumably Frye worked out his chart during the installation service itself on 4 February 1952. Because the notebooks often extend over a period of years and because Frye wrote in more than one notebook during a given time, the dates of the notebooks often overlap. Following the first six notebooks is a group of eleven very brief notebooks, ranging from about 300 to about 3000 words and bound in manila wrappers with green cloth spines—what Frye called his “sermon books.” He numbered the front cover of seven of these, the number standing for the particular chapter of Anatomy of Criticism as he conceived it at the time—the late 1940s or early 1950s. These eleven notebooks are arranged according to the alphabetical system used to identify the “series 30” notebooks when they were catalogued in 1992. Most of the series 30 notebooks include cancelled drafts of Frye’s lectures, articles, and books—material that has been excluded from the present volume.

I have transcribed the notebooks with the intent of reproducing exactly what Frye wrote, retaining his own spellings, capital letters, and punctuation, even when his practice on these matters varies. There are two exceptions: I have regularized his use of double quotation marks with periods and commas, following the usual North American practice, and I have italicized the words and phrases he underlined.

Frye occasionally used an asterisk to mark the place where he wanted to insert a later comment. These later comments appear at the end of the entry itself, in a paragraph following the entry, at the end of the page, or in a separate paragraph several entries removed from the original asterisk. For ease of reference I have regularized these by putting all of the material marked by an asterisk at the end of the entry containing the original asterisk.

Editorial additions are in square brackets. These include paragraph numbers and question marks for words that I have been unable to decipher (question mark only) or that are conjectures (question mark following the inference). I 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 refers to this project as his ogdoad, the eight parts being Liberal, Tragicomedy, Anticlimax, Rencontre, Mirage, Paradox, Ignoramus, and Twilight. When Frye uses one of his shorthand symbols, I have given its name in square brackets following the symbol, though again I have not repeated the name if the symbol reappears within a single paragraph.

In citing the notebooks in this volume I have used a shortened form that incorporates the notebook number and the paragraph or note number. Thus, “NB 18.58” refers to the Notebook 18, paragraph 58, and NB 7, n. 192 refers to note 192 of Notebook 7. In the endnotes for a given notebook, references both to paragraphs and to notes within that notebook omit the notebook number. They are of the form “See par. 18, above” and “See n. 84, below.” I have replaced Frye’s own square brackets with braces: { }. For Frye’s published works, I have given the citation for both the original publication and, following a semicolon, to the page number in the volumes of the Collected Works that have thus far appeared. Thus ” FS, 428; 414″ refers to the page number to the Princeton edition of Fearful Symmetry, and then to the page number in volume 14 of the Collected Works.


The notebooks for Anatomy of Criticism trace Frye’s labyrinthine and often fitful journey to bring that book to completion. Unlike his other major books— Fearful Symmetry, The Great Code, and Words with Power—the Anatomy was created in part from essays previously written. The first hint we have of Frye’s contemplating the use of material already published is in Notebook 7.99, where he considers beginning the book with his 1949 essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” In the “Prefatory Statements” to the Anatomy he lists thirteen other essays, written over a twelve-year period, that he revised, expanded, and incorporated into the Anatomy (vii–viii). He also borrowed material from more than a half-dozen other published essays and reviews and from at least one unpublished paper. The specific appropriations, which represent well over half of the material in the Anatomy, have been explained in some detail in the introduction to the Collected Works edition of Frye’s Anatomy (Collected Works, vol. 22) and need not be repeated here. The struggle Frye underwent to organize these various parts so as to achieve a whole, to fill in the blank spaces, and to develop new material, is a primary feature of the present volume. Much of this process is also recorded in Frye’s diaries from 1950 to 1955 (Collected Works, vol. 8).

How Frye used his notebooks when actually writing the Anatomy is not completely certain, but it is clear that he often wrote in the notebooks alongside his book drafts. When he instructs himself, for example, to “transfer all the guck you’ve got in the present 3 to the archetypal section of 2” (NB 36.16), he appears to be referring to drafts of chapters he has already written. He is certainly doing so when he writes, “At present I say in the opening of 3 that the structural forms of ptg. [painting] are analogous only to plane geometry, not identical with them” (NB 36.153). Frye sometimes returned to his Anatomy of Criticism notebooks after the book was published. Following entry 187 of Notebook 7, he notes, for example, that he should “look into this note again: 1958,” which is the year following the appearance of the book.

In Notebook 7 Frye remarks in several places about Milton’s avoiding the frenzy of premature activity in writing Paradise Lost. Such avoidance involves surrendering the will to the imagination, letting one’s work emerge as if from the unconscious: “Milton fell in with the Renaissance-Goethe conception of art as the natural supernatural growth out of nature, & didn’t try to write it, but just allowed it to write itself” (NB 7.75). The same point could be made about Frye’s Anatomy, which was ten years in the making. The notebooks may sometimes give the impression of a desperate rush toward completion, but Frye realized that Carlyle’s theory of work was wrong and that the most fruitful way to proceed was to adopt Samuel Butler’s theory of the habit and practice of writing and a theory of leisure that would permit his book gradually to emerge. “Earthly leisure,” Frye writes, “is the place where vision is born” (NB 7.81). Sometimes, however, we get the opposite impression. The beginning of Notebook 7, with its focus on Tasso and Ariosto, on Dante and Milton, consists of speculations for this anticipated study of the epic. Frye’s plans for the book are pure free-play, but they become at times almost frenetic, as one after another of his ideas for a study of the epic follow in rapid succession. He pauses occasionally to engage in a bit of archetype spotting in Frobenius, Silberer, and Jung. He develops a preliminary five-chapter outline (NB 7.36) and then a more elaborate twelve-chapter one (NB 7.60). Notebook 7, like all of Frye’s notebooks, is discontinuous and often mysteriously opaque, as Frye occasionally recognizes: “I wish I knew what the hell I was getting at” (NB 7.97), “I hate writing amorphous notes” (NB 7.115), and, more bluntly, “This and the former note are mostly bullshit” (NB 7.189).

The notebooks represent the fragments of Frye’s thinking process, and fragmentation in both knowledge and experience was, from Frye’s perspective, one of the chief features of the modern world. He even says in an as yet unpublished review that fragmentation

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 only the 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.[1]

Frye calls this “comminution,” literally “a pulverizing” (“comminution” and its cognates appear thirty-seven times in the present notebooks), and he frequently calls the comminuted forms kernels—parable, aphorism, commandment, oracle, prophecy, proverb, and emblem. Comminution is also associated with sparagmos, and Frye even speaks at one point of the comminuted forms eventually becoming an anatomy (NB 35.70)—the dissection of the total form. But in spite of what he says about not believing in “the arguments for synthesis,” his drive is always toward unifying the disparate, toward making a whole from the parts. So if comminution describes the temper of the age—Eliot’s fragments shored up against his ruins—Frye’s goal is in fact synthesis. In the notebooks he is quite deliberate and self-conscious about what lies before him, and, as with his other writing projects, he ceaselessly turns over one organizing idea after another in order to develop the parts and get them in their proper order.

Not far into Notebook 7 Frye writes, “I think FS [ Fearful Symmetry] ends my ‘lyric’ period (long choosing & beginning late) and my ‘epic’ one, begun nel mezzo del cammin, begins here. The psychological difference is connected with the doctrine of timing, which, as I see more clearly now, is inseparably attached to the Renaissance conception of art & nature” (NB 7.52). By “epic” period Frye is referring to the first of three volumes of a projected study that he would shortly outline in his application for a Guggenheim fellowship (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Renaissance Literature, 3–5). This, as we know from his preface to the Anatomy as well, was to be a study of Spenser and other forms of the Renaissance epic. And Frye was literally nel mezzo del cammin, having completed half of the proverbial three-score and ten in July 1949 when he launched his plans for his next book.

In Notebook 7.109, written perhaps in early 1950, Frye begins to speculate on a larger project, of which Spenser is only one part of a study of the epic and the epic only one part of a larger anatomy of forms. The study will begin with what he calls “the axis and the encyclopaedia” of symbolism, a grammar of symbols as found in psychology, theology, occultism, anthropology, and history (the axis), and the nature symbolism gathered from his reading of Hartland, Frobenius, Jung, Frazer, Mackenzie, Bayley, and others (the encyclopedia). This will serve as what Frye calls the “Preliminary Statement,” and it will be followed by a study of drama, epic, lyric, and prose. He will eventually get around to Spenser, but in connection with Shakespeare and Milton. All of this will amount to three parts of the ogdoad, Frye’s name for his lifelong, eight-part writing project. The Preliminary Statement will be, to use his curious names for the first three parts: Liberal, the study of drama; Tragicomedy, the study of epic and lyric; and Anticlimax, the study of prose forms. Here we have, then, an embryonic form of what would eventually become the second, third, and fourth essays of the Anatomy. The plan would take another five or six years to complete itself, but it is clear that Frye has begun to pull back simply from a study of Spenser, planning instead a much more expansive theoretical work. He had by this time already published “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1949), which would become the backbone of the Polemical Introduction, and the core of the theory of modes, the First Essay, would appear in 1953 as “Towards a Theory of Cultural History.” In the entries that follow (NB 7.110 ff.) Frye begins to fill in some of the details of this large project. A number of the thematic emphases that make their way into the Anatomy begin to get articulated: the grammar of anagogy, equivocal meaning, the muteness of the arts, criticism as the perception of total form, the analogy between mathematics and literature, the banning of value judgments from criticism, the theory of allegory, literal and polysemous meaning, the Biblical monomyth, cyclical rhythms, forms of comedy and romance, and the framework of narrative (mythos) and meaning (dianoia), among numerous others. Even the notes Frye scribbles on the back of a luncheon program, the fourth unit in the present collection, contain an embryonic form of the opening pages of the theory of modes.

By the time Frye gets to Notebook 7.156, the shape of the massive scheme is projected thus:

My present conception of my mission is as follows: that my first three books, L [Liberal], [Tragicomedy] & Ʌ [Anticlimax], exist in two forms, inductive & deductive. That the inductive form of L is a study of epic, & may take in any number of books (including of course FS) from the Bible to Joyce. The inductive form of is a study of Shakespearean comedy—I don’t know why I have a great variety of L compulsions & only one one: the way it grew up, I suppose. The inductive form of Ʌ [Anticlimax] would presumably be a study of prose. The deductive L is a general discussion of the structure of literature and the grammar of criticism. It takes the salient points of structure noted in my previous books & outlines the verbal universe, inserting the essential point of the One Word into the stage represented at present by my colloquium paper [“The Function of Criticism at the present Time”]. It includes the work I’ve done on prose and, presumably, my conception of the Word as the mental structure of society (university & symposium ideas). The deductive (possibly the deductive books are really V [Mirage], [Paradox] & [Ignoramus] respectively, though I hesitate to say so) is the mythology of literature & the rhetoric of criticism, an integration of the Word. The deductive Ʌ [Anticlimax] is the dialectic of literature & the logic of criticism, expounding metaphysics as a part of the verbal universe & the verbum as the λóγος [logos], or the verbal universe as the logical universe. The present inductive L plan is to collect notes for a study of epic, beginning with Spenser & not worrying too much over where it’s going.

Here Frye anticipates that his new “Liberal” (Fearful Symmetry was the original Liberal) will include material from the books he intends to publish on Shakespearean comedy (Tragicomedy) and prose (Anticlimax) (“my previous books”). What he refers to as L in this entry, especially in its deductive form, turned out to be Anatomy of Criticism, Tragicomedy and Anticlimax never having materialized in the way they are outlined here. The inductive L is essentially the never-realized book on Spenser, which, although not as yet abandoned, has moved from the forefront. Then following Notebook 7.187, Frye begins to experiment with schemes, complete with diagrams, for his theory of genres, that essay of the Anatomy that caused him the most consternation. By the time he gives a fairly complete outline of the book in Notebook 7.210—which includes what would become the polemical introduction and the theories of symbols, archetypes, and genres—Spenser and the epic have almost completely disappeared. And when we get to the last entry in Notebook 7, Frye proposes yet another scheme, a six-part version of Liberal that will treat mythical narrative in the sacred and secular scriptures, naive romance, epic, sentimental romance, mimetic fiction, and ironic myth. This would modulate into the theory of modes in the First Essay.

Notebook 37 begins with expansive plans for the Second and Third Essays, but this is an early notebook, begun in 1949, and the projected topics for these essays are much more ambitious than what Frye eventually produced. Thus, “The general shape of the Second Essay seems to be an elaboration of the four parts of functional analysis: in other words an investigation of philosophy from a hypothetical point of view (ambiguity), of history (agon of word and nature-reason), of language itself (if not included in philosophy), of the relation of literature to other arts (i.e. of the one universe) and of transcending the one universe. . . . Next comes a functional analysis of literature in relation to history” (NB 37.2, 5). And then:

I see dimly a “Third Essay” shaping up, in which the Literature & Thought study has become a straight view of the numerical universe of reason, with music its hypothesis; the Literature & Society one a view of the biologico-physical view of “nature,” with sculpture the hypothesis of biology or natura naturans & painting that of physics or natura naturata, both being contained in architecture, the real form of nature; and a farewell to poetry. Perhaps this is what my chapter, to get back to it, adumbrates. I guess here is the place where I study the musical & pictorial elements in poetry, compare the encyclopaedic forms of symphony, epic, mandala, & suggest something of the mystical use of the one Word (Cabbalism & the Clhandogya [Chandogya]), the one tone (harmony of the spheres) & the one outline (Giotto’s O). In India they’re all spherical (“Aum” is the circumferential noise the mouth makes), & the one number in mathematics would be zero. So sculpture would be a ball, with echo answering balls. The farewell to poetry, if I did it, would be a definitive study of the myth in which all religions are one. This delimiting of horizons is tiresome, but I suppose helps to define the landscape between. (NB 37.6)

This appears to be an expanding rather than a delimiting of horizons. We even get a projected study of comparative religion (NB 7.11), along with notes on Andrew Lang’s study of mythology and religion, and another study on nineteenth-century thought, growing out of Frye’s course in Victorian prose writers. In any event, Frye will travel a long way during the next five or so years before settling on myth as the containing form for the Third Essay. By Notebook 37.31, which was written several years later, he has determined that the Second Essay will spring from the theory of polysemous meaning (which in fact it did), and much of the rest of the notebook is given over to exploring the levels of meaning in criticism, though not yet in literature, a topic not addressed until Notebook 38.

In Notebook 38.21 Frye reveals that he has a fairly clear view of the overall plan for at least the first half of the book, which he is now calling An Essay on Critical Theory, and he even toys with various forms of a Latin dedication to his wife Helen. Notebook 38 contains as well some rather late speculations on genre theory, though they reveal that the anatomy of specific forms did not spring full blown from the head of Jove. Frye struggles especially with his classification of the lyric. In Notebook 38.19 he writes, “I’m leery of classifying, as opposed to clarifying a tradition, & of classifying by subject-matter, unless it conditions the form.” Or again, “I have repeatedly been haunted by a sense that the bases of classification of specific forms were different for each genre, & that I was wrong in trying to assimilate all four to the wheel of archetypes, merely because that worked out so well for drama” (NB 35.5). Eighty entries later he adds, “[T]he lyric may be the paradise of poetry, but it is the Augean stables of poetics” (NB 35.85). Sometimes Frye organizes his specific forms of the lyric along a straight horizontal sequence; at other times, they form a cycle with cardinal points, like his schema for the forms of drama. Throughout we find numerous and often elaborate diagrams, charts, and tables, which became a feature of the schematic thinking of the notebooks.

In Notebook 35 (ca. 1953) Frye has doubts about the book’s organization, and he continues to float numerous other arrangements (there are dozens of them), including the possibility of a separate book, A Second Essay on Poetics, that would include material on the levels of criticism (NB 35.7). About halfway through Notebook 35 Frye proposes this outline:

Polemical Introduction
Part One: Table of Literary Elements.
Chapter One: Symbols. Modes
Chapter Two: Modes. Symbols
Chapter Three: Archetypes.
Part Two: Episodic Forms.
Chapter Four: Specific Forms of Drama. Encyc. Forms
Chapter Five: Specific Forms of Lyric. Genres
Part Three: The Sequence of Continuous Forms.
Chapter Six: Scripture, Romance and Epic. Rhet.
Chapter Seven: Prose Fiction
Chapter Eight: Satire & the Comminution of Forms.
Tentative Conclusion (35.69)

In the right-hand column here, which was added in pencil later, we come close to what finally emerged, the separate chapters on encyclopedic forms, genres, and rhetoric (or chapters 4 through 8 in the left-hand column) eventually being collapsed to form the Fourth Essay.

In early 1953 Frye issues himself the following memorandum: “by the end of February have a complete draft of the Introduction, Chapter One & Chapter Two typed out. Have Chapter Three done at least as far as the comic myth. By the end of March have a draft of Three, an outline of Four, and a draft of at least a large part of Five. By the end of April have an outline of Six and a draft of the Conclusion. Incidentally, I think I’ll add Conclusion notes to this book. That will leave Four & Six to write, starting May 1. These ‘drafts’ are to be thought of as penultimate, the versions (without footnotes) just before those to be sent to the publisher” (NB 35.148). Sometime later—probably still in 1953—Frye writes: “I think now of six chapters, plus introduction and conclusion. Introduction as now. The cultural history one then becomes the first chapter, not the sixth. I’ve got to have it early, yet the sequence of the others seems fixed. This is, of course: Two—Symbolism; Three—Anagogy; Four—Archetypes; Five—Genres. Then the proper Rhetoric chapter comes as Six—it seems to follow Five naturally: anyway, I found myself drifting into Six when I was trying to write Five. Then the Conclusion follows as I’d originally thought of it, and as a contemporary-thought Spengler-Marx-Thomist-Kierkegaard summary” (NB 36.13). Throughout Notebook 36 Frye continues to dither and doodle about the final shape of the Anatomy, but here he is getting close to it. He eventually combined what he calls the anagogy and archetype chapters into the Third Essay, and the genre and rhetoric chapters into the Fourth Essay, producing the four “chapter” form of the Anatomy, to which he added the Polemical Introduction and Tentative Conclusion.

Now I’ve wasted so much time doodling in the past ten years that I hesitate to doodle once more, but actually I do believe that the ten years’ doodle is over, and that ten plus years of productivity ought to succeed. . . . So I shall have to keep writing the essays, as far as possible, one at a time. I know that if I can keep my health & a modicum of leisure I already have it in me to produce twelve essays which will be to literary criticism what the twelve books of Paradise Lost are to poetry. Well, to avoid hybris, let’s make it four books of essays and the four books of Paradise Regained. (NB 36.148)

All this is preceded by elaborate plans for the next four books, beginning with Liberal all over again. In Notebook 38.59–61 we get a brief draft of an introductory statement. Notebook 38.64 contains a twelve-part outline, which will require only a slight reshuffling and consolidation to arrive at the Anatomy‘s final arrangement. We get a projection of this final form in Notebook 38.85, though the order of the last two essays will be eventually reversed from what is outlined here: modes, symbols, genres, myths. A similar projection appears in Notebook 35.16. Our hope that Frye will have finally arrived at the containing form remains only a hope. Even he seems to want to cure himself from an almost abnormal effort to get the structure right: “I’m suffering from schematosis,” he remarks (NB 38.9).

We follow Frye then, often with great difficulty, along the winding path of false starts, revised plans, and new beginnings—which is typical of all of his notebook writing. Some plans are condensed; others are Byzantine in their complexity. The notebooks do contain here and there brief snatches of drafts (not reproduced in the present volume), but in the absence of draft typescripts we really have no sense, as is also the case with Frye’s other major books, of what transpired between the often repetitive musings found here and the final typescript he sent to Princeton University Press.

In Notebook 18.50 Frye writes that Anatomy “was a four-book idea that collapsed into one, & this [his next project], starting as a one-book idea on the same general scale, may expand into four. If not, there isn’t any four, except as books to read.” As explained in the preface, Notebook 18 is a transitional notebook, and it is closer in form to the free play of The “Third Book Notebooks and The Late Notebooks, containing speculations on all manner of topics: metaphor; the dandy; music, outlines for The Well-Tempered Critic; an elaborate circle of fifths projection for Liberal, Tragicomedy, and Anticlimax; the Romantic topocosm; plans for lectures on Milton (Centennial Lectures, University of Western Ontario) and Shakespeare (Bampton Lectures, Columbia University); and so on. One idea always triggers another. In one of his great understatements Frye writes, “Analogies to everything spring to mind” (NB 35.9).

The series of notebooks numbered 30d and following are much more restricted in scope. Notebook 30d focuses on the theory of modes, though this material is not yet fully differentiated from the theories of symbols, myths, and genres. Notebook 30e centres on the theory of symbols (Second Essay), though includes entries toward the end on archetypes. The headnotes to the “30 series” notebooks, which are quite sketchy and difficult to date, give a general indication of which essay in the Anatomy they relate to.

“The reason why I confuse myself with such a clutter of notebooks,” Frye tells himself at one point, “is that my ideas for this book don’t fundamentally change, but things like chapter-numbers & arrangements do” (NB 35.143). That is hardly an accurate account of the contours of the Anatomy notebooks, where we see his ideas continually changing, but it does suggest, given the discontinuity of the notebook form, that they are not so much a series of manuscripts to be read as to be consulted, with the aid of the index. For all of their mind-numbing prolixity, they do contain numerous passages of instruction and delight, and throughout the Anatomy notebooks even the smallest details are often evidence, in Stevens’s phrase, of the “large-mannered motions to his mythy mind.”


[1] Review of Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 3., published in Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings, CW 30, 363–8.

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