Denham Intro: CW 3, Student Essays

Preface and Introduction to Northrop Frye’s Student Essays

[from Northrop Frye’s Student Essays, 1932–1938. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. Collected Works of Northrop Frye, 3.]


The student essays of Northrop Frye were among the large body of manuscripts deposited in the Victoria University Library at the University of Toronto following Frye’s death in 1991. The essays collected here include all of the extant papers Frye wrote for courses during his final two years at Victoria College (1931–33) and his three years at Emmanuel College (1933–36). Two papers—one on prose fiction and the other on Calvin—are of uncertain date and provenance, but they seem to come from his Toronto student days or shortly thereafter. Two additional essays can be traced to Frye’s time at Oxford. I have not included “The Social Significance of Music,” a 1935 talk Frye presented to a group in Toronto called the Society of Incompatibles, because practically all of that paper repeats material from part 3 of Frye’s essay on Romanticism, written two years earlier. I have also excluded an untitled holograph manuscript on Chaucer which Frye wrote when he was at Merton College: most of that paper was incorporated into the essay on Chaucer that is included here. The headnote for each paper records the course or other occasion for which the paper was written, as best I can determine that information, and gives the location of the paper in the Northrop Frye Papers at the Victoria University Library.

Frye’s published works were seldom annotated, and when he did provide notes they were often sketchy at best. This is a practice that began with his student essays. The notes in the present volume focus on Frye’s sources—the passages he quotes or paraphrases and the works which he refers to or relies on. The annotations for prose works are ordinarily to editions that are readily accessible, not necessarily the ones Frye himself consulted, although these are sometimes noted; for poetry, I have generally provided only titles, dates, and line numbers. This procedure should enable readers who want to consult Frye’s sources to do so fairly easily. In a few cases editing conventions have been adopted for particular essays; these are recorded in the headnotes. The annotations provided by Frye himself are identified with “[NF]” following the note. For seven of the essays Frye provided bibliographies. As these exist in various degrees of completeness, I have supplemented the information he gives, either within square brackets in the bibliography itself or in a separate note. All other material in square brackets is an editorial addition. Information for three of the notes was provided by Jean O’Grady and for two by Marc Plamondon: my debts to them are recorded following the notes for which they were responsible.

I have regularized Frye’s spelling, capitalization, and punctuation to conform to current conventions. The titles of works, which Frye sometimes underlined, have been italicized throughout. Frye wrote swiftly, and it is likely that for some of the essays the first draft was the final draft. Five of his Emmanuel College essays, for example, were written during a four-day period. These essays, then, though obviously the fruit of considerable thought, are not the product of careful revision, which was to be Frye’s later practice; consequently, the syntax occasionally goes awry. But on the principle that it is better to retain a sense of the original dispatch, I have resisted the temptation to rewrite Frye’s prose, except in a few cases where problems of agreement, parallel structure, and the like seemed to call for correction. All such substantive changes, including the occasional addition of an omitted word, are noted in the list of emendations. Some of the essays do contain Frye’s holograph corrections and additions. I have retained the changes that he himself made to the typescripts, though I have not noted these changes unless there was some reason for doing so. Marginal comments and other markings made by Frye’s instructors have been recorded in the notes.

All of Frye’s sources that I could locate have been identified. It should perhaps be noted that, as a student, Frye was often rather careless in following the conventions of scholarly practice. In these essays he frequently misquotes his sources and occasionally gives an incorrect citation, refers to book titles that do not exist, puts paraphrases within quotation marks, and cites sources that argue the opposite of what he claims; and he sometimes gives the impression of having consulted primary texts when in fact he is drawing upon secondary sources. The misquotations have been silently corrected, and the other problems in his handling of his sources are recorded in the notes.



The twenty-two essays collected here, which come from Northrop Frye’s student days, were written over the course of seven years, from 1932 to 1938. Three of the papers are from his last year at Victoria College; fifteen were written for his courses at Emmanuel College, the theology school of Victoria University. Another paper, a talk on Calvin, was written while Frye was at Emmanuel College, though not for an Emmanuel course. Still another, on the forms of prose fiction, cannot be dated with certainty, but it appears to come from the late 1930s. The final two essays are from Frye’s years at Merton College: the first is a paper on Eliot that Frye read at the Bodley Club in 1937, and the second, a talk on Chaucer he presented at the Graduate English Club in Toronto in 1938, is an expanded version of an essay he had written for his Merton tutor, Edmund Blunden, two years earlier.

The Emmanuel papers represent a large percentage of the writing Frye did (while a student) in theology, but what has survived from his time at Victoria College and from his Oxford years is only a fraction of what he wrote. The record of his Merton College essays is incomplete, but we do know that during his first year there he wrote two additional papers on Chaucer, one on Wyatt, and one on Fulke Greville. He may have written on Sidney and on Lyly as well.[1] During the tutorials of his second year he read papers on Crashaw and Herbert, on Vaughan, Traherne, Herrick, Marvell, and Cowley, on the Dark Ages, on the character book, on King Lear, and on the history of the language; and he also presented a paper to the Bodley Club entitled “A Short History of the Devil.”[2] Why these papers were not preserved is somewhat puzzling, especially since Frye had written to Helen Kemp that his Oxford essays were “mostly publishable,” adding that he had “collected a lot of material for future books.”[3] Yet Frye never seemed particularly interested in keeping any versions of his writing except the published form: the different drafts of the Blake manuscript that he circulated for almost a decade have, except for three chapters of one version, disappeared, and the drafts of essays and books that are found in his notebooks represent only a very small portion of his published work. But the regret we feel over the disappearance of much of his early writing is mitigated by our having those papers that did escape the dustbin.

Frye was a person of uncommon gifts, and very little that came from his pen, even his juvenilia, is without interest. These early essays reveal the growth of a young writer who often has perceptive things to say about the topics he addresses. They also provide a much more complete picture than we have had about the roots of his later work. Frye often remarked that his writing kept circling back to the same issues, and these essays illustrate that his insights into a number of the questions that were to preoccupy him for more than sixty years came to him quite early. They illustrate as well the degree to which he matured as a writer over the course of seven years. “Writing,” Frye remarked in a 1934 letter to Helen Kemp, the classmate whom he married three years later, “is an exciting, precise, subtle, difficult business, like a piano recital, but more spontaneous and creative.”[4] In a letter written the following year he wished he and Kemp, who was studying art in London, could be together so he could lead her “gently away from the abstract colorless words that crackle to the concrete ones that resound.”[5] There are many paragraphs in the present essays, especially the early ones, that make us wish Frye had been more attentive to his own advice about precise and concrete diction. For all of Frye’s skill in constructing the periodic sentence and his obvious attention to the rhythm of his prose, his writing is often overly dense and, as one of his professors remarked in a note, “suffers from the half-truth of generalization.” Still, whatever the faults of the Victoria College essays, it is worth reminding ourselves that they were written by one who had not yet reached his majority. And seven years later it is clear that Frye has begun to discover the style he perfected in his mature work.


As a second-year student at Victoria College Frye was already deeply immersed in Blake, and not long after that his knowledge of the Bible was becoming, as he wrote to Helen Kemp in May 1934, “sound and accurate.”[6] Blake and the Bible, when not at the foreground of Frye’s later writing, were always hovering in the margins. But the most important influence during these early years was Spengler. In 1930 Frye had happened upon The Decline of the West in the library at Hart House, the students’ recreational and cultural centre at the University of Toronto, and he had reread it during the summer of 1931 while staying at the YMCA in Edmonton. In an interview Frye remarked that after reading The Decline of the West he

was absolutely enraptured with it, and ever since I’ve been wondering why, because Spengler had one of those muzzy, right-wing, Teutonic, folkish minds. He was the most stupid bastard I ever picked up. But nevertheless, I found his book an inspired book, and finally I’ve more or less figured out, I think, what I got from Spengler. There’s a remark in Malraux’s Voices of Silence to the effect that he thought that Spengler’s book started out as a meditation on the destiny of art forms and then expanded from there. And what it expanded into is the key idea that has always been on my mind, the idea of interpenetration, which I later found in Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, the notion that things don’t get reconciled, but everything is everywhere at once. Wherever you are is the center of everything. And Spengler showed how that operated in history, so I threw out the muzzy Teuton and kept those two intuitions, which I felt were going to be very central.[7]

One of Frye’s first critical essays was a defence of Spengler against the attacks of Wyndham Lewis, and over the years he kept returning to Spengler.[8] Spengler makes his way explicitly into eight of the papers in this volume, and his influence is present in at least four more. In his paper on Augustine (no. 10), Frye refers to Spengler’s Decline as “perhaps the most important book yet produced by the twentieth century.” What attracted Frye to Spengler was not simply the meditation in the Decline on the destiny of art forms and the idea of interpenetration. It was also Spengler’s view of the organic growth of cultures and his ability to assimilate a large body of material, to design a mythical structure from it, and to represent his vision of history schematically or creatively. As Frye was to say forty years later, “If The Decline of the West were nothing else, it would still be one of the world’s great Romantic poems.”[9]

Spengler, then, as Frye reported in a notebook from the late 1940s, was one of two thinkers who “focused the subject matter of practically all my theology essays.”[10] The other was Sir James Frazer. While other students at Emmanuel College were reading the German theologians, Frye immersed himself in The Golden Bough, especially volume 4, The Dying God, volumes 5 and 6, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, and volume 9, The Scapegoat. In his paper on “The Jewish Background of the New Testament” (no. 6), Frye calls The Golden Bough “perhaps the most important and influential book written by an Englishman since The Origin of Species.” What attracted Frye to Frazer, whose imprint can be found in seven of the essays collected here, was the positive value the latter attached to myth and the implications of The Golden Bough for the study of symbolism: Frye came to see that the framework for religious studies need not be restricted simply to theology and history. In his essay on prose fiction (no. 19), Frye refers to The Golden Bough as “one of the greatest anatomies in the English language,” meaning that Frazer had a literary significance for Frye as well. Later he would call Frazer’s massive anatomy “a kind of grammar of the human imagination,”[11] the syntax of which Frye spent his entire career diagramming.

The month before he was to return to Toronto from his home in Moncton, New Brunswick, to begin his fourth year at Victoria College, Frye revealed at least part of his objective for the year to Helen Kemp: “I want Romanticism for my topic for Philosophy thesis and Browning for [Pelham] Edgar, and I want to get to headquarters and make sure of getting them. I have already done quite a bit of work on Browning—I suppose, take him all in all, he’s my favorite poet. I have very definite heroisms in literature—Donne, Milton, Bunyan, Swift, Blake, Dickens, Browning, and Shaw—and I like writing about them.”[12] The “work on Browning” Frye refers to, an essay written during the fall term of his third year for Pelham Edgar’s course on “English Poetry of the Nineteenth Century,” is one of the three papers that have survived from his Victoria College years. The other two, both written during his final year, are his romanticism thesis, written for George Brett’s course in “Modern Philosophy,” and the essay on primitivism, written for Edgar’s course on “Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature.” These are the first three papers in the present collection.

Frye’s interest in primitivism, that cluster of ideas that gained significance in the eighteenth century as a precursor to romanticism, developed into a long-standing attachment. Primitivism was the set of attitudes neither Augustan nor romantic that prevailed during the age of Blake, and Frye was already deeply engaged with Blake’s songs and prophecies.[13] Some of the ideas presented in this early paper (no. 1) were developed in Fearful Symmetry,[14] and the paper foreshadows a number of themes that were to preoccupy Frye throughout his career: his defence of primitive and popular literary conventions (in Anatomy of Criticism, following Schiller, he calls these “naive”); his conviction that the originality of the great poets was a function of their consciousness of origins; and his interest in the relation between the creative and the critical. The Decline of the West is written all over the third paragraph of the essay on “Primitivism,” where Frye speaks of the new soul in the metropolis pulling up its roots and experiencing a sense of freedom. Here we can detect perhaps an autobiographical note, as the exhilaration of leaving the “small culture-town” of Moncton for the independence afforded by Toronto was something Frye himself felt as a young man. He often returned to the themes of “The Basis of Primitivism,” later writing two essays on the age of sensibility, one in the mid-1950s and the other toward the end of his career.[15]

The long paper on “Romanticism” (no. 2) is the first sustained instance we have of what were to become several of Frye’s trademarks: his conceptual expansiveness, his ability to organize a large body of ideas, and his schematic way of thinking. Here Frye tackles practically the entire range of romanticism as a cultural force, not a fashionable topic in the 1930s when Eliot’s classicism and the new humanism’s anti-romantic doctrines were still a powerful presence in criticism. After an introduction that draws on Spengler’s notion of organic cultural growth and decline, Frye examines romantic philosophy from Rousseau to Bergson and Spengler himself, romantic music, and romantic literature, concluding with a glance at the political contexts of romanticism. In a note scribbled on the title-page Frye apologizes to Professor George Brett for the necessary but unmitigated evil of the length of his essay, this remark having been preceded by the wry confession that he has “not had time to deal with the painting or with Continental literature.” The omission no doubt pleased Brett, who was faced with a ninety-four-page, marginless typescript.

The essay is an audacious undertaking, especially for a twenty-year-old, and Frye’s reach often exceeds his grasp. He begins to discover his voice in his discussion of music and literature in the third and fourth parts of the essay, where the prose is clearer and somewhat more concrete. But in the first two parts, except for the section on Nietzsche, the prose is overly dense, galloping along at a breathless pace; the abstractions are seldom illustrated and never documented; and the voice of authority Frye projects is often unconvincing. In his account of music one feels that Frye is on more familiar territory,[16] but in most of his account of romantic philosophy one is less sure, perhaps because most of the philosophic discussion comes from secondary sources. Still, the paper is a remarkable tour de force, and it contains the seeds of what were to become a number of Frye’s basic principles.

The fundamental dialectic of the essay is the space-time opposition. “Obviously all cultural activity,” Frye announces, “is comprehended through the two ultimate data of time and space.” They are the “ultimate forms of perception.” Frye associates time and space with an extensive series of dialectical pairs: the blood and the reproductive faculty versus the sense and reasoning, being versus thought, feeling and intuition versus abstract systems, romanticism versus empiricism and positivism, history versus philosophy, dynamism versus stasis, narrative art versus pictorial art, the compulsion to action (morals) versus the compulsion to thought (logic), the religious period of culture versus the sceptical period, the creative versus the critical, architecture and music versus sculpture and drama, the lyric-essay versus fiction, philosophy of history versus scientific experiment, the world-as-will versus the world-as-idea, and so on. A number of the oppositions appear on the vertical and horizontal axes of the diagram in part 1, section III of the essay. There are various permutations of the dialectic, and the categories here, like the categories that developed in Frye’s later work, are fluid, even slippery. But they served Frye well over the years: time and space, the basic categories in the diagram just mentioned, are the principles that lie behind the separation of myth and metaphor, fictional and thematic, and a whole series of other bipolar divisions in Anatomy of Criticism and elsewhere. The space-time dialectic is everywhere in both Blake and Spengler, the latter of whom speaks of time as “a counterconception (Gegenbegriff) to space,”[17] but Frye was doubtless influenced as well by his readings in the history of philosophy, where time and space had been commonplace categories in philosophical discussion from the Greeks on.


Frye had entered Victoria College as a probationary student in the pass course, a nonspecialized program leading to the B.A. degree. But because of his high marks during his first year, he transferred to the more prestigious honour course his second year, choosing what was called “philosophy (English or history option).” Frye took only three honour courses in English, all from Pelham Edgar: Shakespeare his second year, English Poetry of the Nineteenth Century his third, and Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature his fourth. He had a heavy concentration in honour philosophy—seven of his eleven honour courses were in philosophy. But somewhat ironically, while we have two of the three papers he wrote for his English honour courses, only his romanticism paper has survived from his philosophy courses. Even if Frye read all or even most of the texts assigned for his philosophy courses, he would have had a substantial undergraduate background in philosophy.[18]

The paper on Browning (no. 3), written for Edgar’s nineteenth-century course, ranges far and wide, Frye finding that he cannot consider Browning’s poetry until he has located the poet in the cultural upheaval of the times and made an effort to show that Browning was a poet of Victorianism. The argument here meanders and the paragraphs are without much shape, but Frye eventually gets around to what he is mainly interested in: the music of Browning’s poetry. In the last half of the essay, as well as in part 3 of the paper on romanticism, Frye hammers out an early form of his ideas on the melody and harmony of poetry—ideas later elaborated, first in an early essay on “Music in Poetry,”[19] and later in an account of the generic rhythm of epos in the fourth essay of Anatomy of Criticism.

When Frye entered Emmanuel College in the fall of 1933, he was ambivalent about a career in the ministry. In a letter to Helen Kemp the previous summer he had said,

No, I don’t want to be a professor. Theoretically. In practice I should like it well enough. But there is something about such an eminently cultured occupation that would make me feel as though I were shirking something. A professor is, as I think I have said before, an orchid,—highly cultivated, but no roots in the ground. He deals with a crowd of half-tamed little savages who get no good out of him except intellectual training and, in some cases, the radiation of his personality. He is not a vital and essential force in a community of live people. He is not a worker in the elemental sense of that word. Most professors, to gain a reputation, specialize so intensely in their work that they are cut off even from the undergraduate. These are the pedants. The rest are not so cut off from reality, but they are cut off from life. Oh, well, you get the idea. The ministry is my “vocation,” etymologically. I have been “called” to it just as much as any blaspheming fool of an evangelist that ever bragged about what a sinner he was before he was converted. But that doesn’t mean that I am fitted for it, necessarily. It doesn’t mean that I am not deadly afraid of it and would rather do a hundred other things. . . . I wonder what those writers who talk about relentless and inexorable Fate would say to a man who had two Fates, pulling in opposite directions. The trouble is that I can’t quite figure out which one is God.[20]

By the time he was halfway through his theological studies Frye had figured it out. In January 1935 he wrote to Kemp, “The ministry, with its requirement of almost absolute versatility at an indefinitely high pitch, compelled me and yet finally frightened me away.”[21] But the decision not to become a United Church minister had little effect on Frye’s program of study. As John Ayre says, “Comparative theology and Bible studies all belonged to the same mythological universe as the literature of Blake.”[22] But the Emmanuel papers illustrate that the circumference of Frye’s vision continued to expand, encompassing by the end of his three years a large portion of what Vico called the verum factum, the world made by human beings—its literature, philosophy, theology, art, music, religious and political institutions. Still, the centre of this circumference was ultimately religious. Ample support for this view lies in Frye’s published works; the unpublished notebooks reveal even more clearly the religious base of Frye’s vision. While we await their publication, we now have his Emmanuel College essays, which served as a workshop for Frye to begin formulating his ideas about Christian symbolism, the katabatic and anabatic movements in the religious journey, the Incarnation (which would become for Frye the ultimate metaphor), and a philosophy of history, which, Frye assumes, must by definition have a religious base if it is to be universally applicable. The philosophy of history, he says in his essay on Augustine (no. 10), “is the ultimate theoretical activity of the human race, and can only be worked out by thinkers in the tradition of a true religion”; and in his essay on Calvin (no. 20), he remarks that “the most fundamental intellectual activity of the human race is a philosophy of history, an attempt to find a pattern in existence.”

One sees in these essays as well the development of what was to become Frye’s characteristic rhetorical mode, an approach he later described as similar to the act of standing back from the brush-strokes of a painting in order to see the large patterns. The only papers in this collection that amount to close readings of texts are Frye’s essays on Augustine’s City of God (no. 10) and Chaucer (no. 22). Typically, Frye is synthetic rather than analytic. He is more interested in the formal and final causes than in the material and efficient ones, more concerned to discover a philosophical generalization than a particular fact, more attracted to the central concept than the casually interesting observation (the word “centre” occurs twenty-seven times in his paper on romanticism). Even in these student papers Frye has an uncanny knack for getting to the kernel of whatever his subject happens to be, and the paper on Chaucer contains, in Frye’s reading of Troilus and Criseyde, his earliest extended archetypal analysis of a literary work

Readers familiar with Frye will also recognize in these student papers a number of expressions that echo throughout his later work: “Other great poets refused to be bound by conventions, but in being original they were quite conscious of origins” (no. 1). “We are dragged backward into the future” (no. 20). “Art, systematic philosophy, and ethical ideals cannot advance or improve, but history and science do” (no. 13). “What the man is, per se, is of no importance; why that type of man should have become prominent in that age is another matter” (no. 2).

Frye’s embracing of the verum factum was always inclusive, and that attitude is apparent in these early papers. One might not have expected, for example, a student whose roots were in the tradition of Low Church, dissenting Protestantism to engage in such a spirited defense of Calvin (no. 20); or a student whose primary sympathies were already romantic and revolutionary to give considered attention to reactionaries such as Wyndham Lewis and T.S. Eliot. On the other hand, with the hindsight of Frye’s sixty-year writing career, we can understand his early attraction to Frazer, to other members of the so-called Cambridge group, to Gilbert Murray (nos. 4, 5, 6 and 9); to a mystery religion such as Orphism (no. 9); and even to Ramon Lull (no. 11). Lull appealed to Frye not only as a visionary but also as a schematic thinker. Certainly this last was part of the attraction of Spengler’s Decline of the West, the first volume of which had three fold-out tabular diagrams, each more than a foot long. Frye calls Lull’s inveterate categorizing a “genuine dialectic,” and he was drawn to Lull’s numerological schemes as well. With his penchant for systems, taxonomies, and various diagrammatic frameworks, Frye himself, as it turned out, could hardly organize his thoughts without some underlying schematic structure. This is, of course, obvious in his published work. It is even more obvious in his notebooks, where he is forever toying with paradigms—colours, mythological characters, musical keys, the zodiac, various ogdoadic formulae—as a way to give shape to his ideas. Frye’s student essays reveal that what became a typical way of thinking began quite early.

So far as I can determine, Frye never refers to Schleiermacher in his published work, which, with the expansive range of his interests, is unusual. Frye’s religiously based poetics is not unlike Schleiermacher’s, and their views on the imagination are quite similar.[23] The depth of Frye’s knowledge of Schleiermacher, if it ever was deep, is not apparent in these essays, but Schleiermacher does make an appearance in four of them (nos. 2, 15, 17, and 20), and in “The Relation of Religion to the Art Forms of Music and Drama” Frye identifies his own approach to the dialogue between religion and art as “Arminian, via Schleiermacher.” Less prominent in the papers than Spengler and Frazer are other thinkers who would figure importantly in the development of Frye’s thought. Vico, for example, makes two cameo appearances in the essay on Augustine (no. 10), and Hegel, whom Frye calls in the same essay “one of the great seminal minds of the past century,” claims an entire section in the romanticism paper (no. 2). Both turned out to be seminal figures for Frye, their influence being especially apparent in his two books on the Bible, The Great Code and Words with Power.

The Emmanuel College essays naturally focus on topics in church history, theology, and the Bible. One of the cleverest is the fictional narrative, presented in epistolary form and based firmly on the historical record, about the Franciscan scholar Robert Cowton (no. 12). Frye’s intent is to recreate the sense of medieval life—its history, philosophy, theology, art, and social conditions—through a letter by Cowton to his Oxford tutor, which recounts a six-month journey from England to Rome. Because of references to certain contemporary events and the jubilee year, as well as to such facts as Cimabue’s age and the presence of Dante in Florence, we can infer that Cowton’s trip was made in 1300. Although the journey Frye recounts is fictional, the character of Robert Cowton is not. He was a Franciscan who was educated at Oxford in the late thirteenth century and who wrote a series of Quaestiones, much in demand in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, on the four books of Sentences of Peter Lombard; according to Wycliffe, Cowton authored an abridgement of Duns Scotus’s theological works. Thomas Rondel was also a Franciscan friar and, like Cowton, had an interest in Peter Lombard, on whose Sentences he lectured in Paris. In the closing years of the thirteenth century he lectured at Oxford. As the annotations to this paper indicate, Frye, in recreating a journey Cowton could have taken, fills his Franciscan’s letter with a sizeable amount of historical and cultural detail.

Frye’s New Testament essays (on the Epistle of James and on the doctrine of salvation: nos. 7 and 8) and his papers on the reformation (nos. 13 and 14) are sketchy and less compelling, perhaps because they were written under the white heat of a deadline.[24] In many of his more substantial Emmanuel essays Frye’s focus is dual—both religious and aesthetic. He was to write later, “The religious perspective is essential to the study of literature.”[25] In these papers the terms seem to be reversed: the aesthetic perspective is essential to the study of religion. In any case, he frequently manages to bring literature and the other arts into his discussion. He concludes his paper on sacrifice (no. 4) by examining the artistic aspects of the topic. In his paper on the fertility cults (no. 5), he illustrates how the symbol mediates between the religious rite, on the one hand, and music, drama, and the plastic arts, on the other. He says in “An Augustinian Interpretation of History” (no. 10) that Augustine’s conception of history was “a fundamentally aesthetic product.” He makes clear in “St. Paul and Orphism” (no. 9) that what primarily interests him about the Orphic mysteries is their symbolism. In the essay on “Romanticism” (no. 2) he says that “religious philosophy is an artistic product.” In other words, for Frye religion and art interpenetrate, to use one of his own favourite words.

The paper that addresses this interpenetration directly is “The Relation of Religion to the Art Forms of Music and Drama” (no. 17). Here Frye looks back to Frazer and Jung and to the essays he wrote on the Old Testament when he was a twenty-one-year-old, and, though he was, of course, unaware of it at the time, he looks forward to Anatomy of Criticism. The relation of art to dream and ritual, the principles of space and time as organizing structures for criticism, the archetypal patterns of art as deriving from “a universal subconscious language of symbolism,” the recurrence of the seasons as an analogy for narrative structure—these are all ideas that we associate with Frye’s mature critical vision. “The Relation of Religion to the Art Forms of Music and Drama” is, in fact, an embryonic form of the last three essays of the Anatomy. The good-beautiful-true triad at the beginning of the paper—it appears in other papers as well—made its way twenty years later into the opening pages of the theory of genres in the Anatomy. The structure of the Anatomy is, of course, considerably more expansive and complex than what we have here, but the early papers have clearly begun to lay the foundation for the later taxonomies. Frye’s comments on Shakespearean comedy and romance seem in retrospect a kind of blueprint for A Natural Perspective. Similar examples abound. In the essay on Orphism (no. 9), there is even an early version of Frye’s reading of the two creation stories in Genesis that he amplified more than forty years later in The Great Code.

One of the most original of Frye’s early published works was his 1942 essay, “The Anatomy in Prose Fiction.”[26] It was expanded into “The Four Forms of Prose Fiction,”[27] and, with still further revisions, incorporated into the fourth essay of Anatomy of Criticism. Frye was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the anatomy into the discussion of prose fiction, and his treatment of the anatomy, as well as the other forms of prose fiction, has been one of the most influential aspects of his critical theory, spawning numerous works of practical criticism. What eventually appeared in the Anatomy had its genesis in an essay that Frye wrote more than twenty years before, “An Enquiry into the Art Forms of Prose Fiction.” This paper, which may have been written for one of the honour English courses Frye took during his final two years at Emmanuel College, or perhaps for Edmund Blunden in 1937,28 is typical of Frye’s allusive method, ranging far and wide over the literary tradition from the Bible and Homer to Joyce and Eliot. Frye refers to 103 separate works in the paper, and to more than 100 writers and composers. It is difficult to imagine how a student in his early twenties who had taken but four English courses as an undergraduate could have encountered, much less read, even the major works in the canon, not to mention such relatively minor writers as Thomas Fuller, Richard Brome, and John Earle. But whatever doubts we have about Frye’s actual knowledge of all of the primary texts he mentions, the piling up of examples to fill out his taxonomic schemes was to become one of his signatures; this essay, which prefigures the efficient cause in many sections of Anatomy of Criticism, turns out to be, in its intellectualized approach and its display of erudition, an anatomy itself.

This we might call the dianoia of Frye’s early work—its rational, spatializing, Aristotelian tendency. But, as Frye learned from Whitehead, space and time interpenetrate, and in these early papers there is as well a highly developed sense of mythos. In fact, Frye tends to privilege the latter half of the dialectic, with its emphasis on the flux of time, the rhythms of history, the experience of religion, and the intuitive life. He often suggests that time, along with everything he associates with the temporal, holds veto power over space, with its own cluster of associated ideas. Plato, Frye writes in the essay on Orphism (no. 9),

had the artist’s mind: no other philosopher has ever had a tenth of his influence on creative artists of all kinds, despite the hostility and Philistinism he displays toward them in the Republic and the Laws. He realized that the highest knowledge is intuitive rather than intellectual, or, more exactly, that there are two kinds of intellectual perception, understanding and intelligence. The former is the passive recipient and organizer of information: the latter the actively synthesizing mind, which perceives relationships hidden to others and infers a complete pattern from small data: the mind which comprehends the outline of a body from seeing a fossilized knuckle-hone. Such a mind is essentially a symbolic mind: it is continually selecting outward experiences significant for inward ones. So the myth in Plato does duty for the presentation of this ultimate, symbolic form of truth.

Frye’s mind was also essentially symbolic, and his lifelong quest to find verbal formulas for the symbolic forms of truth, culminating in The Double Vision (1991), begins, not simply with his discovery of Blake in the early 1930s, but also with the writing of these student essays.


The final two papers—on Chaucer and Eliot—come from Frye’s first year at Merton College. In Frye’s published work there are very few references to Chaucer, and he never wrote an essay, or even part of an essay, on Chaucer’s poetry. Anatomy of Criticism has occasional references to The Canterbury Tales, but they usually occur at those places where Frye needs an example to fill in one of the slots in his modal, archetypal, or generic taxonomies. “A Reconsideration of Chaucer” (no. 22), then, represents the most extensive attention he ever gave Chaucer, and what he reconsiders is not The Canterbury Tales, but Chaucer’s other works, devoting almost half of the paper to Troilus and Criseyde. Frye places Chaucer in the context of both English and European culture, examines Chaucer’s religious impulse, studies the comic vision in the minor poems, and gives a detailed reading of Troilus and Criseyde. The essay is a sophisticated piece of criticism, though it is difficult to imagine the paper as having been written by one who had become a freshman all over again, this time at Oxford. Frye says in connection with Chaucer that the greatness of a poet can be determined in part “by the very general argument which presents the range and scope of his thought and his constructive ability.” That is an attribute of the great critic as well, and while it would be hyperbole to call Frye a great critic at this stage, the seeds of greatness are clearly present.

The introduction to the Eliot paper is somewhat inflated, as Frye is trying to impress his fellow students in the Bodley Club, but once he has gotten past this gambit, the talk settles into an exceptionally sensitive and mature reading of Eliot. Here we have an Oxford undergraduate who, in tracing the shape of Eliot’s work through 1935, provides what became the orthodox interpretation of Eliot’s poetry. Frye’s critical development was very much influenced by Eliot, both positively and negatively: he absorbed a number of Eliot’s new critical principles, but at the same time he set himself in conscious opposition to Eliot’s classical, royalist, and Anglo-Catholic sympathies. In spite of their very different predispositions, Frye believed that Eliot was a poet, playwright, and critic who had to be read, and this essay is actually an early version of the introductory book on Eliot he would write twenty-five years later.[29]

There are literally scores of places in these papers where Frye’s ideas will be seen as interpenetrating his later work. Interpenetration itself was to become an important philosophical, theological, and literary term for Frye, and the word, or some form of it, appears in four of the present essays (nos. 2, 6, 17, and 20). As Frye said in the interview quoted above, the idea developed from his reading of Spengler and became articulated when he encountered Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, the first book of philosophy that he read solely for pleasure.[30] While the word itself does not actually appear in Whitehead’s book, the passage that struck Frye with such force comes from Whitehead’s chapter on “The Romantic Reaction”: “In a certain sense, everything is everywhere at all times. For every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location. Thus every spatio-temporal standpoint mirrors the world.”[31] This, Frye says, was his “initiation into what Christianity meant by spiritual vision.”[12] Interpenetration is, metaphorically, Blake’s seeing the world in a grain of sand. Philosophically, it is the identification of the one and the many, which Frye intended to make the motto of the third book he planned to write.[33] Theologically, it lies at the heart of Frye’s understanding of the Incarnation. At the end of his paper on Calvin (no. 20) Frye says:

we are coming to the end of a cultural development, and our historical perspective is steadily approaching that of Augustine, who stood at the end of his. In that perspective the rise and fall of civilizations is the pattern of the fortunes of the world; the clinging to the one event in history which hints of something better than an endless dreary record of cruelty and stupidity is the function of the Church. When these two aspects of human life interpenetrate and focus into one, we shall have a theology which can accommodate itself to twentieth-century requirements.

Interpenetration, then, is another of those topoi in Frye’s early papers about which we can say, in his beginning was his end.


[1] See Correspondence, 2:603, 610,688.

[2] See Correspondence, 2:794,803, 809, 825, 851, 855.

[3] Correspondence, 2:689.

[4] Correspondence, 1:300.

[5] Ibid., 386.

[6] Correspondence, 1:243.

[7] David Cayley, Northrop Frye in Conversation (Concord, Ont.: Anansi, 1992), 61–2. On Malraux’s remark, see The Voices of Silence, trans. Stuart Gilbert (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 619.

[8] See “Wyndham Lewis: Anti-Spenglerian,” Canadian Forum 16 (June 1936): 21–2; rpt. in Reading the World: Selected Writings, 1935–1976, ed. Robert D. Denham (New York: Peter Lang, 1990), 277-82; “Oswald Spengler,” in Architects of Modern Thought, 1st ser. (Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corp., 1955), 83–90; rpt. in Reading the World, 315–25; “New Directions from Old,” in Myth and Mythmaking, ed. Henry A. Murray (New York: George Braziller, 1960), 117–18; rpt. in Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963), 53–4; and ” The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler,” Daedalus 103 (Winter 1974): 1–13; rpt. as “Spengler Revisited” in Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth, and Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), 179–98. This last essay NF describes as “an effort to lay a ghost to rest,” but ten years later Spengler was still making occasional appearances in his essays.

[9] “Spengler Revisited,” 187.

[10] Notebook 93.3.10, par. 26. Unpublished. NFF, 1993, box 3, file 10.

[11] “Symbolism of the Unconscious” in Northrop Frye on Culture and Literature, ed. Robert D. Denham (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 89; this essay appeared originally as “Sir James Frazer” in Architects of Modern Thought, 3rd and 4th series (Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corp., 1959), 22–32.

[12] Correspondence, 1:84.

[13] NF had written a long paper on Blake for Pelham Edgar during his third year at Victoria; unfortunately the paper has not survived. See Ayre, 92–3, and Correspondence, 1:182.

[14] (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947); see chap. 6, “Tradition and Experiment,” esp. pp. 161–86.

[15] “Towards Defining an Age of Sensibility,” ELH 23 (June 1956): 144–52; rpt. in Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963), 130–7; and “Varieties of Eighteenth-Century Sensibility,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 24 (Winter 1990-91): 157–72; rpt. in The Eternal Act of Creation, ed. Robert D. Denham (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 94–108.

[16] Although the prose style here seems to improve, NF’s assertions about music are, as James Carscallen has pointed out to me, often either questionable or mistaken. James Carscallen to Robert D. Denham, 29 August 1996.

[17] The Decline of the West, 1:126. The framework of Spengler’s views on the spatial world of nature as over against the temporal world of organic life was derived from Kant, or rather Fichte’s modification of Kant. See Decline, 1:124–6,170–5.

[18] NF’s transcript lists the following courses in philosophy: ethics (3d), philosophical texts (36), history of philosophy (3f), types of aesthetic theory (3g), ethics (4e), and modern philosophy (4g). As his first course in honour philosophy is identified on his transcript only as “Phil.” it is difficult to know which of the first- or second-year courses (ethics, logic, and history of philosophy) he took. The University of Toronto Calendar does not give reading lists for all of NF’s courses, but the lists that are provided include texts by Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Kant, Hume, Mill, and Spencer, T.H. Green, Mary Evelyn Clarke, Ralph Barton Perry, plus a number of other unspecified philosophers read from anthologies. The courses in ethics (3d) and history of philosophy (3f) also include readings from eight secondary sources, called “references.”

[19] University of Toronto Quarterly 11 (January 1942), 167–79.

[20] Correspondence, 1:52-3.

[21] Correspondence, 1:397.

[22] Ayre, 94.

[23] See, e.g., Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, trans. John Oman (New York: Harper, 1958), 282–3.

[24] In a letter to Helen Kemp written on New Year’s Day 1935 NF reported, “I arose in my wrath the last week of the Christmas term and smote theology hip and thigh—I had five essays and three term exams to get done in a week. So I wrote two Church History essays Monday, two New Testament essays Tuesday, exams in Systematic Theology and Church History Wednesday, exam in New Testament and essay in Religious Pedagogy Thursday. Then I slept and slept” (Correspondence, 1:384).

[25] Notebook 27, par. 445. Unpublished. NFF, 1991, box 25.

[26] Manitoba Arts Review 3 (Spring 1942): 35–47.

[27] Hudson Review 2 (Winter 1950): 582–95.

[28] For the problems in dating “An Enquiry into the Art-Forms of Prose Fiction” see the headnote to the paper.

[29] For an account of NF’s relations to Eliot, largely antagonistic ones, see Imre Salusinszky, “Frye and Eliot,” Christianity and Literature 42 (Spring 1992): 299–311. NF’s view of the central tradition of English poetry as being romantic, revolutionary, and Protestant is found everywhere in his work, and he states the principle explicitly in Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963), 1, 149. His book is T.S. Eliot (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1963; rev. ed., 1968).

[30] See The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 40. About the insight from Spengler, NF wrote in a later notebook that Spengler’s insight was “a vision of history as interpenetration, every historical phenomenon being a symbol of the totality of historical phenomena contemporary with it” (Notebook 1993.1. Unpublished. NFF, 1993, box 1).

[31] Science and the Modern World (New York: New American Library, 1948), 93. NF would have read the 1925 ed. published by Macmillan; he later acquired the 1938 ed. published by Cambridge University Press. For NF’s comment on this passage see The Double Vision, 40–1.

[32] The Double Vision, 41. NF reflects on the meaning of interpenetration scores of times in his notebooks. See, for example, Notebook 19, pars. 130,172,182, 202 (NFF, 1991, box 24); Notebook 24, pars. 53, 57,112,165, 213 (NFF, 1991, box 25); Notebook 27, pars. 42,164,168, 230 (NFF, ibid.); and Notebook 1993.1, pars. 9, 31, 41,172, 353, 359, 395,415,428, 501,706,709, 721 (NFF, 1993, box 1).

[33] Copious notes for this book, to be called The Critical Comedy, among other proposed titles, are in NF’s notebooks. He never completed the project.

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