Denham Intro: CW 8, Diaries

Preface and Introduction to The Diaries of Northrop Frye

Robert D. Denham

[from The Diaries of Northrop Frye, 1942–1955. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001. Collected Works of Northrop Frye, 8]


This volume contains a transcription of the diaries that Northrop Frye kept intermittently from 1942 until 1955. Altogether there are seven diaries, or at least seven different books in which Frye recorded his daily activities. The 1950 and 1951 Diaries form a chronological unit, though they are in two different bound books. Two of the diaries are quite brief: the 1951 Diary (13 days) and the 1953 Diary (4 days). Two cover somewhat longer periods: the 1942 Diary (89 days) and the 1955 Diary (81 days). These two diaries are similar in chronological scope, though in terms of the actual amount of writing, the former is twice as extensive as the latter. Three diaries are devoted to longer periods of time: the 1949 Diary (five months), the 1950 Diary (eight months and three days), and the 1952 Diary (almost four months). All of the diaries are in Frye’s hand, and all but the 1949 and 1953 Diaries were written in relatively small bound books of varying sizes. The 1949 Diary was written on 130 ruled sheets that had been inserted in a ring binder; the 1953 Diary, on seven ruled sheets, also with punched holes for a ring binder. The headnotes in the present volume give the provenance, present location, and further physical description for each of the diaries.

My aim in transcribing the diaries has been to reproduce the content of the text exactly as Frye wrote it, with the following exceptions. On eight occasions Frye characterizes persons still living in a way that I think would be overly hurtful or embarrassing. I have deleted the phrases containing these epithets, which amount to twenty-seven words altogether. I have regularized Frye’s use of the comma and period within quotation marks, following the standard North American practice, and I have italicized words and phrases he underlined. I have not noted any of the minor changes that Frye himself made to his own handwriting, such as spellings he corrected or, except in one case, words he marked through. All editorial additions have been placed in square brackets. Other material in square brackets includes paragraph numbers, expansions of abbreviations, and an occasional omission or mistake. When I have been uncertain about my deciphering a word, usually a person’s name, Frye wrote, I have also put the word, followed by a question mark, in square brackets. When Frye himself refers to entries or pages within a diary, I have placed the number of the entry or the page within square brackets in the text. In the 1949 and 1950 Diaries Frye uses a symbolic code, explained in the endnotes, to refer to various parts of his lifelong writing project. He refers to this project, formulated when he was quite young, as his ogdoad, and he gave a name to each of the eight parts: 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 I have not repeated the name if the symbol reappears within a single paragraph. In the three places where Frye himself uses square brackets, I have replaced them with braces: { }.

As one might expect in diaries such as Frye’s, many characters come onto the stage of his daily life. Some exit and are never heard from again, while others make repeated appearances. Rather than identifying people in a note each time they are referred to, I have listed the names of people Frye mentions in Appendix 1, along with a brief biography or at least some identifying information. Sometimes this information is scanty, such as a year of graduation only. The biographical notes do not generally project what might be said about the lives of Frye’s contemporaries beyond the years covered by the diaries. I have not been able to identify several dozen people in the cast of more than 1,200.

The annotations will doubtless be too copious for some, too slight for others. Their intent is simply to provide additional information for those who might want it. One of the virtues of notes is that they can be ignored.

In citing the diaries I have used a shortened form that incorporates the last two digits of the year followed by a period and the paragraph or note number. Thus, “49.27” refers to the 1949 Diary, paragraph 27, and “42.n. 57” refers to note 57 of the 1942 Diary. In the notes of a given diary, references both to paragraphs and to notes within that diary omit the year. They are of the form “See par. 18, above” and “See n. 84, below.” In both the notes and the directory I have followed the University of Toronto convention of referring to a year of graduation by inserting “T” between the last two digits of the year, as in “3T3” for the graduating class of 1933, or for Emmanuel College, “5E6.”



“The literary instinct, according to Samuel Butler, is demonstrated by those who find themselves “writing at all odd times,” just “as people show the artistic instinct by sketching in season and out of season.”[1] Northrop Frye, paraphrasing Butler, notes that “incessant recording is the literary habit” (49.9), and for Frye the habit developed into an addiction. When he wasn’t at his typewriter pounding out the manuscripts for the books, essays, letters, reviews, addresses, and lectures that now fill a large shelf, he was scribbling away in the margins of the books he was reading, recording the Odyssean adventures of his imaginative and critical quest in his notebooks, the expansiveness of which approaches that of Pepys’s diaries.[2] Moreover, Frye was a faithful and constant correspondent: thousands of his letters have been preserved.[3] The present volume now adds Frye’s diaries to this large body of work.

Although Frye was an irrepressible writer of notebooks, we cannot say that about him as a diarist, even during those seven years that he was chronicling his daily activities. Still, the diaries that have survived do run to more than a quarter of a million words. The earliest extant diary is from 1942. In the next one that has survived, written in 1949, Frye remarks that during the course of his life he has made “several efforts to keep a diary” (49.1), indicating that he kept more diaries before 1949 than the one we have. He does refer to a 1943 diary,[4] which is not extant, and, as we know that he disposed of some of his early notebooks,[5] he may have discarded some of his diaries as well. Or they may have simply been misplaced or lost. About all we can say is that before 1949 Frye may have kept a few diaries in addition to the one that was preserved (1942) and the one that wasn’t (1943).[6] Following 1955, the date of the last diary we have, the possibility that Frye kept additional diaries seems remote. Why did he abandon diary writing during the last thirty-five years of his life? For one thing, after Anatomy of Criticism (1957) thrust Frye into prominence, he simply became too absorbed in other projects for the diary to continue as a literary habit. As he says in a notebook from the early 1960s, “I have occasionally wondered why I couldn’t keep diaries. The answer is that I’m too busy with other writing—-the only times I succeeded in keeping a diary more than a week or two were in doldrum periods of writing. Now I’m so full of commissions & deadlines I can’t even keep notebooks” (NB 18, par. 105). “A week or two” is plainly an understatement, but in the 1960s Frye had begun on the expansive project of what he called his third book. This was an undertaking that consumed him for most of the rest of his life, and outside of the various “commissions & deadlines,” he poured an enormous amount of energy into the notebooks for that unrealized book,[7] as well as into the books and articles and addresses that he did write. The diary, in short, was replaced by other writing commitments. Frye also gave up keeping a diary because he conceived of such writing to begin with only as “an experimental form of discipline” and not “as a Pepys ten-year project” (49.5).


Frye typically wrote in his diaries at the end of the day. The actual amount of writing he did each day was determined, to a large extent, for four of the diaries (1950, 1951, 1952, and 1955) by the format of the book he was using. These four diaries were written in day-books or daily journals, having a single, lined page for each day with the date printed in the top margin. For these four diaries Frye almost always confined what he had to say at the end of the day to the space allotted for that day, and he almost always filled an entire page with his small script. The 1955 Diary, which was kept in a small book measuring only 3 x 4½ inches, is more like an appointment book, each page containing space for two days. For this diary Frye’s entries are much briefer, and sometimes he carries the entry over from one day to the next. The 1942 Diary was written on lined sheets in a bound notebook; the 1949 and 1953 Diaries, on loose, lined sheets that Frye kept in a ring binder. For these three diaries he was not, of course, constrained by the format of the day-book, and he did typically write more than a single page for each day’s entry. Once Frye had developed the rhythm of diary writing in the day-books (1950 and following), the entries regularly follow a two- or three-paragraph form for a single day.

As a genre, the diary has as many subspecies as drama or lyric poetry—those conventional forms that Frye catalogues in such detail in his own theory of genres in Anatomy of Criticism. In his engaging study of diaries, A Book of One’s Own, Thomas Mallon discovers seven types of diarists: chroniclers, travellers, pilgrims, creators, apologists, confessors, and prisoners.[8] Frye’s diaries contain elements that could be a part of all of these species, except perhaps the last. As a genre, the diary is often an introverted and intellectual form, and so shares features with the autobiography or confession. The word “diary” also has the suggestion of a personal and private document, and the feeling does linger that to read another’s diary is to invade his or her privacy. Most diaries, however, will eventually find an audience, even if unpublished, and those who do not want their diaries read will surely do the only sensible thing they can do to have their wish fulfilled—destroy the manuscripts. During one of the several times Frye feels particularly anxious about the future of Victoria College, thinking that he has reached the end of his career in Canada, he writes, “after all, nobody is going to read this diary except me and I don’t mind boring myself” (50.386). But whatever Frye might have felt about the audience for his diary when he was thirty-seven, he obviously came to a different opinion in the 1980s, when he turned over his 1949 diary to his biographer John Ayre.[9] It is worth noting in this regard that Frye writes in his 1952 Diary that “a man has to die and leave a diary behind before what he has to say can be published at all, if he thinks in an unconventional form” (52.202).

Frye used the conventional phrase keeping a diary to refer to his own project.[10] To keep a diary does imply a certain degree of protection, which is why diaries sometimes come with lock and key. Of course, “keep” may mean simply to maintain by writing. We don’t attach the verb “keep” to forms of writing other than the diary and its cousins (the journal, the daybook, the notebook, the chronicle, the log).[11] But the word suggests things in addition to simple maintenance: preservation (we keep meat by freezing it), to hold under guard (we keep prisoners in jail), to withhold from the knowledge of others (we keep secrets), to hold things confidential (we are instructed to keep things to ourselves). Mallon believes that “diaries are so much about the preservation and protection of the self that they demand the word right from the moment they’re being composed. Diaries are for keeps: in fact they are keeps (Noun: FORTRESS, CASTLE: specif: the strongest and securest part).”[12] But what does it mean to say that Frye kept a diary in this sense? What is being kept and from whom? What was he trying to preserve within the fortress of these little bound books? Fortunately, we have Frye’s own explicit reflections on the purposes of his daily writing, found in the prologue to his 1949 Diary, to help us answer these questions.

From the beginning Frye’s diaries had been a means for recording the current state of his imaginative life. He would return to his diaries, at least occasionally, to read them. But a much better source for the record of Frye’s creative life is contained, not in his diaries, but in his notebooks, and he seems to have realized this at the beginning of 1949, when he takes up diary writing with renewed vigour and with a different, or at least an additional, purpose. The diary now becomes a way for him to systematize his life and impose a sense of discipline on his daily activities. It even has a moral function:

I’m not working hard enough, and I feel that a diary would be useful, as my job is mainly thinking & writing, & I need some machinery for recording everything of importance I think of. As a moral discipline, too, it’s important for a natural introvert to keep his letters answered, his social engagements up to date, and his knowledge of people and events set out in greater detail. . . . I also hope it will be of some moral benefit, in passing a kind of value judgment, implicit or explicit, on whether I’ve wasted the day or not, whether my schedule is in shape, whether my unanswered letters are piling up, etc. The feeling of meeting my own conscience at the end of the day may cut down my dithering time. I should be careful, however, not to ascribe exaggerated values to secondary duties merely because they are duties & I don’t like them, but always to put writing, thinking & reading first. (49.2–3)

Diary writing, then, is something Frye wants to develop into a habit. For Frye, there are two kinds of habit: the positive kind that, as he learned from Samuel Butler’s Life and Habit, comes from continual practice and can lead to genuine freedom, and the negative kind, born of inertia and leading to entropy. The flurry of activity recorded in these diaries gives the impression of anything but indolence, yet Frye does see inertia as his “great enemy” (52 .3) and “the chief enemy of the soul” (49.6). When it manifests itself, as it frequently does, Frye will typically declare that he has “buggered” the day. The practice of diary writing, then, as Frye conceives it at the beginning of 1949, will be an exercise in Butler’s practice-habit, standing as a kind of moral imperative for him to cut down on wasted time and keep up with his primary duties and secondary obligations.

But Frye announces that the diary will be, in addition, a tool for recording “everything of importance” he thinks of, noting that he should not be upset by the miscellaneous character of his life; as a place for interpreting his dreams (“field work for anagogic interpretation,” as he calls it); as a source for two novels that he plans to write, one of which, he proclaims with casual assurance, “could be finished this year”; and as a means for passing judgment on whether or not he is maintaining his relations with his students, keeping up with scholarship, and completing more mundane tasks, such as ordering books for the library. He even speaks of recording things from his student papers as material for writing a book on English. Frye does not rule out anything as worthy of being recorded: “one should avoid all taboos.” The one thing he does not want the diaries to be is for the “actual writing” of his books and essays.[13]

Frye is by no means able to exclude his writing projects from his diaries, but he does come close to achieving the ends he sets forth in the prologue to the 1949 Diary. The diaries record thousands of the most miscellaneous and mundane of daily activities, they reproduce almost two dozen dream interpretations, they contain scene after scene that might be incorporated into a novel, and they do provide the occasion for Frye to determine whether or not he is systematizing his life. But this description tells us very little about the scope and richness of the diaries, which are an intimate record of twenty-six months in the life of a man who usually deflected attention away from his own life. Whatever else they are, they are the raw material for biography.


Frye placed a high priority on privacy, and after he became a name, his secretary Jane Widdicombe did succeed in protecting him from most of the countless potential invasions of that privacy. He was fond of telling interviewers that he had unconsciously arranged his life to be without incident, the result being, he claimed, that no biographer would have the slightest interest in him as a subject. John Ayre’s biography is, of course, evidence to the contrary. And however much we might like to agree in theory with Eliot’s principle that there is a difference between the man who suffers and the mind which creates, in practice the principle is very difficult to maintain. When one becomes a public figure, there is a natural curiosity on the part of the public to learn about his or her life. Frye was also fond of insisting that his life was his published work, just as he was fond of quoting Montaigne’s remark that his life was consubstantial with his book. One can understand what he meant by that, and yet this opposition between life and work, at the deepest level, cannot finally be sustained, as Michael Dolzani has shown.[14]

Frye is aware, of course, that whatever aims the diarist might have, what will emerge from all diaries is necessarily self-revelation. The self-revelation may be minimal, but it is there. The absence of sufficient self-revelation is what worried Frye about Samuel Pepys’s Diary:

I’ve been reading in Pepys, to avoid work. I can’t understand him at all. I mean, the notion that he tells us more about himself & gives us a more intimate glimpse of the age than anyone else doesn’t strike me. I find him more elusive and baffling than anyone. He has a curious combination of apparent frankness and real reticence that masks him more than anything else could do. One could call it a “typically English” trait, but there were no typical Englishmen then and Montaigne performs a miracle of disguise in a far subtler & bigger way. Pepys is not exactly conventional: he is socially disciplined. He tells us nothing about himself except what is generic. His gaze is directed out: he tells us where he has been & what he has done, but there is no reflection, far less self-analysis. The most important problem of the Diary & of related works is whether this absence of reflection is an accident, an individual design, or simply impossible to anyone before the beginning of Rousseauist modes of interior thought. (42.67)

A few entries later Frye writes that Pepys’s ” genre, the diary, is not a branch of autobiography, as Evelyn’s is. . . . When I try to visualize Pepys I visualize clothes & a cultured life-force. I have a much clearer vision of the man who annoyed Hotspur or Juliet’s Nurse’s husband. . . . He does not observe character either: I can’t visualize his wife or my Lord. Even music he talks about as though it were simply a part of his retiring for physic” (42.69). Frye, on the other hand, engages in a great deal of character observation—the character of his colleagues, his students, his family, his wife, and, most of all, himself. His diaries provide a rich and extensive psychological portrait. He does not set out to write a confession, but by the time we have come to the end of the diaries, he has confessed more than he perhaps realized.

But the diaries are also a chronicle. We peer over Frye’s shoulder as he trudges to his office, teaches his classes, attends Canadian Forum meetings, reflects on movies, socializes with neighbours and other friends, discusses Blake with his student Peter Fisher, works on his various commissions, eyes attractive woman, records his dreams, plans his career, judges his colleagues and his university, registers his frank reactions to the hundreds of people who cross his path, travels to Chicago, Wisconsin, and Cambridge, plans his fiction projects, reflects on music, religion, and politics, shovels his sidewalk, suffers through committee meetings, describes his various physical and psychological ailments, practises the piano, visits bookstores, frequents Toronto restaurants, reflects on his reading, and records scores of additional activities, mundane and otherwise. As a chronicle, Frye’s diaries are like Virginia Woolf’s, putting the most inconsequential event, such as cutting the grass, alongside the most sober reflection, such as the nature of the contemporary church or the unspeakable uselessness of war. His speculations on a wide range of critical and social and religious issues are not unlike those in a typical notebook entry. His notebooks occasionally become quite personal and thus move in the direction of the diary. His diaries very often become quite impersonal and thus move in the direction of the notebook. The context of the speculative passages is sometimes a contemporary event, as when the Korean War triggers his prescient views on the path that Communism will take during the last half of the century. Most often, however, the contexts for Frye’s speculations are the courses he is teaching or his writing projects.


What, then, do we learn about Frye as a person in the diaries? The question can be answered in part by what he does, by noting those things to which he devotes his time and energy—his sessions with students, his commitments as an academic citizen, his rather full social calendar, his involvement in his community (especially the countless hours he gives to public lecturing and to the Canadian Forum). Many of his activities outside the classroom Frye finds to be joyless and dull, but he does dutifully take on a wide range of commitments. The sheer number of things that occupy Frye’s life is so extensive that little time would seem to be left over for periods of sustained writing. We have to remind ourselves that during six of the seven years covered by the diaries Frye was at work on Anatomy of Criticism. It was during these years as well that he wrote more than fifty major articles and reviews.

Still, finding time to write is one of Frye’s great struggles. A case in point is the production of his seminal essay “The Archetypes of Literature,” which turned out to be the most frequently anthologized of all his articles. The paper arose from a request on 23 June 1950 by the editor of the Kenyon Review, who asked Frye to write an article on poetry, the request having been motivated by the Review‘s response to the essay he had previously submitted, “Levels of Meaning in Literature.” Frye replies that he would prefer to write an essay on archetypes. For the next fortnight, he busies himself with three talks for CBC Radio’s “Writer as Prophet” series and with preparing to leave Toronto for his Guggenheim year at Harvard. There is no time for additional writing, though on 25 June he does report that he has begun “drafting out a tentative plan” for his archetypes essay. The Fryes fly to Cambridge on 10 July, and four days later, on his birthday, Frye gets down to work, drafting the opening part of his essay, which he calls “a bit speculative,” and producing ” a lot of rubbish on the theory that [he] could always cut later.” His writing is interrupted by a two-day trip to the beach, but on 18 July he begins to see the general shape of his paper, and he devotes the better part of the next two days to writing, though the first day resulted in very little but false starts. Meanwhile the Fryes’ classmate Jean Elder, along with her father and Helen’s parents, arrive for a week-long visit. Finally, on 24 July Frye begins “to organize [his] instruments of production,” buying paper and pen and renting a typewriter. By 25 July the first part of the article “is in pretty fair shape.” He then spends the better part of 28 July typing it, and the next day posts it from Ipswich, Massachusetts, of all places, where the Fryes had set out for another beach trip with Ruth Jenking, a Victoria College colleague who was enrolled in the Harvard summer school. The time from conception to the birth, then, has been two months, but they have been a fitful two months, and the actual writing of “The Archetypes of Literature” appears to have taken no longer than a couple of days. But the process is typical: Frye is always scrambling to find time amid a hectic schedule to write. The archetypes essay appears to have almost written itself once Frye had determined its general three-part shape. He certainly worried less about it, and spent less time in preparing to write it, than he did, say, for his fifteen-minute CBC talk on Shaw. In any case, the diaries as chronicle contain scores of vignettes that reveal how a man who desperately wants a settled routine for his writing projects has great difficulty finding such a routine because of the demands made on his time by external factors of every variety.


The most obvious of the external demands was, of course, teaching. The diaries provide little evidence that Frye spent much time in the daily preparation for his classes, and in March of 1950 he notes that he hasn’t done any reading for his lectures in years (50.226). Frye’s teaching schedule was relatively full, at least by today’s standards. The most extensive accounts of his teaching are in the diaries for 1949, 1950, and 1952, years during which he taught three two-hour English courses, two one-hour Religious Knowledge courses, and one graduate seminar. All were year-long courses. For 1949 and 1950 Frye’s teaching schedule was this:

                English 2i: English Poetry and Prose, 1500–1660
                Graduate seminar in Spenser (1950 only)
                Religious Knowledge, fourth year
                English 4k: Nineteenth-Century Thought
                English 2i: English Poetry and Prose, 1500–1660
                English 4k: Nineteenth-Century Thought
                English 3j: Spenser and Milton
                Religious Knowledge, first year
                Graduate seminar in Blake (1949 only)
                English 3j: Spenser and Milton

Frye taught the same courses in 1952, though his schedule was arranged a bit differently: Monday, 2i and 4k; Tuesday, 4k and Religious Knowledge (fourth year); Wednesday, 2i; Thursday, 3j and Religious Knowledge (first year); and Friday, 3j and the graduate seminar (on allegory). Religious Knowledge (or a Religious Knowledge option) was a subject that all arts students, except those in commerce and finance, were required to take during each of their years at the University of Toronto. Frye taught one of the several offerings for both first- and fourth-year students in the Honour Course. The first-year course, on the English Bible, was intended primarily for students in language and literature. The fourth-year course, also on the English Bible, was as “a course in the appreciation of Biblical literature.” Both of the Religious Knowledge courses met for one hour each week.[15] In addition to his regular teaching responsibilities, Frye gave lectures in a course on drama taught principally by E.J. Pratt, a course that met two hours a week. Toward the end of the course Frye would give the Thursday lectures on Jonson and Webster, among other playwrights. Informally, Frye also met with the Writer’s Group, which had been organized by students about ten years earlier as a way of generating interest in creative writing and in the Victoria literary magazine, Acta Victoriana. In 1949 the group met in the evenings, but by the next year it had become a Tuesday afternoon session, and in 1952 it met at 10:00 A.M. on Monday. In these more or less informal but regular meetings Frye became the sounding board for undergraduates—all women—who would meet in his office to read their stories and poems. This was not a credit-bearing course, but in 1950 and 1952 it did occupy an hour in Frye’s weekly calendar. Altogether, then, Frye met with students for ten or eleven hours each week. This was at a time when Frye was already a full professor and a recognized, published scholar: Victoria College appears not to have rewarded senior faculty members who were active professionally with light teaching schedules. Outside of his university teaching responsibilities, we also find Frye holding funerals, giving sermons, lecturing to secondary school English teachers, community reading groups, and librarians, and giving talks to audiences at the School of Social Work, the Royal Ontario Museum, Emmanuel College, the English Institute, the Modern Language Association, the Royal Society of Canada, and the Universities of Chicago and Michigan.

Teaching for Frye was, at least in part, an occasion for testing his ideas. He took no lecture notes into the classroom, and what lecture notes he did write came only after he had gone back to his office.[16] The diaries themselves are a source of some of these notes, as Frye frequently records the ideas that emerged from his lectures. These entries are some of the richest in the diaries.


As already said, Frye’s diaries are much more than a chronicle. A strong current of the confession runs throughout, part of the confession being the self-revelation that Frye wished Pepys’s Diary had contained. Frye reveals a great deal through self-analysis, writing about his abnormal fears, his physical insecurity, his self-consciousness, his introversion, his sanguine humour and his dark moods, his claustrophobia and paranoia, his grieving over the death of a colleague, his phobia about animals. He writes about his various bodily deficiencies and physical ailments (for example, his deviated septum, hay fever attacks, constipation, insomnia, and various states of stupor induced by too much alcohol). He probes his own ego, often from a Jungian perspective, and there is no small measure of self-congratulation, even before he reaches his thirtieth birthday.

“I have always believed,” Frye writes in an entry for the second day of his 1942 Diary, “that to have several competing firms scrambling for my business on all lines was Utopia. A delight in this and a horror of any monopoly that could get along without me is my one real economic feeling” (42.8). Frye’s awareness of his genius leads not so much toward vanity as toward self-possession: “I glory in my intelligence, & should, yet in me a universal intelligence reaches a certain focus” (49.162). Or at least egoism can provide a perspective on life and need not be seen as one of the seven deadly sins:

I think one’s view of the world ought to be periodically corrected by an insane & megalomaniac egoism. Suppose I pretend for a moment that the whole world I live in was created especially for me, & every event that happened to me was done for my benefit. It follows that the events of one’s life would show a unified providential design. Looking at one’s life from this point of view, everything about one’s life with which one is dissatisfied is the result of a missed opportunity of grasping the real significance of past events, the real significance being, on this theory, its meaning to me. This would be the only way of making sense of the notion of the sinlessness of Jesus’ life—a notion I’m not very interested in anyway. (49.363)[17]

Still, there is no question that Frye is very much aware of his special gifts. When he is irritated about having been asked by the Guggenheim committee for more information than he has provided about his knowledge of Spenser scholarship, he quips, “It’s very lonely being a genius: you’re just an arrogant crank who happens to be bright” (50.116). The following day, in connection with his article on Spenser, he laments his not yet having reached the point “where people would know in advance how important I am, & be ready to study my next collection of axioms as that, instead of just looking over it as though it were one more article” (50.120). About the list of Guggenheim candidates, he remarks, “Except for me, it’s a pretty undistinguished list” (50.260). And when he is at Harvard, Frye, having scrutinized the English department there and finding it not particularly distinguished, notes that Toronto is not such a bad place to be after all, and then writes, “at times, in my delusions of grandeur, I wonder if the world of English scholars isn’t waiting for someone, maybe me, to give them a lead” (50.260).

Sometimes Frye is less confident. He has only “a hope that posterity will recognize the greatness of such books as Fearful Symmetry” (49.199). At other times he recognizes the dangers of his growing reputation as a guru of sorts. Reacting to a remark by a female student that he “was the best Christian she knew,” Frye muses that “there are dangers in the fact that I have developed, without being able to help it, the kind of facile pseudo-sanctity which comes from having pleasant security & no major problems” (49.175). Or again, wondering about the joke circulating at Victoria College that he was God, he complains to his diary, “I don’t like it at all, especially the emotional stampede it makes on me. It tempts me to take myself far too seriously, not as a hero (that’s easy) but as a fender-off of hero-worship. Like Julius Caesar, I have to keep making ostentatious gestures of refusing the crown” (49.304). Or still again, “I am almost the only critic I know who can really see criticism, and, like the man in H.G. Wells’s very profound story about the seeing man in the blind community, I find myself isolated with my superior power instead of being able to benefit others directly with it” (50.515). The ego, Frye says after recording some praise that has come his way, can be “a spur to imagination” (49.230); but if being the only one who can see has its powers, it has its limitations as well. Frye’s loneliness, in the middle of a half-dozen communities of which he is a part, is not simply the result of his introversion.


As indicated above, Frye sets out to record his dreams in his diary, using them as his “field work for anagogic interpretation.” We sleep, Frye speculates, not to provide periodic respite for the weary brain, but “to sink it into the domain of creative archetypal imagery & free association, whence [the brain] emerges to give direction & basis to the wakened mind” (50.110). He understands dreams as existing half-way between waking consciousness (the world of becoming) and archetypes (the world of being or the creative world of art and thought). Dreams can work positively or negatively. If they work positively, they assimilate what happens in the chaotic world of ordinary experience, including the experience of childhood, to the grand epic of the archetypal world. This is the world of what Frye calls, following Jung, “the universal comedy of the human collective unconscious” (49.30). If the small dramas of our dream life become episodes in the universal epic, then our psyches will progress into a more or less healthy state, which Frye describes as a state of relaxation and concentration—Jung’s individuation. The collective form of such progress is the unity Frye finds in Spengler’s idea of culture (49.77). If our dreams work negatively or regressively, then we are jerked back and forth between waking reality and either Freudian wish-fulfilment or Adlerian will-to-power fantasies. Here we are simply caught up in an anxious escape from reality and in forming substitute reactions that will never overcome the antithesis between reality and desire.

Frye’s psychic universe, then, is three-storied: between the world of consciousness on top and the world of archetypes below is the dream world of erotic desires and will-to-power fantasies. Progress in shaping a self comes from connecting dreams to the archetypes below. Regression results from our inability to get beyond (or, in Frye’s model, below) the shuttling back and forth between the two top levels. But Frye’s psychic model has another, still lower level, for below the archetypal world of concentration and art “is the world of meditation, which seizes the moment Satan can’t find,” as Blake says in Milton,

& in which the soul emerges through the mind as well as the body. Blavatsky says that if you could remember your deep dreams you could remember your previous incarnations. I don’t think it’s necessary to accept this, but it’s possible that if you could take a golden bough with you all the way in the original plunge to sleep, Alice’s fall down the well, you would never need to sleep again. The Tibetan Bardo has something of this idea of an initial plunge & then a gradual rise back to the same old grind. (49.77)

Most dreams are a “wandering in the limbo of the past, just outside that gate we have as yet no golden bough to enter” (49.117). Frye records nineteen dreams altogether.[18] Most are either wish-fulfilments or nightmares. One is a purely Oedipal dream, combining anxiety and desire. Others, which are difficult to label, involve lost keys and returns to childhood, the latent content of which mystifies Frye. On only three occasions does he see his dreams as assimilating archetypal content and so directly connected to the third level. One is a complicated dream in which he is able to recognize most of the sources of the manifest content, and he believes the dream reveals certain “erotic or even wish-fulfilment” latent content. But the real archetype of the dream, he speculates, has to do with “the Catholic-Protestant antinomy which is always in my mind” (49.91).

A second dream with archetypal import begins with characteristic erotic and anxiety features, but the end of the dream is what Frye finds most significant: “As I staggered around I saw two huge & rather frightening stone heads on the side of the square I’d been on, one that I was looking directly at, of a woman, & another on the left, that I didn’t look at, of a man. I record this dream because the statues seem archetypal—I feel sure that the last two were my father & mother” (49.189). On 21 March 1949 Frye records the third archetypal dream:

To bed early, & had a long series of strange dreams. One had me on the roof of a house with the house apparently moving about under me; some nervousness but above all a great puzzle as to what was moving it. . . . Another one had me a student again kidnapped by S.P.S. [School of Practical Science] for hazing purposes. They knew me well & a friend of mine deserted me at their approach, whispering that it would be good for me. However, I was busy trying to talk myself out of the situation when I woke. The purpose of the hazing was the slighting remarks I was alleged to have made about engineering, which I was busily denying. May be some reference to a phenomenon Jung doesn’t mention: an introvert trying to project before him his own extroverted self, or vice versa. This is the theme of Sitwell’s Man Who Lost Himself, which I read in my Freshman days & is an extrovert > introvert pattern. Henry James’ Jolly Corner seems to be reversing the pattern: I was reading it just before I fell asleep. I was also looking at FW [Finnegans Wake], as I’ve rashly tied myself up to a “What To Do until Finnegan Wakes” talk at Michigan. Kenner is all wet about the “keys” on the last page being the keys of the church. The phrase is “the keys to,” & it means the keys to the Church, & to all churches. Shem looks at churches from behind, & holds the keys of, no to, dreamland—that phrase turns up a few pages earlier. (49.284)

Frye is especially interested in the hazing episode of this dream, and the next day he speculates about the man who wanted to haze him, saying that in this episode of the dream, “I came face to face with a real archetype, one, as I say, that Jung doesn’t know about, a kind of compensatory extroverted censor figure, not unfriendly, not completely unsympathetic, but utterly contemptuous of all the introvert vices (self-abuse, cowardice, insolence, physical weakness) & profoundly suspicious of many of the virtues” (49.288). Frye glances at his “introvert vices” from time to time, noting that he is an abnormal conductor of fear (49.31), that he has “a persistent sense of physical insecurity engendered by [his] weak & awkward body” (49.20), that he hates to be dominating (49.98), that while he is gregarious enough, he nevertheless prefers the solitude of social introversion (49.112), and that he wants to rid himself of self-consciousness, which leads to Angst and claustrophobia (50.5, 106).

In Anatomy of Criticism Frye would argue that the concern of the literary critic should be the “dream patterns which are actually in what he is studying, however they got there” (109), and he thinks Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious is “an unnecessary hypothesis in literary criticism” (112). But Jung is very close to Frye’s side in his diaries. He had taken notes on Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious in the early 1940s,[19] and by the end of the 1950 Diary he had read Jung’s Psychological Types and his commentary on The Secret of the Golden Flower; and he had waded through two commentaries on Jung as well, Wickes’s The Inner World of Man and Jacobi’s The Psychology of C.G. Jung. The result is that in his diaries Frye draws frequently on Jung’s work (“I think I’ve pretty well got the hang of Jung now,” he writes on 13 April 1949), and he calls on Jung’s anima/animus distinction in his brief commentaries on Hamlet, Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, James’s The Sense of the Past, and Nathan’s Portrait of Jennie.[20] He speaks of writing a paper on Blake and Jung;[21] he sees Jung’s individuated self operating in Huck Finn, in the Inferno as a body of regressive symbols,[22] and, as seen above, in James’s Jolly Corner as a reversal of the extrovert/introvert pattern. He writes, moreover, of having arrived, with the publication of Fearful Symmetry, at the stage of Jungian individuation: “It occurs to me that what I did in writing FS was perform the act described in much the same way by Freud & Jung. This is the act of swallowing the father, integrating oneself with the old wise man. Presumably I shall never find another father, not even in Shakespeare, & should realize that I am essentially on my own. I’ve really reached an individuated stage of thinking, if not of personal life” (49.110).

Even though Jung has his limitations (he conventionalizes dream symbolism, he has no conception of the form of society, and his account of the archetypes of the self is restricted),[23] his insights into the psyche are clearly useful for Frye’s locating and understanding conventional psychic patterns in the works he glances at; thus, Jung makes repeated appearances in the 1949 and 1950 Diaries. And Frye even turns to Jung in trying to understand his own psyche, seeing himself, for example, as one of Jung’s intuitive thinking types, one for whom “sensational thinking is undifferentiated” (49.47).[24] In a particularly telling series of entries in the 1949 Diary, he turns to Jung’s anima/animus distinction to try to understand his relationship with women. His problem, in short, is that his anima, the feminine nature within his masculine soul, or what he calls at one point “the aggregate of all the female characters in me” (49.361), is not recognized by women. After having had lunch with Margaret Avison, Frye writes,

I made the mistake with her of allowing her to make me into an animus figure. That in itself isn’t a mistake, but it’s a transference that a real friend should mature & dissolve. I never did that, but tried to act like an animus. I talked to her as a woman dances, trying to sense her lead and articulate it. It worked well for a while, but it stereotyped me, & she gradually realized the physical male object before her & declared her love for it. As that is only deadlock, and I had no further animus resources, the dance is over, & we’re standing around, both facing the orchestra & not each other, patting our hands nervously to signify our approval of what has been done. I made the same mistake with Elizabeth Frazer [Fraser].[25] Part of the error comes in my very animus nature: I respond by idealizing the woman into an anima. I have thought of both Elizabeth & Margaret as wonderfully subtle and accurate creatures, & of their instincts as invested with a superior insight, which I could educate myself by following. I have learned little from these women, & have not helped them much to learn from me. (49.48)

They have not learned much from him because he has been unable completely to shake off his animus role: “Intelligent & sensitive women have often quite literally laid down the law to me” (49.238); that is, he yearns to develop the anima nature within himself but cowers in the face of the female animus. At the same time Frye has difficulty with women who project their own masculine soul onto him: “Women who make me their animus & then desert when I can’t fill that role get me down. I spend a fair amount of emotional time in a state of baffled tenderness, & it’s a positive relief to have so self-absorbed a youngster [as Norma Arnett] come in, get what she wants out of me, shake her curls & flounce out again” (4.197). This is why Frye says that he has so much difficulty with his female students. His animus is too strong for their anima and his anima too weak for their animus: “I can’t really teach a woman, because, being a woman, the things organic to her learning process are female, & shut me out. All I could do would be to identify myself with her animus, which puts me, as I’ve discovered & elsewhere remarked, in a hell of a spot” (49.101).


Frye often takes a liberated view of women—it distresses him, for example, that his colleague Kathleen Coburn is excluded from gatherings in that male institution at Victoria University, the Senior Common Room (50.86). Nevertheless, his male gaze is often directed at women as attractive physical objects. Frye remarks at one point that

People are human beings first and men and women afterwards. Their bodily functions are different; their environments are different, though the difference in this century has been greatly decreased. So there may be generalizations of the “men are like this whereas women are like that” kind which may have some hazy and approximate truth. I don’t know. Men’s conversation is more abstract & less personal than women’s, but whether that’s an accident of training or an essential sexual trait I don’t know. I do know that the kind of mind that thinks along these lines of facile antitheses is a dull & tiresome mind. It betrays a fixation on sex-differences which is mere adolescence, & in an adult unhealthy. (42.77)

But throughout the diaries Frye violates his own injunction against stereotyping. The economic dependence of women on men, he says, produces shrewishness and silliness (49.97). “What the average woman wants,” he writes, ” is something maudlin to attach her complex of self-pity and I-get-left-at-home and my-work-is-never-done and nobody-appreciates-it-anyway to” (42.90). He explains the inability of his female students to follow what he says in one of his lectures about archetypes as “the difference between the male & the female mind” (50.152).

Frye takes a good measure of delight in providing Freudian interpretations of the stories of what he calls “my writing girls,” the informal creative writing group he met with regularly. “Really, those kids,” he says, “they’re very attractive youngsters, they’ve only got one thing on their little minds, & it ain’t writing. Today it was a red stain on a clean dress, from wine. Last week it was a blood-red moon. Before that it was Jean Inglis’ triangular-piece-out-of-the-lamp story” (50.133). The writing group, in fact, provides the occasion for Frye to engage in his own form of male exhibitionism: “I find having all that beauty & charm & health & youth in my office a bit overpowering: I find, not unnaturally, that I want to show off. I never worked that out of my system because, not being athletic, I couldn’t show off in the approved ways during the mating season (50.153). When Frye finds himself surrounded by a large number of women (“so much female flesh”) in a Toronto restaurant in 1942, he begins to feel “a little like a stud,” and he muses that if the war goes on for too long, civilians may have to be drafted for “stud duty” (42.105). What attracts Frye at the beach in Ipswich, Massachusetts, are “the lovely American bodies” (50.508). At Wells Beach he finds that the “lovely & nearly naked figure [of an eighteen-year-old girl] hovering on my line of vision” causes him, in a witty understatement, “some difficulty in concentrating on the formal causes of literature” (50.580). Sometimes Frye can almost wilt in the presence of feminine charm. When the novelist Frances Wees calls him, her “cuddly viscerotomic sentimental female self” projecting itself over the phone, he muses that “something in her approach is so intimate that I feel rude unless I start becoming earnest & avuncular. Even over a phone a hand steals out to pat her backside, & by the time I hang up I’m lowing at her like a cow” (49.247). A certain lighthearted innocence emerges from such remarks: one can see Frye grinning wryly at himself. It is nevertheless true that in the diary entries that focus on women, including women students, he is typically unable to get beyond physical appearance. “Cute” is his favourite epithet, followed by “attractive, “pretty,” and “beautiful.”[26] There is nothing perverse in all this, and whatever libidinous urges Frye has, they are most often disguised or displaced. But a catalogue of his references to women leaves the impression that Frye’s male gaze reveals more about himself than he perhaps realized.


What then of Frye’s wife Helen? When the Fryes were married in 1937, Helen had been working at the Art Gallery of Toronto, arranging gallery talks, organizing children’s educational programs, and writing an occasional radio script about the gallery for CBC Radio. By the early 1940s, however, she had given up her job at the Art Gallery, and, except for some freelance newspaper writing, she busied herself with other activities at Victoria College and the community. She writes occasional reviews and articles on art and artists—eighteen altogether from 1942 to 1955 (see Appendix 2). She devotes some energy to the Canadian Forum: Frye himself was appointed editor in 1948, a position he held until he took his Guggenheim year at Harvard in 1950, and Helen became a member of the editorial board. They were both still active on the board when the diaries come to a close in 1955. The diaries reveal nothing about Helen’s work as art editor of the Forum, which mainly involved her selecting the graphic art for each issue, but she did attend at least some of the weekly staff meetings.

Helen also takes an active role in the Faculty Women’s Council during these years, though, as the diaries reveal, she attends the various functions of this group more from a sense of duty than for pleasure or other benefit. She occasionally participates in the Citizens’ Forum, a popular weekly radio program, broadcast over CBC, which made use of listening groups that met in people’s homes. Otherwise, Helen seems mostly to have stayed at home, where she had the burden of the domestic chores. She could occasionally cajole Frye into helping with the shopping, furniture moving, or yard work. He sometimes feels guilty about his failure to lend a hand. When it comes time to paint their house before leaving for Harvard in 1950, Frye writes,

One member of the caucus inside my brain says I’m a lazy & selfish bastard to let her do all the painting without raising a finger to help. Another member, speaking for the government, says I have my own work to do, and the fact I keep on doing it is the guarantee of the contribution I make to the family fortunes. Also that the self-accusation is one of the ready-made formulas of an infantile conscience, which, in an introvert, insists that practical and manipulative activities alone can be called work. Helen herself doesn’t feel that way, as she can’t help me with my writing. (50.325)

Frye’s urge is to steal away from the house on Saturday mornings, going to his office to catch up on his letter writing and other obligations. It is clear that Helen would prefer to have him at home, and he occasionally does stay home on Saturday, if only to read.[27] He takes pleasure in putting himself in Helen’s care. Once, in reflecting on how her article in the Star Weekly, with its circulation of almost a million, will receive wider circulation than anything he will ever write, he muses, “Curious how little that means. It occurs to me that the marriage vow, where the man says cherish & protect & the woman honour & obey (or used to) ought to be reversed for a matriarchal society like ours, where the woman affords the man protection in her home in return for unquestioning obedience within it” (49.184). Frye does relish the protection, but whether he is unquestioningly obedient, and in what sense, is less clear.

Helen makes well over three hundred appearances in the diaries, but we never get a rounded picture of her interior life. We do see from time to time her sense of humour, her judgments about Frye’s various lectures, radio talks, and sermons (he seeks her critiques and values them), and her devotion to her family. We learn about her presiding over meals and other social events at their home, her various missions of mercy in the community, and her sundry physical ailments. But what Helen really thinks and feels remains something of a mystery. Her restlessness is the chief thing we discover about her psychological state. This manifests itself sometimes as the normal anxieties associated with domestic life. At other times it borders on depression. Her dark moods seem to result partly from her general melancholic humour, as Frye calls it (50.276), but more often than not the reason for these moods is something external: she is weary from housework; sulky because Frye gets home late; uneasy about the values of the propertied middle class; anxious about her father and mother, Frye’s own father (who spends the Christmas season with them during these years), Frye’s sister Vera, and her own brother Roy and his wife; bored by pouring tea at the faculty women’s functions; and apprehensive about becoming middle-aged. When Helen is “feeling that way again” (50.125), the typical cure is to go to the Park Plaza Hotel for drinks and then out to lunch or dinner at one of the dozen or so restaurants they frequent.

Frye records his disagreement with Montaigne about marriage:

Montaigne says that one should not love a wife too much, for that is attachment: she might die and then where would you be? The doctrine of non-attachment is mine; the application is not: I feel that in such a passage as that wisdom has outfoxed itself. One should withdraw attachment from possessions & machines, but you remain attached to your right arm, & life without it is a mutilated life. With wives as with arms, one is attached, & simply has to take the chance. The metaphor of “one flesh” is not an idle one. (49.139)

From what we know about Frye’s feelings for Helen at the beginning of their relationship, as this is recorded in their correspondence, and from the almost debilitating grief he suffered when she died in 1986, as this is recorded in his late notebooks, it is clear that their attachment was one of genuinely deep devotion. Few expressions of love are as poignant and powerful as Frye’s for his wife in the notebooks. But the period of the diaries do not seem particularly gratifying or fulfilling years for her. The present diaries are of course Frye’s, not Helen’s. For one who comes on stage so frequently in the diaries, however, we would expect to learn more about Helen than we do. She comes across, finally, as one who is given little space to develop her potential.


Frye used his notebooks for developing the ideas for his books and essays, and, as indicated above, he warns himself against letting the diaries turn into notebooks. It is impossible, however, for Frye completely to eliminate his intellectual life from the diaries. His speculations—motivated by a lecture, a conversation, a book he has been reading, a current event, or simply by an idea flashing across his inward eye—spill over onto almost every page. Not infrequently the thoughts he records do make their way into one of his writing projects. He is not too far into his 1942 Diary, for example, before he devotes several entries to Gérard de Nerval, whose visions of creation and apocalypse in Le Rêve et la Vie he finds especially fascinating, and he does use Nerval in Fearful Symmetry, which appeared five years later, to make a point about the importance of the analogue, rather than the source, in studying Blake.

Frye’s speculations cover a range of philosophical, literary, musical, political, and religious topics. Sometimes they are triggered by a thesis advanced in a lecture, and he occasionally provides fairly full abstracts of what he said in class, as in his 1949 account of one of his lectures on Newman in Nineteenth-Century Thought. “I had nothing to say,” Frye begins, “so fell back on rehashing the old Verstand-Vernunft distinction” (49.30). Frye then rehearses his lecture, or at least that part of it having to do with the emotions, and we follow the free-association of his own running commentary on what he had said. He takes us through Cassirer and Gestalt theory, through Carlyle and Tennyson and Blake, carrying us, six-hundred words later, into the world of Jungian archetypes.

In entries such as this one we have Frye the creator, to use one of Mallon’s categories. Many notebook-like passages reveal Frye’s fertile mind speculating on the nature of the city (49.120), on Lorna Doone (49.161) and Charles Williams’s novels (49.200–1), on the idea of receptivity in TheTibetan Book of the Dead (49.223), on the social values of democracy (49.312–15), on C.D. Broad’s conception of metaphysics (50.145), on the revolutionary, “existentialist” thinkers of the nineteenth century (50.172), on the distinction between form and formula (50.541), on Swift (50.423, 426, 427) and Blake (50.531–2, 534–5, 538), on homosexuality (52.8), and on scores of other topics.

The diaries from 1949 on were written during the period Frye was at work on what was to become Anatomy of Criticism—”the vast . . . thing in my brain that’s trying to get born” (50.202). As we might expect, Frye does not restrict his thoughts about the Anatomy to his notebooks. By the time of his 1950 Guggenheim year Frye had already written “Music in Poetry,” “The Anatomy in Prose Fiction,” “The Nature of Satire,” “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” “The Argument of Comedy,” “The Four Forms of Prose Fiction,” and “Levels of Meaning in Literature”—all of which would be incorporated into Anatomy of Criticism. By May of 1950 Frye is beginning to realize that his original Guggenheim project on Spenser is transforming itself into a more theoretical book:

My head is full of ideas of various kinds. What I really should do is plunge straight into the second chapter of [L] and just hope to God I can work out a conspectus of archetypes. I’ve been confusing myself by doodling with a lot of cabbalistic diagrams, & should get my nose closer to the whole problem. Obviously [L] is basically going to be FS over again, deduced from general principles & then verified by application, instead of induced from the practice of one poet. That means the book’s sunk if I can’t work out a general theory of archetypes. That doesn’t worry me, because I can. But the Spenser particularly can’t be just a six-book commentary: I have to read Spenser until he comes apart deductively, the great archetypes that sprawl across the books emerging from a single central principle. All that’s clear: what isn’t clear is the extent to which [L] is likely to become a general theory of poetry, or could do so without losing its girlish figure. I mustn’t let general symmetries spoil particular ones. (50.349)

“[L]” is Frye’s shorthand for Liberal, the name he gave to the first volume of his lifelong eight-book project—what he referred to as the “ogdoad.” Liberal was initially conceived as representing Fearful Symmetry, but when Frye completed that book, he renumbered it zero, and Liberal then became a study of the epic. The scheme of eight masterworks was never rigid, and it went through various permutations over the years, but it did correspond, as Frye explains it, “to some major divisions in my actual thinking.”[28] If his “general theory of poetry” is not clear to Frye in May of 1950, by January 1951 the essential components of the book, which Frye is calling Essay on Criticism at this point,[29] have cleared up, except for his treatment of the epic:

I seem to be at the point of looking down on literature from a height, no longer working inside it. I have three major ideas, each a part of a logically coherent structure. First is the area covered by my Kenyon Review articles, on meaning & the verbal universe, or archetypes & genres, & on the structure of symbolism. Second is the area covered in my three-volume Guggenheim prospectus, the analysis of the essential modes of verbal expression, scripture, epic, drama, lyric & prose. Third is the area covered by my “Church & Society” article & my interest in 19th c. subjects, especially Morris, Butler & Yeats. This is actually an apology for criticism: a statement of the social function of the arts & of the place of criticism as a social science. Several things are not clear to me yet, & one of these is, curiously enough, the precise way to tackle the epic. Another is the relation of the elements of the trivium, grammar, rhetoric & logic, & of the function of dialectic as a verbal element. I have a hunch about “verbal determinism” that may not work out. So my draft of the last four chapters, or Part Three, is loose: something like this perhaps: 9, The Limits of Verbal Expression (i.e., Literature & the Other Arts); 10, Art & Spiritual Authority (raising the point that comes out of Arnold, even Newman, & goes back to Roger Bacon, of the non-compulsive authority of all scripture); 11, Criticism as a Social Science, and art as a continuously expanding force cracking up all dogmatic a priori systems & closed societies like the “monologue” of the Church; 12, The Dialectics of Criticism, following out my concentric scheme. (50.10)

The organization of Anatomy of Criticism would, of course, go through many changes over the next half-dozen years, but here the general contours of the book are easily recognizable.


Michael Dolzani has provided what he calls a “skeleton key” to Frye’s ogdoadic code, and the introduction to Frye’s late notebooks includes a briefer account of the eight-book schema, with particular reference to the way it served Frye during the last decade of his life.[30] Frye’s diaries contain further variations on this large conceptual structure, and in the interest of having a more complete understanding of his thinking about the major books of his life, we can summarize the several ways they appear in the diaries in the following table:[31]

The Ogdoad
The Trivium The Seven Pillars
Grammar of verbal structures or narratives. Linear sense of all forms of verbal expression. Containing form: interconnection of Christian Bible and Christian year. Associated with the theory of poetry, the study of anagogics, and the Renaissance epic. Liberal, Tragicomedy, and Anticlimax are to be an outline of the three main divisions of the hypothetical verbal universe:


Rhetorical encyclopedia or ordered presentation of definitive myth. Containing form: total vision. Associated with the theory of drama and Shakespearean comedy. Drama
Logical and verbal universes are identified. Containing form: something conceptual. Associated with a commentary on the Bible, with a theory of prose, with Jonathan Swift. A transitional book that expands into Rencontre. Prose
The Quadrivium
Primary anagogy. Music provides the transition to the quadrivium. “Blake’s Treatment of the Archetype” provides a sketch of Rencontre. Associated with “the form of the fourth” (prophecy), with Romanticism, Blake, and modern thought, with the systole and diastole rhythm of induction and deduction. Rencontre, Mirage, Paradox, and Ignoramus are an outline for four containing myths or hypotheses of the four divisions of the factual verbal universe, which are the four divisions of Scripture:

Law: contrast between visionary law (gospel) and causal law

Quadrivial logic or geometry. Diagrammatic basis of thinking. Linked with “Levels of Meaning in Literature” and the total form of human creative power. Prophecy or active idea: general survey of informing of fact by myth and of relation of different arts (e.g., sculpture as the hypothesis of biology)

Quadrivial rhetoric or astronomy. Comparative religion. Ground work for archetypes and a conspectus of the verbal universe. History: the event done, as opposed to law (the event doing). Philosophy of history. Vico-Spengler. The Marxist element.
Quadrivial grammar or arithmetic. Linear progression on a deeper level. Associated with the dialectic of Marxism and Thomism, with free thought, Mill, the university, the symposium. Wisdom: philosophy (the idea done) as opposed to prophecy
(T or Γ)
Quadrivial music. Secondary anagogy. Second coming or the return to the source.

Frye used the ogdoad as a roadmap for his writing career, and it is possible in retrospect to see that A Study of English Romanticism is associated with Rencontre, his late notebooks with Twilight, A Natural Perspective with Tragicomedy, The Great Code and Words with Power with both Liberal and Anticlimax. We can even see in the last four of “the seven pillars” an embryonic form of the phases of revelation in The Great Code. But Frye also used the ogdoad, which was never rigidly fixed in his mind, as a way of generating both ideas and deductive frameworks of various kinds. So it is also possible to see in each of the eight parts of Frye’s “medieval curriculum” (he cheats a bit by making his quadrivium into a quintivium) structures and concepts that make their way into Anatomy of Criticism. By 1952, thanks to his Guggenheim year at Harvard, Frye had worked out the key features of the theory of poetry that had displaced the Spenser book, and in the 1950 Diary especially Frye is continually working through parts of the argument that will find their place in the Anatomy. The following passage—Frye’s speculations about his conspectus of the verbal universe—is typical of the rapid-fire movement of his schematic thinking:

Barth talks about the Word spoken, the Word written & the Word revealed. The first two may account for the poetry & prose distinction. If poetry & prose fiction both are imagistic, synthesizing the event & the idea, I’ve got a total of six categories: law & history are two types of event: the doing & the done—that’s a point I’ve never worked out. Prophecy & philosophy, the latter being a new category, are then the idea doing & done. Oh, hell, I don’t know: but I am clear that the four kernels, commandment, parable, aphorism & oracle are not the kernels of prose fiction. The kernels of prose fiction, reading from left to right, are probably plot, situation, theme and Joyce’s “epiphany,” the moment of insight. I worry about false symmetries, but actually I may be working my way toward a table of literary elements. The four kernels above are the kernels of scripture, & their objective counterparts are, of course, law, history, wisdom & prophecy, respectively: in the N.T., Gospel, apostolic act, epistle & apocalypse. Note carefully how in scripture the hypothetical contains the actual. It’s possible that there are four forms of fiction or hypothetical history (i.e. of a philosophy of history). Spenglerian cycle & Marxist exodus (Augustinian Christian too) would correspond to tragedy & comedy, & the various dialectics (Whig & so on, also Hegel) would be the third section. Hypothetical, remember, means mythical or containing form. I suppose too the two conceptions myth & ritual broaden out the distinction I dredged out of Mill between a university of free thought and a society of act controlled by the dialectic of free thought. Only free thought means free imagery too, of course: the poet, as Norman [J.] Endicott once remarked to me, is a playing man. (50.296)


There are many, well-furnished rooms in the mansion that Frye built. Some of the rooms are medieval, some are Baroque, some are topped with Gothic spires; others are enclosed with glass to let the light in, and still others are dark dungeons. Most are elaborately designed. The mansion has large open spaces and secret rooms, clear hallways and labyrinthine passages. It has playrooms and studies and chapels. It has ample space to accommodate each of Frye’s primary concerns: food, sex, property, and freedom of movement. And it rests upon a foundation of extraordinary knowledge. Because Frye’s architecture is so expansive and ingenious, it is reductive to label his work as belonging to this or that school. He has been called a structuralist, a Romantic, a myth critic, a New Critic, a totalizing liberal humanist, a Platonic synthesizer, an Aristotelian analyser. One recent anthologist of criticism even put Frye into the camp of the psychological theorists. All of the labels are reductive, even though one could find proof-texts in Frye to support any one of them.

It is none the less true that some things in Frye are more fundamental than others, and in our efforts to try to understand Frye’s universe it is natural for us to search for his ultimate concerns. In this search we still have a long way to go. But as more and more of Frye’s previously unpublished writing becomes available, and as we are able to step back from his large body of work and get a perspective on it from at least a middle distance, the spiritual dimension of his thought has emerged as a more important dimension than previously thought. A number of Frye’s readers, in any event, are less reluctant to speak of Frye’s work in religious terms than they were several decades ago, when Frye himself was arguing that all determinisms, including the religious, should be purged from criticism. One evidence of this is the recent conference on “Frye and the Word,” which was devoted to examining the religious contexts of Frye’s criticism.[32]

What, then, do we learn from the diaries that might advance our understanding of Frye’s religious position? For all his interest in Mahayana Buddism, the Y oga-Sutras, the world of fairies and elementals, the occult, the I Ching, the bardo state in TheTibetan Book of the Dead, theosophy, and numerous varieties of esoteric spirituality, Frye remained within the orbit of liberal Protestantism, even though he had rather given up on most of its institutional forms. The diaries, like the rest of Frye’s work, contain a great deal of anti-Catholic sentiment. He wonders at one point why he gets so depressed when he learns that someone has converted to Roman Catholicism. Part of his depression comes from the institution of Catholicism itself: “I hate & fear this totalitarian, sleepless, relentless, anti-liberal, anti-Protestant, anti-democratic [Catholic] machine” (49.27), a Church that is Machiavellian in its militancy (49.103). But he is just as depressed about institutional Protestantism, including his own United Church of Canada:

It isn’t the fact that Catholic converts have to assent that they believe absurd doctrines that bothers me. It’s really, at bottom, resentment against Protestantism, especially this fatuous United Church, for being so miserably lacking in intellectual integrity. Protestantism is done for here, unless it listens to a few prophets. I don’t want a Church of any kind, but if, say, a student of mine were quavering over conversion to Catholicism, I’d like to be able to point to something better than a committee of temperance cranks, which is about all the United Church is now. (49.27)

Upon taking his father to the Eaton Memorial Church in Toronto and discovering that the service consisted of a movie, Frye immediately leaves. Later, in reflecting on the experience, he writes,

Any sensitive person with any accuracy of instinct would, it seems to me, find what the Eaton Memorial substitutes for Christianity a pretty phony & pinchbeck thing. Even I, who am not attached to the ceremonial side of religion, would have been a little chagrined at being caught in the Assembly Hall by one of my friends, at any rate without a pained expression on my face. I can also see that if I went to the United Church more regularly I should understand better why people turn Anglican & Catholic. My objection to conversion is not that the church you join is no better than the one you leave, but rather that I feel, for myself, that any coincidence of any church’s service with what I’m looking for would be accidental. (49.90)

Frye can say jokingly that he rather likes the United Church because it contains within it the church-destroying principle, having already swallowed up three churches within itself (49.133). He preaches occasionally but seldom takes much comfort from preaching any of the half dozen sermons he records. He says on one occasion that he still fears the church (49.232) and on another that all of the talks he is asked to give on religious topics bore him: “I wish people would stop forcing me to be a religious special pleader. Nine-tenths of my appearances this year have been religious—both as writer & speaker, & I’m tired of it” (52.159). Part of Frye’s anxieties spring from the guilt he has about how he uses his Sundays. After delivering a sermon on wisdom at the Howard Park United Church (an invitation he accepts as a way of doing penance), he is confronted by Elizabeth Lautenslager, the minister’s wife, who “asked me abruptly why if I believed ‘all that,’ I didn’t go to church. . . . I could see her point clearly. She works like a galley slave to help her husband, who works like a galley slave to keep a church going, & here’s a high-powered intellectual from the college who draws a crowd & works out a beautiful theological pattern & doesn’t even attend church. It was too complicated however to explain the grounds I base my dispensation on” (49.266). At the beginning of 1952 Frye has “some vague notion of making a regular practice of going to church this year,” but he never acts on his indeterminate urge because, he says, inertia wins out (52.15). Later in the year, however, he does manage to justify his dispensation, arguing that Sundays provide him the occasion for “listening to the Word” in his own way:

I haven’t yet figured out what to do with Sunday, and my anxiety to have it all to myself gives me Kierkegaard’s “dread” or angst, & [ sic] about which he talks very well, except that he doesn’t see that angst is the state of Blake’s Spectre of Urthona: the egocentric or proud desire to possesstime, the revolt against the consciousness of death. My possessive attitude, not only to Sundays, but to time generally, is bothering me a good deal, but hanging on to time is the last infirmity of noble mind. The Jewish Sabbath was a day of rest at the end of the week: the Christian Sunday is a day of leisure at the beginning of the week. Leisure is the opposite of laziness, & hasn’t really any more to do with rest than with work. It’s the essential condition of creative life, the relaxation from ritual, the removal of the censorious urgency of routine, in which that free association of ideas which begins the creative process is allowed to function. In short, it’s listening to the Word. Surely that’s what a member of the leisure class should do with Sunday. (50.25)

Here and there Frye does record some of what results from his listening to the Word: the difference between religious wisdom and religious knowledge (49.98), the distinction between the fear generated by an orthodox notion of hell and the fear that comes from utter exclusion, which is what Jesus suffered when abandoned by all the disciples (49.164, 262), the contrast between thought (talking to oneself) and prayer (talking to God) (49.242), the sense of liberation that comes from those, like his student Peter Fisher, who have an “open top” view of religion (49.246), the relationship among the Holy Spirit, Sophia or the feminine personification of wisdom, and the Virgin Mary (49.263), the relation between Creation and Apocalypse, on the one hand, and the Incarnation, on the other (49.285), the idea of God, not as a subjective presence, but as a community (49.350), and the dangerous absolutizing of religious dialectic versus the freedom of liberal Protestantism (49.364). This catalogue, drawn only from the 1949 Diary, is but a brief sampler of the religious ideas that are forever swirling through Frye’s head.

Again, the diaries are not notebooks. Their occasional speculations are discontinuous and frequently cryptic. But they do contain the seeds of what Frye developed in his later essays and books. It is possible, for example, to reconstruct one of the central elements of Frye’s Christology from what he records from time to time about Jesus as suffering humanity.[33] One of Frye’s most substantial essays on religion, “The Church: Its Relation to Society,”[34] was written in 1949, and in two of the entries for that year (351 and 364) we get a partial abstract of the argument he develops in that essay. That argument derives from what Frye calls the “mandala vision,” a vision in which the privacy of prayer & spiritual communion is not introspection, but the discovery of a community, and charity is action in the light of such a discovery” (50.259). These visionary words, which Frye could have written in 1990, will have to be set beside his many cranky and irreverent outbursts.

Because Frye’s diaries are a potpourri, an introduction can point the reader to but a few of those features of thought, action, and passion that his opening this little window onto his life permits us to see. It is a life, like all lives, filled with ironies, contradictions, and multiple masks. Montaigne remarks that “every sort of contradiction can be found in me, depending upon some twist or attribute: timid, insolent, chaste, lecherous; talkative, taciturn; tough, sickly; clever, dull, brooding, affable; lying, truthful; learned, ignorant; generous, miserly and then prodigal—I can see something of all that in myself, depending on how I gyrate; and anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgment this whirring about and this discordancy.”[35] So, as these diaries reveal, Frye might have said about himself.


[1] Further Extracts from the Note-Books of Samuel Butler, ed. A.T. Bartholomew (London: Jonathan Cape, 1934), 156.

[2] The Diary of Samuel Pepys contains a million and a quarter words. NF’s notebooks approach that size, even exceed it if the various holograph drafts in the notebooks are included in the total.

[3] Some 5,000 letters are in NF’s general correspondence files. The files of his correspondence with publishers, letters relating to speaking engagements, various media projects, and University of Toronto business contain several thousand more letters. NF’s letters of recommendation number more than 650. After 1968, when NF’s secretary Jane Widdicombe began making carbon copies of his correspondence, the record is fairly complete, but many of the letters NF wrote before 1968 have not been preserved, or at least their whereabouts is unknown.

[4] 50.385. We should allow for the possibility that NF may be referring to a form of writing that Michael Dolzani and I have labelled a notebook. In the early 1940s the distinction for NF between a notebook and a diary was not always clearly delineated: in NB 4, for example, he refers to material that is not a chronological, dated narrative as a diary (par. 24).

[5] “Curious experience, throwing out all the various excreta I’d been saving since before my Oxford days. Notebooks full of dead wood. I don’t know why I have such a passion for collecting notebooks when I don’t think I’ve ever filled one completely up. Even the original Blake one has a couple of blank pages at the end” (50.423). NF’s “original Blake” notebook has not survived. Whether or not it was included in the notebooks that NF disposed of here is uncertain. After he had completed AC, Frye wrote, “I’ve begun notes on this [his novel] many times, but threw away my best notebook, written in Seattle, in a London (Ont.) hotel” (NB 20, par. 1).

[6] “Several efforts” seems to imply more than two, but it is possible that NF is referring to his 1942 and 1943 efforts only.

[7] See Michael Dolzani, ed., The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye, 1964–1972: The Critical Comedy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, forthcoming).

[8] A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries [2nd ed.] (St. Paul, Minn.: Hungry Mind Press, 1995).

[9] For Ayre’s use of NF’s 1949 Diary, see Northrop Frye: A Biography (Toronto: Random House, 1989), 212–17.

[10] 42.84, 140; 49.1.

[11] We do “keep” records, in the sense of recording regularly. But we don’t “keep” novels, plays, poems, autobiographies, essays, and the like.

[12] A Book of One’s Own, xi.

[13] 49.2, 4, 9, 10, 3 and 7.

[14] See Dolzani, “The Ruins of Time: Frye and the City, 1977,” Northrop Frye Newsletter 8 (Summer 1999): 1–7, and “On Earth as It Is in Heaven: The Problem of Wish-Fulfilment in Frye’s Visionary Criticism” [unpublished typescript but forthcoming in a collection of essays edited by Jean O’Grady and Wang Ning].

[15] See The Bulletin of Victoria Collegein the University of Toronto, 1949–1950, 21. Other Religious Knowledge courses included the Semitic world, the history of Christianity, the Old Testament, philosophy of religion, and world religions. The Religious Knowledge offerings for students in the three-year Pass Course were a series of courses similar in content to those in the Honor Course option, but including Hebrew and Greek; these courses met for three hours each week.

[16] See Northrop Frye in Conversation, 142.

[17] NF’s own version of the “seven ages of life” is recorded in NB 20, written in the late 1950s: “In this world life has, as Shakespeare says, seven ages, of approximately a decade in length. The first years, up to ten, are the age of gluttony. Of the acquisitive appetite in its simplest & most directly demanding form. The teens are the age of wrath, of the resentments of parent-rebellion and violent aggressiveness. The next decade is the age of lechery, when the coming of sexual experience brings with it idealisms, ambitions, & similar emotions. These focus into more practical & limited objectives as the 30-40 age of envy begins & one struggles for a career. The forty-year mark is the menopause era for women or something similar for me, & brings the seed of avarice or anxious inventories of resources. Then full maturity, or the age of pride, sets in & lasts until the end of life when it modulates into the age of sloth” (par. 3).

[18] 42.31, 110; 49.21, 26, 41, 57, 78, 91, 189 (three dreams), 221, 284 (two dreams), 319, 336, 374; 50.148; and 52.17.

[19] For NF’s holograph notes on his reading of Psychology of the Unconscious, see the first three pages of NB 42 (Northrop Frye Fonds, 1993, box 3, file 10).

[20] See 49.11, 161, and 14.

[21] 49.235. The paper never got written, probably because by the time of AC NF wanted to distance himself from Jung’s notion of the archetype. NF’s notes on Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious (see n. 19, above) call attention to a number of parallels between Blake and Jung: they may be notes toward the paper NF planned to write. A few years later he did review Jung’s Two Essays in Analytical Psychology and Psychology and Alchemy in the Hudson Review, 6 (Winter 1954): 611–19; rpt. as “Forming Fours” in Northrop Frye on Culture and Literature, 117–29.

[22] 50.124 and 58.

[23] 49.91, 333, and 361.

[24] According to Jung most people have one of the four functions (thinking, feeling, sensation, intuition) as their “habitus” or preferred function, with a second, auxiliary function. Thus, those who have a scientific or empirical bent will use mostly thinking about sensations; those who are theorists (this is NF), thinking about intuitions; those who are artists, feeling about intuition; and those who are sensualists, feeling about sensations.

[25] Elizabeth Fraser, twelve years NF’s senior, was a Canadian book designer who lived in London and Oxford when NF was at Merton College. If Fraser’s letters to NF during this time are to be believed, they had an affair.

[26] A sampler of such labels: “that cute Mallinson girl” (49.254), “and a cute little (or big rather) fourth year girl with a snub nose & breasts bursting out of her dress” (49.307); “a juicy cutie from Hungary” (50.7), “Colleen Thibaudeau . . . is really a very cute little girl” (49.299); Becker has “a cute American wife (50.372)”; “we had an excellent dinner served by a cute little German girl” (50.475); “that very cute Margaret Allen girl” (52.147); even Sister Marion of SMC is said to be a “cute nun” (49.156). For “pretty,” “attractive,” and “beautiful,” see 49.256, 275; 50.30, 196, 221, 420, 484; 52.137, 184.

[27] See, e.g., 50.255: “More sitting—Helen obviously didn’t want me to go to the office, though there was a lot of work to do there. More Plautus, and the general drift of the exposition is beginning to shape up. After all, I can always leave my letters another day, and it’s certainly luxurious to work on a book.”

[28] Unpublished typescript in Norhtrop Frye Fonds, 1991, box 50, file 1.

[29] 51.10. By January 1952 he had changed the title to Essay on Poetics (52.1).

[30] Michael Dolzani, “The Book of the Dead: A Skeleton Key to Northrop Frye’s Notebooks,” in Rereading Frye: The Published and Unpublished Work, ed. David Boyd and Imre Salusinszky (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 19–30. See also Dolzani’s introduction to The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye, 1964–1972: The Critical Comedy, and Robert D. Denham, introduction to Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks, 1982–1990: Architecture of the Spiritual World (Toronto: University of Toronto press, 2000), xl–xlv.

[31] The chart draws from the following diary entries: 49.119, 353; 50.60, 107, 128, 157, 181, 228, 234, 246, 306, 310, 316, 427, 452

[32] Held at McMaster University in May 2000, this was the twelfth symposium on NF’s work. The others were “Northrop Frye and Contemporary Criticism,” at the annual meeting of the English Institute, September 1965; “Portrait of Northrop Frye,” at the University of Rome “La Sapienza,” May 1987; “Northrop Frye and the Contexts of Criticism” and ” Anatomy of Criticism in Retrospect,” at the meeting of the Modern Language Association, San Francisco, December 1987; “Northrop Frye and Eighteenth-Century Studies,” at the meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies,” University of Minnesota, April 1990; “Northrop Frye and Contemporary Literary Theory,” at the meeting of the Canadian Comparative Literature Association, Queen’s University, May 1991; “Northrop Frye Festival,” in Moncton, N.B., November 1991; “The Legacy of Northrop Frye in the East and West,” at Sookmyung Women’s University, Seoul, Korea, May 1992; “The Legacy of Northrop Frye: An International Conference,” at the University of Toronto, October 1992; “Northrop Frye Research Seminar,” at the University of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia, July 1994; “Northrop Frye and China,” at Peking University, Beijing, July 1994; “International Symposium on Northrop Frye Studies,” at Inner Mongolia University, Hoh-Hot, China, July 1999.

[33] See, e.g., 49.66, 49.262, 49.280, 49.363, 50.126, 50.277, 50.259.

[34] Published in The Living Church, ed. Harold Vaughan (Toronto: United Church Publishing House, 1949), 152–72; rpt. NFR, 253–67.

[35] Michel de Montaigne, “On the Inconstancy of Our Actions,” in The Complete Essays, trans. and ed. M.A. Screech (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1991), 377 (bk. 2, essay 1).

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