Almost all of Northrop Frye’s writings are essays in the broad sense of the word. He termed his first book, Fearful Symmetry (1947), an “extended critical essay in the Swinburne tradition.” Anatomy of Criticism (1957) is subtitled “Four Essays.” Most of his earlier short pieces are reviews, and most of his mature writings began as public lectures; but in all of these the essential features of the essay prevail. His recurrent concern is the relation of his immediate subject to the conception of literature collectively as a meaningful whole, unified by an organizing mythology and by recurrent patterns of imagery and narrative. Roughly half of his books are groupings of essays on a common author or theme; most of the others are collected reprints from his 350-odd journal articles.
Frye’s essays return repeatedly to several favored topics: critical studies of Blake, Shakespeare, Milton, Yeats, T.S.Eliot, and Stevens; educational themes, such as examination of the purpose of studying literature, a theory of education based on the conception of the primacy of the Bible and of Greek mythology in the teaching of Western literature, and the nature and function of the university; social themes, especially the function of the study of literature as educating the imagination and thus as the quintessential tool for understanding and survival in society.
Frye’s audience is almost invariably a university audience, but a relatively unspecialized one. Frye was an instinctive teacher, and even his studies of Shakespeare or Milton are designed to appeal to the not entirely converted. The blind spots and the mental blocks of the specialist and the reluctant freshman assume equal importance.
Prefiguring new historicism in a sense, his assumption is constantly that the cultural highbrow, the common reader, and the barely literate unwittingly have more in common than divides them; and central to his conception of literature is the assumption that the texts of imaginative literature, from the classics to pulp romance and soap opera, are similarly informed by a common body of mythological structures. This logically required his reaction, strongly polemical in its context of the trends of the time, against the prevailing conception of criticism as evaluation.
For Frye the intellectually honest may change their opinions but not their principles or their informing mythological constructs, hence the possibility of treating the structure of their thought and imagery as a consistent unit. His studies of literary figures thus tend to deal primarily with the relation of the part to the whole, on an assumption, like Milton’s, that the life of the poet is itself a poem.
Seminal to Frye’s thought is the poetry of William Blake, the subject of Fearful Symmetry. A deep instinctive revulsion to the mechanistic elements of British empirical thought, and to the industrialized tyranny it spawned, led Blake to focus on the relevance and importance of the arts and on the centrality of human creativity, themes that Frye made his own. Human essence and existence are those of an imagination that constructs a world in its own image, a world of gardens and cities and communities and domesticated animals. The artist is thus the quintessential human, in possession of a creativity that transcends the individual; for Blake this larger personality, in which the human and the divine are the same thing, is that of Jesus. Frye’s nonconformist (and sometimes destructively conservative) childhood Protestantism, to which he seems to have felt both commitment and revulsion, made Blake’s exuberant optimism of spirit, and his triumphant transcendence over some of the deadlier elements of the same traditions, the breath of fresh air that enabled Frye to resolve the tensions of his own background and to find his characteristic stance and voice.
Frye claims that the genesis of his thought moved from Blake, who worked out the principles of literary symbolism and biblical typology for himself, and on to Renaissance figures like Spenser, who took them from the critical theories of his age. (Frye’s first graduate teaching was on Spenser, and the Spenser essay in Fables of Identity  is apparently the epitome of an unwritten second book.) Anatomy of Critidsm takes from this nexus the conviction that the Western world possesses a consistent and unified mythology, encyclopedic in range, from which its literature and thought are descended or “displaced.” The Anatomy’s project is a trial grammar or taxonomy of this integrated conception of literature. A polarization, conceived of as embedded in the structure of the imagination, and derived largely through Blake from the Bible, conceives the projection of a world of desire in comedy and romance and of anxiety in tragedy and irony or satire.
Widely admired, but frequently seen as overly schematic, the Anatomy’s premises per se have not gained general acceptance. It nevertheless stands as one of the most quoted books of the postwar period.
In contrast, Frye’s work on Shakespearean comedy, culminating in A Natural Perspective (1965), is now widely accepted. Its central themes are: first, comedy’s highly conventionalized nature as a function of its descent from oral culture, folklore, and myth; second, its movement from an initial “blocking” world of rigid law and parental and social repression, through a phase of complications and release in the context of a natural world that is variously exotic, innocent, green, magic, and dream-related, to a renewed and reconfigured social world characterized by self-knowledge, marriage, and the passage of authority between the generations; finally, its vision, grounded in desire, of a union of the human imagination with a benevolent natural order, with the result that a deeper human identity is found and society is renewed on a higher level of existence.
A student and admirer of Canadian poet E.J.Pratt, Frye took an early and enduring interest in Canadian writing. This manifested itself in numerous early reviews, especially in Canadian Forum, which he edited for some years, and, through the 1950s, in a survey of the year’s poetry, written annually for the University of Toronto Quarterly’s “Letters in Canada” issues. His view of Canadian literature, which he conceived of as being at a stage somewhat analogous to that of Old English, features some similarities of bleakness in what he calls a “garrison complex” and in its sense of nature as powerfully alien.
The Great Code (1982) and Words with Power (1990), based on the conception of the unity of the Bible’s imagery and narrative, are both a late climax to Frye’s career and a working out of themes he was already at work on in his Blake book. In the former, recuperating typological reading, which was much out of fashion when he first turned to it, Frye sees the Bible as a series of seven phases of revelation, all recreations of one another. A structuring of metaphor, polarized between desire and anxiety, projects recurrent bodies of apocalyptic and demonic imagery respectively. Recurrent mythology constitutes narrative as a series of deliverances, from the escape out of Egypt to the inheritance of the Kingdom. The language of the Bible, a language of love, is seen to transcend all that divides, and to find a final antitype in the reader’s mind. Words with Power considers the determinative and authorizing relation of the Bible to Western literature and argues the principle that its language of myth and metaphor provide the context and pattern for all literary creation and for all thought.
Herman Northrop Frye. Born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, 14 July 1912. Studied at Aberdeen High School, Moncton, graduated, 1928; Victoria College, University of Toronto, 1929– 33, B.A. in philosophy and English, 1933; theology at Emmanuel College, Toronto, 1933–36 (spent Summer 1934 as a student preacher near Shaunavon, Saskatchewan), ordained into the ministry of the United Church of Canada, 1936; Merton College, Oxford, 1936–39, B.A. in English, 1939, M.A., 1943. Married Helen Kemp, 1937 (died, 1986). Lecturer, from 1937, professor of English, from 1948, chair of department, from 1952, and principal, 1959, Victoria College; University Professor of English, University of Toronto, from 1967; chancellor, Victoria University, Toronto, from 1978. Editor, Canadian Forum, 1948–52; supervisory editor, Uses of Imagination textbook series, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York. Elected to the Royal Society of Canada, 1951.
Married Elizabeth Brown, 1988. Awards: Lorne Pierce Medal, 1958; Pierre Chauveau Medal, 1970; Molson Prize, 1971; Royal Bank of Canada Award, 1978; Canada Council Medal, 1978; Governor-General’s Award, 1987; dozens of honorary degrees from universities worldwide, particularly Canadian. Companion, Order of Canada, 1972. Died
(of a heart attack) in Toronto, 22 January 1991.
Essays and Related Prose
Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, 1947
Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, 1957
The Educated Imagination, 1963
Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology, 1963
The Well-Tempered Critic, 1963
A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance, 1965
The Return of Eden: Five Essays on Milton’s Epics, 1965; as Five Essays on Milton’s Epics, 1966
Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy, 1967
The Modern Century, 1967
A Study of English Romanticism, 1968
The Stubborn Structure: Essays on Criticism and Society, 1970
The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination, 1971
The Critical Path: An Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticistn, 1971
The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance, 1976
Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth, and Society, 1976
Northrop Frye on Culture and Literature: A Collection of Review Essays, edited by Robert D.Denham, 1978
Creation and Recreation, 1980
Divisions on a Ground: Essays on Canadian Culture, edited by James Polk, 1981
The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, 1982
The Myth of Deliverance: Reflections on Shakespeare’s Problem Comedies, 1983
Northrop Frye on Shakespeare, edited by Robert Sandler, 1986
On Education, 1988
Myth and Metaphor: Selected Essays, 1974–1988, edited by Robert D.Denham, 1990
Reading the World: Selected Writings, 1935–1976, edited by Robert D.Denham, 1990
Words with Power: Being a Second Study of the Bible and Literature, 1990
The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion, 1991
The Eternal Act of Creation: Essays, 1979–1990, edited by Robert D.Denham, 1993
Collected works edition: Collected Works, edited by Robert D. Denham, 1996–(in progress).
Denham, Robert D., Northrop Frye: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987
Ayre, John, Northrop Frye: A Biography, Toronto: Random House, 1989
Hamilton, A.C., Northrop Frye: Anatomy of His Criticism, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990
Hart, Jonathan, Northrop Frye: The Theoretical Imagination, London and New York: Routledge, 1994
Lee, Alvin A., and Robert D.Denham, editors, The Legacy of Northrop Frye, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994
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