Northrop Frye Essay - Critical Essays

Frye, (Herman) Northrop


(Herman) Northrop Frye 1912–

Canadian critic and editor.

Frye has exerted tremendous influence in the field of literary criticism and in the area of education in literature and the humanities. This influence derives mainly from his Anatomy of Criticism, a work in which Frye made large and controversial claims for literature and literary critics.

In Anatomy, Frye argued that judgments are not inherent in the critical process. He further asserted that literary criticism can be "scientific" in its methods and its results, without borrowing concepts from other fields of study. Literary criticism, in Frye's view, can and should be autonomous in the manner that physics, biology, and chemistry are autonomous disciplines.

For Frye, literature is schematic because it is wholly structured by myth and symbol. The critic becomes a kind of scientist, determining how symbols and myth are ordered and function in a given work. The critic need not, in Frye's view, make judgments of value about the work; a critical study is structured by the fact that the components of literature, like those of nature, are unchanging and predictable.

Frye believes that literature occupies a position of extreme importance within any culture. Literature, as Frye sees it, is "the place where our imaginations find the ideal that they try to pass on to belief and action, where they find the vision which is the source of both the dignity and the joy of life." The literary critic serves society by studying and "translating" the structures in which that vision is encoded.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed. and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 8.)

John Garrett

In recent years the poetry of William Blake has received a considerable amount of scholarly attention, but Professor Northrop Frye's book, Fearful Symmetry, will stand out as an important contribution to the understanding of the poet. Believing that poetry has a dignity far beyond mere relaxation with a cigar, and pleading that Blake be given the concentrated intellectual effort required in any first-class pursuit of the human mind, Prof. Frye has tackled the most difficult problem of all: the exposition of Blake's esoteric and complicated symbolism. To this task he has brought wide learning and a spirited style, which characteristics will attract both the expert and the casual reader of Blake.

Brushing aside the facile objection that Blake was merely an unbalanced visionary or an inspired artist who also wrote queer poetry, Prof. Frye plunges into the assessment of Blake's intellectual system. The book proceeds to demonstrate the nature of the Blakean revolt against Locke's rationalistic account of the human mind, and gives a vivid explanation of Blake's concept of the imagination, his theory of vision. Then, after discussing the nature of Blake's political radicalism and the reasons for his departure from traditional verse forms, the author analyses the use of myth and symbol in Blake, with bril-liant results. What is particularly remarkable about the critique at large is the synthesis which Prof. Frye achieves: the whole Blake canon from the early lyrics and aphoristic poems to the later prophecies, is seen to be a consistent structure, held together by the theory of vision and the symbolic system….

The doctrine of the imagination is the basis of Blake's prophecy, and Blake was primarily a prophet—a rather doctrinaire one at that. The whole difficulty with his philosophy is that his entire...

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Frank Kermode

[For the extraordinary Anatomy of Criticism], as for how few works of critical theory, one confidently predicts long life. It is wonderfully well written, and has such momentum that to disagree with it is almost physically painful, though very necessary. It has almost no repose, but makes up for that by being full of that seemingly inevitable wit that comes only of great intelligence—a little, if one seeks a comparison, like Shaw. And somewhere hidden, driving the book along, is a demon every bit as queer as metabiology. Only by standards which Professor Frye would not accept does it fall short of greatness in its kind: first, if it were widely accepted it would have no influence upon the course of literature itself, and the highest criticism has; secondly, it fails, or refuses, to convey anything of what might be called the personal presence of any of the thousands of works discussed.

The reason for these shortcomings is not the author's incapacity but his devotion to duty. He deals with literature in terms of a specific conceptual framework derived from an inductive study of literature, hoping thus to avoid the 'fallacy of determinism' exhibited in Freudian or Marxist criticism; and he is therefore conscious of his descent from Aristotle, as well as of the analogies between his critical method and the sciences, particularly physics in its mathematical phase. Literature he treats as a second nature, vast, inexhaustible, and anonymous; as physics studies nature, criticism studies art. But if it is to be a progressive science like physics, criticism needs to be developed systematically; that this has never been done is most easily seen from the fantastic deficiency of the critical vocabulary, a deficiency which the author labours fantastically to supply. As literature grew more and more complex, critical systematization declined, whereas the primitive formulations of physics gave way to complex mathematical symbolism. Instead of concluding, as I should, that the physics-criticism analogy breaks down here, Mr. Frye proceeds to invent a quasimathematical critical system. But if science and art are alike Symbolic Forms (which Mr. Frye at least in part believes) a criticism which objectifies art is a strange parasite, as if one were to invent a non-mathematical way of presenting mathematics. However, the author is committed to finding some central hypothesis which will allow one to treat criticism as totally coherent, and concerned with the phenomena of art as parts of a whole; to do for criticism what Darwin did for biology. Of the prescientific prejudices which have first to be exploded, two stand out: first, the 'fallacy of premature teleology'—the notion that the critic's task is to get out of a work what the author put in, which corresponds, in the natural sciences, to the belief that a phenomenon is as it is because Providence inscrutably made it so. Secondly, value-judgements must go; the assault on them is very lively, but Mr. Frye admits that Milton is a more valuable poet than Blackmore, a fatal concession one would have thought, since it is not nobler to study stars than worms.

Between the Polemical Introduction (which is all I have so far considered) and the Tentative Conclusion stand the four enormous essays which chart and classify the world of literature. It is like some strange unknown forest, where the trees grow in groups of four, five, six, or seven, and which is divided into four sections, with balancing subsections, the numerological groups constantly re-echoing each other; ultimately the author reaches the heart of the wood, and finds what he knew was there, a central myth, inconceivably diversified throughout the body of literature. (pp. 64-5)

On the assumption that 'literature shapes itself, and is not shaped externally', Frye proposes a new theory of genres…. In fact this is a theory of archetypes, mythic patterns inductively ascertained from a study of the secunda natura, art, regardless of whether the artist was conscious of employing them. These archetypes are so important to Frye's system that they must be distinguished from other hypotheses that go under the same name: they are not Jungian. They are a necessary corollary of the doctrine that the forms in which a poet organizes his work come out of poetry, not life. Their presence has nothing to do with value, and Frye deliberately draws many examples from cheap and superficial literature…. Frye is concerned only with the fact of recurrence, though to explain that recurrence it...

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M. H. Abrams

[Professor Frye's Anatomy of Criticism is] a big, packed, compendious, and audacious book. He undertakes specifically a "science" of criticism which, following the model of the modern natural sciences, is constructed on the basis of "an inductive survey of the literary field." His aim is to achieve what criticism has always lacked, a body of knowledge which, like any genuine science, will be systematic, coherent, and progressive…. This knowledge is not to be exclusive but "synoptic"; that is, it will incorporate everything that is valid in existing approaches to literature. Aristotelian poetics, aesthetic criticism, literary history and scholarship, the new criticism of text and texture, the newer criticism...

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John Holloway

'Pure critical theory.' 'A conceptual framework for the examination of literature.' 'A synoptic view of the scope, theory, principles and techniques of literary criticism.' When Professor Frye describes his [Anatomy of Criticism] like this, it sounds dry and daunting. Not at all: it's more like a greenhouse where the plants have had an overdose of fertilizer: the result is a riotous, exuberant tangle. This is the challenge of the book. If we take it at face value it has four parts, which claim to review the whole field of criticism, and which I could sum up in plain terms like this. First, a theory of the basic modes of narrative writing, and the contrast between fiction and non-fiction. Next, a theory of the...

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Frank Kermode

The one thing certain about modern criticism is that there is too much of it, and it is only rarely that one can say of a practitioner that he cannot safely be left unread. But one has to say it of Frye; ever since the publication, in 1957, of An Anatomy of Criticism, we have been trying to come to terms with him, and he has been writing a succession of shorter books to help us do so. Shakespeare's final plays have always been important to his theory, and he has now devoted to them a series of lectures [A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance] which should enable us to make up our minds. (p. 10)

According to Frye, we must not confuse the experience of...

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W.K. Wimsatt

[Let me] begin my argument with Frye by quoting two authors in whose classic thought Frye finds several of his own starting points—Plato and Aristotle. Plato, in the Ion …, where the rhapsode is quizzed to the point of saying that a rhapsode (that is, a literary critic) will know the right things (ha prepei) for a man to say, the right things for a woman, for a slave, or for a freeman—but not what the slave, if he is a cowherd, ought to say to his cows, or what the woman, if she is a spinning-woman, ought to say about the working of wool. And Aristotle in chapter IX of the Poetics, where in general he says that poetry is more philosophic and of graver import than history, and in chapter XXV,...

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Geoffrey H. Hartman

It may not please those who know the great differences in pedagogical method between the New Critics and Northrop Frye to have me begin by suggesting that Frye is part of a single modern movement to democratize criticism and demystify the muse. I would go further and say that Frye is our most radical demystifier of criticism, even though his great achievement is the recovery of the demon or of the intrinsic role of romance in the human imagination. His importance to literary history proper is as a topographer of the romance imagination in its direct and displaced forms. But in his service to the ongoing need to have greater numbers of persons participate in the imaginative life, to open the covenant of education until...

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Angus Fletcher

Critics often fight undeclared wars, and any theorist who would free the traffic of criticism must harmonize variant and even discordant interests. Like [Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Préfet de la Seine under Napoleon III,] he must deal with a city that has grown more or less at random in response to historical accident. City planning frequently begins when it is too late; one asks, is it too expensive to rebuild? Furthermore, theoretical networks like the [Anatomy of Criticism] are always called "antihistorical," since they openly resist the uncontrolled evolution of historically changing cityscape, on which they impose a simpler, reductive, more efficient system of intercommunication. They replace narrow alleys...

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I have often said that I regard criticism itself as a systematic subject, and there are systematic tendencies in the Anatomy of Criticism, particularly in the way that it tries to unite different critical methods…. But I do not think of the Anatomy as primarily systematic: I think of it rather as schematic. The reason why it is schematic is that poetic thinking is schematic. The structure of images that C. S. Lewis in The Discarded Image calls "the Model" was a projected schematic construct which provided the main organization for literature down to the Renaissance: it modulated into less projected forms after Newton's time, but it did not lose its central place in literature. The attraction...

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Murray Krieger

Whatever the attitude toward Northrop Frye's prodigious schemes, one cannot doubt that, in what approaches a decade since the publication of his masterwork [Anatomy of Criticism], he has had an influence—indeed an absolute hold—on a generation of developing literary critics greater and more exclusive than that of any one theorist in recent critical history. One thinks of other movements that have held sway, but these seem not to have depended so completely on a single critic—nay, on a single work—as has the criticism in the work of Frye and his Anatomy. For example, pervasive as was T. S. Eliot's influence, it joined almost at once and indistinguishably with that of a number of followers who...

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Peter Cummings

[In] Frye's work the disinterested philosophy of aesthetic literary criticism and the socially conscious philosophy of humanistic criticism threaten to meet head-on as irresistible force and immovable object. Frye himself recognizes this antithesis. It is dealt with explicitly and self-consciously at several points in his criticism, and it is ultimately resolved in something like a mature and willing resignation. That is, Frye seems to conclude that the paradox is inevitable. Moreover, he concludes that the fundamental dualism of literature as both a disinterested art and a product of the engaged human imagination, makes it impossible for criticism to be perfectly consistent. But to be so it must become a hybrid of...

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Harold Bloom

Though ["The Secular Scripture"] reintroduces the Frye who matters most, the visionary of romance, it is a disappointment. He modestly terms it "a very brief and summary geography lesson" in what he calls "the mythological or imaginative universe." That "or" cunningly contains the kernel of Frye's argument: the mythological and the imaginative are one. As a geographer of myth, Frye is far more persuasive than Jung or Robert Graves, and yet he is a visionary geographer as much as he is a mapper of visions, and so he is as suspect as he is useful.

"Romance," to Frye, has had an unusually broad meaning and at times seemed to absorb or at least contaminate all the other genres, since he used it to mean...

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Robert D. Denham

Altogether, Frye's work represents one of the most impressive achievements in the recent history of criticism…. Although many have disagreed with him, especially with his attempt to formulate a comprehensive and systematic theory of criticism independent from value judgments, few within his own field have ignored him. (p. 51)

[Frye's] work "is still there" after all the objections have been raised. The farther back from the whole of his work we stand the less important these objections tend to become. This means that the value of Frye's work depends finally on distancing ourselves from the local complaint and the particular debatable issue. It is from this perspective—one having to do with Frye's...

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Frank Lentricchia

There are moments in the Anatomy when Frye's problematic understanding of himself as literary scientist, with critical principles which stand free of ideology, is productive. His acute demonstrations of the provincialism of the New Critics, who assert the universal applicability of ideas which manifestly grow out of the limited reach of symbolist-ironic literature, is a case in point. Many "current critical assumptions," he says, "have a limited historical context. In our day an ironic provincialism, which looks everywhere in literature for complete objectivity, suspension of moral judgments, concentration on pure verbal craftsmanship … is in the ascendant." His overall conclusion is that "no set of critical...

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Francis Sparshott

In his native Canada, Northrop Frye holds a unique position as the sole humanistic academic guru. [The Great Code: The Bible and Literature] received unprecedented publicity in the year before it appeared, has become a bestseller by local standards, and has been enthusiastically received in the popular press. But that reception has not been related to any close study of what the book has attempted or what it has achieved, concentrating rather on the image of itself the book projects. Among academic readers, whose expectations were high, its reception has not as yet proved enthusiastic. One hears expressions of disappointment, even of dismay. By academic standards it is indeed an appallingly bad book—just as...

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