Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The essays that form the heart of Anatomy of Criticism—dealing in turn with historical, ethical, archetypal, and rhetorical criticism—were reworked from articles appearing in literary and scholarly periodicals; their substance was also presented in a series of public lectures given in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1954. Intended primarily for those who practice and teach literary criticism, the book also attempts to map out the territory and define the discipline of the literary critic for a wider audience.

In “Polemical Introduction,” Northrop Frye, a Canadian-born professor of English, contends that literary criticism, if it is to be a true discipline independent of philosophy, history, or religion, must develop for itself a comprehensive language and a coherent ordering principle to describe and relate all the verbal works of human imagination. The purpose of literary criticism (as with any science) is not to deliver value judgments (Frye leaves that task to book reviewers) or to propose a list of great works, but to locate a given work in its appropriate place in the vast grid of literary invention—much as biology, using the organizing principle of evolution, produces its own taxonomies.

The literary critic must not fall prey to current social convention, for that would produce only propaganda, nor must he hinge his analyses on the biographies of the authors he considers, nor yet on some “literary experience.” Social convention, biography, and experience are mere contingents and not part of any true science. A fully developed literary criticism, in Frye’s view, is a body of knowledge, like pure mathematics, which is for the most part internally coherent and only indirectly applicable to the real...

(The entire section is 714 words.)