Northrop Frye John Garrett - Essay

John Garrett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 751 words.)