Northrop Frye

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1184

[In The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry] Mr. Crane speaks as though he were presenting a distinctive kind of criticism, recoverable from Aristotle, which has been submerged, practically since Aristotle's day, by the domination of rhetorical values. We are thus led to expect a fairly specific methodology in the last lecture; yet, on the other hand, we wonder how this can be consistent with his argument that all methodologies can find in poetry only what they have previously determined to look for. Much is claimed for his own method: it is even advertised with guarantees. "We can do all these things," he says, meaning the things other critics do; "but we can also do more, and as a consequence be able to do these things with greater precision and intelligibility. For we possess what these other methods have conspicuously lacked…." But the principles, as well as the sparse examples from Macbeth and Gray's Elegy, remain very general in formulation. With the best will in the world it is difficult to see the practical application of, for instance, "the shaping principle of form and emotional 'power' without which no poem could come into existence as a beautiful and effective whole of a determinate kind," or "the assumption that the poet's end—the end which makes him a poet—is simply the perfecting of the poem as a beautiful or intrinsically excellent thing." (p. 94)

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The fact is, I think, that what Mr. Crane is expounding is the norm of critical procedure, and his method is an exhortation to the critic to keep his mind on his job. He is urging the central and primary importance of the unbiased reading of the poem, and of the framing of critical hypotheses about it analogous, in what they stress and subordinate, to the actual proportions of the poem as a "concrete whole." He says, as clearly as his pythonic sentence structure will allow him to do, that the poem is its own object: that there is no end outside it, morality, truth, religion, or even beauty, to which it is finally to be related. In short, he is defining the aims and methods of the central practical activity of reading, studying, and evaluating poems which every sensible critic bases all his work on, whatever his special interests may be.

In revealing the conceptual barrenness, the circular arguing, and the errors of taste and perspective that result from neglecting this central activity, Mr. Crane has not only fully established his own point but performed a real service for all serious critics. I suspect, however, that the dialectic necessity of first defining an abstract "poetry," deducing a priori characteristics or values, and then making all poems the shadows of a Platonic Form, is in large part illusory—the illusion being not in Mr. Crane's mind but in the structures of what critics write. As I am included in the mythological group, I suppose my own methods are classed as deductive: actually they are inductive as far as my experience of them goes, generalizations shaped from a variety of individual contacts with literature. But I know that when I write them out they look as deductive as Euclid. Similarly, Mr. Crane usually examines the rhetorical critics when they are in a prefatory, harrumphing, what-after-all-do-we-really-mean-by-poetry mood which I think is generally expendable. The textual analysis that follows is their real contribution, and it is as often as not quite independent of such postulates. The main task of I. A. Richards' Practical Criticism, for instance, is surely to free inexperienced readers from exactly the kind of preconceptions that Mr. Crane condemns. And if the rhetorical critic tends to pass over plot-construction and "common sense apprehensions of his objects," he might retort that Mr. Crane's exposition of the Poetics also passes over the very emphatic statements in it about metaphor as the index of genius, the highest proof of the poet's mastery, and the one thing he cannot learn from others.

The real issue, then, is between criticism based on the central inductive operations of criticism, or what Mr. Blackmur calls "the enabling act of criticism," and criticism not so based, and consequently held captive by some kind of theory which is sure to be either tautological or tendentious. But this is a straight issue between relevant and irrelevant criticism. If Mr. Crane is unwilling to push the issue so far, that is partly because he has a special job in mind for his "abstract" critics to do. We have seen that the latter often treat poetry as though all of it were didactic: now some poetry is didactic, and for such poetry their methods may be appropriate. Mr. Crane believes that didactic poems, which for him include the Commedia and The Faerie Queene, are of "another order" from mimetic poems, and that his Aristotelian method can be applied only to the latter.

I can see a general distinction between fictional and thematic literature, but I cannot understand how Mr. Crane's way of putting the distinction can be a functional or even a consistent part of his argument. First, it seems to me to rest on an inadequate analysis of didactic poetry…. Second, if Mr. Crane says, "a good poem can thus be said to have wholeness both as a mythos and as a logos," he cannot very well go on to speak of "the most effective fitting of the logos as a whole to the mythos." Nowhere else in his book does he talk of fitting two whole things together; besides, the difference between a real mythos (plot) and a mere sequence of events lies in the inseparably "logical" quality of the mythos itself…. Third, and most important, the quibbles involved in trying to apply the question "Is this poem mimetic or didactic?" would soon throw one back on a prior definition of "mimetic poetry," and so establish in Mr. Crane's method the very dialectical apparatus he is trying to avoid.

The main thing Mr. Crane does is to make a careful comparison of the poetic method of Aristotle with a modern method which sounds at first as though it were a monopoly of Mr. Crane and a few associates, but which, after all the qualifications are in, begins to sound more like the common practice or basic training of intelligent and candid critics everywhere. He does not rule out special critical interests, whether they are in archetypes or verbal texture or the history of ideas; all he rules out, in the long run, are quack formulas for discovering the secret of poetry or its "real meaning" in terms of something else. What he has done, then, if I am right, is to rehabilitate the common practice of criticism, dignify it with a tradition and a theory, and encourage it to feel strong enough to absorb instead of avoiding its more specialized and technical developments. And that is an essential task of enduring importance. (pp. 94-7)

Northrop Frye, "Content with the Form," in University of Toronto Quarterly (reprinted by permission of University of Toronto Press), Vol. XXIV, No. 1, October, 1954, pp. 92-7.

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