R(onald) S(almon) Crane Northrop Frye - Essay

Northrop Frye

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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)

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...

(The entire section is 1184 words.)