Here are the final works of a major critic, product of an unusual combination of gifts and convictions. He was a Canadian, a Christian, a priest, and something of a sage. As Auden wrote of Yeats, he has become his admirers. Northrop Frye was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, on July 14, 1912, and died in Toronto last March. He received his primary and secondary education in Moncton, New Brunswick, entered Victoria College of the University of Toronto in 1929 as a student of Philosophy and English, and studied Theology at Emmanuel College, Toronto. Brought up as a Methodist, he was ordained in the United Church of Canada, a church formed in 1925 by union of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches of Canada.

Frye’s earliest publications, now collected in Reading the World, were heterogeneous. He wrote about anything that came along: the Jooss Ballet, Chaplin’s films, music, Canadian art, Wyndham Lewis, the state of the world. He appears to have been born with a talent for certitude:

Delius’ paganism is honest enough, with none of the hankering for a cloudily catholic religion which inspires the theosophies of Holst and Cyril Scott, and, like most paganism, it is centered on an ideal of physical dignity.

But such interventions were relatively easy pieces. Frye’s hard-earned work began with the publication of Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947).

In that book Frye insists that Blake is neither a madman nor a mystic but a visionary:

A visionary creates, or dwells in, a higher spiritual world in which the objects of perception in this one have become transfigured and charged with a new intensity of symbolism.

To understand Blake as visionary, according to Frye, one must try to understand how he read the Bible, “and to do this properly one must read the Bible oneself with Blake’s eyes.” Frye never doubted that he could so read it: he wrote Fearful Symmetry upon that conviction. In The Double Vision, published in 1991, he claims that his early training helped:

In Methodism, even of the episcopal variety to which my family belonged, there was an emphasis on religious experience as distinct from doctrine and on very early exposure to the story element in the Bible. Such a conditioning may have helped to propel me in the direction of a literary criticism that has kept revolving around the Bible, not as a source of doctrine but as a source of story and vision.

Story and vision became Frye’s preoccupation as a critic. Blake’s reading of the Bible and—an experience nearly as provocative—his reading of Paradise Lost remained for Frye decisive evidences of an imagination at once poetic and critical.

The word that relates story and vision in Frye’s vocabulary is myth. A myth is a certain kind of story, told over and over again for the benefit of the community to which it is addressed; as Christians receive the story of the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ. Myths enable the people who receive them to cope with “the absolutism of reality,” as Hans Blumenberg wrote in Work on Myth (1979), by giving names and personalities to the forces they mostly dread. Typically, myths are stories about a god or gods, because communities need to be told how to conduct their lives in relation to the forces that apparently encompass them.

These stories are rarely located in history, according to Frye in Fables of Identity (1963). Their actions take place “in a world above or prior to ordinary time, in illo tempore, in Mircea Eliade’s phrase.” Such stories don’t need to be plausible. The things that happen in myth “are things that happen only in stories; they are in a selfcontained literary world.” The reason is, as Frye says in Anatomy of Criticism (1957), that “myth is the imitation of actions near or at the conceivable limits of desire.” If there is a “central myth of mankind,” as Frye claims somewhat tendentiously in Five Essays on Milton’s Epics (1965), it is “the myth of lost identity and the possibility of recovering it.” In Milton’s Paradise Regained Satan’s temptations of Christ figure Christ’s possible loss of identity. The temptations once overcome, Christ is restored to himself and to God. The goal of all reason, courage, and vision is indeed “the regaining of identity.” However:

The recovery of identity is not the feeling that I am myself and not another, but the realization that there is only one man, one mind, and one world, and that all walls of partition have been broken down for ever.

Even more tendentiously, Frye claims in The Great Code that “the real interest of myth is to draw a circumference around a human community and look inward toward that community, not to inquire into the operations of nature.”


This passage poses a difficulty for me. I don’t understand how Frye can invoke, at one moment, a vision of human unity, founded upon story, fiction, and metaphor; and at the next moment set up partitions between one community and another and between all communities and the workings of nature. If he means, as Wallace Stevens put it, that “the gods of China are always Chinese” and that “a mythology reflects its region,” it seems sanctimonious to maintain that in the central myth of mankind the walls come tumbling down.

I have the same problem with Frye’s theory of literature. He regarded literature as displaced myth; displaced in the sense of extended, turned in one direction rather than another, translated into more acceptable terms. A displacement occurs, for instance, when gods in myths become heroes in novels, “translated downward” to suit new conditions of authorship and readership. Shakespeare’s late romances are displacements of the myth of Proserpine, “who disappears into the underworld for six months of every year.” In Anatomy of Criticism Frye says of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale:

The story of Hermione and Perdita is so close to the Demeter and Proserpine myth that hardly any serious pretence of plausible explanations is made. Hermione, after her disappearance, returns once as a ghost in a dream, and her coming to life from a statue, a displacement of the Pygmalion myth, is said to require an awakening of faith, even though, on one level of plausibility, she has not been a statue at all, and nothing has taken place except a harmless deception.

So A Winter’s Tale remembers and displaces, partially enacts, the myth from which it came. The play, like the myth of Proserpine, is a human creation. It doesn’t annotate a given world, it imagines another world and gives it form, responsive to human desires as the given world is evidently not. As Frye says in Fables of Identity:

The world of art is human in perspective, a world in which the sun continues to rise and set long after science has explained that its rising and setting are illusions.

The central myth of art is therefore “the vision of the end of social effort, the innocent world of fulfilled desires, the free human society.”

This vision is now embodied in literature, as it was once and still partly is embodied in mythology. From the available linguistic resources literature conjures images of fulfillment, unity of a new or recovered being. I have no problem with this. But I don’t see why Frye finds it necessary to guard this unity by insisting that every local or partial displacement of it must hold to self-preservation as its first and last interest. In The Great Code Frye says that “the formal principles of literature” are “contained within literature, as the formal principles of music, embodied in sonata, fugue, or rondo, have no existence outside music.” That is true, and a salutary thing to say. If I’m reading Shakespeare’s sonnets and think that Shakespeare is expressing mainly the breaking of his heart, it is well to have Frye say: No, he’s mainly writing sonnets, and incidentally imagining events which would issue in a semblance of someone’s heart breaking. But I still find it odd that Frye’s work, devoted to unity of recovered being as it claims to be, is so insistent on distinctions and dichotomies. Anatomy of Criticism is the supreme Book of Distinction, in which every type of literature, every genre, is shown defending its turf. In Frye’s account of fiction, for instance, the distinction he makes between its four forms—novel, confession, anatomy, and romance—is useful, because it prevents us from looking for the attributes of one type of fiction when we’re reading an instance of another. A romance is not the worse for lacking the qualities of a novel. But while Frye is discriminating the four, forms, he seems reluctant to acknowledge, as he does in the end, that most fictions are mixtures of two or more kinds. He was happier with demarcations than with the blurring, in practice, of their edges. In his grand pronouncements we hear much of community, but what we see is a proliferation of tribes, each of them maintaining itself by reciting the stories of its gods.

To summarize, before inching ahead: Frye regarded mythology as the Supreme Fiction. As a man of the twentieth century he was willing to see that designation transferred or displaced to literature. He thought his main duty as a critic was to instruct readers in the formal mysteries of the emergence of literature from mythology. He did this by elucidating not the hidden meaning of a work of literature but the mythic pattern disclosed in the structure of its images. You may say: Didn’t many other critics do this? G. Wilson Knight’s The Wheel of Fire (1937), Maud Bodkin’s Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (1934), Ernst Robert Curtius’s study of topoi in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1948; translated in 1953) seem to be engaged in the same work, disclosing patterns of significance behind or above the overt actions of plot. True; but Frye is far more systematic than these, more resolute in conceiving of literature as a whole and of the world imagined as the ultimate good. In this he was much influenced by a famous (or notorious) passage in T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”:


No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not onesided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.

To Frye, the crucial phrase in that paragraph is “toward the whole”; his responsibility as a critic was toward the whole, toward Literature. He was concerned not to lead readers slowly through the detail of a poem, a play, or a novel, but to show them the relation between the particular work and the Supreme Fiction it partially and perhaps unknowingly embodied. It is not true that poets learn from other poets; they learn from poems. Every poet learns, as Frye echoed Yeats to say in Anatomy of Criticism, that “there is no singing school for his soul except the study of the monuments of its own magnificence.”

It is not a scandal, then, that Frye published so little “practical criticism.” He read everything, and I am sure with acuity, but he kept quiet until he was ready to show the relation between one work of literature and many more of the same or similar patterning. His essay on Stevens in Fables of Identity doesn’t give an interpretation of a single poem, but explains the poetry—or rather the Poetry—which he believes every poem by Stevens in part or residually acknowledges. So a typical piece of Frye’s writing is this passage from Anatomy of Criticism:

One very common convention of the nineteenth-century novel is the use of two heroines, one dark and one light. The dark one is as a rule passionate, haughty, plain, foreign or Jewish, and in some way associated with the undesirable or with some kind of forbidden fruit like incest. When the two are involved with the same hero, the plot usually has to get rid of the dark one or make her into a sister if the story is to end happily. Examples include Ivanhoe, The Last of the Mohicans, The Woman in White, Ligeia, Pierre (a tragedy because the hero chooses the dark girl, who is also his sister), The Marble Faun, and countless incidental treatments. A male version forms the symbolic basis of Wuthering Heights.

If you say: Doesn’t Philip Rahv talk about this sort of pattern in one of his essays on Hawthorne? I reply: Yes, but not in its bearing upon “the whole.”


So we come back, as Frye regularly did, to the Bible and Blake’s reading of it. In The Great Code (1982) Frye brought together a theory of literature, his readings of the Bible, and his long-maintained conviction that Blake was “the first person in the modern world to see the events of his day in their mythical and imaginative context.” This conviction he first expressed in Fearful Symmetry, quoting a famous passage from Blake’s A Vision of the Last Judgment:

“What,” it will be Question’d, “When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?” O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

Frye’s gloss on this is put with nearly as much intensity as its occasion:

The Hallelujah-Chorus perception of the sun makes it a far more real sun than the guinea-sun, because more imagination has gone into perceiving it. Why, then, should intelligent men reject its reality? Because they hope that in the guinea-sun they will find their least common denominator and arrive at a common agreement which will point the way to a reality about the sun independent of their perception of it. The guineasun is a sensation assimilated to a general, impersonal, abstract idea. Blake can see it if he wants to, but when he sees the angels, he is not seeing more “in” the sun but more of it.

So Frye aligns himself with Blake and the vocabularies of vision, imagination, genius, and prophecy; against Locke and the vocabularies of the common man, the consensus upon which in England the “peace of the Augustans” was arranged and, in time, the Enlightenment was accepted as the sole project worth pursuing.

Frye’s Bible, I should note, is the Protestant one, which he quotes in its Authorized Version. He doesn’t mean the Hebrew Old Testament. In The Great Code he remarks that the New Testament writers “regard the Old Testament as a source of anticipations of the events in the life of Christ”:

These are often explicitly alluded to, and the source given. Thus, in the Crucifixion, the piercing of Jesus’ hands and feet, the mockery of the passers-by, and the fact that his legs were not broken on the cross, are related to passages in Psalm 22. Jesus’ great cry on the cross, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” is a quotation of the first verse of this psalm.

Frye gives another example of this anticipation in The Double Vision. When John the Baptist is described in Mark 1:6 as wearing camel-hair clothes and a leather girdle, this is not a realistic detail—there are, for him, no such details in the Bible—but an indication that John is to be identified with the Elijah of II Kings 1:8:

That is, John the Baptist is Elijah reborn, as Malachi 4:5 says Elijah had to be in the day of the Messiah, and as Jesus confirms (Matthew 11:14).

Frye notes, too, without making an issue of it, that Christians have generally interpreted the Old Testament according to Augustine’s formula: In Veteri Testamento est occultatio Novi, in Novo Testamento est manifestatio Veteris: “In the Old Testament there is a concealment of the New, in the New Testament there is a manifestation of the Old.” In Frye’s summary of this tradition: “Everything that happens in the Old Testament is a ‘type’ or adumbration of something that happens in the New Testament.” He doesn’t appear to feel misgiving about this or to worry that Jews will resent it. Christians are a community: how they maintain their communal values is presumably their own business.

Words with Power, published in 1990, is mainly a development of chapters 6,7, and 8 of The Great Code:

The title of this book, from Luke 4:32 [“And they were astonished at his doctrine: for his word was with power”], alludes to many mysterious references to power by Jesus. “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth,” he tells his disciples (Matthew 28:18). This is the post-Easter Christ of the Resurrection, whose power is asserted in striking dramatic contrast with his refusal to exercise power of any kind, spiritual or physical, during the Passion. Divine power can act only in its own context of wisdom and love: in the midst of human folly its operations would have to be entirely inscrutable.

So the relation between words and power is not specified. Frye is content to say that his book “is not about religion as such: it is about the relation of Biblical myth and metaphor to Western verbal culture, more particularly its literature.”

In the first half of the book Frye elucidates a conceit he has flourished in the introduction:

The Bible should be read as literally as any fundamentalist could desire, but the real literal meaning is an imaginative and poetic one.

This is Blake’s Hallelujah Chorus again. To effect such a reading, Frye distinguishes the poetic or imaginative mode of mind from three modes which are commonly allowed to thwart it. These are: the perceptual or descriptive; the conceptual or dialectical; and the rhetorical or ideological. Frye regards the three, in their worldly bearings, as regrettable necessities. The first, as in journalism or other discursive writing, is useful for giving information: it separates subjects from objects, appeals to Lockean common sense, and assumes that what is true is external to the mind that reports it. The second, as in philosophy, is abstract, it uses such words as time, nature, substance, and being, words necessarily “withdrawn to some degree from the external world.” The third, as in government, is the mode of mind used “to form and enforce a social contract.”

There is much, or at least something, to be said for these three, but Frye doesn’t think he was born to say it. Indeed he was often so exasperated by their success in the world that he claimed it amounted to the defeat of mythos by logos. His own care was for the poetic or imaginative mode:

The poetic does not depend on the conscious will to the extent that the other modes do: it depends on a half-voluntary, half-involuntary, integration of the conscious will with other factors in the psyche, factors connected with fantasy, dreaming, let’s pretend, and the like. It expresses itself in myth and metaphor, myth being a story which is not the same thing as a history, and metaphor being a verbal relation which is not that of logic.

Words with Power is therefore an extension of Fearful Symmetry, and an attempt to complete The Great Code; a reading of the Bible in the poetic and imaginative mode shared by Blake and Frye.

In the second part of Words with Power Frye tries to show what this reading entails and how far it reaches into the literature of the West. The Protestant Bible is his text for the axis mundi, “the journey of consciousness to higher and lower worlds.” The journey is undertaken through images. Frye chooses four: mountain, garden, cave, and furnace. Presumably these are samples; he could have made a different choice. He associates Mountain with Hermes, garden with Eros, cave with Adonis, and furnace with Prometheus. Mountain sends him up and down Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28) and to several stairways, scales, and towers in Dante, Milton, Yeats, Eliot, and Joyce:

In Eliot’s early poems there is a curiously urgent emphasis on the highest step of a staircase, where Prufrock and the narrator of “Portrait of a Lady” think of turning back, and where the girl in “La Figlia che Piange,” standing “on the highest pavement of the stair,” remains to haunt her deserting lover. In Ash-Wednesday Eliot joins the Christian tradition of ladders, and follows Dante’s Purgatorio in placing a turning stair at the center of his poem. In Four Quartets there is a great variety of such images, some derived from the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross, whose Ascent of Mount Carmel is one of the best known mystical climbs.

The discussion of the Garden image starts with Creation (Genesis 2), sings the Song of Songs, and tells of love and desire in poems by Spenser, Campion, Marvell, and Blake. The Cave is Frye’s metaphor for various “descent romances,” the story of Tobit and Tobias, Adam and the Fall, the incarnation, and sundry descents in Rousseau, Shelley, and Blake. In the chapter on the furnace Frye has many victims and prophets: Job, Cain and his descendants, Dante, Shakespeare, Spenser, Christopher Smart—“For the furnace shall come up at last according to Abraham’s vision”—Blake again, Melville, Yeats, and Eliot.

The merit of these chapters in Words with Power is that they instruct readers that the words they are reading in a poem or a novel are likely to be images and shadows of divine things. Even in apparently secular literature, the words participate in a poetic tradition which has not entirely forgotten its beginnings in myth. Sunrise is not merely or self-evidently a disk of fire much like a guinea: what it is depends upon the imagination of the one who looks at it. Frye asks his readers to imagine a world different from the one they think they sufficiently know. He asks them to think that literature is “totally intelligible to criticism” and that it presents the appearance of “a cosmos of human phenomena, some of them belonging to that special category of the human that we call the world of the gods.” I have no quarrel with these invitations. But Frye’s book has a serious defect: it often ignores differences between the works it refers to. The stair in Yeats’s “The Tower” differs in many crucial respects from the one in Ash-Wednesday: a more discriminating commentary than Frye’s would clarify the differences.


For about fifteen years—say from 1957 to 1972—Frye was the most influential critic in the English-speaking world. His books were everywhere: citations from them seemed obligatory in critical writing. Like everybody else, I admired Anatomy of Criticism and the books and essays that Frye developed from it. But I didn’t think of emulating him or taking him as master. I was elsewhere engaged; with Kenneth Burke, R.P. Blackmur, and John Crowe Ransom. I can only account for Frye’s influence, during those years, by assuming that teachers and their students were charmed by the idea that literature constituted an adversary world, rival to the mundane one that oppressed them. Frye’s account of the adversary world was enriched by its diverse affiliations: with Frazer and Cassirer for myth, rite, and symbolism; with Whitehead in philosophy; with the theory of imagination from Blake, Coleridge, and Schelling to Yeats. If students read Frye and then, say, Roman Jakobson’s analysis of Shakespeare’s “The Expense of Spirit in a Waste of Shame,” they would be thrilled to discover that a poem is indeed a little world made cunningly enough to shame the disheveled world it ostensibly refers to. Frye also offered a terminology, distinctions, and dichotomies, which could be taught, learned, and practiced. You could write about a poem, using Frye’s categories to start with, and without feeling obliged to do a line-by-line analysis according to the pedagogy of the New Critics. There may be other reasons to account for Frye’s influence, but I don’t know them.

What accounts for his eclipse is easier to say. It is hard to make his exposition of literature convincing: it seems abstract, far removed from the detail of the book one is reading. Many readers hold suspect Frye’s neotheological view of literature; it seems to sustain religious belief even though no incriminating passage can be found. Frye went out of phase if not out of sight when readers lost interest in “first and last things” and set about a political program of one kind or another under the guise of reading and teaching literature. His system was damaged, too, when Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss seized his choice term—Myth—and compromised it. Barthes, even more insistently than Lévi-Strauss, declared that myths were ideologies, instruments of repression designed to bring the masses to order or keep them under continuous sedation. Readers began to doubt Frye’s claim to speak, through literature and criticism, of life as such, independent of its local or historical conditions. They started resenting his claim that a work of literature finds its true life not in itself but in the genre it partially embodies and, further out still, in some archetypal form to which it may be restored. If further resentment may be adduced, it is provoked by Frye’s commitment to Blake and his “double vision”; it implies that other people are sunk in Locke’s sleep, positivists by ill will and inertia.

But I hope the eclipse of Frye is merely temporary. The new books should do something to restore the earlier ones. The Double Vision is a good place to begin, or to begin again: it is brief, colloquial, written with Frye’s precision and verve. But I wouldn’t bet on a revival of Frye. If it is true, as it was for Thomas Mann sixty years ago, that “in our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms,” there is no hope for Frye’s books. If we took them seriously, we would have to change our lives.

Or at least our lives as teachers, critics, readers. I’m not sure that Frye’s books are precisely what we need. It is a matter of urgency for us as teachers to show that literature exists and calls for a particular mode of understanding. A poem or a novel is not a campaign manifesto or an editorial. A work of art is not its content but its “content having become form,” to use a phrase from Herbert Marcuse’s The Aesthetic Dimension. Nor is a work of literature the same as the theme or themes to which it may be opportunistically reduced. Frye is not the most persuasive master in making these points or in providing a context for them. I find Marcuse’s book and Ernst Bloch’s The Spirit of Utopia more convincing than Anatomy of Criticism when I want to assure myself that an aesthetic form of attention is valid. But if I am teaching Marianne Moore’s poem “Marriage” and I find my students wanting to talk about marriage, divorce, sexual equality, and modern contraception, and if a voice whispers to me that we have not yet even begun to read the poem, the voice may well be Frye’s, and the rebuke is timely. But it’s a pity he didn’t show us, more often and in detail, what such a reading would entail.

This Issue

April 9, 1992