Northrop Frye

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Man creates what he calls history as a screen to conceal the workings of the apocalypse from himself.

Herman Northrop Frye (14 July 191223 January 1991) was a Canadian literary critic and literary theorist, considered one of the most influential of the 20th century.


Nature is inside art as its content, not outside as its model.
  • The twentieth century saw an amazing development of scholarship and criticism in the humanities, carried out by people who were more intelligent, better trained, had more languages, had a better sense of proportion, and were infinitely more accurate scholars and competent professional men than I. I had genius. No one else in the field known to me had quite that.
    • "Statement for the Day of My Death"
  • Nature is inside art as its content, not outside as its model.
    • Fables of Identity (1963)
  • The fundamental act of criticism is a disinterested response to a work of literature in which all one's beliefs, engagements, commitments, prejudices, stampedings of pity and terror, are ordered to be quiet. We are now dealing with the imaginative, not the existential, with the "let this be," not with "this is," and no work of literature is better by virtue of what it says than any other work.
    • The Well-Tempered Critic, p. 140
  • Teaching literature is impossible; that is why it is difficult.
    • The Stubborn Structure, p. 84
  • The fact that creative powers come from an area of the mind that seems to be independent of the conscious will, and often emerge with a good deal of emotional disturbance in their wake, provides the chief analogy between prophecy and the arts...Some people pursue wholeness and integration, others get smashed up, and fragments are rescued from the smash of an intensity that the wholeness and integration people do not reach.
    • "The Secular Scripture" and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 1976–1991, p. 164
  • There is a curious law of art...that even the attempt to reproduce the act of seeing, when carried out with sufficient energy, tends to lose its realism and take on the unnatural glittering intensity of hallucination.
    • “Design as a Principle in the Arts”, The Critical Path and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 1963–1975, p. 232
  • Every human society possesses a mythology which is inherited, transmitted and diversified by literature.
  • Read Blake or go to hell, that's my message to the modern world.
    • Letter to Helen Kemp, 1935, The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, 1932-1939, (1996), p. 1:426

Fearful Symmetry : A Study of William Blake (1947)[edit]

  • I wrote Fearful Symmetry during the Second World War, and hideous as the time was, it provided some parallels with Blake's time which were useful for understanding Blake's attitude to the world. Today, now that reactionary and radical forces alike are once more in the grip of the nihilistic psychosis that Blake described so powerful in Jerusalem, one of the most hopeful signs is the immensely increased sense of the urgency and immediacy of what Blake had to say.
    • Preface of the 1969 edition of Fearful Symmetry : A Study of William Blake (1947)
  • ...there is something about time and space that is not real, and something about us that is. However man may have tumbled into this world of indefinite space, he does not belong to it at all. Real space for him is the eternal here; where we are is always the center of the universe, and the circumference of the universe, just as real time is the 'eternal Now' of our personal experience. (p. 46)

Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (1957)[edit]

  • A reader who quarrels with postulates, who dislikes Hamlet because he does not believe that there are ghosts or that people speak in pentameters, clearly has no business in literature. (p. 70)

Polemical Introduction[edit]

  • A public that tries to do without criticism, and asserts that it knows what it wants or likes, brutalizes the arts and loses its cultural memory. Art for art's sake is a retreat from criticism which ends in an impoverishment of civilized life itself.
  • The only way to forestall the work of criticism is through censorship, which has the same relation to criticism that lynching has to justice.
  • What if criticism is a science as well as an art? Not a "pure" or "exact" science, of course, but these phrases belong to a nineteenth-century cosmology which is no longer with us.
  • Those who are concerned with the arts are often asked questions, not always sympathetic ones, about the use or value of what they are doing. It is probably impossible to answer such questions directly, or at any rate to answer the people who ask them.
  • Physics is an organized body of knowledge about nature, and a student of it says that he is learning physics, not nature. Art, like nature, has to be distinguished from the systematic study of it, which is criticism.
  • Literature is not a subject of study, but an object of study.

Mythical Phase: Symbol as Archetype[edit]

  • The pursuit of beauty is much more dangerous nonsense than the pursuit of truth or goodness, because it affords a stronger temptation to the ego.
  • In our day the conventional element in literature is elaborately disguised by a law of copyright pretending that every work of art is an invention distinctive enough to be patented.
  • Just as a new scientific discovery manifests sometimes that was already latent in the order of nature, and at the same time is logically related to the total structure of the existing science, so the new poem manifests something that was already latent in the order of words.
  • Popular art is normally decried as vulgar by the cultivated people of its time; then it loses favour with its original audience as a new generation up; then it begins to merge into the softer lighting of "quaint" and cultivated people become interested in it, and finally it begins to take on the archaic dignity of the primitive.

Anagogic Phase: Symbol as Monad[edit]

  • Between religion's "this is" and poetry's "but suppose this is" there must always be some kind of tension, until the possible and the actual meet at infinity.
  • It is of the essence of imaginative culture that is transcends the limits both of the naturally possible and of the morally acceptable.
  • Culture's essential service to a religion is to destroy intellectual idolatry, the recurrent tendency in religion to replace the object of its worship with its present understanding and forms of approach to that object.

Formal Phase: Symbol as Image[edit]

  • It is clear that all verbal structures with meaning are verbal imitations of that elusive psychological and physiological process known as thought, a process stumbling through emotional entanglements, sudden irrational convictions, involuntary gleams of insight, rationalized prejudices, and blocks of panic and inertia, finally to reach a completely incommunicable intuition.

The Educated Imagination (1963)[edit]

Transcriptions of the 1962 CBC Massey Lectures.
  • The kind of problem that literature raises is not the kind that you ever 'solve'. Whether my answers are any good or not, they represent a fair amount of thinking about the questions.
    • Talk 1, The Motive For Metaphor, p. 1
  • A person who knows nothing about literature may be an ignoramus, but many people don't mind being that.
    • Talk 1, The Motive For Metaphor, p. 2
  • Writers don't seem to benefit much by the advance of science, although they thrive on superstitions of all kinds.
    • Talk 1, The Motive For Metaphor, p. 7
  • No human society is too primitive to have some kind of literature. The only thing is that primitive literature hasn't yet become distinguished from other aspects of life: it's still embedded in religion, magic and social ceremonies.
    • Talk 2, The Singing School, p. 13
  • This story of loss and regaining of identity is, I think, the framework of all literature.
    • Talk 2, The Singing School, p. 21
  • The world of literature is a world where there is no reality except that of the human imagination.
    • Talk 4, The Keys To Dreamland, p. 40
  • No matter how much experience we may gather in life, we can never in life get the dimension of experience that the imagination gives us. Only the arts and sciences can do that, and of these, only literature gives us the whole sweep and range of human imagination as it sees itself.
    • Talk 4, The Keys To Dreamland, p. 42
  • Finnegans Wake is not a book to read, but a book to decipher: as Joyce says, it's about a dreamer, but it's addressed to an ideal reader suffering from ideal insomnia.
    • Talk 4, The Keys To Dreamland, p. 43
  • The fable says that the tortoise won in the end, which is consoling, but the hare shows a good deal of speed and few signs of tiring.
    • Talk 5, Verticals Of Adam, p. 55
  • Literature speaks the language of the imagination, and the study of literature is supposed to train and improve the imagination.
    • Talk 6, The Vocation Of Eloquence, p. 57
  • We find rhetorical situations everywhere in life, and only our imaginations can get us out of them.
    • Talk 6, The Vocation Of Eloquence, p. 58
  • The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in.
    • Talk 6, The Vocation Of Eloquence, p. 60
  • My subject is the educated imagination, and education is something that affects the whole person, not bits and pieces of him .
    • Talk 6, The Vocation Of Eloquence, p. 66

The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (1982)[edit]

Man lives, not directly or nakedly in nature like the animals, but within a mythological universe, a body of assumptions and beliefs developed from his existential concerns.
  • Those who do succeed in reading the Bible from beginning to end will discover that at least it has a beginning and an end, and some traces of a total structure.
    • Introduction, p. xiii
  • Man lives, not directly or nakedly in nature like the animals, but within a mythological universe, a body of assumptions and beliefs developed from his existential concerns.
    • Introduction, p. xviii
  • The operations of the human mind are also controlled by words of power, formulas that become a focus of mental activity.
    • Chapter One, p. 7
  • The objective world is the order of nature, thinking or reflection follows the suggestions of sense experience, and words are the servomechanisms of reflection.
    • Chapter One, p. 13
  • The first thing that confronts us in studying verbal structures is that they are arranged sequentially, and have to be read or listened to in time.
    • Chapter Two, p. 31
  • It seems clear that the Bible belongs to an area of language in which metaphor is functional, and where we have to surrender precision for flexibility.
    • Chapter Three, p. 56
  • Failure to grasp centrifugal meaning is incomplete reading; failure to grasp centripetal meaning is incompetent reading.
    • Chapter Three, p. 58
  • The primary and literal meaning of the Bible, then, is its centripetal or poetic meaning.
    • Chapter Three, p. 61
  • Everything that happens in the Old Testament is a "type" or adumbration of something that happens in the New Testament, and the whole subject is therefore called typology, though it is a typology in a special sense.
    • Chapter Four, p. 79
  • We have revolutionary thought whenever the feeling "life is a dream" becomes geared to an impulse to awaken from it.
    • Chapter Four, p. 83
  • I see a sequence of seven main phases: creation,revolution or exodus (Israel in Egypt), law, wisdom, prophecy, gospel, and apocalypse.
    • Chapter Five, p. 106
  • Man creates what he calls history as a screen to conceal the workings of the apocalypse from himself.
    • Chapter Five, p. 136
  • We notice as the Bible goes on, the area of scared space shrinks.
    • Chapter Six, p. 158
  • Metaphors of unity and integration take us only so far, because they are derived from the finiteness of the human mind.
    • Chapter Six, p. 168
  • The entire Bible, viewed as a "divine comedy," is contained within a U-shaped story of this sort, one in which man, as explained, loses the tree and water of life at the beginning of Genesis and gets them back at the end of Revelation.
    • Chapter Seven, p. 169
  • The Book of Revelation, difficult as it may be for "literalists," becomes much simpler when we read it typologically , as a mosiac of allusions to Old Testament prophecy.
    • Chapter 8, p. 199
  • The supremacy of the verbal over the monumental has something about it of the supremacy of life over death.
    • Chapter 8, p. 200
  • Literally, the Bible is a gigantic myth, a narrative extending over the whole of time from creation to apocalypse, unified by a body of recurring imagery that "freezes" into a single metaphor cluster, the metaphors all being identified with the body of the Messiah, the man who is all men, the totality logoi who is one Logos, the grain of sand that is the world.
    • Chapter 8, p. 224
  • The bedrock of doubt is the total nothingness of death. Death is a leveler, not because everybody dies, but because nobody understands what death means.
    • Chapter 8, p. 230
  • Man is constantly building anxiety-structures, like geodesic domes, around his social and religious institutions.
    • Chapter 8, p. 232

Late Notebooks, 1982–1990: Architecture of the Spiritual World (2002)[edit]

Edited by Robert D. Denham
  • My greater simplicity came from a deeper level than the labyrinth of the brain. (1:61-2)
  • Art is not simply an identity of illusion and reality, but a counter-illusion: its world is a material world, but the material of an intelligible spiritual world. (1:73)
  • Man is born lost in a forest. If he is obsessed by the thereness of the forest, he stays lost and goes in circles; if he assumes the forest is not there, he keeps bumping into trees. The wise man looks for the invisible line between the "is" and the "is not" which is the way through. The street in the city, the highway in the desert, the pathway of the planets through the labyrinth of the stars, are parallel forms. (1:111)
  • All texts are incarnational, and the climax of the entire Christian Bible, "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us," is the most logocentric sentence ever written.(1:154)
  • The Great Code was a silly and sloppy book. It was also a work of very great genius. The point is that genius is not enough. A book worthy of God and of Helen [Frye's wife] must do better than that. (1:160)
  • A purely individualized myth is an obsession, sometimes a psychosis. A purely socialized myth is an ideology, which sooner or later also becomes obsessive or psychotic. A myth that has either the direct current of transcendence or the alternating current of imagination rises clear of this grisly antithesis. (2:716)
  • One doesn't bother to believe the credible: the credible is believed already, by definition. There's no adventure of the mind. (1:313)
  • Finnegans Wake is a kind of hypnagogic structure, words reverberating on themselves without pointing to objects...This may be the hallucinatory verbal world within which God speaks. (1:399)
  • We are always in the place of beginning; there is no advance in infinity. (1:281)
  • Yesterday's kook book becomes tomorrow's standard text. (2:495)
  • The real Bible is a sealed book, an apocryphon, a book not to be opened (mentally) until its time has come. (2:568)
  • The worst thing we can say about God is that he knows all. The best thing we can say of him is that, on the whole, he tends to keep his knowledge to himself. (2:568)
  • If you haven't got an excremental vision you have no business setting up as a major satirist. (2:578-9)
  • The mark of a great writer: who sees his own time, but with a detachment that makes him communicable to other ages. (2:579)
  • I give the impression of elusiveness sometimes, and rightly, because I really do have an inner chamber in my temple I'm not mature enough to open. (2:618)

The "Third Book" Notebooks of Northrop Frye, 1964–1972 (2002)[edit]

Edited by Michael Dolzani
  • What’s transcendental in Blake is not the statically geometrical, but the sense of arrested energy: the wriggling vines & snakes, flames & the like...It’s an expression of the belief that every object is an event. (p. 14)
  • I have never had the sort of experience the mystics talk about, never felt a revelation of reality through or beyond nature, never felt like Adam in Paradise, never felt, in direct experience, that the world is wholly other than it seems...The nearest I have come to such experiences are glimpses of my own creative powers...and these are moments or intervals of inspiration rather than vision. I’m not sure that I want it unless I can have clarity about other things with it. (p. 60–1)
  • I must have God on my own terms, because God on somebody else’s terms is an idol. (p. 61)
  • The objective world is only “material”: it’s there, but it could be there in a great many different forms and aspects...Even here there [are] still possibilities: it can’t be just anything. But perhaps extracting a finite schema from the variety of mythologies, literatures, or religions might contribute something to the understanding of what some of these possibilities could be. The individual can’t create his own world, except in art or fantasy: society can only create a myth of concern. What fun if one could get just a peep at what some of the other worlds are that a new humanity could create–no, live in. (p. 287-8)

Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts (2003)[edit]

Edited by Robert D. Denham
  • One of the major activities of art consists in sharpening the edge of platitudes to make them enter the soul as realities. (p. 7)
  • I don`t want the reduction of religion to aesthetics, but the abolition of aesthetics & incorporating of art with the Word of God. (p. 7)
  • Genius is a power of the soul and that powers of the soul can be developed by everyone. (p. 8)
  • Under the stimulation of a "great age" or certain period of clarity in art a wider diffusion of genius becomes actual suggests to me that it is always potential. (p. 8)
  • The soul is an immaculate virgin...Then it goes out and gets fucked by the world all day long & staggers back a baggy-eyed old whore, still hoping that after a sleep the Moment of purification will come again. (p. 27)
  • If I had been on the hills of Bethlehem in the year one, I do not think I should have heard angels singing because I do not hear them now, & there is no reason to suppose that they have stopped.(p. 74)
  • Nobody seriously thinks of television as a viewer's mode of perception...No matter how much he wants people to look at his product, the advertiser doesn't realize that television is [the viewer's] way of looking at him, & not his way of reaching them. (p. 95-6)
  • The "flow of information," which is mostly misinformation, is actually a presentation of myths. And people are increasingly rejecting the prescribed myths & developing their own counter-myths. (p. 97)
  • An aphorism is not a cliche: it penetrates & bites. It has wit, and consequently an affinity with satire...Christ speaks in aphorisms, not because they are alive, but because he is. (p. 108)
  • Education is a set of analogies to a genuinely human existence, of which the arts are the model. Merely human life is of course a demonic analogy or parody of genuinely human life. (p. 149)
  • Nothing is more remarkable in the Bible than the absence of argument...Argument is internal continuity. So is logical sequence in narrative: in the Bible the connectives are just "and." (p. 200)
  • A community`s art is its spiritual vision. (p. 206)
  • Belief has nothing to do with knowledge, & credo ut intelligam [I believe in order that I might understand] is horseshit. (p. 209)
  • In imaginative thought there is no real knowledge of anything but similarities (ultimately identities): knowledge of differences is merely a transition to a new knowledge of similarities. (p. 215)
  • We read (experience) a text linearly, forgetting most of it while we read; then we study it as a simultaneous unit. (p. 325)

Diaries of Northrop Frye (2001)[edit]

  • I'm a Blakean, a visionary disciple...But I'm always torn between feeling that the cock crows because he has a vision of the dawn, or because he feels stimulated by standing on top of a pile horseshit. (1942, entry #24)

Interviews with Northrop Frye (2008)[edit]

Edited by Jean O'Grady
  • A literary critic of experience never defines anything. (p. 4)
  • [Students] have to learn that ideas do not exist until they have been incorporated into words. Until that point you don’t know whether you are pregnant or just have gas on the stomach. (p. 746)
  • You can never get rid of God as long as you continue to use words, because all words are part of the Word. (p. 871)
  • I think that everybody tries to produce what Marshall McLuhan called a ‘counter environment.’ That is, you set yourself in opposition to the kind of mass tendencies which the media set up. That’s what’s so important about the humanities in the uni­versity...There’s something of a personal dialogue between one human being and another. And the fact that this dialogue is being car­ried out in the teeth of all the mass emotion techniques of the electronic media is a very important side of the humanities.
    • "Canadian Energy: Dialogues on Creativity: Northrop Frye." Descant 12, no. 32-3 (1981).


Frye wrote 76 notebooks over 50 years. The citation format is [Notebook #.Paragraph #].
  • I have a notion that a prolonged period of solitude & fasting would produce hallucinations, & that these would be mandalas and such: they would be the essential forms in which "outer" perceptions are organized. (18.23)
  • Give me a place to stand, and I will include the world. (19.333)
  • The total simultaneous pattern always extend from alpha to omega. (21.190)
  • Even the biggest book is fragmentary: to finish anything, you have to cut your losses. Nobody every writes his dream book. (33.54)
  • [What Poets Say:]
They say that everything is everywhere at once.
They say that all nature is alive.
They say that creation is dialectic, separating heaven & hell.
They say that the material world neither is nor isn't, but disappears.
They say that the created world neither is nor isn't, but appears.
They say that the containing form of real experience is myth.
They say that time & space are disappearing categories.
They say that men are Man, as gods are God. (18.121)
  • The disinterested imaginative core of mythology is what develops into literature, science, philosophy. Religion is applied mythology. (21.101)
  • One should have bigger & better conversions everyday, like a mechanized phoenix. (21.495)
  • Metaphor is the language of immanence; metonymy of transcendence. (11C.21)
  • Continuous prose suggests complete identification with the representing, observing, immersing-in-object self. Aphorisms suggest a richer & varied personality made up more of internal conflicts and decisions. An epiphanic sequence suggests the highest mystery of personality. (33.47)

Quotes about Northrop Frye[edit]

  • What was needed was a literary theory which, while preserving the formalist bent of New Criticism, its dogged attention to literature as aesthetic object rather than social practice, would make something a good deal more systematic and 'scientific' out of all this. The answer arrived in 1957, in the shape of the Canadian Northrop Fryes mighty 'totalization' of all literary genres, Anatomy of Criticism.
  • Norrie is not struggling for his place in the sun. He is the sun.
  • Giving further impetus to literary study of the Bible was the work of several scholars of English and comparative literature, who extended their expertise in the analysis of literature to biblical texts. Most prominent were Northrop Frye ( The Great Code: The Bible and Literature), Robert Alter (The Art of Biblical Poetry), and Frank Kermode (The Genesis of Secrecy, a study of the Gospel of Mark).
  • Northrop Frye / Whatta guy / Reads more books than you or I
    • Toronto October. 1986: 8. Part of an anonymous poem circulated among Victoria College students.

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