Northrop Frye


Northrop Frye : biography

July 14, 1912 – January 23, 1991

While some critics or schools of criticism emphasize one movement over the other, for Frye, both movements are essential: "criticism will always have two aspects, one turned toward the structure of literature and one turned toward the other cultural phenomena that form the social environment of literature" (Critical Path 25). He would therefore agree, at least in part, with the New Critics of his day in their centripetal insistence on structural analysis. But for Frye this is only part of the story: "It is right," he declares, "that the first effort of critical apprehension should take the form of a rhetorical or structural analysis of a work of art. But a purely structural approach has the same limitation in criticism that it has in biology." That is, it doesn’t develop "any explanation of how the structure came to be what it was and what its nearest relatives are. Structural analysis brings rhetoric back to criticism, but we need a new poetics as well . . ." (Archetypes 1447).

Archetypal criticism as "a new poetics"

For Frye, this "new poetics" is to be found in the principle of the mythological framework, which has come to be known as ‘archetypal criticism’. It is through the lens of this framework, which is essentially a centrifugal movement of backing up from the text towards the archetype, that the social function of literary criticism becomes apparent. Essentially, "what criticism can do," according to Frye, "is awaken students to successive levels of awareness of the mythology that lies behind the ideology in which their society indoctrinates them" (Stingle 4). That is, the study of recurring structural patterns grants students an emancipatory distance from their own society, and gives them a vision of a higher human state — the Longinian sublime — that is not accessible directly through their own experience, but ultimately transforms and expands their experience, so that the poetic model becomes a model to live by. In what he terms a "kerygmatic mode," myths become "myths to live by" and metaphors "metaphors to live in," which ". . . not only work for us but constantly expand our horizons, [so that] we may enter the world of [kerygma or transformative power] and pass on to others what we have found to be true for ourselves" (Double Vision 18).

Because of its important social function, Frye felt that literary criticism was an essential part of a liberal education, and worked tirelessly to communicate his ideas to a wider audience. "For many years now," he wrote in 1987, "I have been addressing myself primarily, not to other critics, but to students and a nonspecialist public, realizing that whatever new directions can come to my discipline will come from their needs and their intense if unfocused vision" (Auguries 7). It is therefore fitting that his last book, published posthumously, should be one that he describes as being "something of a shorter and more accessible version of the longer books, The Great Code and Words with Power," which he asks his readers to read sympathetically, not "as proceeding from a judgment seat of final conviction, but from a rest stop on a pilgrimage, however near the pilgrimage may now be to its close" (Double Vision Preface).

Influences: Vico and Blake

Vico, in The New Science, posited a view of language as fundamentally figurative, and introduced into Enlightenment discourse the notion of the role of the imagination in creating meaning. For Vico, poetic discourse is prior to philosophical discourse; philosophy is in fact derivative of poetry. Frye readily acknowledged the debt he owed to Vico in developing his literary theory, describing him as "the first modern thinker to understand that all major verbal structures have descended historically from poetic and mythological ones" (Words with Power xii).

However, it was Blake, Frye’s "Virgilian guide" (Stingle 1), who first awakened Frye to the "mythological frame of our culture" (Cotrupi 14). In fact, Frye claims that his "second book [Anatomy] was contained in embryo in the first [Fearful Symmetry]" (Stubborn Structure 160). For it was in reflecting on the similarity between Blake and Milton that Frye first stumbled upon the "principle of the mythological framework," the recognition that "the Bible was a mythological framework, cosmos or body of stories, and that societies live within a mythology" (Hart 18). Blake thus led Frye to the conviction that the Bible provided Western societies with the mythology which informed all of Western literature. As Hamilton asserts, "Blake’s claim that ‘the Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art’ became the central doctrine of all [Frye’s] criticism" (39). This ‘doctrine’ found its fullest expression in Frye’s appropriately named The Great Code, which he described as "a preliminary investigation of Biblical structure and typology" whose purpose was ultimately to suggest "how the structure of the Bible, as revealed by its narrative and imagery, was related to the conventions and genres of Western literature" (Words with Power xi).