Herman Northrop Frye, CC, MA, D.Litt., FRSC (July 14, 1912 – January 23, 1991), a Canadian, was one of the most distinguished literary critics and literary theorists of the twentieth century. Frye was one of the academics, along with F. R. Leavis, I. A. Richards, William Empson and a few others who created the field of modern literary criticism in the English language. He is known for the sheer size and scope of his work which included an architectonic of the field of literary criticism in Anatomy of Criticism as well as two major works on The Bible.
Born in Sherbrooke, Quebec but raised in Moncton, New Brunswick, Frye studied for his undergraduate degree at Victoria College, University of Toronto. He then studied theology at Emmanuel College (part of Victoria College). After a brief stint as student minister in Saskatchewan, he was ordained as a minister of the United Church of Canada. He then studied at the University of Oxford, before returning to Victoria College for his entire professional career. He rose to international prominence as a result of his first book, Fearful Symmetry, published in 1947. Until that point, the prophetic poetry of William Blake had long been poorly understood, considered by some to be delusional ramblings. Frye found in it a system of metaphor derived from Milton's Paradise Lost and from the Bible. Not only was his study of Blake's poetry a major contribution, but in his book, Frye outlined an innovative manner of studying literature that deeply influenced the field of literary criticism for generations to follow, including such contemporary luminaries as Harold Bloom.
Frye engaged in cultural and social criticism and was the recipient of some 39 honorary degrees. His lasting reputation rests principally on the theory of literary criticism that he developed in Anatomy of Criticism, one of the most important works of literary theory published in the twentieth century. Frye was awarded the Royal Society of Canada's Lorne Pierce Medal in 1958. In 1972 he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada.
Frye died in 1991 and was interred in the Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto, Ontario. In 2000, he was honored by the government of Canada with his image on a postage stamp. An international literary festival named in Frye's honor takes place every April in Moncton, New Brunswick. Northrop Frye Hall, part of Victoria College in the University of Toronto, was named in his honor.
The insights gained from his study of William Blake set Frye on his critical path, and shaped his contributions to literary criticism and theory. As the first critic to postulate a systematic theory of criticism, “to work out,” in his own words, “a unified commentary on the theory of literary criticism” , Frye’s primary contribution was to shape the discipline of criticism. Inspired by his work on Blake, Frye first articulated his unified theory ten years after Fearful Symmetry, in the Anatomy of Criticism (1957), which he described as an attempt at a “synoptic view of the scope, theory, principles, and techniques of literary criticism” . Asking “what if criticism is a science as well as an art?” Frye launched the pursuit which was to occupy the rest of his career—that of establishing criticism as a “coherent field of study which trains the imagination quite as systematically and efficiently as the sciences train the reason” .
As A. C. Hamilton outlines in Northrop Frye: Anatomy of his Criticism, Frye’s assumption of coherence for literary criticism carries important implications. Firstly and most fundamentally, it presupposes that literary criticism is a discipline in its own right, independent of literature. Claiming with Mill that “the artist … is not heard but overheard,” Frye insists that
The axiom of criticism must be, not that the poet does not know what he is talking about, but that he cannot talk about what he knows. To defend the right of criticism to exist at all, therefore, is to assume that criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge existing in its own right, with some measure of independence from the art it deals with .
This “declaration of independence”  is necessarily a measured one for Frye. For coherence requires that the autonomy of criticism, the need to eradicate its conception as “a parasitic form of literary expression, … a second-hand imitation of creative power” , sits in dynamic tension with the need to establish integrity for it as a discipline. For Frye, this kind of coherent, critical integrity involves claiming a body of knowledge for criticism that, while independent of literature, is yet constrained by it: “If criticism exists,” he declares, “it must be an examination of literature in terms of a conceptual framework derivable from an inductive survey of the literary field” itself .
In seeking integrity for criticism, Frye rejects what he termed the deterministic fallacy. He defines this as the movement of “a scholar with a special interest in geography or economics [to] express … that interest by the rhetorical device of putting his favorite study into a causal relationship with whatever interests him less” . By attaching criticism to an external framework rather than locating the framework for criticism within literature, this kind of critic essentially “substitute[s] a critical attitude for criticism.” For Frye critical integrity means that “the axioms and postulates of criticism … have to grow out of the art it deals with” .
Taking his cue from Aristotle, Frye’s methodology in defining a conceptual framework begins inductively, “follow[ing] the natural order and begin[ning] with the primary facts” . The primary facts, in this case, are the works of literature themselves. And what did Frye’s inductive survey of these “facts” reveal? Significantly, they revealed “a general tendency on the part of great classics to revert to primitive formulas” . This revelation prompted his next move, or rather, ‘inductive leap’:
I suggest that it is time for criticism to leap to a new ground from which it can discover what the organizing or containing forms of its conceptual framework are. Criticism seems to be badly in need of a coordinating principle, a central hypothesis which, like the theory of evolution in biology, will see the phenomena it deals with as parts of a whole .
Arguing that “criticism cannot be a systematic [and thus scientific] study unless there is a quality in literature which enables it to be so,” Frye puts forward the hypothesis that “just as there is an order of nature behind the natural sciences, so literature is not a piled aggregate of ‘works,’ but an order of words” . This order of words constitutes criticism’s conceptual framework—its coordinating principle.
The recurring primitive formulas Frye noticed in his survey of the “greatest classics” provide literature with an order of words, a “skeleton” which allows the reader “to respond imaginatively to any literary work by seeing it in the larger perspective provided by its literary and social contexts” . Frye identifies these formulas as the “conventional myths and metaphors” which he calls "archetypes" . The archetypes of literature exist, Frye argues, as an order of words, providing criticism with a conceptual framework and a body of knowledge derived not from an ideological system but rooted in the imagination itself. Thus, rather than interpreting literary works from some ideological ‘position’—what Frye calls the “superimposed critical attitude” —criticism instead finds integrity within the literary field itself.
Criticism for Frye, then, is not a task of evaluation—that is, of rejecting or accepting a literary work—but rather simply of recognizing it for what it is and understanding it in relation to other works within the ‘order of words’ . Imposing value judgments on literature belongs, according to Frye, “only to the history of taste, and therefore follows the vacillations of fashionable prejudice” . Genuine criticism “progresses toward making the whole of literature intelligible”  so that its goal is ultimately knowledge and not evaluation. For the critic in Frye's mode, then,
… a literary work should be contemplated as a pattern of knowledge, an act that must be distinguished, at least initially, from any direct experience of the work, … [Thus] criticism begins when reading ends: no longer imaginatively subjected to a literary work, the critic tries to make sense out of it, not by going to some historical context or by commenting on the immediate experience of reading but by seeing its structure within literature and literature within culture .
Once asked whether his critical theory were Romantic, Frye responded, “Oh, it’s entirely Romantic, yes” . It is Romantic in the same sense that Frye attributed Romanticism to Blake: that is, “in the expanded sense of giving a primary place to imagination and individual feeling” . As artifacts of the imagination, literary works, including “the pre-literary categories of ritual, myth, and folk-tale”  form, in Frye’s vision, a potentially unified imaginative experience. He reminds us that literature is the “central and most important extension” of mythology: “… every human society possesses a mythology which is inherited, transmitted and diversified by literature” . Mythology and literature thus inhabit and function within the same imaginative world, one that is “governed by conventions, by its own modes, symbols, myths and genres” . Integrity for criticism requires that it, too, operates within the sphere of the imagination, and not seek an organizing principle in ideology. To do so, claims Frye,
… leaves out the central structural principles that literature derives from myth, the principles that give literature its communicating power across the centuries through all ideological changes. Such structural principles are certainly conditioned by social and historical factors and do not transcend them, but they retain a continuity of form that points to an identity of the literary organism distinct from all its adaptations to its social environment .
Myth therefore provides structure to literature simply because literature as a whole is “displaced mythology” . Hart makes the point well when he states that “For Frye, the story, and not the argument, is at the center of literature and society. The base of society is mythical and narrative and not ideological and dialectical” (19). This idea, which is central in Frye’s criticism, was first suggested to him by Giambattista Vico.
Frye uses the terms ‘centripetal’ and ‘centrifugal’ to describe his critical method. Criticism, Frye explains, is essentially centripetal when it moves inwardly, towards the structure of a text; it is centrifugal when it moves outwardly, away from the text and towards society and the outer world. Lyric poetry, for instance, like John Keats' "Ode to a Grecian Urn," is dominantly centripetal, stressing the sound and movement and imagery of the ordered words. Rhetorical novels, like Uncle Tom's Cabin, are dominantly centrifugal, stressing the thematic connection of the stories and characters to the social order. The "Ode" has centrifugal tendencies, relying for its effects on elements of history and pottery and visual aesthetics. Uncle Tom's Cabin has centripetal tendencies, relying on syntax and lexical choice to delineate characters and establish mood. But the one veers inward, the other pushes outward. Criticism reflects these movements, centripetally focusing on the aesthetic function of literature, centrifugally on the social function of literature.
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” . 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 …” .
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” . 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” .
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” . 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” .
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” .
However, it was Blake, Frye’s “Virgilian guide” , who first awakened Frye to the “mythological frame of our culture” . In fact, Frye claims that his “second book [Anatomy] was contained in embryo in the first [Fearful Symmetry]” . 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” . 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” .
The following is a list of his books, including the volumes in the Collected Works of Northrop Frye, an ongoing project under the editorship of Alvin A. Lee.
All links retrieved December 12, 2018.
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