Raised in Moncton, Frye first came to Toronto to compete in a national typing contest in 1929. He enrolled at Victoria College and, except for 2 years of study at Merton College in Oxford, he remained associated with the college throughout his life, becoming chancellor in 1978. While a graduate student, Frye decided to write a definitive study of Blake's prophetic poems, then considered incoherent, even aberrant. In Fearful Symmetry, Frye showed that Blake deliberately used a regular pattern of symbolism which reflected Milton and ultimately on the Bible. In Anatomy of Criticism, Frye expanded this idea by outlining a verbal universe of repeated archetypes and symbolism and rhetoric that binds all literature together. This universe is divided between desired and abhorred visions, the former expressed by comedy and romance, the latter by tragedy and irony.
Frye's evangelical Methodist background influenced his view that there is in human culture an inherent impulse towards affirming the sunnier vision and implementing it in the world. Ironically his own view of Canadian literature was notoriously sunk in gloom. Frye contended that like the poetry of his own mentor, E.J. PRATT, it is the product of a "garrison mentality" of beleaguered settlers who huddled against the glowering, all-consuming nothingness of the wilderness. Its birth lay in a blighted winter, rather than vibrant spring.
Despite his insistence on the ultimate visionary process of literary studies, Frye has demanded the kind of discipline in study he experienced himself in music, which has an intensely integrated theory. He teaches that literature is not a grab bag of thousands of individual works but an integrated universe of recognizable forms. He always saw a close association of disciplined recognition of form with major literary talent, such as that of his own preferred subjects, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Yeats and Eliot. He spurned a predominantly evaluative approach in criticizing literature because evaluation tends to say more about the critic than the work studied. This led him into endless international controversy, which has obscured his fundamental purpose in trying to establish an objective and universally accepted terminology for literature studies.
Frye's impact was strongest in the mid-1960s, when a new generation of American scholars, notably Harold Bloom and Geoffrey Hartman, were influenced by the ideas of Anatomy. They were attracted by Frye's insistence that literary criticism was not a poor cousin of PHILOSOPHY, PSYCHOLOGY, LINGUISTICS or aesthetics but a symbolically co-ordinated discipline which outlines the shape of the human imagination itself. As such, it has its own authority, which can be useful in the study of other arts and social sciences. While Frye believed his ideas could also help creative writers focus their work, the notion was often abused in the Canadian writing community. The prestige of Frye's thinking nevertheless reinforced a significant mythic trend in Canadian poetry in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in the work of such former students as Jay Macpherson, James Reaney and Margaret Atwood. Frye's own work, which is quite theoretical, is best approached through his lectures in The Educated Imagination (1962).
Author JOHN AYRE
John Ayre, Northrop Frye: A Biography (1989); Robert Denham, ed, A World in a Grain of Sand: Twenty-two Interviews with Northrop Frye (1991); David Cayley, Northrop Frye in Conversation (1992).
Links to Other Sites
Northrop Frye Centre
See a biography and bibliography for Northrop Frye at the website for the Northrop Frye Centre at the University of Toronto.
Anatomy of Criticism
Scroll down the page to see a review of Northrop Frye's "Anatomy of Criticism" from canlit.ca.
Northrop Frye Convocation Address
The full text of a convocation address given by Northrop Frye at the University of British Columbia.
The website for the Frye Festival held each year in Moncton, New Brunswick. Includes a brief biography of Northrop Frye.
House of Anansi
The website for House of Anansi, a Canadian publisher specializing in literary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Check out their extensive online catalogue, reading guides, book excerpts, and more.
Northrop Frye, literary critic
View a September 2, 1973, CBC interview with literary scholar Northrop Frye.
The Educated Imagination
Read excerpts from "The Educated Imagination" by Northrop Frye. Also offers links to related references. From Google Books.
Northrop Frye's Writings on the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
See online excerpts from a wide-ranging collection of Northrop Frye's writings on literature. From Google Books.
Divisions on a Ground: Essays on Canadian Culture
Read selected excerpts from Northrop Frye's "Divisions on a Ground: Essays on Canadian Culture". From Google Books.
Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake
Excerpts from Northrop Frye's first book "Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake". From Google Books.
Northrop Frye in Conversation
Excerpts from "Northrop Frye in Conversation" by Northrop Frye and David Cayley. From Google Books.
Robert Fulford: Sneaking up on Northrop Frye
An article about the life, writing, and thoughts of the legendary Northrop Frye. From the National Post.
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...