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  • Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World
  • Linda Munk (bio)
Robert D. Denham . Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual WorldUniversity of Virginia Press. 320. US $45.00

Frye writes in one of the notebooks for The Great Code: 'I'm a Xn [Christian] partly faute de mieux: I see no better faith, & certainly couldn't invent one of my own except out of Xn assumptions.' Robert Denham comments: 'If Frye's "Christian position" is partly faute de mieux, it is partly not, and it would be possible to give an account of Frye's theology, which is often quite explicit.' Subtitled 'Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World,' Denham's new book on Frye does not attempt to give an account of his theology. 'Frye wrote a great deal about the Christian religion ... and a part of the Christian religion is Christian theology. He would doubtless not have much interest in having his "theology" discussed.' (Why would Frye 'not have much interest in having his "theology" discussed'? And why is the word 'theology' in inverted commas?)

Denham 'seeks to make clear the religious ideas found in Frye' (ideas Frye gleaned from books on occultism, theosophy, alchemy, mysticism, kabbalism, cosmic consciousness, Tarot, Hinduism, shamanism, synchronicity, and so on). Denham also sets out to explore Frye's 'visionary religious views.' In the event someone understands those 'religious views' in terms of 'a theological statement ... it represents a theology founded not on history or argument but on the language of myth and metaphor.'

'My Christian position is that of Blake reinforced by Emily Dickinson,' Frye writes in one of the notebooks. According to Denham, Frye 'means that he, like she, has managed to escape from the clutches of priestly authority. Such an escape meant that she was free to make her business circumference ... and able at least to hope that the Nobodaddy-Jehovah of the Old Testament, whom she strongly distrusted, might "refund us finally / Our confiscated gods," as she says in one of her poems.' Ignoring the business of Dickinson's 'escape from the clutches of priestly authority,' we should focus on the phrase Denham quotes (inaccurately) from Poem 1260 [End Page 385] (Johnson's numbering), 'Our confiscated gods.' The last line of Dickinson's poem reads, 'Our confiscated Gods.'

Frye uses the phrase 'confiscated gods' (lower case) at least seven times. In his notebooks, 'the four confiscated gods' are the gods of pagan antiquity, Hermes, Eros, Adonis, and Prometheus. 'Nowadays,' he writes in another notebook, 'we have a stronger feeling about the reality of polytheism, or what Emily Dickinson calls refunding our confiscated gods.' Language, we read, 'seems to be refunding our confiscated gods.' And: 'Sooner or later God must refund us our confiscated gods.' And: 'The doctrine that if we have one God we can't possibly have many gods is a construct of the finite human mind, and God probably regards it as horseshit. Sooner or later God must refund us our confiscated gods.'

As a close reading of Poem 1260 will confirm, Dickinson is not writing about the death of the pagan gods; she's writing about the death of people she adores. She wants them back. I have looked carefully at Johnson's and at Franklin's three-volume editions of Dickinson's poems, and they agree: the two fair copies of Poem 1260 (numbered 1314 by Franklin) read, 'He will refund us finally / Our confiscated Gods.' Dickinson tended to lean on etymology and on her 'lexicon': as she certainly knew, the Latin word confiscare means 'to lay up in a chest'; 'to seize upon for the public treasury, to confiscate' (Lewis and Short). God has appropriated the poet's friends and family (her 'Gods,' whom she worshipped) to his treasury; the poet wants her treasures returned, refunded. Frye, convinced that Dickinson's poem alludes to the 'reality' of polytheism, has turned her upper-case 'Gods' into gods.

According to Denham, Dickinson 'strongly distrusted' 'the Nobodaddy-Jehovah of the Old Testament.' Used in that context, the verb 'distrusted' echoes (by way of Frye, I suspect) a letter of condolence Dickinson wrote about 1884: 'When Jesus tells us...


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