Volume 16 of the Collected Works of Northrop Frye brings together all of Frye's writings on John Milton and William Blake, with the exception of Fearful Symmetry (reprinted as volume 14 of the Collected Works).
The collection itself includes five articles on Milton along with The Return of Eden: Five Essays on Milton's Epics, the latter originally presented as the Centennial Lectures delivered at Huron College in 1963 and published separately in 1965. The Blake portion of the volume includes twenty-three articles ranging from short reviews of books on Blake by Mark Shorer, J.G. Davies, Bernard Blackstone, and David Erdman; to significant essays such as 'Blake's Treatment of the Archetype' and 'Poetry and Design in William Blake,' 'Blake after Two Centuries' and 'The Road of Excess'; to addresses delivered by Frye in the mid- to late-1980s on Blake's biblical illustrations and 'Blake's Bible.' [End Page 574]
This volume is crucial reading for anyone interested in Frye for two reasons. First, in drawing together Frye's work on Milton and Blake, the volume affords an excellent opportunity to read Frye on two poets who, as Angela Esterhammer points out in her fine introduction, 'are absolutely central to ... [Frye's] concept of the imaginative structure of Western literature, thought, and society'; she further notes, 'no other poets had a greater lifelong importance to him.'
Second, the various writings span forty years, from 1947 to 1987, with the decade between the appearance of Fearful Symmetry in 1947 and that of the Anatomy of Criticism in 1957 standing as a period of particularly prolific production and creative development. Two of the essays on Milton and thirteen of the pieces on Blake appeared in this crucial period, and reading them through in a sitting reminds one of Frye's own comment on Blake in Fearful Symmetry: 'We have pointed out the unusual organic consistency of Blake's symbolism: we cannot trace it back to a time when its main outlines were not clear to him.' Admittedly, this comment, one that makes for a guiding principle in Frye's monumental study of Blake, has been the source of angst for responsible Blake critics and a licence for misreading among his less careful interpreters; however, the 'unusual organic consistency' of Frye's critical work comes into relief in a volume of this type and allows readers of Frye to witness an emerging and intriguing critical order of words. The structures of imagery at the core of the 'Theory of Myths' essay in the Anatomy appears in different forms in 'Blake's Treatment of the Archetype' and 'Notes for a Commentary on Milton' and points forward to the chapter on Metaphor in The Great Code; the convergence of criticism, coherence, and creativity appears throughout the essays, but particularly in The Return of Eden, 'Literature as Context: Milton's Lycidas,' 'The Road of Excess,' and 'The Keys to the Gates'; and the 'framework of ideas' or 'framework of images' setting out four levels of existence appears in a number of guises in a number of the essays.
The collection is well edited and Esterhammer's introduction offers an excellent overview of Frye's work on Milton and Blake. Particularly interesting is the concluding commentary on the present relevance of Frye to Blake studies and to criticism in general. Esterhammer notes the reluctance of recent Blake critics to speak 'as thoroughly from Blake's perspective and from within his world as Frye did' and claims that current stress on 'diversity, difference, and regionalism' makes for an uneasy context for criticism with an 'unusual organic consistency.' Yet the inclusion of two different versions of 'Blake's Reading of the Book of Job' illustrates Frye's ability for self-reflection, self-reassessment, and self-correction, and demonstrates that organic consistency still allows for critical difference.
John B. Pierce, Department of English, Queen’s University