restricted access Northrop Frye's Writings on the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Volume 17 of Collected Works of Northrop Frye (review)
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Northrop Frye. Northrop Frye’s Writings on the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Volume 17 of Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Edited by Imre Salusinszky University of Toronto Press. xli, 416. $85.00

The title of this volume, number 17 in the collected edition of Frye's works, is somewhat misleading. The volume omits all of Frye's writings on Blake, which appear elsewhere in the edition. At the same time, it contains a number of items that are only indirectly about the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: student reviews of contemporary performances of Gilbert and Sullivan, a later review of a cbc radio adaptation of Goethe's Egmont, and a citation for an honorary degree given to Coleridge scholar and department colleague Kathleen Coburn.

The title may also lead one to think Frye wrote about as much on the eighteenth century as the nineteenth. Yet with the exception of his work on Blake, Frye spent little time on the eighteenth century and almost none on the first half of the period. He did produce one masterful synoptic essay, 'Towards Defining an Age of Sensibility,' from 1956, but did not return in any sustained way to the period until he was invited thirty-five years later to expand his original argument for a special issue of Eighteenth-Century Studies devoted to his work. That essay and its sequel are included in the present volume but, inexplicably, Frye's brief response to the special issue has been left out; this, despite the fact that the response offers enough interesting admissions on Frye's part about his working methods that the editor quotes from it three times in his introduction.

The nineteenth-century section of the volume is anchored by two substantial essays on Dickinson and Dickens, essays justly celebrated in their time and now held up by Imre Salusinszky as counter-evidence to the view that 'Frye's archetypal method can only lead to pigeonholing.' One would think it is rather late in the day for Salusinszky to be defending Frye from this old charge. More importantly, these essays are not the most significant in the volume in terms of what they tell us about the development of Frye's thinking. Frye's approach and assumptions stayed remarkably consistent throughout his career. But he did make one crucial adjustment to his criticism, beginning in his 1963 English Institute essay on Romanticism, 'The Drunken Boat,' and then in its reincarnation five years later as a short book, A Study of English Romanticism, both of which are here reprinted in full. These writings present Frye taking a cultural turn, moving out from the genre-based system he'd elaborated in the Anatomy of Criticism towards a broader consideration of the history of beliefs and images. The Romantics, Frye argued, were the first generation of poets to realize that 'civilization was a purely human artifact,' whose myths were theirs to create rather than merely repeat, and this realization led them to revolutionize 'the language of poetic mythology.' In the Anatomy Frye had addressed the role of change in literary history, but with this later [End Page 576] argument he was attempting more definitively to identify the causes of change and in doing so to add a temporal dimension to his system's spatial charting of the literary cosmos.

The attempt had become necessary after it seemed as if the Anatomy had left little unmapped, but it was not altogether successful. Frye was reluctant to step far outside the literary cosmos or to deal with changes whose causes lay beyond the history of ideas. The result was an argument where Frye's usual brilliant generalizations about literature were displaced by an awkward straining after large explanations that could seem at once gnomic and bathetic: 'The arts illustrate the form of the world that man is trying to create out of the world he is in.' A Study of English Romanticism would be Frye's least-reviewed book and would have negligible impact on the field. It may not have signalled a decline in Frye's intellectual powers – it was published the same year as the Dickens essay – and it was not as...