- Words with Power: Being a Second Study of 'The Bible and Literature.' Volume 26 of Collected Works of Northrop Frye
Words with Power was published in late 1990, shortly before Frye's death in January 1991. This new edition, volume 26 of the Collected Works, has been carefully edited by Michael Dolzani, who regards it as 'Frye's most openly visionary book since Fearful Symmetry, the work with which it has the strongest affinities.' Are there degrees of visionariness in Frye's writings, I wonder, degrees of openness? According to the Editor's Introduction, 'Frye is one of the few authentic visionaries around - authentic implying a vision that is at once sane and intellectually grounded.' Frye may be that; but how, in what sense, can the vision of a visionary be 'intellectually grounded'?
In chapter 3 of Words with Power, 'Identity and Metaphor,' Frye introduces the 'visionary tradition' running through Dionysius the Areopagite, John Scotus Erigena, Meister Eckart, and Jacob Boehme, among others. 'Their central axiom is normally something like "one becomes what one beholds."' In Fearful Symmetry, Frye writes, '[M]ystical poets . . . are very rare birds, and most of the poets generally called mystics might better be called visionaries, which is not quite the same thing . . . . A visionary creates, or dwells in, a higher spiritual world in which the objects of perception in this one have become transfigured and charged with a new intensity of symbolism.' For 'visionaries' like Blake, Frye adds, 'The true God . . . is not the orthodox Creator, the Jehovah or Isvara or Nobodaddy who must always be involved with either an eternal substance or an eternal nothingness, depending on the taste of the theologian, but an unattached creative Word who is free from both. Unity with this God could be attained only by an effort of vision.' The 'eternal substance' Frye alludes to may well be the 'substance' of the Athanasian Creed.
The OED defines the noun visionary as '[o]ne who has visions; one to whom unknown or future things are revealed in visions,' and '[o]ne who indulges in fantastic ideas or schemes; an unpractical speculator or enthusiast.' Blake called himself a 'visionary,' signing a letter to Hayley, 'your affectionate, / Enthusiastic hope-fostered visionary, / William Blake' (E 715). He explains in another context, 'The Prophets describe what they saw in Vision as real and existing men whom they saw with their imaginative and immortal organs; the Apostles the same . . . . A Spirit and a Vision are not, as the modern philosophy supposes, a cloudy vapour or a nothing' (E 541).
The prophet Isaiah saw in a vision the glory of the Lord: 'I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; Above it stood the [End Page 513] seraphims . . . . And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory' (Isa. 6:1-3; AV). John the Divine saw in a vision the throne 'set in heaven' and the 'four beasts full of eyes . . . saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come' (Rev. 4:2ff.). Ezekiel too saw (with his imaginative and immortal organ) 'the four living creatures,' the four hayyot, whose 'appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel' (Ezek. 1:4ff.). The prophets Jeremiah, Obadiah, Nahum, and Habakkuk had visions: 'And the Lord answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables' (Hab. 2:2-3). On the road to Damascus, Saul/Paul saw a heavenly light, was blinded, and fell from his horse to the ground (Acts 9:3-6). Daniel saw the writing on the wall.
From time to time, Frye's notebooks refer to a handful of privileged moments - moments of 'intuition,' 'vision,' 'illumination,' 'inspiration,' 'epiphany,' 'enlightenment' - that he tends to identify by place name: Seattle, St Clair Avenue, Edmonton. But he never claimed to be...