- Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, and: Notebooks on Romance
This year sees the publication of two volumes in the Collected Edition of the Works of Northrop Frye. The first is Frye's magisterial Fearful Symmetry, a book that revolutionized our understanding of William Blake and almost single-handedly brought the poet from the margin of English literature and criticism to its centre. For Frye, Blake was not the half-mad painter inhabiting his own private mythology that had been the popular nineteenth-century image of the poet, but instead the archetypal poet whose fictional universe spoke to the fundamental needs of the imagination. As Ian Singer suggests in his introduction, Frye's great ambition in this study was to see Blake as 'a microcosm of the universal Human Imagination.' In Blake, Frye found a poet who spoke most powerfully to his own understanding of what the imagination is and how it should function in the world. Both shared a deep suspicion of religious institutions that smother creativity and spirit. So profoundly did Blake speak to Frye ' s own need to recover a more vital religious imagination and literary tradition that it has often been difficult to distinguish Blake the poet from Frye the critic, each having in many senses been brought into being by Fearful Symmetry. There, Frye developed a unique form of cultural criticism, built upon the willingness of the critic to surrender completely to the language, images, and ideas of a poet, this being the precondition for finding the ground of the imagination from which one could then see the universal mythic elements of all literature, the symbolic code that is the language of the Western literary imagination. The publication of this new edition of Fearful Symmetry, Frye's debut as a critic, is thus a welcome event. Singer has provided a useful introduction, which stresses the importance of the book in Romantic studies and in Frye's career as a literary critic. The editorial activity in this edition is minimal and non-intrusive. Apart from occasional notes of clarification and an expanded index, Nicholas Halmi, in accordance with the principles of the Collected [End Page 383] Works, has introduced Canadian spellings and corrected misprints, solecisms, or factual errors.
Frye was deeply interested in romance throughout his life, and everything that he wrote can be seen, in the widest sense, as relating to what the imagination desires and plots to achieve. Yet readers who open the Notebooks on Romance thinking that they will find there a clear or extensive discussion of 'romance' will be disappointed. Composed of notebooks and notes drawn from different periods in Frye's life, this volume has a title that is something of a misnomer, little more than an editorial fiction (or perhaps an editorial romance) aimed at giving ostensible unity to a miscellaneous assortment of writings that did not obviously belong anywhere else in the series. Part 1 brings together seven notebooks roughly written sometime between 1944 and 1950, after Frye had completed Fearful Symmetry. Part 2 includes a notebook written sometime between 1964 and 1972; a notebook and notes written while Frye was working towards publishing Secular Scripture (1972-77); and three sets of notes written in 1987. In the index, 'romance' appears incidentally on less than fifty pages. In fact, the only place where there is any major discussion of romance is in the editor's wonderfully erudite introduction, which provides a thorough account of the changing meaning of 'romance' in Frye's thought. That being said, this is nevertheless a very engaging book, which provides the reader with the pleasure of seeing Frye's ideas in a raw state, still coloured by the excitement of intellectual discovery.
Even more interesting to me was the opportunity of seeing Frye starting on intellectual paths that...