- Northrop Frye's Notebooks on Renaissance Literature
In the preface to Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Northrop Frye says that his synoptic study of literature and its criticism began as a study of Edmund Spenser's traditional symbolism so as to complement his study, in Fearful Symmetry (1947), of the private symbolism of Blake. As he addressed some preliminary theoretical issues, these expanded to become a different book. The original project on Spenser was reduced to an article, 'The Structure of Imagery in The Faerie Queene,' a brilliant scherzo on the original design. [End Page 368]
This picture, although accurate in outline, is complicated when we follow Frye's labours from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s as they appear in this volume, which collects six notebooks and five sets of typed notes on Renaissance literature, divided into three parts: a running commentary on two-thirds of The Faerie Queene, notes on the symbolism of Shakespeare's plays and on the dramatic tradition from Aristophanes to Shaw, and notes on lyric poetry and non-fiction prose. The intellectual framework is partly disclosed (more elaborate ones appear in the notes) in the first item in this volume: the Guggenheim Fellowship Application Frye submitted in 1949, which proposed to complete three books – on epic, drama, and prose – amounting, as the editor, Michael Dolzani, says, 'to a complete study of literature up to about 1600.' A fourth volume on 'the breakdown of the literary synthesis that culminated in the Renaissance' was planned to follow, now published as Northrop Frye's Notebooks on Romance, volume 15 of the Collected Works. We're not done yet. These four volumes were to be half of an eight-volume synthesis of modern thought on the model of Spengler and Toynbee, which Frye referred to, with a touch of self-mockery, as an 'ogdoad.'
What happened to these vast designs? After Anatomy of Criticism, Frye wrote the many smaller, more accessible books that these labours made possible: on romance, on Shakespearean comedy and tragedy, on Milton, on education, on creativity, etc., plus the major essay collections, Fables of Identity and Spiritus Mundi. The plans concocted in Frye's late thirties ran up against a life of increasing responsibility and fame, and these classically elegant studies, most of them based on public lectures, resulted. Even so, Frye struggled mightily throughout the 1960s and early 1970s with what he called a 'Third Book' (volume nine of the Collected Works), which was abandoned when he turned to the final major effort of his career: the two-volume study of the Bible, The Great Code (1982) and Words with Power (1990).
The materials in this volume require painstaking editing and copious annotation, an immense labour Dolzani has accomplished triumphantly. The introduction is perhaps less detached from Frye's manner and style of thinking than is ideal for this purpose, but it communicates the enthusiasm one will need for the hard slogging to follow: 385 pages of tightly packed cerebration struggling to organize itself from within.
We watch Frye engaged in the laborious process of hammering his thoughts – which are consistently, often explosively brilliant – into a unity that is still a long way off. We are thus looking at unfinished – and sometimes, as with the Spenser commentary, unfinishable and unfocused – writing; but each of the paragraphs is polished into near-publishable form. Still, Frye talks a good deal to himself – he even tells himself once to shut up. He writes some very funny passages and throws out good zingers – 'the public does not know what it wants, but it knows what [End Page 369] it expects' – of the kind we have come to enjoy in his books. And there's a small but welcome dose of swearing and bad attitude. The erudition is even more impressive than it is in the published books, where he's trying hard to tone it down, and his command of the primary texts is amazing. Throughout the Shakespeare commentary, for...