Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Northrop Frye's Fables of Identity - the conventions of literature contain the experience

The latest book in my reading of classics of literary criticism is Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (1963) by Northrop Frye, a collection of magazine writing and so on from the 1950s and early 1960s that serves as a sequel to another Frye classic, one that I have not read, Anatomy of Criticism (1957).  “That very theoretical book stated in its preface that a work of practical criticism was needed to complement it” (p. 1), and this is in effect that.  This, a different “this,” the quotation, explains why I wanted to read Fables of Identity more than Anatomy.

The essays take as their subjects Spenser (specifically The Faerie Queene), Shakespeare (the sonnets, The Winter’s Tale), Milton (“Lycidas”), Blake, Byron, Dickinson, Yeats, Stevens, and Joyce (Finnegans Wake).  They are full on useful insights.  I “tested” some of them, re-reading the Shakespeare play and the Milton poem, as well as quite a lot of Wallace Stevens.  It was a good experiment.  Well, I did not really follow the argument in the Stevens piece, which constructs a metaphysics from single lines pulled from thirty years of poems.  I think I followed the rest.  They are magazine pieces, or talks.  They are meant to be followed.

To jump back to my little project, compared to Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending Frye is a model of clarity and compared to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations his ideas have not been so thoroughly sponged up.  It also does not hurt that Frye occasionally uses humor:

Many readers tend to assume that Spenser wrote [The Faerie Queene] in the same way that they read it, starting at the beginning and keeping on until he collapsed with exhaustion.  (69)

Mild, but a relief from the weight of Spenser.

The “fables” and “mythology” in the title are meant broadly.  They can be taken to mean something like the elements that are common among works of literature rather than those that are individual to the text.  The epic form, the pastoral elegy, the hero quest, stories structured around seasonal change.  That sort of thing.  Some of it explicitly uses existing mythic stories, some of it – like Blake’s big poems – tries to turn old myths into new, and some is unconscious.  To the extent that texts fall completely outside of this framework, Frye ignores them.  Maybe everything fits.  I don’t know.

In “Nature and Homer,” Frye generously suggest that everything fits, that the study of Shakespeare and comic strips is just “exploring different literary conventions” (50), that “[w]herever he goes in his imaginative verbal experience, the conventions of literature contain the experience” (51).  Fables of Identity is for readers who enjoy literature itself, literature as such.

OK, come back in a couple of months for Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, or however much of it I have read at that point.


  1. After being on my to read soon list for several decades, I have begun his Antaomy of Criticism. I do find the opening chapter interesting on the nature of literature and criticism of it. It makes me wonder where book bloggers would have fit in his world.

  2. Well, there's a lot of variety among book bloggers. Some of them are interested in literature and study literature without so much fuss about what they love and like and what their "experiences" are.

    I don't know if Frye is with me, but I'm with him.

  3. There are places in which we can sense a common poetic language developing through the poets on that list, let's call it Blakean.

    From Lycidas proto-Blakean lines:

    Bring the rathe Primrose that forsaken dies.
    The tufted Crow-toe, and pale Jasmine,
    The white Pink, and the Pansie freakt with jet,
    The glowing Violet.
    The Musk-rose, and the well attired Woodbine,
    With Cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,
    And every flower that sad embroidery wears:
    Bid Amaranthus all his beauty shed,
    And Daffadillies fill their cups with tears.
    Where the great vision of the guarded Mount
    Looks toward Namancos and Bayona's hold;
    Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth.
    And, O ye Dolphins, waft the hapless youth.

    Or from The Faerie Queene:

    In stead of eyes two burning lampes she set
    In siluer sockets, shyning like the skyes,
    And a quicke mouing Spirit did arret
    To stirre and roll them, like a womans eyes;
    In stead of yellow lockes she did deuise,
    With golden wyre to weaue her curled head;
    Yet golden wyre was not so yellow thrise
    As Florimells faire haire: and in the stead
    Of life, she put a Spright to rule the carkasse dead.

    Or actual Blake:

    Can that be Love, that drinks another as a sponge drinks water,
    That clouds with jealousy his nights, with weepings all the day,
    To spin a web of age around him, grey and hoary, dark;
    Till his eyes sicken at the fruits that hangs before his sight?
    Such is self-love that envise all, a creeping skeleton,
    With lamplike eyes watching around the frozen marriage bed!

    ‘But silken nets and traps of adamant will Oothoon spread,
    And catch for thee girls of mild silver, or of furious gold.
    I’ll lie beside thee on a bank, and view their wanton play
    In lovely copulation, bliss on bliss, with Theotormon:
    Red as the rosy morning, lustful as the first-born beam.

    And continued all the way down to Stevens and Auden, for example in Auden's As I Walked Out One Evening.

  4. There is a coherent tradition. I suppose that is part of the appeal of a book like this. I would not see it by myself.

  5. What did you think of the Cocteau and the Bernard Shaw? Were they good?

  6. The Cocteau was good. He is not as inventive as Ionesco, and Anouilh seemed more, I don't know, fun, but Cocteau is good. This particularly play has me wondering about the history of the place of Oedipe roi in French literature. It is now the Greek play assigned to schoolkids. But I wonder when that happened.

    Now, Back to Methuselah, that seemed like a marker of the complete conversion of Shaw into a sage, or a crank, or both. It had some amusing parts, but it was mostly a period piece. If I took the eugenics more seriously, it might seem less amusing. It was interesting to see that the last act prefigured Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time novels. That was a surprise.

    This is the sort of thing I ought to punch up into a "blog" "post."