Northrop Frye (1912-1991) read his Massey Lectures over the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC radio) in 1962. First published by Indiana University Press in 1964, the six lectures present key concepts from Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton University Press, 1957).
Chapter One. “The Motive for Metaphor”
Frye begins by exploring the relation of language and literature. “What is the relation of English as the mother tongue to English as a literature? ” he asks (p. 16), and before he can give an answer, he has to explain why people use words.
He identifies three different uses of language, which he also terms types or levels of language.
- “The language of consciousness or awareness” is our means of “self-expression,” our means of responding to the natural environment: “the world as it is. ” This language produces conversation.
- “The language of practical sense” is our means of “social participation,” our means of taking part in our civilization. This language produces information.
- “The language of literature” is our means of entering the world of imagination: “the world we want to have. This language produces poetry, first of all. Science and literature move in opposite directions.
Science begins with the external world and adds imagination. (Mathematics is the imaginative language of science, Frye suggests in a later chapter. ) Literature begins in the imaginative world and becomes involved in civilization. Frye now deals with the distinctive feature of literary language. When language implies an identification of the speaker and the object, it becomes metaphoric. The desire to associate,” and to find connections between inner experience and the external world, is what Wallace Stevens calls “The Motive for Metaphor. ” This chapter provides an introduction to the book. It raises questions that will not be answered until Frye has set out a general theory of literature. These include the question of education–”What is the place of the imagination … in the learning process? ” (p. 16)–answered in chapter 5. They also include a series of questions about the social function of literature and literary education, to be answered in chapter 6: “What good is the study of literature? (p. 13) “Does it help us to think more clearly, or feel more sensitively, or live a better life than we could without it? ” (p. 13)
“What is the relation of English as the mother tongue to English as a literature? ” (p. 16) “What is the social value of the study of literature? ” (p. 16) What is “the relevance of literature in the world of today? ” (p. 27)
Chapter Two. “The Singing School”
The literary motive–the “impulse to identify human and natural worlds” (p. 39)–creates metaphors of objects we encounter in space and myths of relations over time. Conceived thus, a myth is a metaphor placed in time, and a metaphor is a myth take out of time. ) Frye concedes that the modern reader stranded on a desert island, and forming a new society there, does not have the same experience of language as the “primitive. ” A modern reader will bring his or her experiences of language and literature. However, he insists that there is a useful analogy between primitive myths and the most sophisticated works of literature.
“Literature is still doing the same job that mythology did earlier” (p. 7) As he points out in the next chapter, literature is like magic in that both depend on identification: “That why literature, and more particularly poetry, shows the analogy to primitive minds” (p. 76). Myths tend to stick together to form a mythology. That is so because myths are conventional, because one myth inspires another. Similarly, in our culture, one novel inspires another. Frye does not accept the romantic theory that literature is uniquely inspired. “A writer’s desire to write can only have come from previous experience of literature,” says Frye, “and he’ll start by imitating whatever he’s read” (p. 0). This leads to conventions in form as well as content: “Literature can derive its forms only from itself” (p. 42), he says and again, “The writer of literature can only write out what takes shape in his mind” (p. 46), Literary conventions enable the writer to incorporate personal experience into literature. The major conventions of Western literature–tragedy, comedy, satire, and romance–are “typical ways in which stories get told” (p. 49). Frye suggests that they represent “episodes” in the story of literature itself (p. 52).
As he view it, all literature tells a large cyclic story–”the story of the loss and regaining of identity” (p. 55). It can be seen in the hero’s quest, where the hero leaves the safety of his society to face a monster and returns, or in the lover’s plight, where the man is attracted to a woman, and marries her and is buried by her. But it’s most complete representation in the West is the Biblical story of the Fall of man from his original home and the eventual return to a promised land or a heavenly kingdom.
Chapter Three: “Giants in Time”
Moving from metaphor and myth, Frye turns to literary symbolism, where he finds his answer to the question, “What kind of reality does literature have? ” (p. 61). The “correspondence of the natural and human” deriving from the impulse to draw analogies “is one of the things that the word ‘symbol’ means” (p. 66). Paraphrasing Aristotle’s Poetics, he argues that literature is concerned with universals and thus with general examples and thus invites an impartial response. “The poet’s job is not to tell you what happened, but what happens: not what did take place, but the kind of thing that always takes place”(p. 3). From this point, he concludes that literature is concerned with symbolic action, that literary or mythological characters are typical, and that the world of poet imagery is “totally symbolic” (p. 75). He then moves to the principle of “literature as a whole” (p. 49): “you don’t just read one poem or novel after another, but enter into a complete world of which every work of literature forms a part” (p. 69). Hence there is a progressive element in the study and teaching of literature: as we read more works, we become able to generalize from our experience of literature.
Frye can now anticipate the social function of literature, to be discussed in chapter 6. “What is the use of studying the imagination? ” he asks (p. 77). He values literature, first, because of “its encouragement of tolerance” (p. 77), produced by “the power of detachment in the imagination” (p. 78). Once a person like Mark Anthony or Cleopatra becomes a literary character (like the heroes of Shakespeare’s tragedy) we think of them differently. Indeed, literature tends to swallow life. “And the imagination won’t stop until it’s swallowed everything” (p. 0).
Chapter Four: “The Keys to Dreamland”
Frye now deals with the respective claims of the reader and writer, the producer and consumer of literature. “We need two powers in literature,” he says, “a power to create and a power to understand” (p. 104). Both writer and reader need to understand literary convention. For a writer, it is not enough to be self-expressive (remember that this is the language of conversation). “To bring anything really to life in literature we can’t be lifelike: we have to be literature-like” (p. 91).
It is necessary to be imaginative, in other words. “The world of literature is a world where there is no reality except that of the human imagination” (p. 96). For a reader, it is necessary to understand the experience of literature. “The top half of literature is the world expressed by such words as sublime, inspiring, and the like, where what we feel is not detachment but absorption” (p. 100). This is the half of romance and comedy. The bottom half is, then, the language of tragedy and irony, or satire, where we may experience alienation from the world is it ought to be.
As one becomes a more capable, or better educated, reader, one is able to deal not only with the literal statement and the allegorical sense (for example, that the donkeys and elephants in the story are political beings). One enters the ethical dimension, mentioned in the previous chapter, and rises finally to an overview that Frye describes in semi-religious language: “No matter how much experience we may gather in life, we can never in life get the dimension of experience that the imagination gives us.
Only the arts and sciences can do that, and of these, only literature gives us the whole sweep and range of human imagination as it sees itself” (p. 101). And again: “Literature is a human apocalypse, man’s revelation, and criticism is not a body of adjudications, but the awareness of that revelation, the last judgment of mankind” (p. 105).
Chapter Five: “The Verticals of Adam”
Now that Frye has set out his “theory of literature,” he must explain in what ways it offers “guidance on the question of how to teach literature, especially to children” (p. 109). He starts by suggesting, “The teaching of literature needs a bit more theory” (p. 09). Compared to music, for example, where a student learns about the diatonic scale and the major relations of notes and chords, literature seems to have few basic principles. First the “general principle” of literature as Frye sees it in chapter 2: “literature follows after a mythology” (p. 110). In Western European literatures, including English, the “most complete” mythology is that in the books of the “Christian Bible,” from Genesis to Revelation (p. 110).
By “mythology” Frye simply means set of stories, with no reference to their literal or historical truth. Everything has a story,” Frye insists; a literary work is not “disguised information” (p. 116). Therefore, the best way to educate a reader is to start with the foundational myths of the culture: with Biblical and the Classical myths, and only then move on to the major story forms. Children will find comedy and romance easier to grasp first, and will be better able to deal with tragedy and irony in secondary school. As they progress they need to set their experience of English literature in a double context, including “languages other than English”, “arts other than literature” (p. 117). Fairy tales “restore the primitive perspective that mythology has” (p. 120) * Start at the center, poetry; work toward the circumference, nonfiction (p. 121) * Concentrate on classics, “a great work of literature is also a place in which the whole cultural history of the nation that produced it comes into focus” (p. 123) * Recognize that literature provides “a kind of imaginative key to history” (p. 124)
* Recognize that “The book itself is a literary form, descended from and related to other literary forms” (p. 124) The final question, for Frye, is “what the real place of literature in education is” (p. 27). The teacher’s task is to show students how “the myths and images of literature also enter into and give form to all the structures we build out of words. ” Frye now offers some definitions: * “The theory of literature is what I mean by criticism, the activity of uniting literature with society, and with the different contexts that literature itself has” (p. 127). * “The great bulk of criticism is teaching” (p. 127) * “The end of literary teaching is not simply the admiration of literature; it’s something more like the transfer of imaginative energy from literature to the student” (p. 29) He will build on these definitions in the final lecture.
Chapter Six: “The Vocation of Eloquence”
The final talk is addressed to readers rather than writers, consumers of literature, rather than producers. Frye promises to explain “what literature can do and what its uses are, apart from the pleasure it gives” (p. 134). His first suggestion is that literature can educate the imagination:
“Literature speaks the language of the imagination, and the study of literature is supposed to train and improve the imagination” (p. 134) * “We have only the choice between a badly trained imagination and a well trained one” (pp. 34-35) He returns to his dominant theme, saying, “My subject is the educated imagination, and education is something that affects the whole person, not bits and pieces of him. It doesn’t just train the mind: it’s a social and more development too” (p. 152). Frye notes that the imagination, as an intermediary between the emotions and the intellect, provides the basis of social life, thus reiterating a point from his first lecture. The educated imagination knows what to make of advertising; indeed, says Frye, “Our reaction to advertising is really a form of literary criticism” (p. 38). Sensitivity to the use of words, freedom from cliche, is only possible for people who use their imagination (p. 154).
And because the educated imagination is a necessity of life in a political world, the study of literature is not an “elegant accomplishment” but a means of entry into a “free society” (pp. 147, 148). The crisis of emptiness in modern life only underscores our need for education (p. 150), and specifically for literary education and reflection on the world that writers want: “a vision inside our minds, born and fostered by the imagination” (p. 51).
Frye takes the Tower of Babel as the organizing myth for the last talk and the whole series, suggesting “that the Tower of Babel is a work of human imagination, that its main elements are words, and that what will make it collapse is a confusion of tongues” (p. 155). The confusion of tongues at Babel is a loss of identity, for Frye, and a failure of imagination. Only a strong imagination, which is to say an educated one, can fulfil the Renaissance dream of rebuilding knowledge from the ruins of Babel.
In Chapter 1, he starts explaining language by imaginatively placing his readers on a deserted island. At first, the language you use is descriptive, highlighting the difference between you and the world around you: “Those are tall trees” or “that is a green snake. ” Next, if there are other people with you, you develop a practical language to help change your environment to something suitable for human life: “Collect the fruit from those tall trees for supper,” and “Go kill that green snake. ” The third level of language involves the imagination: “If those trees grew any taller, they ight touch the sky,” and “what would life be like if these green snakes didn’t want to bite us? ” (Note: These are my examples, not Northrop Frye’s. He makes it all sound much smarter. ) Literature and poetry reside in this third stage of thinking, in the imagination. Chapter 2 talks about the conventions of literature. The most primitive type of character that crops up in any budding society is the larger-than-life person who is associated with nature in some way, like the gods of Greek mythology who control things like weather and animals and elements.
Literature evolves past these characters and changes into various forms (drama, poetry, novel) but even with all the developments and changes, every new thing we read is connected to the old things. Also, we readers can’t help but compare every fresh character or story we read to others we’re familiar with, and in this comparison we start to see patterns and cycles in literature. One of the big themes that overrides everything else is the longing we all have for something bigger, some place or state that we feel we have lost, and if we could only get back to it, life would be perfect.
Chapter 3 focuses on reality in literature. Maybe Prince Hamlet of Denmark wasn’t real in a historical sense, but there must be something real or true about his situation, or else people would not be moved by it and remember it so well. Frye has a great quote about this phenomenon: “The poet’s job is not to tell you what happened, but what happens: not what did take place, but the kind of thing that always does takes place” (pg 63). If there’s any kind of universality to a work and if the characters present some emotion common to humanity, then some group of readers will always embrace it.
But the question remains: why should we study this world of literature, if nothing in it precisely “true”? It helps us see an infinite number of possibilities for the future, provides us with some helpful distance for emotional issues, and most importantly, it’s the vehicle of imagination, the means by which we process all of our experiences. Chapter 4 shows that literature’s conventions and archetypes don’t look very much like real life. (For example, characters who speak in iambic pentameter or villains who are so superbly nuanced and complex, they couldn’t possibly e real. ) Literature doesn’t have to look exactly like real life, and it shouldn’t try to, Frye says. We turn to literature for something we aren’t getting in the real world. This is absolutely true–I read poetry because I can’t find language that beautiful naturally occurring anywhere else. Another one of the virtues of reading is seeing some of life’s nastier elements in fictional form, not so we’ll embrace them as good, but so we’ll identify them as something horrible we want to prevent or avoid.
Chapter 5: Now that we’ve learned a bit of literary theory, we look toward teaching it to students. In order to really understand the movement of all literature, Frye says that students must thoroughly study the Bible. Although the Bible is more than literature, it definitely is literature, too, and it impacts so much of Western writing, you can’t have a complete literary training without a thorough knowledge of it. Next, we come to classical mythology, which you also have to read extensively to figure out the themes and patterns of literature.
But what all this reading and study is trying to do is “transfer… imaginative energy from literature to the student” (pg 129). It’s not cold, lifeless learning for the sake of bragging rights–there’s something vibrant and important here, which we need to perceive. Chapter 6: Once we have an educated imagination, how do we apply it? We can use our well-trained imaginations to help shape the world we have into the world we want. We can recognize cliches, repetitions, and intentionally misleading language when we meet them in the real world, and we can sense cycles and patterns.
By disciplining ourselves to understand language and literature, we have not simply accomplished something pleasant; we have improved our own ability to think and to communicate ideas. The Educated Imagination is an absolutely tremendous work. It breaks down literary criticism and the reasons for studying literature into very simple language, and it has shaped the way I think about books: every book I come across gets measured against all the other books I’ve read, but it was only after reading Northrop Frye that I realized I was doing this. I hope many other readers continue to find his work as instructive as I have.