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The Collected Works of Northrop Frye, published by the University of Toronto Press under the general editorship of Alvin A. Lee, is one of the major efforts of literary scholarship in our time. At his death in 1991, Frye had published over thirty books and was widely regarded as one of the most eminent—many would say the most eminent—of literary critics in the twentieth century. The Collected Edition of Frye’s works, which is projected to be thirty one volumes, the thirty-first a general index, reveals the enormous amount of writing Frye did that remained unpublished in his lifetime, much of it in notebooks containing carefully worked-out ideas for literary-critical projects, the most important of these being the notebooks on Renaissance literature, recently published (in 2006) as volume 20 in the Collected Edition, edited by Michael Dolzani.
The present volume, expertly edited and intelligently introduced by Angela Esterhammer, is of mostly previously-published work and is divided in two parts: (1) on pp. 3-181, everything Frye published on Milton (including the book, The Return of Eden), plus an unpublished tribute, for a Festschrift, to Balachandra Rajan, the eminent Miltonist; (2) on pp. 185-435, everything Frye published on Blake, excluding Fearful Symmetry, which has been edited by Nicholas Halmi as volume 14 in the Collected Edition. Depending on how one counts, there are six or ten chapters on Milton (the five essays making up The Return of Eden are treated as one chapter), and twenty-three chapters on Blake, some of them very brief.
The Milton material spans the years 1950-1985 and consists of the introduction to Frye’s teaching edition of Milton, ‘Paradise Lost’ and Selected Poetry and Prose; the highly schematic demonstration of his theories originally delivered to the International Comparative Literature Association, “Literature as Context: Milton’s ‘Lycidas’” (1959); the book, The Return of Eden: Five Essays on Milton’s Epics (1965), the first four chapters of which were spoken with only a few notes as a series of lectures at Huron College, wittily if somewhat obscurely titled “A Tetrachordon for Paradise Lost,” to which a previously-published essay on Paradise Regained, “Revolt in the Desert,” was added; an essay written for a tercentenary tribute to Paradise Lost, “The Revelation to Eve” (1969); an essay originally published in the celebrated collection on Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, The Prison and the Pinnacle, “Agon and Logos” (1973); and lastly the tribute to Rajan.
While the original publications on Milton are easier to find than much of the Blake material, Esterhammer has collated the publications in their various versions with the notebooks and typescripts in the Northrop Frye Collections at Victoria University. She has produced definitive texts from which all scholars will now want to cite.
Frye’s authority as a preeminent Blake scholar means that much of the material on Blake in this volume, ranging from 1947 to 1987, consists of brief descriptions and reviews scattered in many different publications, although there are some major writings, too, for example, “Notes for a Commentary on Milton”; three essays here titled, simply, “William Blake I, II and III”; two essays on Blake’s reading of the Book of Job; and the major, well-known essay, “The Keys to the Gates” (1966), with its amusing opening sentence: “The criticism of Blake, especially of Blake’s Prophecies, has developed in direct proportion to the theory of criticism itself” (337). In this impersonal statement of the case, which leaves Aristotle and Johnson in the dust, no reference to the author of Fearful Symmetry and Anatomy of Criticism is required. We see from the reviews and introductions collected here what a remarkable, but also orderly and conscientious teacher Frye was.
Reviews are not written for the ages, but the reviews gathered here make for a lively and discerning survey of the high points of Blake scholarship through the years since the publication of Fearful Symmetry. For example, David Erdman’s Blake: Prophet against Empire, a book one might suppose to be uncongenial, given the priority of historical and political contexts in Erdman’s study and Frye’s lifelong agon with the historicists, gets an admiring review from Frye, who notes that Erdman is the first historical expositor of Blake to have “a consistently full knowledge of the meaning of Blake’s Prophecies” (237). That is high praise, from Frye. But there is a flash of steel. When he goes on to say that the book “may, perhaps, be criticized as exaggerating Blake’s domestic radicalism and underestimating his hatred and distrust of what he called ‘Deism,’ which made him dislike French imperialism quite as much as the English variety” (238), we feel that this correction could be made only by someone whose knowledge of the “full meaning of Blake’s Prophecies” affords a comprehensive view of their political meaning.
It is unlikely that even Blake specialists will know all these texts or would easily find them elsewhere. They include, for example, a note for the catalogue for the International Art Exhibition at Expo ’67 in Montreal, the lecture, “Blake’s Biblical Illustrations,” originally delivered at the Art Gallery of Ontario and later published in Robert Denham’s Northrop Frye Newsletter, and “Blake’s Bible,” an address to the Blake Society of Saint James, London, published in a collection edited by Denham. As with the Milton materials, most of these texts exist in several versions and in typescripts annotated by Frye. Again, as with the Milton materials, it is not only convenient to have these scattered texts on Blake together in one place: it is indispensable to have them in Esterhammer’s edited versions.
The appurtenances of a scholarly edition are here: a list of abbreviations; a note on the difficult issue of what editions of Milton (Columbia) and Blake (Keynes and Erdman) to cite; a balanced and warm introduction (Esterhammer is a former student of Frye’s) with a fair assessment of Frye’s place in the world of criticism now; informative bibliographical head notes to each chapter (with dates of composition); notes by a scholar who clearly knows Milton and Blake exceptionally well, and who tracks down Frye’s polyglot references and allusions, including the Greek ones, two of which Esterhammer corrects in the emendations; and, lastly, an excellent index, which makes this volume useful to scholars now, instead of waiting for the general index to the Collected Works as a whole.
What does the reader take away from this volume? Although Blake was at the center of Frye’s thinking about all literature, including Milton, Frye’s view of Milton is surprisingly independent of Blake’s, especially of the caricatured version of Blake’s view based on the comment of a devil, in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” that Milton was a true poet and therefore of the devil’s party without knowing it. I have mentioned the substantial essay, “Notes for a Commentary on [Blake’s prophetic poem] Milton” (239-65). It hews closely to Blake’s prophecy without much concern to relate any of it to the actual Milton. Frye lets Blake be Blake, but he also lets Milton be Milton.
Frye’s writing on Milton has very few footnotes and is usually pitched to a general audience instead of to scholars (the “Lycidas” essay is the great exception). But the sometime president of the Milton Society of America has a strong grasp of the general trends in Milton scholarship and does not so much depart from them as pass through them to his brilliant formulations. An example of this is when he says, in the much-rewritten final sentence of his essay on Paradise Regained, “Revolt in the Desert,” that although the poem shows “the individual nature of every act of freedom,” this individuality is finally “the realization that there is only one man, one mind, and one world, and that the walls of partition have been broken down forever” (131).
I do not agree with this statement as an interpretation of Milton’s Paradise Regained, the message of which seems to me less anagogical and more hortatory—put God inside you!—than such a statement would allow. But Frye finds his way to this conclusion, which he has stated before (in Anatomy of Criticism, “Theory of Symbols”), not by going around Milton but by going right through him, which is perhaps more than can be said for Blake, who lodged Milton in his right foot.
Again, at the conclusion to his essay on Samson Agonistes, “Agon and Logos,” Frye says that once the catharsis has dissipated—the catharsis alluded to in the play’s final line, “With calm of mind, all passion spent”—we “catch a glimpse of a boundless energy which, however destructive to social establishments, is always there, always confronting us, and always the same, and yet has always the power to create all things anew” (178). There is more logos than agon in that. I am content to believe Milton thought this, or something very like it, and that Frye thought it, too. But if one is to glimpse the boundless energy which is the power to create all things anew one will have to look elsewhere than into Samson Agonistes, which is perhaps Frye’s point, after all. It would seem so from what he says in the introduction he wrote to his Milton edition almost a quarter of a century earlier: “nothing can actually be seen but bewildered slaves with no masters, a city wailing to its helpless gods, and a dead giant in a pile of broken stones” (p.16).
To some English professors who, during a long car ride, tried to engage him in conversation on various authors, Frye is reported by one of them to have said (after their efforts were met with monosyllabic replies), that he was not so much interested in literature as in what literature—all literature at once—is trying to say. What is this intention, this intensio or “stretching towards” which the human mind evinces in the making of tales and in the rhythmical arrangement of words? Is literature secondary with respect to something that lies beyond it and that literature itself—all of literature, every story every human being has ever told from the beginning—is trying to say, or to enunciate, to make manifest? We may all have reflexive answers to that question—Milton and Blake’s would be “yes,” and ours, more than likely, most of the time, would be “no”—but the strength of Frye’s criticism flows from his keeping this question—than which surely there is none more important—open as a question: “Limits are in the forms of what is made, but the powers of making are infinite” (435).