100 years of Northrop Frye

Next week is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Northrop Frye, Canada's most distinguished literary critic. CBC Radio's Ideas is re-examining Frye, and to hear his voice again, Richard Handler writes, is to be transported to another age.

Next week is the 100th anniversary of Canada's most distinguished literary critic and an inspiring teacher, Northrop Frye, born July 14, 1912 in Sherbrooke, Quebec.

Here at CBC Radio's Ideas, we got an early start on the festivities by broadcasting David Cayley's three-part series of interviews with Frye, which aired in 1990, the year before Frye died.

To hear his voice again, a little stern, sombre but full of epigrammatic wit and bursts of brilliance, is to be transported to an earlier age.

Frye was a man who spoke with the authority of someone shaped by years of reading and study in the "engine room of society," as he called his fabled idea of a university.

He would speak almost aphoristically, in full, often curt paragraphs, and effectively wrote his books in front of his students in the lecture halls at Victoria College at the University of Toronto, as well as in his head on long, solitary walks.

Many people today still remember him walking on city streets, furrowed brow on top of bushy eyebrows, composing, discerning.

What was he thinking? Read his books (and now his diaries) and you may find out.

Did not pander

Frye spent his entire professional life, except for occasional sabbaticals, at Victoria College, which he also attended as a student.

Literary scholar Northrop Frye, understander of The Great Code.

At one point, near the end of an illustrious career, he would stroll to class and pass a bust of himself in Northrop Frye Hall.

His students famously joked, "What did God say today?"

In today's world, few would dare try to sound like Frye, with that sober authorial presence. Breezy informality has become the mantra of our age and the pressure is on, through advertising and the media, for everyone to want to be liked.

Certainly Frye did not pander. You measured up to him, rather than vice versa.

His main works, such as the groundbreaking Anatomy of Criticism in 1957 and his book about the Bible, The Great Code in 1982 often assumed a knowledge, a cultivation, that many of his readers likely did not possess.

I remember at age 19 straining while I fitfully read Fearful Symmetry, Frye's first book about the 18th-century poet William Blake, published in 1947.

It took him 10 years to write and I thought might take me 10 years to read it (as James Joyce said once of his last, impossible to read novel, Finnegans Wake).

Because Frye also possessed the sensibility of a poet, his writing could be erudite as well as lyrical. It was filled with an intensity of feeling that you don't expect from formal academics, particularly someone as properly formal as he was.

Speaking with angels

His Anatomy of Criticism sought to build an entire foundation, a system of slots, pegs and categories for the study of literature in all its myriad glory.

Only someone who read everything could have attempted writing it.

To read Frye, you are struck by how amazingly unschooled and unread most of us are and continue to be. And how much we've forgotten of our own inheritance from Western culture, the Bible itself, the common code for a civilization, being the prime example.

Frye learned much (almost everything, he once said) of the human condition from the brooding, poet-artist-visionary William Blake, who spoke to angels as if they were whispering companions and was at war with the world's repressions and inhibitions, be they social, sexual or artistic.

Frye was also revolutionary, at least in his ethical sensibilities, but hardly a radical in his politics, which were moderate and democratic.

He was a supporter of the CCF, the forerunner of the NDP, but didn't much like the student revolts of the 1960s. In fact, he hated the anti-intellectualism and the bullying.

What's more, he was a man devoted to Canada and resisted, sometimes painfully, offers to leave this country and take up permanent residence at any number of prestigious universities.

He was a man filled with his own obligations — to his university, his country, his students and literature, not to mention his religion.

Faith stuff

Frye was an ordained United Church minister and spent a summer once riding a horse as a student minister on the Prairies.

Still, his vocation was teaching and writing; he told Cayley he was a churchman in "plain clothing."

But one of his abiding legacies is that his vision of Christianity and religion is widely shared by people who may not have read a word of his.

Frye was a Christian but a very modern, non-evangelical one. He did not believe in the great Father in the sky (or "Nobodaddy," as Blake called him).

For Frye, God was a "verb," not a noun but a process of creation.

But he did believe in faith, as he told Cayley, faith being the ability to move mountains or take to the skies in heavier-than-air flying machines.

You could argue that this is merely a kind of watered-down humanism. Religion overturned, God dethroned. And sometimes Frye's metaphor making can be more than a little bewildering.

Blake spoke of the imagination as the "human form divine," a marriage of transcendental belief and human possibility. Reading him, you could well surmise that the imagination was his stand-in for God.

Frye, too, seemed to believe in some ineffable combination of human possibility and divine creation, confounding as all that is, but shimmering enough to be one of his important legacies and likely to last well beyond this 100th birthday.