What I liked best about Professor Northrop Frye, whose birth centenary was celebrated in 2012, was his obvious love for his students. Methodist parents reared their youngest son on John Bunyan‘s Pilgrims’ Progress and the King James version of the Bible in Moncton, NB, Canada. With his mother’s milk he drank in the creation, the Garden of Eden, the expulsion, guardian angels, the tribes of Israel, the exodus, prophecies, kings, the ten commandments, God, Jesus, the apostles, the parables, redemption, heaven, hell, the apocalypse …
But what did it all add up to, what was it for, where did it come from and what made the words and stories so strong and beautiful? As he grew and finished school, he thirsted to go to the big city and learn more. At age 16 he entered and won a typing contest and had arrived.
By the time I was a freshie at Victoria College, University of Toronto, in 1950 Professor Frye (Norrie) was a legend. Fearful Symmetry, his study of the poet William Blake, had awakened the western world of academics and critics to a new way of reading and interpreting its own literature that depended on the Bible to unlock its code. Actually it was an ancient way of myths, metaphors and types. His Anatomy of Criticism was in progress, taking on the task of finishing Aristotle’s Poetics.
Frye strode to his desk in the lecture room, fair hair and black robe flying, sat down and surveyed us once with a kind, friendly, forced, shy granny smile. His blue eyes gave a glint of the force he nursed. Huge thoughts trotted out in perfect sentences that set the pace for agile note-taking.
I sat through four years of taking Frye’s notes on the usual fare of the novel, modern poetry, Spenser & Milton, modern drama, literary criticism, Greek & Latin literature, Canadian & American literature and 19th Century Thought. After graduating I put them in a box and forgot them. He never lectured on or commented on his own books but his basic ideas shone through.
When I reached middle age and asked myself big questions that had to be resolved I knew Frye was the only person who could help me. I invested my money and time in buying and reading several of his books and he did not let me down.
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