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In my chosen state of reclusive writing, I’m happy when the odd bit of help manages to penetrate my cozy computer sphere. This week it came in this collection of Northrop (“rhymes with doorstop,” author Robert Denham noted) Frye’s Lectures. The mailman had propped the “fat tome” (the same) against my front door since I didn’t hear the bell. The book includes eight sets of my notes because I used shorthand in order to capture every precious word when I attended Frye’s classes.  I grabbed the 700-page work of art and flopped into my armchair to be with my mental master again. 

A Critical Moment

My favorite course was Greek & Latin Literature (called Literary Criticism as a chapter title) which Frye sneaked in as an extra for our fourth-year class. We were only vaguely aware he was writing Anatomy of Criticism, a book to complete Artistotle’s unfinished Poetics, at the time. He didn’t ever lecture on or refer to his own scholarly activities in front of us. In 45 years of Frye scholarship, Denham had never heard of this course until I sent him my notes.

Background

Aristotle (b. 338 B.C.) was a biologist who loved to dissect and analyse. The undefined works by Euripedes (e.g. Medea) and Sophocles (e.g.Oedipus Rex) as well as Aristophanes (e.g. The Frogs) came under his scrutiny. Aristotle might be called the first literary critic, Frye said, and it was very serious work. The people were being swayed by this new form of entertainment; the hold of the old Gods on them had been slipping. Plato, the philosopher and social moralist born in 428 B.C, first noticed it and said non laudatory, non patriotic ‘poetry’ should be banned. The concept of ‘prose’ did not yet exist. Aristotle wanted to get to the roots of what literature was.

Availability

  • The book is for sale at Cambridge Scholar Publishing in the UK at an introductory 50% off. The Amazon price is not one normal readers can afford, but, as Denham says, it is a lot less than one would pay in university fees for such an education.  Frye never wrote down any of his lectures — not even a plan for them. Student notes are the main source of what he said, except for one video and recordings of public speeches he gave.

Tidbit Quotes of Aristotle’s Tragedy-Writing Advice

(I doubt you haven’t heard these ‘rules’ before but even after 2500 years they bear repeating time and again. They continue to inspire me as a writer.)

  • The plot is complicated up to a certain stage and then begins to unravel. This is brought about by the reversal of the intention. A deed done in all good faith produces the opposite result of what was intended
  • The tragic hero is a model of saintliness, never a bad man. He goes from good fortune to bad fortune because of some mistake.
  • The fault has to be something in a man which is very intelligible, very excusable, but yet not wholly justifiable

(N.B. I’ve included these sexist comments in the hope they are making you laugh!)

  • A character should be good, i.e. in the sense of useful. There’s goodness in everybody, even in a woman or a slave
  • The character must be appropriate. A woman must not be represented as manly or brave or clever

(Frye interrupted with his sense of humor, so we never got bored)

  • The character should have resemblance; Aristotle compares it to a painting but doesn’t say whether it should be like a real person or have certain godlike qualities
  • The character should be consistent. (Frye adds, “If you introduce an inconsistent character, keep him inconsistent all through”)
  • Keep everything in the character according to the law of necessity and probability

(I hope the following piece of advice from Aristotle’s heart moves you as it does me.)

  • Use your imagination––picture yourself in the audience, writing your own play. Try to enter into the feelings. Act out the part of your characters, even with the proper gestures. Unless you are able to enter into the feelings of the person you are putting before people you will never be successful in it.

Happy Summer Reading and Writing!

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