Archives for posts with tag: Northrop Frye
NF Northrop Frye Statue

Professor Northrop Frye Statue at Victoria College, University of Toronto invites you to sit and have a chat.

“Attending a university for several years is potentially the greatest experience to be ordinarily had in life.”
Alma mater (meaning a nourishing or abounding mother): in taking one’s first degree there’s a genuine rite of passage, an acceptance of a new motherhood in which the maternal spirit is one of companionship rather then protectiveness or externalized authority.”
“Genuine education starts with the passive knowledge of elementary reading and writing and then tries to transform this passivity into an activity, reading with discrimination and writing with articulateness.”
“The ‘basics’ are not bodies of knowledge they are skills, and the cultivating of a skill takes lifelong practice and repetition.”
“Without this background of practice and repetition, one may be able to read and write and still be functionally illiterate.”
“The university is a community in which the intellect and the imagination have a continually functional place and so gives us a sense of what human life could be like if these qualities were always functional in it.”
“What knowledge of the future we have, or think we have, we glean from a study of the past.”
“The book becomes a focus of a community and may come to mean, simultaneously, any number of things to any number of people.”
“Canada is a good training ground for the detachment, without withdrawal, that the university gives, because it is a secondary and necessarily observant country.”

The View from Here‘, Selected Essays by Northrop Frye 1974-1988


Cover photo for Stalin’s Daughter by Rosemary Sullivan

IMG_0121Sat., May 30: Since I was early for the celebration for 1955 graduates, I sat with Northrop Frye on his bench outside Alumni Hall, Victoria College, University of Toronto. Over a beautiful luncheon I reconnected with two friends who had attended his lectures with me way back then. We discovered we have all written memoirs and shared tips on promoting them and writing more books. We could have talked all day and all night; when we parted, we promised not to wait sixty years until next time.

Sat. June 6: As a reception table volunteer, I fetched a chair for Rosemary Sullivan, the author of Stalin’s Daughter, when she arrived at Ottawa’s Prose in the Park and needed to make a cellphone call and wait for the reply. She was the literary festival’s headline celebrity. Fortunately I had done my homework by reading all the advance releases from the organizers. One of her earlier books was on Gwendolyne MacEwen, a poet whose mentor was Frye. Knowing Sullivan was an English professor, I gestured towards the U of T crest on my anorak and introduced myself as one of Frye’s former students. In the few moments we had together (on the very day her 700-page tome was featured in the New York Times Saturday Review of Books) I was not shy about showing her my memoir. She started by reading the back blurb, which says Frye was my guru, and then she looked at my chapter titles. From the 13 of them she picked out two which made her chuckle. They are “A Fairy Tale Marriage Gets off to a Rickety Start” and “Dying Well in Love’s Embrace as Methodists Are Wont to Do”. Then she was off.

When I picked her brains for help, she rose to the occasion. I never thought of using chapter titles to promote my book because I have too many. However, the two she picked sum the contents up precisely. Next time I write a book description I will use them.

Famous authors are not all stereotypes with big egos. Many of them stop to mentor and share their wisdom with beginning writers. Prose in the Park was a magical event where the dynamic of mixing readers and writers was electric. It was Ottawa’s first major Literary Festival and Book Sale and promises to become an annual production.

In my next blog I will write about the two memoirs I purchased at the fair, both by Ottawa writers.

Happy Reading from Cozy Book Basics!

“. . . one may live all one’s life without being concerned about God”, said Northrop Frye, a Canadian who was one of the best literary critics and  theorists of the twentieth century. He was a professor of English at Victoria College and also an ordained but very progressive minister of the United Church of Canada. Frye was my professor for three years and I have plucked these quotes from Myth & Metaphor: Selected Essays: 1974-88  Northrop Frye; edited by Robert D. Denham. Frye’s views could help us cope with the mess we’re in today. His legacy has been preserved by Denham, retired professor of English at Roanoke College who has compiled some 30 books of Frye’s works.

Statue of Professor Northrop Frye on the grounds of Victoria College, University of Toronto  where he used to teach invites passersby to sit and have a chat with him.

A bronze bench statue of Professor Northrop Frye on the grounds of Victoria College, University of Toronto is there for passersby to sit and have a chat with him.

Literary criticism trains the imagination just as systematically and efficiently as sciences train the reason, says Northrop Frye. He believed in critical thinking and the power of literature to create a tolerant and civil society. His dictae explain things the sciences don’t:

  1. MYTH “The word ‘myth’ is used in a bewildering variety of contexts. To me it means primarily ‘mythos’, story, plot, narrative. It lies along an axis of extremes from true history to fantasy.”
  2. “The myth does to time what the metaphor does to space.”
  3. METAPHOR “Metaphor suggests a state of things in which there is no sharp and consistent distinction between subject and object.”
  4. “A typical metaphor takes the form of the statement A is B e.g. ‘Joseph is a fruitful bough.” An undercurrent of significance tells us that A is not B and nobody but a fool could imagine that he was.”
  5. IMAGINATION “Imagination is a constructive, unifying, and fully conscious faculty that excludes no aspect of consciousness, whether rational or emotional.”
  6. “What imagination, attending to the similitude of things, gets from the past is not history but myth — the same thing it gets from the future.”
  7. IDOLATRY “Man invented the wheel thousands of years ago, and promptly turned it into an idol of external fate or fortune.”
  8. GOD or GODS “Gods are invaluable to poets because they are traditional and recognized metaphors.”
  9. “Such a god as Neptune is a prefabricated metaphor. It unites a personality and a natural object, and is the entering wedge of that union between subjective and objective worlds that all creative activity depends on.”
  10. THE BIBLE “The Bible’s narratives range from legend to partisan history, but historical fact as fact is nowhere marked off in it.”
  11. “Efforts to demythologize the Gospels would soon end by obliterating them.”
  12. CREATIONISM “The account of creation in the Bible does not describe the origin of nature and was probably never intended to. If it were, it would have been a little cleverer, and not had the trees created the day before the sun was.”
  13. FUNDAMENTALISM “A body of words can never be literally anything but a body of words.”
  14. POLITICAL INFERENCES from the BIBLE “The obvious political inference from original sin is democratic. There is no point in giving unlimited authority to others who by definition cannot be any better than we are.”
  15. “Resurrection, where the power bringing the new sense of time comes from below, is most naturally a revolutionary myth, just as incarnation, which visualizes that power as descending from a higher world of greater order, is most naturally an authoritarian one.” sleeping baby
  16. PRIMARY CONCERNS “One cannot live a day without being concerned about food but one may live all one’s life without being concerned about God.”
  17. “Primary concern is based on the conviction that life is better than death, happiness better than misery, and freedom better than bondage.”
  18. “All the ideologies presented by political, economic, and religious bodies fall short of a genuine mythology of primary concern.”
  19. DESTRUCTION of HUMANITY & the PLANET “Any form of intensified ideology is pernicious if it leads to another excuse for war or for exploiting either other men or nature.”
  20. “If the human race were to destroy both itself and the planet it lives on, that would be the final triumph of illusion.”
  21. IDEOLOGY “Ideology is a secondary and derivative structure; what human societies do first is make up stories. An ideology is always derived from a mythology.”
  22. SUPERSTITION “Superstition is a frozen ideology, a pathological social condition that obstructs the developments in the arts and sciences, and so frustrates the central aim of education.”
  23. SOCIAL VISION “There would clearly be some point in trying to develop a technique of making ourselves aware of our mythological conditioning, of removing the ideological cataracts from our social vision.”
  24. ANTICHRIST “A human leader who claims a more than human authority is one of the things the New Testament means by Antichrist.”
  25. LITERATURE “Literature reflects the concerns of a community but is detached from immediate action, so that the community remains a community and does not turn into a mob.”
  26. “When society comes close to the level of bare subsistence … the literary arts leap into the foreground among the essentials for survival.”
  27. “The Canon is the idea of a collection of books unified, not by consistency of argument or doctrine … but of vision and imagery”
  28. WRITERS “Ideology is primarily an anxiety to a writer and not a guide to the form of what he should write.”
  29. “Ideologies enter literature as elements of content, not as forms or shaping principles.”
  30. “A writer may have to persist in his loyalty to the demands of what he writes even when threatened with censorship or personal persecution.”
  31. CENSORSHIP “The most serious writers are almost always censorship’s chief object of attack, whereas the serious writer ought to be considered the ally of social concern, not its enemy.”
  32. LANGUAGE, FREEDOM & CRITICISM “A deliberate debasing of language can wipe out all genuine freedom and culture in a society.”
  33. “It is in their doctrines or conceptual language that religions disagree.”
  34. “The literary critic ought to occupy a central place in everything that has to do with words.”
  35. GOOD FAITH “What a man’s religion is may be gathered from what he wants to identify him with.”
  36. “There is a current of love flowing from God to man, and it is man’s duty to accept that love and communicate it to his neighbor.”
  37. REDEMPTION & a PRESENT MOMENT “Redemption requires a God, but a God within time is no better off than we are, and a God wholly free of time is of no use to us. Fortunately we have the Incarnation, the descent of something outside time into time, and this creates in time the possibility of a genuine present moment.”

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This blog for all lovers of life and language aims to be useful and entertain. Topics vary from how to build a canoe to how my mom moved from “fog to bog” as a war bride after world war one. Writing advice is passed on by word and example. To find out more about the books I have written, please click here.

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The  biblical English poet William Blake didn’t believe in either God or Man as separate entities but in Divine Humanity as a union of creative effort. The divine being takes the initiative. At the point of communication the two become an identity. Man must let go of  his ego to be resurrected. The self-surpassing of human limitations is infinite.  Paradise can  be made here.

IMG_0490_1 Blake saw the American (and later French) revolutions as victories for humanity against established authority and the message of Jesus as one of social liberation. In his 1790 poem The Marriage of Heaven & Hell (where the exuberance proverb appears) left-wing and right-wing political forces are wedded when the right is converted.  The ‘left’ are the Devils and the ‘right’ are the Angels. Blake was on the left, supporting Voltaire and Thomas Paine.


Blake is a complex poet and no one really understood him until Northrop Frye came along. In this  blog I am relying on “Blake’s Bible” which is published in Robert Denham’s Myth & Metaphor: Selected Essays by Northrop Frye 1974-88

Blake’s rules are radical but as our civilization crumbles they make more and more sense for us writers and concerned citizens:

  1. Throw away judgmental, conforming morality.  It is the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ which God warned Man against in Eden
  2. Don’t be prudish about sex or nudity; this attitude came from having eaten the fruit of the forbidden tree
  3. Pursue your abilities to love and to create. Make them your highest goals. They are the center of potentially divine powers.
  4. Destroy your own grasping and clutching ego. That also will  make you more human.
  5. Realize that the old, metaphorical cosmology of the Bible is not historical or scientific. Paradise and the Apocalypse are scenarios to be enacted on earth by human creators with a spiritual partner. Hell is what we have now.

Thanks for dropping by.The roses are blooming at my home as I write. I’ve helped them a little by fertilizing them and discarding the leaves ruined by black spot and pests.  Please leave a comment below, as  exuberant as you wish.

Margaret Kell Virany   lover of lang and lit, note-taker of Norrie Frye, journalist, editor, author, almost octogenarian

NF Northrop Frye Statue

As a writer, it’s freeing to learn that the natural habit of the human mind is to think metaphorically. Lately I  have ‘encountered’ many quotations on this subject from two men I would never have put in the same ‘boat’. Let me call them Norrie and Dan, since I’ve been ‘spending’  a lot of  time in their ‘company’. Frankly, I am sick of fruitless debates over subjects such as the literal account of ‘Creation’ and whether ‘God’ exists.

You might as well question whether we need words. Here are some quotations which ‘nail down’ answers to the wobbly question of  what a metaphor is. Of course the quotes are taken out of context, but they are exact. Take  your pick:

From Northrop Frye: Myth and Metaphor (Selected Essays 1974-88), edited by Robert D. Denham:

  • My own view is that every form of speech can be reduced to metaphor, but metaphor is primary language, and metaphor cannot be reduced to another kind of language: as long as we use words at all we can never escape metaphors, but only change them.
  • Our primary thinking…is not rational but metaphorical, an identifying of subjective and objective worlds in huge mental pictures.
  • Metaphors are statements of identity: they tell us, for instance, that the poet and the lady he loves are shadow and sun.
  • Metaphor does not evoke a world of things linked together by overstated analogies; it evokes a world of swirling currents of energy that run back and forth between subject and object.
  • (Metaphor) is also a primary structural effort of consciousness. (It) may be followed by or even translated into more continuous rational thinking.

From The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown:

  • Those who truly understand their faiths understand the stories are metaphorical.
  • Every faith in the world is based on fabrication. That is the definition of faith — acceptance of that which we imagine to be true, that which we cannot prove. Every religion describes God through metaphor, allegory, and exaggeration from the early Egyptians to modern Sunday School.
  • Metaphors are a way to help our minds process the unprocessable. The problems arise when we begin to believe literally in our own metaphors.
  • By teaching through a metaphorical game (Tarot cards), the followers of the Grail disguised their message from the watchful eyes of the Church.
  • Magdalene’s story has been shouted from the rooftops for centuries in all kinds of metaphors and languages. Her story is everywhere once you open your eyes.

For an example of a practical application of this wisdom Frye says, “The account of creation in the Bible does not describe the origin of nature and was probably never intended to. If it were, it would have been a little cleverer and not had the trees created the day before the sun was.”

Have you written any metaphors lately you would like to brag about here? Please use the comment box to tell us!,,,,

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Remembering Northrop Frye: Recollections by His Students in the 1940’s and 1950’s edited by Robert D. Denham

This is a fascinating collection of student reminiscences about Northrop Frye, the world-renowned Canadian literary theorist. Robert D. Denham, retired English professor from Roanoke University, VA, has devoted much of his life to the criticism of Frye, faithfully preserving the work of a genius who started out as an obscure Canadian and might have remained so.
When Denham was preparing “The Diaries of Northrop Frye” for publication in 1994, he hit upon the idea of tracking down and contacting the 1200 persons named in them. The seven diaries were kept intermittently from 1947 to 1955.

One of his most famous students was Margaret Atwood, who says Frye stopped her from “dying young and poor in a Paris garret.” She is too young (class of 6T1)  to have been mentioned in the diaries.

Denham asked each person (mostly, but not all, former students) if they were the one mentioned and if they recalled the occasion. If so, would they please send him some biographical information about themselves, along with their memories of Frye as a person and teacher. This would help Denham annotate the diaries and fill in the social landscape on the campus of Victoria College, University of Toronto during those post WWII years. Denham also asked the respondents for permission to publish them and eighty-nine agreed. I was one of them since our graduating class was invited by Frye and his wife, Helen, to their home in 1955.
In the lengthy Preface, Denham sums up the most frequent of the letters’ subjects: assessments of Frye as a teacher and person, his hair, his shyness, his ‘Bible & Literature’ course and his spellbinding lectures. Then Denham winds up by quoting 24 of the most incisive expressions of Frye’s over-all significance, his power and lasting presence in their lives. I could hardly wait to get past the Preface and into the diary entries and letters, the ultimate class reunion. Of all the facts and features tightly focused on Frye, these especially grabbed my attention:
(1) The recognizable names and intimate letters not only of people I’d known but also of people who became famous media personalities, journalists, comedians, writers, actors and actresses, politicians, etc.
(2) The surprise of seeing the iconic Frye as ordinary, walking back from the grocery store trundling a cart for his wife, or managing work schedules and campus social duties without having a car.
(3)  Touching revelations of things that bothered him, like his students joking that he was ‘God’. He didn’t know what to do about it.
(4) Pondering Frye’s shyness. Everyone felt it and hung back because of it but, when it was challenged, it was found not to be real. A delegation went to his office to ask him if he believed in prayer and he had them sit down for a homey chat. An ex-student who was as shy of him as he was of her was forced into the situation of asking Frye to write a cover blurb for a book of erotica written by her husband, Steven Vizinczey,  since otherwise they would starve. Frye complied with alacrity, praise, honesty, brevity, elegance and wit.
(5) Humorous anecdotes. Two of them might be entitled ‘Norrie (Buttercup) Frye in the Bosoms of Ballroom Dancers (1933)’ and ‘The Girl Who Dared to Be Late for Professor Northrop Frye’s Class’.
(6) The excitement of his Bible course, which he called ‘The Mythological Framework of Western Civilization’. All Vic students were required to take a one-hour-a-week pass option of either Religious Knowledge or Art & Archaeology. Frye’s RK course was so stunning that students from the campus colleges founded on faiths other than Methodist also sat in on it. Thanks to Denham, notes from it are now posted on where anyone can read them. This course does the world a great service by presenting the Bible in an informative, literary way without preaching or proselytizing.
Reading this book is like inviting a genius of the caliber of Aristotle or William Blake into your home and life — an amazing opportunity for which we can thank our host, Robert D. Denham.

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English: Victoria College in the University To...

Victoria College at University of Toronto  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By the fall of 1947-48, ‘The Finest Generation’ had returned from WW II  and gone back to school, looking for knowledge and inspiration to lead a peacetime society.

At Victoria College in Toronto English Professor Northrop Frye was ready and welcoming. He had compiled a punchy Bible course in line with the college motto, ‘The Truth Shall Make You Free‘.

These students were the most brilliant he ever taught, his diaries say. After an hour-long lecture, they’d head for a coffee with friends who wanted to know what “God” said today.

This fall students’ notes of those 24 lectures (36 pp) edited by Professor Robert Denham have been posted online. They have not lost their punch. You can read and download them as a PDF without paying fees.

Here’s what he told them in the beginning of his first lecture (direct,  unabridged quotes):

1. The Bible is the grammar of Western civilization; it brings down an entire culture and civilization to us.

2. The Bible  represents a vision of the whole of human life. Transcendental genius and ridiculous genealogies are side by side. It is crude, shocking, funny.  It has a beginning, a middle and an end. The narrative from Creation to Last Judgment takes an epic survey of time. The perspective is of eternity. Jesus is the center of the Bible. Jesus and the Bible are identical.

3. Several theological systems are based on the Bible and all claim to be equally correct. All religions are on a level as far as moral doctrines are concerned; the moral loftiness of the Bible is accidental, like its aesthetic beauty.

4. Recurrent symbols in the Bible form a single pattern. The structure is complicated and must be studied. The whole Bible is the history of man’s loss of freedom and organization and how he got it back.

5. There are two kinds of symmetry: (1) the chronological story of creation, etc., as a legendary, mythical story of the fortunes of the Jewish people from 2000 B.C. to 100 A.D.  and the spread of the Christian Church. (2) The second kind is circular. The conception of true and false as we think of it is not dealt with in the Bible. The fall of man and the apocalypse have nothing to do with history. The whole question of causation, order, purpose is not dealt with.

6. Christianity clings to revelation, and the only practical way to do this is in a book. All we know about God is in the Bible; there is no God in nature or “up there” in the sky. The association of God and Man is the basis of Christianity.

Frye gave his Bible course for decades and died twenty years ago. He became principal of the college; to honor him on an anniversary, the  motto carved in stone into the arch over Vic’s entrance door appeared almost miraculously to read ‘The Truth Shall Make You Frye’.

Click on this link to read all of the 24 lectures of Frye’s 1947-48 Bible course. The notes taken by students Margaret Gayfer and Richard Stingle are part of the Robert D. Denham collection in Moncton, NB, the birthplace of Frye.

Margaret Kell Virany, author of A Book of Kells: Growing Up in an Ego Void

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Photo by Deborah Shackleton

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.

If you are interested in downloading free notes of Norrie Frye’s classes in pdf form, follow the link given below. When you are in, click on the Denham library in the right menu. For other cozybookbasics posts on Frye, go to ‘Home’ at the top of this page and scroll down.,,,,

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