Northrop Frye on Milton and Blake

Northrop Frye on Milton and Blake

Edited by Angela Esterhammer
Volume: 16
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 530
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/9781442677821
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Northrop Frye on Milton and Blake
    Book Description:

    The writings of John Milton and William Blake were central to Northrop Frye's concept of the imaginative structure of Western literature and thought. He considered them the two most important poet-prophets in the English tradition.

    This volume brings together all of Frye's writings on Milton and Blake from 1947 to 1987 - published and unpublished essays, reviews, commentaries, and public lectures - with the exception ofFearful Symmetry(published as Volume 14 of the Collected Works of Northrop Frye). During this time, Frye's engagement with Milton moved outward from the university into conferences, publications, and public lectures. His engagement with Blake, meanwhile, was a personal, intellectual, and spiritual quest, leading him to became the world authority on Blake in the mid-twentieth century.

    Angela Esterhammer, a student of Frye's in the 1980s, has provided annotation and an introduction that demonstrates the poets' importance for Frye's literary and cultural criticism and provides a twenty-first-century perspective on the legacy of his work. This key volume of the Collected Works will be important to scholars interested in Frye as well as those of Milton and Blake.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7782-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Credits
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. xvii-xxxvi)

    Northrop Frye’s writings on John Milton and William Blake span four decades, the earliest of the pieces in this volume dating from 1947, the last from 1987. The writings on Milton and those on Blake take up comparable numbers of pages, although this is a somewhat misleading comparison because the section on Milton contains the complete text of Frye’s book of essays on Milton,The Return of Eden(1965), while his seminal book on Blake,Fearful Symmetry(1947), appears separately as volume 14 of the Collected Works. Perhaps surprisingly, Frye did not write extensively on Milton and Blake together. Several...

  7. Essays on Milton

    • 1 Introduction to “Paradise Lost” and Selected Poetry and Prose
      (pp. 3-23)

      The first poem of Milton’s to show major genius, the poem generally called theNativity Ode,was written during the Christmas season of 1629. Not many of us can have much idea of what it would feel like to have such a poem as that tearing itself loose from one’s brain at the age of twenty-one. The shock of its emergence is recorded in a Latin poem, later known as theSixth Elegy,which Milton sent to his friend Charles Diodati at that time. In this poem Milton says that the major poet must think of himself as a priest...

    • 2 Literature as Context: Milton’s Lycidas
      (pp. 24-34)

      I should like to begin with a brief discussion of a familiar poem, Milton’sLycidas,in the hope that some of the inferences drawn from the analysis will be relevant to the theme of this conference.Lycidas,then, is an elegy in the pastoral convention, written to commemorate a young man named Edward King who was drowned at sea. The origins of the pastoral are partly Classical, the tradition that runs through Theocritus and Virgil, and partly Biblical, the imagery of the twenty-third Psalm, of Christ as the Good Shepherd, of the metaphors of “pastor” and “flock” in the church....

    • 3 The Return of Eden: Five Essays on Milton’s Epics
      (pp. 35-131)

      The first four chapters of this book were originally the Centennial Lectures delivered at Huron College in March 1963, under the title “A Tetrachordon for Paradise Lost.” This title was somewhat spoiled by the addition of a revised version of an earlier paper of mine, “The Typology ofParadise Regained,”which appeared inModern Philologyin May 1956.I am indebted to Principal Morden and Professor Blissett of Huron College for many kindnesses, and to the University of Chicago Press for allowing me to reprint the substance of my article fromModern Philology.

      The lectures at Huron College were conceived as...

    • 4 The Revelation to Eve
      (pp. 132-155)

      Dreams are of great importance in the Classical epics, where they may be true or deceitful, and may descend through the gate of ivory or of horn. An epic designed to justify the ways of God to men would have to be especially careful in its treatment of dreams: in Homer Zeus himself may send a deceiving dream as well as a true one, but inParadise Lostthe two gates must be as wide apart as the gates of heaven and hell themselves.

      The creation of Adam is associated with two dreams: first a dream of the trees of...

    • 5 Agon and Logos
      (pp. 156-178)

      Milton intendedParadise Lostto be a Christian conquest of the Classical epic genre, and similarlySamson Agonistesis a Christian conquest of the Classical genre of dramatic tragedy. In Classical literature, as in Classical life and culture generally, there are, as Milton sees it, two elements. One is a development of natural human ability, or what we now call creative imagination, outside the Christian revelation, and therefore possessing, not the truth of that revelation, but an analogy of or parallel to that truth. Although the poetry of the Bible, according toThe Reason of Church Government,is better as...

    • 6 Tribute to Balachandra Rajan
      (pp. 179-182)

      The presence of Balachandra Rajan in the Canadian academic community has been a pure bonus: something that could never have been expected or deserved. In contrast to so many of the authors in Mr. Butt’s brilliant survey, Canadians who dash around the world but set up the same stage sets and props wherever they get off the plane, Rajan is an Indian who has found Western intellectual patterns, Western languages, Western culture-heroes, congenial to him and has settled down with them. He is a most effective speaker at academic conferences, but his effectiveness is not itself simply academic: sincerity and...

  8. Essays on Blake

    • 7 Blake on Trial Again
      (pp. 185-188)

      There has always been a tendency among critics of Blake to interpret him in terms of the critic’s own time. Swinburne¹ dressed him in the tight sadistic corsets and exuberant rhetorical crinolines of the Victorian romantics; Symons² posed him among the bourgeois-baiters andpoètes mauditsof the turn of the century; and Middleton Murry³ made him express the common postwar view that the gospel of Jesus might work if it were shot in one arm with a practical application of D.H. Lawrence and in the other with a theoretical approval of Marx. Bronowski’s book⁴ perhaps reflects the uneasy social conscience...

    • 8 Review of The Portable Blake
      (pp. 189-189)

      The Portable Blakegives all the best lyrics, the “minor” or shorter Prophecies almost complete, good extracts from the letters and miscellaneous writings, and extracts from the three long Prophecies. In addition there are the Job engravings and the passages relating to Blake from Crabb Robinson’s diary, besides the editorial comment. One curious blunder is the printing of the marginalia without the original passages to which they refer even when the comment (for example, “Well Said Enough!” or “Damned Fool!” [K464, 467/E652, 656]) does not stand alone. The Job series also carries only the leading Biblical quotations underneath, and hardly...

    • 9 Blake’s Treatment of the Archetype
      (pp. 190-206)

      The reader of Blake soon becomes familiar with the words “innocence” and “experience.” The world of experience is the world that adults live in while they are awake. It is a very big world, and a lot of it seems to be dead, but still it makes its own kind of sense. When we stare at it, it stares unwinkingly back, and the changes that occur in it are, on the whole, orderly and predictable changes. This quality in the world that reassures us we call law. Sitting in the middle of the lawful world is the society of awakened...

    • 10 J.G. Davies’ The Theology of William Blake
      (pp. 207-208)

      Mr. Davies is a careful and vigilant reader of Blake, and sticks to his subject with a restraint unusual in Blake’s critics. He leaves the symbolism alone, very sensibly, and all other aspects of Blake which are not his concern. Sometimes this is carried to excess—Blake’s identification of Christianity with art, for instance, is mentioned only in passing—but on the whole his book gains from its omissions. He first relates Blake to the Church of his day, and does so with great clarity, though he is reluctant to press the point that Blake regarded corruption as inseparable from...

    • 11 Bernard Blackstone’s English Blake
      (pp. 209-211)

      The first half of this book is a rapid review of Blake’s poems in chronological order. The commentary is too brief to go very deeply into the subject at any point, but it makes a good reference guide. This is held together by a skeleton of biography, which repeats the old Gilchrist¹ chestnuts rather uncritically: some of Gilchrist’s anecdotes, one feels, belong less to a life of Blake than to a Theophrastan² Character of the Eccentric Artist. For those with a special interest in Blake, the best thing in these two hundred pages is a good concise account of the...

    • 12 Poetry and Design in William Blake
      (pp. 212-220)

      The ability to paint and the ability to write have often belonged to the same person; but it is rare to find them equally developed. Most people so gifted have been either writers who have made a hobby of painting, like D.H. Lawrence, or painters who have made a hobby of writing, like Wyndham Lewis. When the two are combined, one usually predominates. It is not uncommon for poets who can draw to illustrate their poems, like Edward Lear; nor is it uncommon for painters who can write to provide inscriptions to their paintings, like Rossetti. In a world as...

    • 13 Introduction to Selected Poetry and Prose of William Blake
      (pp. 221-236)

      William Blake was born in 1757, the second of five children in the family a London shopkeeper, a retail hosier. In the days before photography, illustrations to books had to be engraved by hand, and it was possible for an artist without influence or income to make a fairly steady living as an engraver. When Blake showed a talent for drawing, therefore, he was promptly apprenticed to that trade, as the shortest way of making him self-supporting. He was thus committed in his early teens to a life of constant association with books and the pictorial arts. His master was...

    • 14 David Erdman’s Blake: Prophet against Empire
      (pp. 237-238)

      There have been several studies of Blake’s social and political interests and of his awareness of, and involvement with, the historical events of his time. Mr. Erdman’s book, however, is the first in this tradition to employ consistently a full knowledge of the meaning of Blake’s Prophecies and an ability to recognize the historical allusions made in them. It is also the first to make a consistent use of theprimarysources of historical scholarship. The author carefully sifts fact from legend in Blake’s biography, and replaces the often rather vague statements of previous critics about the social conditions of...

    • 15 Notes for a Commentary on Milton
      (pp. 239-265)

      Blake is a poet of the Bible, and from early life he saw in the Bible the outlines of an epic narrative. This narrative begins with myths of creation, fall, and deluge (which are all the same event in Blake) and goes on to the history of Israel, presented as a sequence of revolutions and captivities. This sequence is interrupted, though not terminated, by the Incarnation, and, after a period of undetermined length, an apocalypse and Last Judgment put an end to history and return us to the world as it was before the fall. It is natural, then, that...

    • 16 William Blake (I)
      (pp. 266-289)

      The literary works of William Blake consist, with unimportant exceptions, of: (a) the juvenilePoetical Sketches,published in 1783, (b)The French Revolution,one of seven announced books, of which the only surviving copy is a proof, (c) theDescriptive Catalogueprinted to accompany the 1809 exhibition, (d) marginalia to a number of books, (e) the engraved (or more strictly, etched) works, (f) manuscript material. The engraved works, or illuminated books, form the central canon of Blake’s literary production. When the textual unit is an aphorism or a lyric poem, it normally goes on a single plate, with an accompanying...

    • 17 Blake after Two Centuries
      (pp. 290-302)

      The value of centenaries and similar observances is that they call attention, not simply to great men, but to what we do with our great men. The anniversary punctuates, so to speak, the scholarly and critical absorption of its subject into society. From this point of view, a centenary date might well be more impressive for those interested in William Blake than his birth on November 28, 1757. The year 1857 would bring us to a transitional point in the life of Alexander Gilchrist, who had recently got a life of Etty off his hands, married, moved to Chelsea to...

    • 18 Blake’s Introduction to Experience
      (pp. 303-312)

      Students of literature often think of Blake as the author of a number of lyrical poems of the most transparent simplicity, and of a number of “Prophecies” of the most impenetrable complexity. The Prophecies are the subject of some bulky commentaries, including one by the present writer, which seem to suggest that they are a special interest, and may not even be primarily a literary one. The ordinary reader is thus apt to make a sharp distinction between the lyrical poems and the Prophecies, often with a hazy and quite erroneous notion in his mind that the Prophecies are later...

    • 19 Preface to Peter Fisher’s The Valley of Vision
      (pp. 313-315)

      When Peter Francis Fisher was drowned in a sailing accident on September 2, 1958, at the age of forty, Canada lost one of its most brilliant and versatile scholars. A soldier with a fine military record, he had a keen interest in the theory of strategy, wrote papers on the campaigns of Alexander the Great, and was ready to discuss any aspect of military theory from Sun-Tzu Wu to Clausewitz. He took a doctor’s degree in English literature, and his contributions to literary scholarship include articles onBeowulf,onA Midsummer Night’s Dream,onHeart of Midlothian,and on Milton’s...

    • 20 The Road of Excess
      (pp. 316-329)

      It will be easiest for me to begin with a personal reference. My first sustained effort in scholarship was an attempt to work out a unified commentary on the prophetic books of Blake. These poems are mythical in shape: I had to learn something about myth to write about them, and so I discovered, after the book was published, that I was a member of a school of “myth criticism” of which I had not previously heard. My second effort, completed ten years later, was an attempt to work out a unified commentary on the theory of literary criticism, in...

    • 21 Introduction to Blake: A Collection of Critical Essays
      (pp. 330-336)

      This book offers what it is hoped is a representative collection of contemporary critical essays on Blake. I have found it very difficult to make, and I still feel like apologizing to the reader, not for anything I have included, but for what I have been compelled to leave out. Apart from restrictions of space, what I have left out that I might have included was left out mainly in the interest of trying to get some distribution over the whole of Blake’s output and outlook, while avoiding topics too impossibly specialized. Some of the best and most important criticism...

    • 22 The Keys to the Gates
      (pp. 337-359)

      The criticism of Blake, especially of Blake’s Prophecies, has developed in direct proportion to the theory of criticism itself. The complaints that Blake was “mad” are no longer of any importance, not because anybody has proved him sane, but because critical theory has realized that madness, like obscenity, is a word with no critical meaning. There are critical standards of coherence and incoherence, but if a poem is coherent in itself the sanity of its author is a matter of interest only to the more naive type of biographer. Those who have assumed that the Prophecies are incoherent because they...

    • 23 William Blake (II)
      (pp. 360-363)

      BLAKE, WILLIAM (1757–1827), English poet, painter, and engraver. Blake was born in London, the second of five children in the family of a retail hosier. His social status precluded university education, and he was apprenticed to an engraver. Apart from that training and a few months at the Royal Academy, Blake was self-educated. Most of his pictorial work took the form of illustrations for books, Biblical subjects forming the largest group. His painting and engraving were thus primarily related to literature, and the interdependence of poetry and painting is a central principle of all his work. He lived in...

    • 24 Comment on Adam and Eve and the Angel Raphael
      (pp. 364-365)

      William Blake was born in London in 1757, and died there in 1827. As his family was not well off, he was early apprenticed to an engraver, and made his living partly by engraving illustrations to books, often his own or others’ designs, and partly by selling his paintings. His paintings were in watercolour and were almost invariably illustrations to literary works. His favourite book was the Bible, and the bulk of his illustrations are directly or indirectly Biblical in theme, including a famous series on the Book of Job done near the end of his life. He also illustrated...

    • 25 Blake’s Reading of the Book of Job (I)
      (pp. 366-377)

      Blake’s Job engravings and paintings have often been commented on, and never more lucidly than by the subject of thisFestschrift.¹ But one aspect of Blake’s great work could perhaps be discussed a little more fully. Everyone realizes that Blake recreated the Book of Job in his engravings and was not simply illustrating it. At the same time he appears to be following the book with some fidelity, and his attitude toward it, in striking contrast to his attitude toward Dante’sCommedia,seems to be on the whole an attitude of critical acceptance. He remarked, apropos of Homer, that “Every...

    • 26 William Blake (III)
      (pp. 378-386)

      William Blake was an engraver by profession, and he used an engraving process to produce his poems. The details of the process are still not certain, but the essentials are clear enough. He traced the words of his poems and the designs that accompanied them on a copper plate in some acid-resisting material, then immersed the plate in acid so that it ate away the copper and left the design and text in relief, then stamped the design on paper, and finally coloured the design by hand. He used this method for two kinds of poetry: short lyrics, and longer...

    • 27 Blake’s Reading of the Book of Job (II)
      (pp. 387-401)

      For all the discussion that there has been over Blake’s illustrations to the Book of Job, much of the best of it contributed by the subject of thisFestschrift,¹ there is perhaps still room for more consideration of how Blake read the book. Everyone realizes that Blake recreated the book in his engravings, and was not simply illustrating it. At the same time he appears to be following it with considerable fidelity, and his attitude toward it, in striking contrast to his attitude toward the original of the other great work of his last period, the illustrations to Dante’sCommedia,...

    • 28 Blake’s Biblical Illustrations
      (pp. 402-418)

      It is rare to have an experience that seems to bring one’s past life around in a curve, suggesting the closing up of a period of time rather than the usual open continuity. But when I see the name of Blake in letters of such vast size outside the Art Gallery in my own city (I almost said “of my own city,” because I am old enough to think of it occasionally as the Art Gallery of Toronto), it does seem to round off an era with a shape to it. I began working on a book on Blake in...

    • 29 Blake’s Bible
      (pp. 419-436)

      It is obvious that Blake is, even by English standards, an intensely Biblical poet. His approach to it is wholly that of a poet and painter: he has little of Milton’s or Herbert’s doctrinal content. As we all know, Blake developed a cosmic vision of a universe inhabited by dramatis personae of his own invention. His treatment of that vision remains remarkably consistent throughout his life, though it was not static: many vague and undeveloped areas of it become clearer and more detailed as he goes on. But at no time does he stray very far away from the Bible...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 437-462)
  10. Emendations
    (pp. 463-464)
  11. Index
    (pp. 465-490)