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Vol. 50 no. 2: Fall 2016

Frye’s Mistreatment of the Archetype

  • Sheila A. Spector
5 October 2016
05 Oct. 2016


Few would deny that Northrop Frye was the most influential Blake critic in the second half of the twentieth century. In “Blake on Frye and Frye on Blake,” G. E. Bentley, Jr., labeled the period between 1947 (the date when Fearful Symmetry was first published) and 1992 “The Age of Frye.” Without in any way disputing Bentley’s assessment of Frye’s influence, this paper will explore some of the ways that the impact of Frye damaged the reception of Blake. Specifically, I argue that in his zeal to use Blake as the focal point for a new science of criticism, Frye interpreted, distorted, and sometimes even went so far as to revise Blake in such a way that the poet would conform with the preconceptions of the critic. Then, because Frye’s influence has been so “massive and pervasive,” the critic’s version, in many instances, has actually supplanted the poet’s original. In order to expose the magnitude of the problem, I want first to establish the esoteric context, demonstrating how Blake actually conforms to an alternative mythic system, one that Frye rejects out of hand. Finally, I will explore some of the ways that Frye forced Blake to fit within his critical enterprise, yielding (to amend the title of one of his more frequently cited essays on Blake) Frye’s mistreatment of the archetype.