Fearful Symmetry

“I finished my book in the full conviction that learning to read Blake was a step, and for me a necessary step, in learning to read poetry, and to write criticism. For if poetic thought is inherently schematic, criticism must be so too”
—Northrop Frye, “The Keys to the Gates,” 1966

“Frye did not write for other critics… He wrote instead for the intelligent general reader… Pick up any of his books and what you will hear… is a personal voice, speaking to you directly”
—Margaret Atwood, “The Great Communicator,” 1991

In his close, imaginative reading of Blake’s prophecies and their relation to the Bible, Frye developed a theoretical method of “myth-criticism,” which he explicated further in his second book, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton University Press. 1957). In the preface, Frye explains that “[a]fter completing a study of William Blake… I determined to apply the principles of literary symbolism and Biblical typology which I had learned from Blake.”

The monograph is considered to be one of the foundational texts in the emergence of critical theory as a field. In addition to the two other books on the Bible—The Great Code: the Bible and Literature (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982) and Words with Power: Being a Second Study of ‘The Bible and Literature’ (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990)—these publications collectively represent the four monuments of Frye’s scholarship.

He integrated the same approach into the study of poetry and literature visible in his other publications, including his books on Shakespeare (The Myth of Deliverance: Reflections on Shakespeare’s Comedies, University of Toronto Press, 1983, Northrop Frye on Shakespeare, Yale University Press, 1986) and T.S. Eliot ( T.S. Eliot, Oliver and Boyd, 1963) as well articles and book chapters on John Milton, Edmund Spenser, Wallace Stevens, W.B. Yeats, and many other authors and poets. Accordingly, Frye’s analysis of Blake’s prophecies were intrinsic to his emergence as a scholar and literary critic.

Frye continued to maintain a scholarly interest in Blake following the publication of Fearful Symmetry in 1947. His continued engagement with Blakean scholarship encompassed book chapters, scholarly articles, and book reviews in the next four decades. Many of these publications are gathered in Northrop Frye on Milton and Blake, edited by Angela Esterhammer and published in 2005 as part of the series, Complete Works of Northrop Frye.

Frye contributed many articles and reviews to the Canadian Forum and the University of Toronto Quarterly on many different aspects of the arts in Canada, including literature, poetry, music, painting, ballet, film and music. The Forum was an important periodical that provided a national platform for discussing political, social, and cultural topics that were of importance to Canadians in the second part of the twentieth century. He also served as the magazine’s managing editor between 1948 and 1952.

Frye was also the subject of many televised interviews, programs, and documentaries. In 1955, he appeared on CBC, presenting a show on William Blake. He contributed the script and selected the poems, which were read by the actor Barry Morse (1918–2008). The Scholar in Society: Northrop Frye in Conversation was released in 1994 by the National Film Board, with Frye discussing the role of educated citizenry in the effective functioning of the democratic system.

Frye was recognized for his scholarly and service contributions to the arts in Canada, receiving many distinguished awards during his lifetime. He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1972.


The Educated Imagination (CBC Massey Lectures, 1962) is a series of Frye’s lectures on the importance of reading literature and its influence on the development of the intellect. Frye also considers the role of teachers, scholars, and literary critics in society.

The Scholar in Society: Northrop Frye in Conversation (National Film Board, 1994) is a film interview with Frye, discussing democracy, the function of the university in society, and other topics.