Northrop Frye &
Victoria College

“I knew that there was something genuine about the college that took me when I was nobody, took a chance on me simply because they knew me, then sat back and waited for me to get that infernal Blake book off my hands”
—Northrop Frye, Criticism in Society, 1987

“A fact that will not be mentioned [in my obituary] but still deserves to be is that I was mainly responsible for bringing [E.J.] Pratt and [J.D.] Robins and Frye into our English staff. They have not only carried on a tradition. They have created a new one”
—Pelham Edgar, Across My Path, 1952

Northrop Frye’s lifelong association with Victoria College spanned over six decades, beginning in 1929 and lasting until his death in 1991. Frye was first affiliated with the College as a student, commencing his undergraduate studies in September 1929. He completed graduate theological studies at Emmanuel College between 1933 and 1936.

As part of his involvement in the student life of the College, Frye served as the editor of Acta Victoriana in the 1932–1933 academic year under the guidance of Professor John Daniel Robins (1884–1952). The scholar mentored the students on the journal’s board in his role as the literary advisor. Frye’s writing debut appeared on the pages of Acta in 1931, in “The Mercury Column,” a satirical and literary feature of the journal. Many years later, Frye continued to support the publication of the journal, following Robins’s footsteps and serving as the literary advisor in 1955.

Robins, along with Professors Pelham Edgar (1871–1948) and E.J. Pratt (1882–1964), are the “extraordinary trio” of the Victoria scholars who shaped Frye’s academic career. Fearful Symmetry is dedicated to Edgar, as he supported the young, impoverished scholar in many important ways, not only academically but also financially.

Edgar possessed a keen sense of appreciation for talent and intellect. His teaching career was distinguished by his dedication to many creative men and women who were subsequently successful as Canada’s renowned authors and poets, including Marjorie Pickthall (1883–1922) and Raymond Knister (1899–1932). In 1936, Edgar helped to finance Frye’s graduate studies at Merton College, University of Oxford, by securing a fellowship from the Royal Society of Canada for Frye, worth $1,500.

Frye first articulated a set of concepts regarding typology in an essay entitled “Eccentricity,” submitted to Edgar for consideration as an entry to the Lincoln Hutton Essay Prize. Composed in the summer of 1931 under the pseudonym Scherzando, the paper served as the basis of Frye’s study on Blake. As his interest in the poet intensified, he enrolled in a graduate course on Blake in 1933 under Professor Herbert J. Davis (1893–1967). Davis, a scholar of eighteenth-century literature, assigned him to write an essay on Blake’s Milton: A Poem.

While Frye was working on the essay late at night at Bowles Lunch (a famous student hangout formerly located on Bloor Street West near Bay Street), an elucidation began to form in his mind at “around about two in the morning some very curious things began happening... I began to see glimpses of something bigger and more exciting than I had ever before realized existed in the world of the mind, and when I went out for breakfast at five-thirty on a bitterly cold winter morning, I was committed to a book on Blake.”

Frye’s first academic position at Victoria University was as a reader in the College’s Department of English in the fall of 1934 (a position akin to a teaching assistant in universities today).

On 20 June 1939, Frye was appointed as a Lecturer in the Department of English. He became Assistant Professor in 1942, Associate Professor in 1946, Professor in 1947, Chairman of the Department of English in 1952, and Principal of the College in 1959.

On 1 January 1, 1967, he retired from the Principalship and became University Professor in the University of Toronto, remaining also a Professor of English at Victoria. He was Chancellor of Victoria University from 1978 until his death in 1991.

The campus of Victoria College also held a personal importance for Frye, as it was the place where Frye met his lifelong companion, Helen Kemp (1910–1986), a fellow student and artist. She remained his life partner until her death in 1986 (it occurred during the Fryes’ tour of Australian universities).

Following the scholar’s passing on 23 January 1991, his family and friends gathered for a funeral at the Victoria College Chapel on 26 January. A memorial service for the Victoria community was also held there two days later. When the wider University of Toronto community and dignitaries assembled in the Convocation Hall to honour Frye’s life and academic accomplishments, the congregation sang Blake’s Jerusalem at the end of the service.

Today, the legacy of the literary critic and theorist continues to be celebrated on the Victoria College campus through the activities of the Northrop Frye Centre. In addition, Frye’s likeness depicted in the bronze statue situated near the entrance to the E.J. Pratt Library. The public artwork was carved by wood sculptor Darren Byers and mural artist Fred Harrison; both artists are from New Brunswick, Frye’s home province.


“Northrop Frye, Literary Critic” (CBC Archives, 1973) is an interview with Frye discussing his lifelong connection to Victoria College, his upbringing in Moncton, and his thoughts on the structure of Canadian literature.

Northrop Frye Centre (Victoria University) is a “convivial space for scholars in the human sciences of all generations to come together for stimulating academic exchange.” The Centre offers fellowship programs and undergraduate research awards.