Northrop Frye’s Influence on
Blake Scholarship

“Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947) is comprehensive, profound, and magisterial; it is the foundation of Frye’s own revolutionary critical system and of the most fruitful subsequent discussions by others of Blake’s ‘system.’ Its learning is immense and unobtrusive, and its analysis of Blake’s development lucid and witty”
—G.E. Bentley, Jr. (1930–2017), William Blake: the Critical Heritage, 1975

“I purchased and read Fearful Symmetry a week or two after it had come out… It ravished my heart away. I thought it was the best book I’d ever read about anything. I must have read it a hundred times between 1947 and 1950, probably intuitively memorized it, and will never escape the effect of it”
—Harold Bloom (1930–2019), Criticism in Society, 1987

TThe success of Fearful Symmetry propelled Northrop Frye as a recognized literary scholar and established his reputation at the University of Toronto. According to the late Professor G.E. Bentley, Jr., the book “transformed our understanding of William Blake” in the field of literary criticism.

Blake was mostly known as a designer and engraver and his contemporaries considered him to be an eccentric. His poems failed to attract reviews in the course of his lifetime. With the exception of Political Sketches (1783) and Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794), his contemporaries dismissed his lines of verse as strange and incomprehensible. In addition, since Blake wrote, designed, printed, bound, and sold his own books in small quantities, the circulation of his texts was limited.

In the twentieth century, Blake’s poetic legacy was recognized by three seminar scholars, who charted the course for the direction in Blakean criticism: S. Foster Damon (1893–1971), Frye, and David V. Erdman (1911–2001). Fearful Symmetry was considered to be the most influential text on Blake for many decades following its publication in 1947. Frye’s monograph revitalized the field of Blake studies and led to the reinterpretation of Blake’s poetry.

According to Bentley Jr. and Martin K. Nurmi, the publication of Fearful Symmetry in 1947 signalled a new age in Blake studies, or “Blake criticism [coming] of age, for here at last was a book that overcame most of the major obstacles to understanding his thought and art. Frye brought to bear on Blake a criticism which was not merely a collection of critical perceptions, analyses of ideas, histories of traditions and the like, but a unified critical method of the kind needed to understand a unified mind and sensibility like Blake’s.”

In addition to Bentley Jr., numerous other influential Blake scholars have engaged critically with the text of Fearful Symmetry to advance literary criticism. Julia Kristeva referred to the book as “a masterful book,” where she “saw here… in the rediscovery that Frye made for me at the heart of Blake’s text, a radical proof of this dialogism, this polyphony, which as I see it, characterizes the Western imagination.”

Harold Bloom traces the development of Blake’s cosmic myth in Blake’s Apocalypse: A Study of the Poetic Argument (Victor Gollancz, 1963) and Anne K. Mellor rejects Frye’s argument for unity in Blake’s prophetic corpus in Blake’s Human Form Divine (University of California Press, 1974). Vincent Arthur de Luca supports Frye’s argumentation regarding the unity of Blake’s vision in Words of Eternity: Blake and the Poetics of the Sublime ( Princeton University Press, 1991).

Other prominent academics who have engaged with Frye’s literary criticism and theories include Jackie A. DiSalvo (the author of War of Titans: Blake’s Critique of Milton and the Politics of Religion, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983) and Peter Fisher (the author of The Valley of Vision: Blake as Prophet and Revolutionary, University of Toronto Press, 1961). Michael Dolzani extensively integrates Frye’s approach to the study of Blake and other Romantic writers in The Productions of Time: A Study of Human Imagination (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021), testifying to the enduring influence of Frye’s scholarship in the twenty-first century.