Fearful Symmetry

I’m getting intensely interested in Blake again—it’s damned near a monomania,” Northrop Frye wrote in a letter to Helen Kemp (1910–1986), describing his growing interest in the poetry of William Blake. Frye composed the letter in 1934, the same year in which he began to write the manuscript on Blake’s prophecies, which, after numerous revisions, eventually morphed into his seminal study on the poet.

Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947) was Northrop Frye’s first scholarly work of literary criticism and interpretation. The monograph analyzes the meaning and significance of William Blake’s poetry and his poetic vision within the literary context of his time. Frye approached the study of Blake’s prophecies comprehensively and systematically. Seeking to draw readers to Blake’s imaginative realm, he argued that the poet’s oeuvre represented a unified vision and his prophecies were central to the poet’s body of work. Frye also asserted that Blake deserved recognition as a major poet in the canon of Romantic poetry and literature.

As Frye was writing and revising the manuscript in the 1940s, he recognized the similarities between the transformative events of his time and the revolutionary context of Blake’s life and creativity. As Frye explains in the preface, World War II “provided parallels… useful for understanding Blake’s attitude to the world.” In a retrospective interview with Imre Salusinszky, when reflecting on how the conflict affected the composition of the book, Frye stated that it was “a very anxious, troubled book. It was written with the horror of Nazism just directly in front of it at the time.”

Although the original manuscript for Fearful Symmetry was met with three separate rejections from publishers until the Princeton University Press accepted it for publications in 1945, four editions of the monograph were eventually released between 1949 and 1969. The book was reprinted six times during this time. The first edition sold 1,100 copies in the first six months after its release.

An Italian translation appeared in 1976. The most recent edition of the book was published in 2004 as part of the series, Complete Works of Northrop Frye, edited by Nicholas Halmi, with an extensive introduction by Ian Singer.

Fearful Symmetry is currently available in print as a paperback from Princeton UP, based on the fourth printing (1974) of the first paperback edition (1969).


“Frye, Herman Northrop” (Dictionary of Canadian Biography) is an extensive article on the literary critic’s life and scholarship, exploring the writing and the reception of his first monograph.

The William Blake Archive is an expansive digital collection of the poet’s texts, engravings, and book designs, including illuminated books, commercial illustrations, drawings and paintings, as well as manuscripts.

“William Blake vs. the World” (How to Academy, 2021) is a podcast exploring the “mercurial genius” of Blake through culture, science, philosophy and religion. The podcast is hosted by John Higgs, a cultural historian and the author of several books on the poet, including William Blake vs. the World (2021) and William Blake Now: Why He Matters More Than Ever (2019).