The Reception of
Fearful Symmetry

Fearful Symmetry is a great imaginative act, a piece of prophetic criticism which can, in the hands of imaginative readers, break open the bondage of the cocoon and free the winged future of a transformed society”
—Blodwen Davis, The Beacon, February 1948

Northrop Frye’s elucidation of William Blake’s imaginative universe on the pages of Fearful Symmetry dazzled literary critics and book reviewers. The monograph attracted over thirty reviews in Canada, United States, and the United Kingdom. The praise for Frye appeared on the pages of many major scholarly and literary journals (including the Times Literary Supplement), as well as newspapers and popular magazines, testifying to the broad appeal and wide readership of his book.

Sir Geoffrey Keynes’s review on the pages of Time and Tide must have given Frye the most satisfaction as it validated his theoretical approach to the study of Blake’s poetry:

“[T]he present reviewer’s advice is first to read Blake [and then] to read Mr. Frye’s book, in itself a considerable intellectual effort, and finally to read Blake again fully and carefully. Blake’s spell will then be established and the reader can never hope to escape from it as long as he lives.”

Another cherished review appeared in The Spectator and was contributed by Edith Sitwell:

“Mr. Northrop Frye’s book is of such importance that it is impossible even to begin to do it justice in the space at my disposal. To say it is a magnificent, extraordinary book is to praise it as it should be praised, but in doing so one gives little idea of the huge scope of the book and its fiery understanding. Several great poets have written of Blake, but this book, I believe, is the first to show the full magnitude of Blake’s mind, its vast creative thought”

Frye (or possibly his wife, Helen) collected these reviews and other publicity materials associated with the publication of the book into a keepsake scrapbook. Other notable reviews included:

  • Deacon, William Arthur. “ Masterly Interpretation of William Blake’s Poems.” The Globe and Mail, 17 May 1947, p. 12
  • Garrett, John. “Review of Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake.” Canadian Forum, vol. 27, no. 318 (1947), p. 90
  • McLuhan, Herbert Marshall. “Inside Blake and Hollywood.” Sewanee Review, vol. 55, October–December 1947, pp. 710–713
  • Sandwell, B.K. “Student of Pelham Edgar’s Writes Epoch-Marking Volume on Blake.” Saturday Night, vol. 62, 19 July 1947, p. 17

Fearful Symmetry attracted further reviews in 2006, when it appeared as part of Complete Works of Northrop Frye. In a review published in the University of Toronto Quarterly, Professor Alan Bewell remarks on Frye’s enduring legacy in the field of literary criticism:

“Frye developed a unique form of cultural criticism, built upon the willingness of the critic to surrender completely to the language, images, and ideas of a poet, this being the precondition for finding the ground of the imagination from which one could then see the universal mythic elements of all literature, the symbolic code that is the language of the Western literary imagination.”


“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.