Study Guide

Northrop Frye Influences

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Giambattista Vico

Vico was like my mentor—except I never met him (he lived in eighteenth-century Italy). Beyond that, we were very close—especially when it came to our ideas about imagination and the intellect. He didn't just have an influence on me; his thought was a big influence on the Enlightenment itself. (This guy was no lightweight.)

Now, sure, Vico was a rational guy, but he also believed in the supreme importance of poetry. He was not like one of those rigid left-brained types who think that creativity is only for preschoolers with blocks.

He actually championed the idea that philosophy had a huge debt to poetry and was even derived from poetry. I call him "the first modern thinker to understand that all major verbal structures have descended historically from poetic and mythological ones" (source).

William Blake

If I could have married Blake, I would have—I loved him that much.

This Romantic poet had some intense ideas. Like all of the thinkers who have influenced me, Blake believed that our culture is founded on mythological frames. It all starts with myths from the Bible, whose themes, symbols, and characters show up in all subsequent Western literature. All of these motifs gain in cultural significance as they show up in more and more and more works of art (we can probably include films at this point).

I buy Blake's whole idea that the Bible is like this big decoding book that allows you to understand everything that has been written after it—which is a lot.

John Stuart Mill

Again, a smarty-pants I never met but who still had an enormous influence on me. Mill was into everything from literature to politics to economics, so he didn't limit himself to one narrow discipline. I love people like that.

I used many of the basics of his ideas and threw them into my own coherent system. I just love systems and neat, contained theories. My favorite little insight from Mill is this one:

The artist […] is not heard but overhead. The axiom of criticism must be, not that the poet does not know what he is talking about, but that he cannot talk about what he knows. To defend the right of criticism to exist at all, therefore, is to assume that criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge existing in its own right, with some measure of independence from the art it deals with. (Source.)

If I lost you with that one, here goes the interpretation. The critic's job is of equal importance to the artist's job—not because the artist doesn't know what he or she is talking about but because criticism clarifies art through its own separate (and equally important) system of thought. In short: asking a poet what his poem means may be less insightful than getting a critic to tell you. Poets are just too close to their work.

Canadian Literature

You may have noticed that I mentioned I am not French. As far as English departments are concerned, that makes me un-hip. The fact that I am Canadian makes me tragically un-hip.

Whatever. Get over it, I say.

As a Canadian, I was interested in national and regional literature. Everyone else was totally ignoring it, but I found that in reading a lot of Canadian poetry, I discovered certain recurring myths and themes—and that's my thing. I see patterns and structures everywhere; it's how I make sense of this crazy, mixed-up world.

So, anyway, I was reading all of this Canadian poetry, which is how I cooked up my ideas about "garrison mentality." I found that even though all of these settlers had gone out to brave the wilds, they not only shut themselves behind high walls but also composed work that was a little undeveloped and fearful of anything that wasn't "civilized." It was kind of snooty, kind of timid, and—I'll admit it—kind of basic.

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