Fearful Symmetries: William Blake, Northrop Frye, and Archetypal Criticism

By Ryan, Mark | English Studies in Canada, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Fearful Symmetries: William Blake, Northrop Frye, and Archetypal Criticism


Ryan, Mark, English Studies in Canada


NORTHROP FRYE'S WIDE-RANGING ANALYSIS of William Blake's art in Fearful Symmetry and in other criticism has long been appropriated by Blake scholars in their support of the archetypal tradition, with its emphasis on the meaning and sources of symbolism in the works of Blake. Such criticism has been viewed as standing in opposition to the historical research of David Erdman and others, whose view of Blake's poetry and art results from a close inspection of the life and times of the artist. However, Frye's contribution in this field has endured due to his insistence on relating Blake's ideas to other traditions of literary and religious thought and his ability to analyze Blake's symbols and their interconnections. Frye's study of Blake has had enormously important repercussions for literary critical studies, as it helped to form the basis of his own system of critical theory in the Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (1957). In the Anatomy, Frye provides an analysis of four different types of literary expression, the third of which is the archetypal. In this article, it is my intention to partially explore the archetypal tradition of criticism, to which Frye is a prominent contributor, and to highlight the ways in which Frye's analysis of archetypal symbolism in Blake created a new direction in literary criticism. The first section will give a brief synopsis of typical literature from the archetypal critical tradition and explain Frye's position within the field in relation to his use of Jung's theories and study of Blake. Secondly, there is a discussion of certain aspects of Frye's interest in the archetypal visionary elements of William Blake's poetry. The third section focuses on the extent to which Frye uses Jungian ideas in his discussion of archetypes.

Frye and Jungian Archetypal Criticism

It is important to define Carl Jung's main idea that formed the basis of Jungian archetypal criticism before commencing a survey of such literary critical ideas and Northrop Frye's place in this tradition. Jung expresses his concept of an archetype in a variety of ways, which includes a comparison with Plato's pure forms (Archetypes 75). Archetype literally means "first print" and refers to those images in the human mind that have been present since the dawn of time. From Jung's point of view, they are the building bricks of consciousness that are repeated in the literature, art, and architecture of different cultures all over the world. For example, Jung considers the image of a mandala or wheel to be the oldest archetype, and due to its replication it is to be found not only in the unconscious of any one individual but also on a collective level.

The first full-length literary criticism that uses Jungian concepts in the study of literature is Maud Bodkin's Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (1934) which demonstrated the author's interest in the way in which ancient symbolism is replicated in works across a long period of time. This study explores the symbolic figures and situations that commonly feature in such prominent works of literature as the plays of Aeschylus, Dante's Inferno, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and Coleridge's The Ancient Mariner. From a critical standpoint, the text establishes the priority of archetypal interest over mythological criticism and directly sets out to test the veracity of Jung's claim that there is a transhistorical collective unconscious that can be charted throughout the literature of various cultures. Bodkin's main thesis, taken from Jung, is that certain poems possess a special emotional significance due to the excitation of unconscious forces known as archetypes, which have been described as recurring, primordial, inherited images that determine an individual's present experience. (1) This thesis is tested across a range of classical and Shakespearean literature to reveal the various archetypal images that recur in the minds of the writers, and such symbols are linked to Bodkin's own emotions, as expressed in dreams. …

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