From Fathers to Sun: Northrop Frye and the History of English-Canadian Poetry

By Kokotailo, Philip | American Review of Canadian Studies, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

From Fathers to Sun: Northrop Frye and the History of English-Canadian Poetry


Kokotailo, Philip, American Review of Canadian Studies


When John Ayre's biography of Northrop Frye was published in 1989, its dustjacket suggested that Frye ought to be considered the foremost figure in Canadian intellectual history. He "has authored," it proclaimed, "three of the most influential books of literary criticism of all time"--Fearful Symmetry (1947), Anatomy of Criticism (1957), and The Great Code (1982). Their influence, it implied, has also made Frye into something more than a literary critic. He has become "the fourth most cited twentieth-century thinker, behind only Freud, Lenin, and Roland Barthes." In short, the dustjacket asserted that because "no critic in any time has produced so impressive a body of work," Frye is now "familiar to generations of writers, intellectuals, and students everywhere."

For students of Canada, however, the significance of Frye's achievement is both more elusive and more consequential It is not just a function of his having achieved the "international renown" so heralded on his biography's dustjacket. Because Frye paid considerable attention to Canadian literature and culture throughout his career, he involved himself in a tradition of specifically national discourse. He thus established lines of relation from himself to influential predecessors and successors. His lasting national significance will ultimately be determined by these complex lines of relation, rather than proven by citation statistics.

Still, the nature of Frye's elusive Canadian significance is also suggested on Ayre's dustjacket, which metaphorically casts Frye in a central and illuminating role. The metaphor appears in a 1978 quotation from Marshall McLuhan: "Norrie is not struggling for his place in the sun. He is the sun." Though the context in which McLuhan was then centering Frye remains unclear, Frye's history of English-Canadian poetry now places him, like the sun, at the center of a Canadian critical solar system.(1) He attained this position by recreating, and thereby displacing, the history that A. J. M. Smith and John Sutherland fashioned together.(2)

Contextual Background

During the 1940s--and largely through the agency of such publications as the Canadian Forum and the University of Toronto Quarterly--critical attention turned in a higher degree to the definition of a Canadian tradition in writing. Smith and Sutherland edited anthologies of Canadian poetry, while E. K. Brown published his early critical overview On Canadian Poetry (1943) and, almost immediately, revised it in response to Smith's reaction to what he had written, bringing out a new version in 1944. Reviewing the anthologies that Smith and Sutherland edited during the decade, Frye initially validated many aspects of their work, in which they depict a unified poetry of the present reconciling and surpassing its divided past. But when he turned his attention to English-Canadian poetry of the 1950s, Frye saw those same past divisions being more preserved than resolved in his two predecessors' anthologies and criticism. He then adopted a position similar to that which Smith and Sutherland occupied before him, one from which English-Canadian poetry appears to be prematurely split. Like them, he too sought to exorcise the division. And three decades later, Frye also supplied terms that implicitly characterize his relation to Smith and Sutherland. In an essay entitled "Literary History" (1981), he wrote: "It seems to me that the central conception involved in the historical sequence of literary works is the conception of recreation. A reader recreates everything he reads more or less in his own image.... In all recreation there is a son/father relationship which has a double aspect: an Oedipus relation where the son kills the father and a Christian relation where the son identifies with the father" (225). These terms suggest that Frye, too, re-created in his own image the history that Smith and Sutherland constructed for English-Canadian poetry. In the son/father aspect of his recreation, the Oedipal Frye metaphorically killed his fathers by asserting that a mature literary tradition was established neither by the poets that Smith promoted, nor by those that Sutherland upheld, but rather by their successors in the 1950s. …

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