Read Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology by Northrop Frye Online


In this outstanding collection of sixteen essays, the world-renowned critic and scholar discusses various works in the central tradition of English mythopoeic poetry, paying particular attention to the centrality of Romanticism....

Title : Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology
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ISBN : 9780156297301
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 276 Pages
Status : Available For Download
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Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology Reviews

  • Adam Ross
    2019-02-17 05:57

    I am a lit geek, admittedly so; more particularly, I enjoy reading about how to read literature. Which is why I read books like this one by Canadian Lutheran cleric and literary theorist Northrop Frye. I’m a real sucker for anything that will advance the discussion of literary typology and mythic archetypes. When I saw that a number of the essays in this book addressed just that very thing, I got a used copy to see if it would be helpful.Full disclosure: I did not read the whole book. Fables of Identity is a collection of essays and some of them were on subjects I had no interest in, like the work of Lord Byron or Emily Dickinson or (dear God, no!) James Joyce. I might return to these essays at some later point if and when they prove themselves relevant to something I’m working on. Otherwise, life is just too short (and there are too many books) to spend slogging through everything.Thus, this review covers chapters 1-8, 11, and 14, ranging from “The Archetypes of Literature” to “Yeats and the Language of Symbolism.” These selected essays were perfectly suited for addressing some ways of reading literature as educated and informed readers and critics. For example, in the essay “Literature as Context: Milton’s Lycidas,” Frye addresses the central issue which Biblical critics have yet failed to understand:The next principle is that the provisional hypothesis which we must adopt for the study of every poem is that that poem is a unity. If, after careful and repeated testing, we are forced to conclude that it [a work of literature] is not a unity, then we must abandon the hypothesis and look for the reasons it is not. A good deal of bad criticism of Lycidas has resulted from not making enough initial effort to understand the unity of the poem. To talk of “digressions” in Lycidas is a typical consequence of a mistaken critical method, of backing into the poem the wrong way round. (p. 123).In “The Imaginative and the Imaginary,” Frye speaks of the causes of artistic inspiration:The imaginative or creative force in the ind is what has produced everything that we call culture and civilization. It is the power of transforming a sub-human physical world in a world with human shape and meaning, a world not of rocks and trees, but of cities and gardens, not an environment but a home. The drive behind it we may call desire, a desire which has nothing to do with biological needs and wants of psychological theory, but is rather the impulse toward what Aristotle calls telos, realizing the form that one potentially has. (p. 152)One of the best emphases Frye has in the book is emphasizing that symbolism is not an ill-defined mishmash, but a system of types and archetypes and themes. In “Yeats and the Language of Symbolism,” he writes,just as the words of a language are a set of verbal conventions, so the imagery of poetry is a set of symbolic conventions. This set of symbolic conventions differs from a symbolic system, such as a religion or a metaphysic, in being concerned, not with a content, but with a mode of apprehension. . . . Just as the teacher of a language is a grammarian, so one of the functions of the literary critic is to be a grammarian of imagery . . . (p. 218).In fact, it is the loss of this garmmar of imagery that has contributed to the decline in artistic quality and the reader’s ability to understand works of previous eras that made use of this grammar of imagery. Frye writes,when critics forgot how to teach the language of poetic imagery the poets forgot how to use it . . . . We shall never truly fully understand the nineteenth century until we realize how hampered its poets were by the lack of a coherent tradition of criticism which would have organized the language of poetic symbolism for them, (p. 220).This goes double for the twentieth (and twenty-first) century in which symbolism seems to have been eroded to the point which each work, if it has symbolism at all, has a scattershot approach to them and not a cohesive tradition of them.Overall, the book was technical, perhaps dense, but always full of fresh insight.

  • Lobstergirl
    2019-02-20 00:39

    This is one of those books that changes how you see something. It sounds trite and commonplace; people are always claiming that the way they see something has been changed. But how often is it really true? How often do you really see things in a completely new way? Northrop Frye has made me see literature and literary criticism in a new way here. (And his ideas can also be applied to music and the visual arts.)(Disclaimer: I was never a student of literature. Frye's ideas may be old hat to you! For all I know, Frye's ideas have been discredited. I don't keep up.)I don't really know what "fables of identity" means. The book is a collection of previously published writings on topics both general ("the archetypes of literature") and specific (Emily Dickinson). I think you can sum up the book with his sentence "Literary shape cannot come from life; it comes only from literary tradition, and so ultimately from myth." (This is from the essay "Myth, Fiction, and Displacement.") He begins his essay on Wallace Stevens with the observation that "Wallace Stevens was a poet for whom the theory and the practice of poetry were inseparable." This sounds like a fairly commonplace idea, except that it's the crux of Frye's vision of literature. Frye is especially interested in Stevens because Stevens understands that "the only ideas the poet can deal with are those directly involved with, and implied by, his own writing: that, in short, [here he is quoting Stevens] "Poetry is the subject of the poem."I loved the way the book shocked me. It was iconoclastic. For the poet/writer, experience counts for little or nothing, Frye says. (Yet, "write what you know" became a literary commandment at some point.) " or experience cannot be the formal cause of art; the impulse to give a literary shape to something can only come from previous contact with literature." While Wordsworth claimed to be "letting nature and experience be his teacher" in the poems of the Lyrical Ballads, says Frye, don't be fooled. This claim itself is a literary convention. "The efficient cause of a poem may be the poet; its material cause may be nature, life, reality, experience, or whatever is being shaped. But its formal cause, the literary shape itself, is inside poetry, poetry being, not a simple aggregate of poems, but a body of forms and categories to which every new poem attaches itself somewhere." Thus back to Stevens: "Poetry is the subject of the poem."Frye strips away the pejorative associated with conventional. Literature is conventions. After you read this book you will wonder what "unconventional" even means.I loved the way Frye wrote about the reverberations between works of literature, the way "every literary work catches the echoes of all other works of its type in literature, and so ripples out into the rest of literature and thence into life..." (The sentence ends with him stating that this is often, wrongly, called allegory.) I've long thought of music exactly the same way. Every "classical" piece of music refers to every other classical piece of music. They're enmeshed in a giant web, across centuries and geographies, all speaking to each other.

  • Kevin
    2019-02-08 02:34

    Got this for my birthday too.