Northrop Frye and literature

To some English professors who, during a long car ride, tried to engage him in conversation on various authors, Frye is reported by one of them to have said (after their efforts were met with monosyllabic replies), that he was not so much interested in literature as in what literature—all literature at once—is trying to say. What is this intention, this intensio or “stretching towards” which the human mind evinces in the making of tales and in the rhythmical arrangement of words? Is literature secondary with respect to something that lies beyond it and that literature itself—all of literature, every story every human being has ever told from the beginning—is trying to say, or to enunciate, to make manifest? We may all have reflexive answers to that question—Milton and Blake’s would be “yes,” and ours, more than likely, most of the time, would be “no”—but the strength of Frye’s criticism flows from his keeping this question—than which surely there is none more important—open as a question: “Limits are in the forms of what is made, but the powers of making are infinite” (435).

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