Book Review: Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry


A laberinthine work of literary analysis and criticism, Fearful Symmetry is one of the landmark studies of William Blake’s poetry. Attempting to cover all possible aspects of Blake’s theology, Frye offers a reading that reconciles Blake’s revolutionary ideas, original mythology, and the Christian myth while taking for granted some assumptions presented in the bible.

 The first unit, titled The Argument, attempts to convince the reader, often quite successfully, that many of the previous generation’s thinkers, such as Locke and Johnson, were social comformists. It begins to offer what will later become a massive theological analysis of Blake’s mythology mixed with criticism of two contrary states of the soul – innocence and experience.

 The second unit, appropriately titled The Development of Symbolism, wonderfully describes the symbolism in Blake’s mythology. It compares purely Blakean mythological entities like Orc and Urzien to biblical entities like Satan and Jehovah, wonderfully explains the relationships between Blake’s vision and current society, and, sadly, sets the tone for what will seem to many readers are preaching in the guise of criticism.

 The third unit, the Final Synthesis, focuses more on the Christian mythology than on its relationship with Blake’s poems, and boldly makes grand assertions about the divinity of Jesus and the correctness of Christianity that may or may not have been Blake’s thoughts, but that are certainly out of place in a work of criticism. It well might be that the voice and tone used by Frye are what make the reader perceive this “preaching mode” and that he was actually intending to explain what Blake’s poetry stated, but, it seems to me, there is a huge difference between “in Blake’s Jerusalem Jesus is the real god and single man who should be worshiped as imagination” and “Jesus is the real god and single man who should be worshiped as imagination”.

 Despite its minor drawback in the tone and voice used in the third part, Frye’s gargantuan study is an excellent source of ideas for scholars to delve into and look at the implications of Blake’s work. It is certainly a must read for anyone interested in Blake, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

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About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on February 16, 2010, in Book Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I find this analysis very useful. However, it is instructive to add that in the second part we have an attempt by Blake to make prophecies about the condition of the world

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