Notebook, 1993-

Excerpts from: Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism, Four Essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Introduction - Archetypal - Ethical - Historical - Rhetorical

Fourth Essay.
Rhetorical Criticism: Theory of Genres

The present book employs a diagrammatic framework that has been used in poetics ever since Plato's time. This is the division of "the good" into three main areas, of which the world of art, beauty, feeling, and taste is the central one, and is flanked by two other worlds. One is the world of social action and events, the other the world of individual thought and ideas. Reading from left to right, this threefold structure divides human faculties into will, feeling, and reason. It divides the mental constructs which these faculties produce into history, art, and science and philosophy. It divides the ideals which form compulsions or obligations on these faculties into law, beauty, and truth. Poe gives his version of the diagram [right to left] as Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense, "I place Taste in the middle," said Poe, "because it is just this position which in the mind it occupies." Until someone can refute this admirable explanation, we shall retain the traditional structure. True, we have hinted that there may be another way of looking at it in which the middle world is not simply one of three but a Trinity containing them all. But as yet the simpler conception has by no means exhausted its usefulness for us.

Similarly, we have portrayed the poetic symbol as intermediate between event and idea, example and precept, ritual and dream, and have finally displayed it as Aristotle's ethos, human nature and the human situation, between and made up of mythos and dianoia, which are verbal imitations of action and thought respectively. There is however still another aspect of the same diagram. The world of social action and event, the world of time and process, has a particularly close association with the ear. The ear listens, and the ear translates what it hears into practical conduct. The world of individual thought and idea has a correspondingly close association with the eye, and nearly all our expressions for thought, from the Greek theoria down, are connected with visual metaphors. Further, not only does art as a whole seem to be central to events and ideas, but literature seems in a way to be central to the arts. [p. 243] It appeals to the ear, and so partakes of the nature of music, but music is a much more concentrated art of the ear and of the imitative perception of time. Literature appeals to at least the inner eye, and so partakes of the nature of the plastic arts, but the plastic arts, especially painting, are much more concentrated on the eye and on the spatial world. We notice that Aristotle gives a list of six elements of poetry, three of which, mythos, ethos and dianoia, we have been considering. The other three, melos, lexis, and opsis [spectacle], deal with this second aspect of the same diagram. Considered as verbal structure, literature presents a lexis which combines two other elements: melos, an element analogous to or otherwise connected with music, and opsis, which has a similar connection with the plastic arts. The word lexis itself may be translated "diction" when we are thinking of it as a narrative sequence of sounds caught by the ear, and as "imagery" when we are thinking of it as forming simultaneous pattern of meaning apprehended in an act of mental "vision." This second or rhetorical aspect of literature we must now turn to examine. It is an aspect which returns us to the "literal" level of narrative and meaning, the context that Ezra Pound has in mind when he speaks of the three qualities of poetic creation as melopoeia, logopoeia, and phanopoeia. The terms musical and pictorial are often employed figuratively in literary criticism, and we shall attempt among other things to see how much genuine sense they make as critical terms.

The word "rhetoric" reminds us of yet another triad: the traditional division of studies based on words into a "trivium" of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. While grammar and logic have become the names of specific sciences, they also retain something of a more general connection with the narrative and significant aspects respectively of all verbal structure. As grammar may be called the art of ordering words, there is a sense--a literal sense--in which grammar and narrative are the same thing; as logic may be called the art of producing meaning, there is a sense in which logic and meaning are the same thing. The second part of this sentence is more traditional and hence more familiar. There is no historical justification for the first part, as the art of constructing narrative ["invention," "disposition," and the like] has traditionally formed a part of rhetoric. Let us, however, in spite of history, begin with an association between narrative and grammar, grammar being understood primarily as syntax or getting words in the right [narrative] order, and between logic and meaning, logic being understood primarily as words arranged in a pattern with significance. Grammar is the linguistic aspect of a verbal structure; logic is the "sense" which is the permanent common factor in translation.

What we have been calling assertive, descriptive, or factual writing tends to be, or attempts to be, a direct union of grammar and logic. An argument cannot be logically correct unless it is verbally correct, the right words chosen and the proper syntactical relations among them established. Nor does a verbal narrative communicate anything to a reader unless it has continuous significance. In assertive writing, therefore, there seems to be little place for any such middle term as rhetoric, and in fact we often find that among philosophers, scientists, jurists, critics, historians, and theologians, rhetoric is looked upon with some distrust.

Rhetoric has from the beginning meant two things: ornamental speech and persuasive speech. These two things seem psychologically opposed to each other, as the desire to ornament is essentially disinterested, and the desire to persuade essentially the reverse. In fact ornamental rhetoric is inseparable from literature itself, or w hat we have called the hypothetical verbal structure which exists for its own sake. Persuasive rhetoric is applied literature, or the use of literary art to reinforce the power of argument. Ornamental rhetoric acts on its hearers statically, leading them to admire its own beauty or wit; persuasive rhetoric tries to lead them kinetically toward a course of action. One articulates emotion; the other manipulates it. And whatever we decide about the ultimate literary status of oratory, there seems little doubt that ornamental rhetoric is the lexis or verbal texture of poetry. Aristotle remarks, when he comes to lexis in the Poetics, that that subject belongs more properly to rhetoric. We may, then, adopt the following tentative postulate: that if the direct union of grammar and logic is characateristic of non-literary verbal structures, literature may be described as the rhetorical organization of grammar and logic. Most of the features characteristic of literary form, such as rhyme, alliteration, metre, antithetical balance, the use of exempla, are also rhetorical schemata.

The psychology of creation is not our theme, but it must happen very rarely that a writer sits down to write without any notion of what he proposes to produce. In the poet's mind, then, some kind of controlling and coordinating power, what Coleridge called the [p. 245] "initiative," establishes itself very early, gradually assimilates everything to itself, and finally reveals itself to be the containing from of the work. This initiative is clearly not a unit but a complex of factors. The theme is one such factor; the sense of the unity of mood which makes certain images appropriate and others not is another. If what is produced is to be a poem in a regular meter, the metre will be a third: if not, some other integrating rhythm will be present. We remarked earlier, too, that the poet's intention to produce a poem normally includes the genre, the intention of producing a specific kind of verbal structure. The poet thus is incessantly deciding that certain things, whether they can be critically accounted for by himself or not, belong in his structure, and that what he cuts out in revising does not, though it may be good enough in itself to belong somewhere else. But as the structure is complex, so these decisions relate to a variety of poetic elements, or a group of initiatives. Of these, theme and the choice of images engaged our attention in the previous essay; genre and the integrating rhythm concern us here.

We complained in our introduction that the theory of genres was an undeveloped subject in criticism. We have the three generic terms drama, epic, and lyric, derived from the Greeks, but we use the latter two chiefly as jargon or trade slang for long and short [or shorter] poems respectively. The middle-sized poem does not even have a jargon term to describe it, and any long poem gets to be called an epic, especially if it is divided into a dozen or so parts, like Browning's Ring and the Book. This poem takes a dramatic structure, a triangle of jealous husband, patient wife, and chivalrous lover involved in a murder trial with courtroom and death-house scenes, and works it all out through the soliloquies of the characters. It is an astounding tour de force, but we can fully appreciate this only when we see it as generic experiment in drama, a drama turned inside out, as it were. Similarly, we call Shelley's Ode to the West Wind a lyric, perhaps because it is a lyric; if we hesitate to call Epipsychidion a lyric, and have no idea what it is, we can always call it the product of an essentially lyrical genius. It is shorter than the Iliad, and there's an end of it.

However, the origin of the words drama, epic, and lyric suggests that the central principle of genre is simple enough. The basis of generic distinctions in literature appears to be the radical of presentation. Words may be acted in front of a spectator; they may be spoken in front of a listener; they may be sung or chanted; or they may be written for a reader. Criticism, we note resignedly in passing, has no word for the individual member of an author's audience, and the word "audience" itself does not really cover all genres, as it is slightly illogical to describe the readers of a book as an audience. The basis of generic criticism in any case is rhetorical, in the sense that the genre is determined by the conditions established between the poet and his public.

We have to speak of the radical of presentation if the distinctions of acted, spoken, and written word are to mean anything in the age of the printing press. One may print a lyric or read a novel aloud, but such incidental changes are not enough in themselves to alter the genre. For all the loving care that is rightfully expended on the printed texts of Shakespeare's plays, they are still radically acting scripts, and belong to the genre of drama. If a Romantic poet gives his poem a dramatic form, he may not expect or even want any stage representation; he may think entirely in terms of print and readers; he may even believe, like many Romantics, that the stage drama is an impure form because of the limitations it puts on individual expression. Yet the poem is still being referred back to some kind of theatre, however much of a castle in the air. A novel is written, but when Conrad employs a narrator to help him tell his story, the genre of the written word is being assimilated to that of the spoken one.

The question of how we are to classify such a novel is less important than the recognition of the fact that two different radicals of presentation exist in it. It might be thought simpler, instead of using the term radical, to say that the generic distinctions are among the ways in which literary works are ideally presented, whatever the actualities are. But Milton, for example, seems to have no ideal of reciter and audience in mind for Paradise Lost; he seems content to leave it, in practice, a poem to be read in a book. When he uses the convention of invocation, thus bringing the poem into the genre of the spoken word, the significance of the convention is to indicate what tradition his work primarily belongs to and what its closest affinities are with. The purpose of criticism by genres is not so much to classify as to clarify such traditions and affinities, thereby bringing out a large number of literary relationships that would [p. 247] not be noticed as long as there were no context established for them.

The genre of the spoken word and the listener is very difficult to describe in English, but part of it is what the Greeks meant by the phrase ta epe, poems intended to be recited, not necessarily epics of the conventional jumbo size. Such "epic" material does not have to be in metre, as the prose tale and the prose oration are important spoken forms. The difference between metre and prose is evidently not in itself a generic difference, as the example of drama shows, though it tends to become one. In this essay I use the word "epos" to describe works in which the radical of presentation is oral address, keeping the word epic for its customary use as the name of the form of the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, and Paradise Lost. Epos thus takes in all literature, in verse or prose, which makes some attempt to preserve the convention of recitation and a listening audience.

The Greeks gave us the names of three of our four genres: they did not give us a word for the genre that addresses a reader through a book, and naturally we have not invented one of our own. The nearest to it is "history," but this word, in spite of Tom Jones, has gone outside literature, and the Latin "scripture" is too specialized in meaning. As I have to have some word, I shall make an arbitrary choice of "fiction" to describe the genre of the printed page. I know that I used this word in the first essay in a different context, but it seems better to compromise with the present confused terminology than to increase the difficulties of this book by introducing too many new terms. The analogy of the keyboard in music may illustrate the difference between fiction and other genres which for practical purposes exist in books. A book, like a keyboard, is a mechanical device for bringing an entire artistic structure under the interpretive control of a single person. But just as it is possible to distinguish genuine piano music from the piano score of an opera or symphony, so we may distinguish genuine "book literature" from books containing the reduced textural scores of recited or acted pieces.

The connection between a speaking poet and a listening audience, which may be actual in Homer or Chaucer, soon becomes increasingly theoretical, and as it does so epos passes insensibly into fiction. One may even suggest, not quite seriously, that the legendary figure of the blind bard, which is used so effectively by Milton, indicates that the draft toward an unseen audience sets in very early. But whenever the same material does duty for both genres, the distinction between the genres becomes immediately apparent. The chief distinction, though not a simple one of length, is involved with the fact that epos is episodic and fiction continuous. The novels of Dickens are, as books, fiction; as serial publications in a magazine designed for family reading, they are still fundamentally fiction, though closer to epos. But when Dickens began to give readings from his own works, the genre changed wholly to epos; the emphasis was then thrown on immediacy of effect before a visible audience.

In drama, the hypothetical or internal characters of the story confront the audience directly, hence the drama is marked by the concealment of the author from his audience. In very spectacular drama, such as we get in many movies, the author is of relatively little importance. Drama, like music, is an ensemble performance for an audience, and music and drama are most likely to flourish in a society with a strong consciousness of itself as a society, like Elizabethan England. When a society becomes individualized and competitive, like Victorian England, music and drama suffer accordingly, and the written word almost monopolizes literature. In epos, the author confronts his audience directly, and the hypothetical characters of his story are concealed. The author is still theoretically there when he is being represented by a rhapsode or minstrel, for the latter speaks as the poet, not as a character in the poem. In written literature both the author and his characters are concealed from the reader.

The fourth possible arrangement, the concealment of the poet's audience from the poet, is presented in the lyric. There is, as usual, no word for the audience of the lyric: what is wanted is something analogous to "chorus" which does not suggest simultaneous presence or dramatic context. The lyric is, to go back to Mill's aphorism referred to at the beginning of this book, preeminently the utterance that is overheard. The lyric poet normally pretends to be talking to himself or to someone else: a spirit of nature, a Muse [note the distinction from epos, where the Muse speaks through the poet], a personal friend, a lover, a god, a personified abstraction, or a natural object. The lyric is, as Stephen Dedalus says in Joyce's Portrait, the poet presenting the image in relation to himself: it is to epos, rhetorically, as prayer is to sermon. The radical of [p. 249] presentation in the lyric is the hypothetical form of what in religion is called the "I-Thou" relationship. The poet, so to speak, turns his back on his listeners, though he may speak for them, and though they may repeat some of his words after him.

Epos and fiction make up the central area of literature, and are flanked by the drama on one side and by the lyric on the other. Drama has a peculiarly intimate connection with ritual, and lyric with dream or vision, the individual communing with himself. We said at the beginning of this book that there is no such thing as direct address in literature, but direct address is natural communication, and literature may imitate it as it may imitate anything else in nature. In epos, where the poet faces his audience, we have a mimesis of direct address. Epos and fiction first take the form of scripture and myth, then of traditional tales, then of narrative and didactic poetry, including the epic proper, and of oratorical prose, then of novels and other written forms. As we progress historically through the five modes, fiction increasingly overshadows epos, and as it does, the mimesis of direct address changes to a mimesis of assertive writing. This in its turn, with the extremes of documentary or didactic prose, becomes actual assertion, and so passes out of literature.

The lyric is an internal mimesis of sound and imagery, and stands opposite the external mimesis, or outward representation of sound and imagery, which is drama. Both forms avoid the mimesis of direct address. The characters in a play talk to each other, and are theoretically talking to themselves in an aside or soliloquy. Even if they are conscious of an audience, they are not speaking for the poet, except in special cases like the parabasis of Old Comedy or the prologues and epilogues of the rococo theatre, where there is an actual generic change from drama to epos. In Bernard Shaw the comic parabasis is transferred from the middle of the play to a separate prose preface, which is a change from drama to fiction.

In epos some kind of comparatively regular metre tends to predominate: even oratorical prose shows many metrical features, both in its syntax and in its punctuation. In fiction prose tends to predominate, because only prose has the continuous rhythm appropriate for the continuous from of the book. Drama has no controlling rhythm peculiar to itself, but it is most closely related to epos in the earlier modes and to fiction in the later ones. In the lyric a rhythm which is poetic but not necessarily metrical tends to predominate. We proceed to examine each genre in turn with a view to discovering what its chief features are. As in what immediately follows we are largely concerned with diction and linguistic elements, we must limit our survey mainly to a specific language, which will be English: this means that a good deal of what we say will be true only of English, but it is hoped that the main principles can be adapted to other languages as well. [pp. 243-251]

The Rhythm of Recurrence: Epos
The Rhythm of Continuity: Prose
The Rhythm of Decorum: Drama
The Rhythm of Association: Lyric

Specific Forms of Drama
Specific Thematic Forms [Lyric and Epos]
Specific Continuous Forms [Prose Fiction]
Specific Encyclopedic Forms
The Rhetoric of Non-Literary Prose

Tentative Conclusion.

[Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism, Four Essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957.]



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