Order of Words

Northrop Frye on what we do when we read in a certain way…

Everyone who has seriously studied literature knows that he is not simply moving from poem to poem, or from one aesthetic experience to another: he is also entering into a coherent and progressive discipline. For literature is not simply an aggregate of books and poems and plays: it is an order of words. And our total literary experience, at any given time, is not a discrete series of memories or impressions of what we have read, but an imaginatively coherent body of experience.

The passage is from Frye’s essay on Milton’s Lycidas collected in Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology. It is not surprising that as he goes on to develop his theme, Frye links this “imaginatively coherent body of experience” to an archetypal structure.

It is literature as an order of words, therefore, which forms the primary context of any given work of literary art. All other contexts — the place of Lycidas in Milton’s development; its place in the history of English poetry; its place in seventeenth-century thought or history — are secondary and derivative contexts. Within the total literary order certain structural and generic principles, certain configurations of narrative and imagery, certain conventions and devices and topoi, occur over and over again. In every new work of literature some of these principles are reshaped.

And so we come to the myth of the protean universe alive with repeating patterns. Configurations constantly reconfigured. Old friends in new guises. What is remarkable is how much hinges on the simple phrase “order of words.” And how that phrase is cast in parallel to another “body of experience.” The latter makes the former shimmer and move. And yet somehow underneath, the rebellious spirits of seriality, of historicization, and a deep appreciation of flux, are complicating the timeless apprehension of structure. The derivative drives if not the reading then the reshaping.

Frye is correct. It takes progressive discipline to discern configurations.

And so for day 981

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