Spring 1950 • Vol. XII No. 2 NonfictionApril 1, 1950 |

Levels of Meaning in Literature

The longer one has been familiar with a great work of literature, the more one's understanding of it grows. It would be hard to formulate a more elementary principle of literary experience. Its plain implication, that literature has different levels of meaning, was made the basis of a systematic development of criticism in the Middle Ages, and a precise scheme of four levels of meaning—the literal, the allegorical, the tropological or moral, and the anagogic—was worked out and adopted by many great medieval writers, notably Dante. Modern criticism has not only ignored this, but seems to regard the problem of meaning in literature as merely an offshoot of the corresponding semantic problem in current philosophy. In offering a few suggestions about the possibility of a modern restatement of the medieval theory, I propose to by-pass the philosophical questions involved, on the ground that the obvious place to start looking for a theory of literary meaning is in literature.

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Northrop Frye (1912-1991) was an influential twentieth-century literary critic and literary theorist. His first book, Fearful Symmetry (1947) led to the reinterpretation of William Blake’s Poetry. His later work, Anatomy of Criticism (1957), was one of the most significant works of literary theory published in the twentieth century.

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