E. J. Pratt Essay - Critical Essays


The poetry of E. J. Pratt falls into three categories: the shorter lyrics, the documentary-like narratives, and the extravaganzas. The division in form, however, does not suggest a division in outlook. Pratt is almost always concerned with the clash between the human, as individual or group, and the amoral strength and power of the natural world. As a man, Pratt admired courage, civilization, and compassion; as a poet, he celebrated their purpose, function, and value. He saw people inhabiting a world where there are no answers about the rightness of values, but he also perceived that no person can live without them. Pratt did not preach or lecture his readers, nor did he argue with them; rather, he showed his readers the paradoxes and ironies that result when a morally sensitive being inhabits an essentially amoral world.

The theme is examined most easily in Pratt’s lyrics. The short poems are often elusive and complex, rich in meaning and powerful in impact. Many of the poems, moreover, begin in Pratt’s own experience, but by the time he has finished with them, they are purified of the narrowly private and personal. Once Pratt has finished with a lyric, it stands open for all readers of all ages.


A poem such as “Erosion” is typical of Pratt’s artistry and technical mastery. When Pratt was a young boy in a Newfoundland fishing village, his father, a minister, would often, as the most trying of his duties, have to announce to a woman the death at sea of her husband or son. The shock recorded in the woman’s face etched itself on the poet’s mind immediately, but it took him nearly thirty years to record the experience properly in verse.

The final version of the poem is only eight lines long, and Pratt omits everything that would detract from his central idea—the impact of the sea’s force on the woman’s life. Pratt dismisses his father’s presence, his own presence, and the announcement of death. In their place, the poet stresses the passage of time. The first stanza of the poem portrays the sea’s unending effort to “trace” features into a cliff. The features in the stone, as all those who have walked along a shoreline know, have a disconcertingly “human” look. In Pratt’s poem, then, the sea has, for more than a thousand years, attempted to humanize nature (the cliff) by giving it a face.

The second stanza of the poem stresses that the woman looking at the sea-carving changes dramatically in the mere hour of watching the power and strength of a storm at sea. Possibly her son or husband is in a ship caught in that storm, but the poet deliberately avoids commenting on that point. It is enough to know that the sea has failed to complete the face in the cliff, and that the woman’s face, in an hour, has turned to granite. The result, the poem suggests, is that the face of the cliff and the face of the woman resemble each other. The complex response that the short poem elicits, then, is that the sea may be humanizing the cliff, but that it is dehumanizing the woman, for she takes on a more elemental, stonelike appearance.

The poem, then, records the irony of an amoral world that appears to humanize, but, in fact, dehumanizes. The poem, however, is multileveled. Throughout the eight lines, the sea is compared to an artist who traces and sculpts his forms with diligence and care. To attribute artistic qualities to the sea outlines its creative, rather than its destructive, power. The reader who puzzles over this positive feature is on the way to an understanding of Pratt’s complexity, despite the seeming simplicity. A second reading of this elusive poem suggests that the woman may be merely overawed by the sea’s power, magnificence, and force. Recalcitrant nature, insensitive to the movements and powers surrounding it, requires centuries to change; the woman is transformed in her moment of insight. The rock passively undergoes its metamorphosis as the sea carves its pattern on it. The permanence, durability, and strength of the cliff rest on its impassive and insensible state.

The woman, in sharp contrast, observes the storm at sea and undergoes a metamorphosis springing from the inner source of being, the emotions. Unlike the cliff, which is acted on by an outside force, the woman actively responds to what she sees. Her sensibility, in other words, sets her apart from nature. Furthermore, her ability to feel is similar to that of the sea, yet stronger; what the sea can do in a thousand years, her emotions can do in an hour. At the same time, the sculpture of the cliff resembles the sculpture on her face, a parallelism that suggests the truly complex, ambiguous, and ironic tone of the poem. The essential quality that distinguishes a human being from nature (the ability to feel) is precisely the characteristic that underscores the resemblance to it, since both must suffer physical “erosion.” Ironically, the inner ability to respond affirms that human sensitivity, perception, and insight are both magnificent and frightening—in a word, awesome. Loneliness, fear, isolation, and loss are felt by all humans, and Pratt points out the irony of all human experience—the very ability to feel emotions can both ennoble and destroy.

“From Stone to Steel” and “The Shark”

In numerous other poems, Pratt constantly reinvigorates his theme by illustrating how humans can be both elevated and demeaned by the qualities they cherish most. In “The Shark,” a speaker sees this “tubular” creature as the symbol of the human need to inhabit a world filled by creatures wholly other than humans, for they are “cold-blooded.” The very ability to perceive differences isolates humans and adds to their fear and loneliness. In “From Stone to Steel,” Pratt...

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