E. J. Pratt Pratt, E(dwin) J(ohn) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Pratt, E(dwin) J(ohn) 1883–1964

Pratt occupies a central position in the development of Canadian poetry. His language, fresh and contemporary, results from his determination to break away from the bloodlessness of Newfoundland verse. His views are deceptively simple: he believes that the greatest human virtue is self-sacrifice. Pratt's best works are considered the epic poems which showcase his narrative skills. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96.)

Northrop Frye

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is interesting to compare the original Newfoundland Verse with what the author has been willing to reprint of it [in The Collected Poems of E. J. Pratt]. Always contemptuous of what he calls "O thouing", he has tried to cut away two things: the intrusion of the poet on his reader, and the detachment of the poet from his surroundings. He is already well aware that writing narrative poetry is no job for an egocentric poet. For narrative, the poet must have a story worth telling, and then get out of its way. (p. xiv)

[In Pratt's narratives there] is no attempt to pack in Higher Significance, no bluster about red-blooded heroes, no underlining of the irony, no comment on the tragedy. The poet knows that a good story cannot be pumped up by fine writing, and that a fable that is any good contains its own moral.

It is a law of poetic creation that the poet who is willing to lose his personality in his work finds it again. Out of his self-effacing concern with the poetic object, Pratt developed a flexible, unpretentious speaking style which is amazingly versatile, yet always unmistakably his. A slight turn in one direction, and this style goes into broad burlesque, with comic rhymes and anticlimaxes in the tradition of Hudibras and Don Juan…. A slight turn in another direction, and it becomes delicate and fanciful…. It can dramatize a poker game or a whale hunt, summarize history or expound science, swivel easily from the colloquial to the eloquent. In a tragic context, the same style can achieve the peculiar virtue of narrative, of being able to communicate the most deeply impressive moments in a bald, flat statement…. (pp. xiv-xv)

The patient scholarship and research that has gone into the major poems is another self-effacing quality that has made for distinctiveness. One would expect such research in Brébeuf or Towards the Last Spike, but the poet also understands that aspect of erudition which is irresistibly comic…. The wit and exuberance of The Great Feud depend on the plethora of unusual technical terms, and The Witches' Brew itself, in the energy of its defiance of an environment of Methodism and prohibition, sweeps in an encyclopaedic survey of brands of liquor….

In all his poetry Pratt's language bristles with the concrete and the definite. He has always understood that the imagination has to realize its whole area, not bits and pieces of it, and he has the swift selective eye—or rather ear—for the relevant detail that distinguishes the scholar from the pedant. (p. xvi)

Another feature already present in Newfoundland Verse is the unifying of the poet with his society, and of that society with nature. The rhythm that drives the sea against the rocks drives the blood through...

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Harold Horwood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Judging by E. J. Pratt's lone reference to William Blake—the facetious epigram about the tiger and the lamb in The Witches' Brew—the dean of Canadian poets can have little conscious sympathy with the great English mystic of 150 years ago. Yet of all writers before Pratt, none—in the deeper and more profound sense—bore him closer resemblance…. I am not trying to establish Blake as a major "influence" on Pratt. Indeed, I strongly suspect that their similarities are more fortuitous than causal.

Though Blake is often difficult to read, and Pratt always easy, the style of the two poets has, none the less, much in common: a style based upon architectural language, the sheer might and glory of sentences piled up in a pyramid of sound and fury, raising worlds on fire by the power of the word, and destroying them by a turn of phrase. Both Blake and Pratt become colossi of the imagination, each envisioning himself as an antediluvian giant, or a titan moving among the birth-springs of creation. Almost alone among poets, they see things readily in cosmic proportions, deal easily with vast quantities of space or time. (p. 197)

[The Great Feud] is a strange blend of science, humour, allegory, and mythology, always with evocations of racial memories playing like fire-devils above the sulphurous plains of this fantastic Armageddon, until at last the simian mother of mankind emerges, a lone survivor from the holocaust, to brood over the end and the beginning. This is such stuff as great myths are made of, and no poet in North America—not even Hart Crane in "The Bridge"—has succeeded in creating a myth so convincingly. (pp. 197-98)

The Great Feud is saved from mere pessimism, and Pratt's implicit philosophy from mere eschatologistic romance, by the survival of the female anthropoidal ape, confused, not understanding, but emerging from Armageddon with her brood to take over a ruined world and make a Beginning out of the End. The thesis is that progress is not a straight-line march out of the darkness of a few years past into the noonday of a few years hence, but a movement of almost glacial slowness through eras of geologic time, but none the less real; that in our recurrent Armageddons the elements of this great movement survive, inching along the grand cycles of civilization and barbarism. In its implications The Great Feud is the most important of Pratt's poems—perhaps not quite so felicitous at a casual reading as The Cachalot, but with far deeper meaning. The poem has its nearest philosophical parallel in Blake's epic, The Four Zoas. (p. 198)

The philosophy (or theology) of the two poets is similar. The core of Blake's plainly-stated philosophy is that the creative imagination is the origin of all things, the only "real" things being things of the imagination, that the realm of the imagination is peopled with immortals, and that there God Himself has his abode…. This should be compared with Pratt's defiant poem "The Truant", in which he castigates orthodox conceptions, and makes man the measure of all things.

Without wishing to stretch the superficial aspects of the Blake-Pratt parallelism beyond natural limits, I must also remark that each poet over-extended himself and produced as his most ambitious work what could be charitably described as a magnificent failure…. Pratt's Brébeuf and His Brethren failed because the theme, though heroic enough, is not amenable to the medium. One suspects that Pratt fell into the same error as his great predecessor. Certainly the temptation was there: a great Canadian story just waiting to be done into verse, and an awakening Canadian nationalism ready to acclaim its author. But just as Jerusalem is not typically Blake, so Brébeuf is not typically Pratt…. (p. 199)


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Dorothy Livesay

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The first sign of experimentation in [Canadian poetry with respect to language and theme] came with the publication of Newfoundland Verse by E. J. Pratt, in 1923; and more markedly with his Titans, 1926…. The language was fresh, muscular, contemporary and often boisterously amusing. The metre was one that had been rarely practised by a Canadian poet: octosyllabic couplets with an anapaestic roll, "perched on a dead volcanic pile"; and the content was not too strenuous to tax the average man's ingenuity. It bore with it strong echoes of mock heroic epic and light satire. Like Pope or Dryden, Pratt did not distrust the world he mocked, nor did he wish to destroy it. He felt it could stand up to attack. The style of these early extravaganzas, accordingly, was marked by punch and zest, the metre moving at a run or a gallop by means of strong, monosyllabic verbs; the rhyme staccato, to punctuate the humour. (pp. 33-4)

With his next poem, "The Great Feud", it would seem from the style alone that Pratt had begun to be aware of some conflict in his position. As Desmond Pacey has pointed out, "Passages of horrible conflict alternate with passages of rollicking humour." The theme is a more serious one than that of the "Cachalot" or "The Witches' Brew"; and yet the poet relies on the same octosyllabics, enjambment and witty rhyme to carry the rhythm of the fable. Agreed, the myth-making, story-telling elements are Pratt's own; but he does not support these with imagery, epithet, or colour. His chief structural weakness on the syntactic level (to be explored more fully later) is already evident. Pratt depends too fully on the prepositional phrase. On one page of 28 lines, chosen at random, there are 24 phrases: endless lists of nouns. Variety is gained,...

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Northrop Frye

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[What] I think would have fascinated me in Pratt's poetry, even if I had never known him, is the way in which, unlike any other modern poet I know, he takes on so many of the characteristics of the poet of an oral and pre-literate society, of the kind that lies immediately behind the earliest English poetry. There was no reason for Pratt to be this kind of poet except the peculiar influence of his Newfoundland and Canadian environment on him: I am quite sure that he was unconscious of this aspect of his work.

In an oral culture, which has to depend so much on memory, the poet is the teacher, the one who remembers…. It is he who knows the traditions of his people, its great heroic legends [and] the...

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Frank Davey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stated briefly, the problems which have so far bewildered Pratt critics are two: the first, what is his poetry about, and the second, what world-view does this poetry project?… [The obvious answers are] that Pratt's subject matter may be no more than the stories he tells and that his vision may be no more than the values which his protagonists embody. A careful reading of Pratt's work, in fact, suggests very strongly that Pratt was much more straightforward as an artist than most of his sophisticated critics would care to admit. He seems seldom to have been concerned with such profound questions as can easily be raised by too analytical an approach to his work. (pp. 54-5)

Although [some]...

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Sandra Djwa

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A transitional Victorian or an early modern in thought, Pratt, like [Sir Charles G. D.] Roberts and like Samuel Butler, wrote essentially from the impulse to reconcile Christianity and evolutionary thought. His poetic cosmology explicitly embodies the evolutionary ethics of T. H. Huxley's famous Romanes lecture, "Evolution and Ethics" (1893), with the exception that Pratt identifies the highest evolution of ethical man with Strauss' historical Jesus and describes the act of ethical choice in terms of Wilhelm Wundt's mechanistic psychology.

Strongly influenced by his Newfoundland experiences of continued struggle against an implacable nature, a struggle which he characterizes in The Book of...

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E. K. Brown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Many of the poems [in A Book of Newfoundland Verse] reflected the local tradition; and the general effect that the book produces when read today is, that in essentials it belonged to the Canadian school then in possession. Nature is the chief theme; the predominant mood is late romantic; the experiments in verse-structure, although interesting, are never radical; there is no single strong personality shaping the whole, instead Pratt assumes a variety of points of view without much relation between any of them…. The collection contains a few narratives, or fragments of narrative; but these are far from being the best things in it, slow in pace, and rather ponderous in diction…. Newfoundland Verse is...

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Glenn Clever

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In] Pratt the essential myth is achievement, to moral purpose. (p. 6)

Individual narrative poems treat of parts of the general course of achievement, with its advances and set backs: blocked in [Brébeuf and His Brethren] and The Titantic, moving on in Behind the Log and The Roosevelt and the Antinoe, succeeding in [Towards the Last Spike.] The only real obstacle he records is human, therefore only human resources are needed to overcome the hindrances: creative imagination, effort, courage, and willing submission of individual goals to attain a communal end. In this Pratt expresses the essential myth of Canada at the turn of the century, the achievement for its own...

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