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.)
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 the human body; even when in bed inside a cottage the spirit is aware of its kinship with the wind outside. It is against this background of identity that man fights nature in his tiny open boats, his work gangs, his hunting and clearing of land…. The reader will notice that Pratt's moral standards have few surprises: he is much more of a spokesman than a critic of public opinion and generally accepted social reactions. The reason—or one reason—is that he is almost always dealing with a society in a state of emergency: a Newfoundland fishing village depending on the next catch; a nation at war anxiously scanning the headlines; a band of missionaries surrounded by hostile Indians; sailors or railway workers trying to finish a dangerous quest on schedule. Such societies are engaged, and those who go out to...
(The entire section is 11,588 words.)