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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.)
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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 meet the engagement are quite obviously heroes: there is no time to analyse motives or question values.
The conception of heroism in Pratt is of the kind that belongs to our age, and to an industrial democracy. It is the whole group engaged in the quest that is the hero. When Pratt names an individual hero, like Brébeuf, he thinks of the heroism as like that of a soldier who has received a medal for valour—as representative rather than isolated. The cowards and slackers who desert the quest are usually ignored. (pp. xvii-xviii)
Not only is the individual hero apt to be anonymous, but, especially in the later narratives, even the crucial heroic act is not definitely pointed out: it is merely diffused through the poem. Nothing is truer to the spirit of modern heroism than the story told in Behind the Log: but where is the thrilling moment, the wild death-defying charge, the cops-and-robbers race, the cliff-hanging suspense? The genuine heroic act takes place unconsciously, in the midst of preoccupation; it has been done before even the doer is aware of having done it. Further, it takes place in time, and an instant later has vanished forever into the dark. What the group as a whole accomplishes—the railway, the martyr's shrine, the terms of a victorious peace—may last longer, but that too is temporal. (pp. xviii-xix)
When we look from the outside on one of Pratt's heroic exploits, we see people suffering, dying, and finally vanishing into the awful annihilation of the past. When we look from the outside at evolution, we see only an endless struggle to survive which has been practically all pain and cruelty. But when we shift the view to the inside, we see an exuberant, unquenchable force of life, which fights to maintain itself certainly, but can find its fulfilment also in defeat and death….
It is consistent with his interest in evolving life that the poet should admire size, health, strength and energy. His sympathies are normally on the side of "The Big Fellow". "Breed" is a favourite word of his: it has no racial connotations, but means that the poet likes things to be fully developed examples of what they are. (p. xxi)
Several poets, including Hart Crane, have asserted that the modern poet ought to be able to make an unforced and spontaneous use of mechanical imagery: Pratt is one of the few poets who have done so. It is particularly in warfare that he notices the reappearance of mechanical forms and rhythms in human life…. (p. xxii)
It is because his imagination has been so concrete, so devoted to realizing the Canadian environment directly in front of him, that Pratt's career has been so odd a mixture of the popular and the unfashionable. When everybody was writing subtle and complex lyrics, Pratt developed a technique of straightforward narrative; when everybody was experimenting with free verse, Pratt was finding new possibilities in blank verse and octosyllabic couplets. He had the typical mark of originality: the power to make something poetic out of what everybody had just decided could no longer be poetic material. (p. xxvi)
Northrop Frye, in his introduction to The Collected Poems of E. J. Pratt, edited by Northrop Frye (copyright 1958 by The Macmillan Company of Canada Limited), second edition, Macmillan, 1958, pp. xiii-xxviii.
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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)
Pratt is most creatively himself when indulging in biological descriptions based on the mechanical metaphor, as in The Cachalot. Sometimes he inverts the figure and gives us mechanical descriptions based on the biological metaphor, as in The Submarine. The Cachalot is Pratt at his technical peak, and except for a few pardonable lapses such as the atrocious opening lines of Part III, the poem throughout shows a master of words at work. Pratt's description of the internal mechanism of the whale is one of the miracles of rhymed verse. It has a deceptive ease and flow of phrase, as though the poem were not a creation of conscious art, but a growth of nature, like the whale himself. (p. 200)
Psychologically, The Cachalot is much simpler and more primitive than The Great Feud. Like a lot of Blake's work, it is involved in the old myth of the conflict of Good and Evil. The cachalot, personifying Good, is the legendary hero who must engage in mortal combat with Evil, personified by the giant squid, and must, of course, be the victor…. He introduces the sequel of the myth—the element of Fate, which dominates Greek tragedy and the rituals of antiquity. The whalers are fate overtaking the hero—the challenge which it is impossible for him to meet, and which relieves him of responsibility for his ultimate defeat. He dies, of course, a hero's death, which is not death in the ordinary sense but a sort of inverted victory—a "real or imaginary" victory, as Blake would have described it. (pp. 200-01)
Pratt is almost unique in having no earlier and later periods. He was a fully finished craftsman from the time of the publication of his first book of poetry—Newfoundland Poems—and except for increased emphasis on the narrative form cannot be said to show any great development. But a sort of formal development followed September 1939—a branching out into the roominess of blank and free verse, with a shift of emphasis to deeper human problems. (p. 201)
Pratt is an intense humanist, believing supremely in man, irrespective of fashion or fortune. (p. 202)
It is [in their myths] that the very core of the Blake-Pratt sympathy lies, for the myth from which Pratt's poetry arises is very similar to Blake's, with this difference: that Pratt escapes Blake's so-called Fourfold Vision, and with it the everlasting fight against dualism which Blake was forced to maintain. Pratt needed no "Marriage of Heaven and Hell," since his heaven and hell were never divided…. Pratt believes, quite simply, that not only all gods, but all godliness, dwell in the human breast. (p. 203)
Perhaps the essence of Pratt's greatness lies not so much in the perfection of his technique as in his attainment of a coherent mythology…. Pratt, like Blake before him, achieves a myth in which man is absolutely central, but which at the same time does not try to deny the validity of science. In this direction Pratt is even more successful than Blake, absorbing science and mechanism into the very fabric of his poetry, making them bear the fruits of the spirit. But he also sees science in the human context, not as man's god but as history. (pp. 203-04)
Pratt's narrative is quite lacking in characterization. With the exception of the Brébeuf epic, not a single clear character emerges in any of his poems, and even in Brébeuf his characters are shadowy, spiritual things, on the borderline between flesh and essence…. I suspect that neither [Pratt nor Blake was able to produce a character], and for the same reason. They both dealt in abstractions, as expressed in the one case through allegory, and in the other case through the dramatic situation…. In Pratt's sea epic The Titanic, despite nearly a score of people mentioned by name, the nearest thing to a character is the iceberg, which is grey, monolithic, and impersonally malevolent, like Fate. It is again the symbolic acts: the orchestra playing fox trots as the ship goes down, Astor tapping a cigarette on a silver case—which give purpose and meaning to the poem…. [Only] a moron can be bored with Pratt, for his technique is brilliant. Whereas Blake began with orderly metre and precise image, straying as his system developed into long, loose metres choked with rhetoric, Pratt's imagery became more crystalline as he went along, his verses more polished and self-confident. His style might be described as tight—marching rather than ambling. (pp. 204-05)
Pratt's lyrics have been overshadowed by the luminosity of his epics, and trying to approach the lyrics with a fresh outlook is like trying to assess the literary qualities of the Bible as though one had never been to church. The lyrics are usually identical in mood and technique with the epics, like pieces of epics which never got written—and, in the formal sense, they possess the same virtues…. No poet, with the possible exception of A. E. Housman, ever possessed Pratt's ability to perform stunts with words. (pp. 205-06)
In few lyrics does Pratt discard the narrative manner, and in the most ambitious of all, "The Iron Door," even the narrative form is maintained. I know of no other elegiac ode written in narrative. It is one of the best, and is evidently based on a real mystical experience. (p. 206)
Fortunately for Canadian poetry, Pratt made a swift recovery from mysticism…. But "The Iron Door" remains one of the most impressive Canadian lyrics…. Pratt's lyrics are a unique part of our literature, lacking the passion of traditional lyrics, but possessing formal perfection, like pieces of gothic in miniature. (pp. 206-07)
Harold Horwood, "E. J. Pratt and William Blake: An Analysis," in The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 39, No. 2, Summer, 1959, pp. 197-207.∗
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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, notwithstanding, by means of ingenuity in the choice of vocabulary and end-rhymes. (p. 34)
It must be faced, however: Pratt's passion for nouns leads him into two serious difficulties. One is the absence of texture; for without adjectives and adverbs it is not easy to appeal to the senses. And where, in Pratt's poetry, is there any evocation of touch, taste, hearing, scent? True, the visual appeal is there: "sloping spur that tapered to a claw"; but this is an appeal in outline, in black and white. One senses that the poet is colour-blind. The adjectives which he does use, sparingly, call no colours into view: lateral, casual, polar, eternal, southern, glacial.
But the monotony of Pratt's verse can be traced, I believe, to a deeper, structural cause. Because he is so concerned with "naming"—adding up nouns—he must catch hold of them by using two devices: by cataloguing; or by dangling them from the hooks of prepositions. It is rarely possible to find a line of Pratt without a prepositional phrase; more often there are two or three bolstering it up. (p. 36)
["The Truant"] represents Pratt at a high technical level, breaking away from the confines of rigid metre. The heroic couplet still holds the thought in check, but in "The Truant" it is loosened, stretched or abbreviated to avoid monotony. The tone is vigorous, satiric; and the theme is man himself, pitted against a mechanical universe…. I find this Pratt's most interesting poem, both for its technical virtuosity and for its provocative thought. Man is being judged: but he reverses the tables, himself condemning "God" for creating a purely mechanical universe. (pp. 38-9)
In [Brébeuf and his Brethren] Pratt offers us a steady but not a heady blank verse. Would not the opening lines, apparently attempting to create atmosphere, be equally effective if written as prose? And the second stanza is surely one long, wordy list, noun following upon noun?… This is not to say that Brébeuf is not without its moments of poetic intensity. In Stanza XII particularly the iambic line is made undulant and ominous by means of dactyllic and falling rhythms. Then the poem climbs again to the climax…. These are the heights; but there are too many valleys where vocabulary, syntax, rhythm and imagery reveal only mediocrity. (pp. 40-1)
For me, Pratt is a self-made poet…. Pratt remained a story-teller to the end, an "old artificer" collecting artefacts and arranging them cunningly, without committing his deeper self. (p. 41)
Dorothy Livesay, "The Polished Lens: Poetic Techniques of Pratt and Klein," in Canadian Literature, No. 25, Summer, 1965, pp. 33-42.∗
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[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 names of its kings…. Such a poet is a profoundly impersonal poet. He does not write love poetry or cultivate his private emotions; he hardly thinks of himself as a personality separate from his public. (pp. 183-84)
Pratt has a primitive sense of the responsibility of the poet for telling the great stories of his people. At first his stories are typical stories, like The Roosevelt and the Antinoe or The Cachalot; then they become such central stories as the martyrdom of the Jesuits and the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway…. It is in Brébeuf particularly that Pratt shows his affinity to the oral poets in his respect for his sources. He does not use the Jesuit Relations as a basis for fine writing: his whole effort is to let the Relations tell their own story through his poem. His genre is the narrative poem, and the narrative has a unique power of dry impersonal statement which makes sophisticated or clever writing look ridiculous.
A pre-literate culture is a highly ritualized one, where doing things decently and in order is one of the most essential of all social and moral principles. The care that Pratt expends on a sequence of physical movements meets us everywhere in his work…. Such delight in sequential detail shows his sense of a mode of life where safety, or even survival, depends not simply on activity, but on the right ordering of activity. (p. 185)
It is consistent with Pratt's general attitude to poetry, not merely that he should be conservative in his diction, which never plays any syntactical tricks, and in his standard metres, but that his poetry should reflect the pleasure of linear movement, whether directly physical, as in "The 6000," or subtilized into following the swift pace of a story-teller's narrative. It is normally only the standard metres (especially, perhaps, Pratt's beloved octosyllabic couplet) that can convey this particular kind of poetic pleasure, one of the most ancient that poetry can give. (p. 186)
Pratt was a Romantic poet in the Romantic tradition, and … had a particular affection for Shelley…. Yet Pratt certainly did not follow Shelley in the latter's repudiation of the religious and political organizations of his time, although he understood and sympathized with Shelley's attitude. Pratt's relation to the Romantics indicates a different and somewhat contradictory tendency in Romanticism from [the one emphasizing the growing estrangement of the poet from a conformist society].
For Romanticism also featured the revival of oral poetry and the ballad. One would expect, then, some revival in the popularity of the poet: one would think that some poets might become, once again, spokesmen for their communities, their tales and proverbial philosophies becoming a part of ordinary verbal culture…. Pratt has been, in Canada, a kind of unofficial poet laureate…. (pp. 188-89)
One of the chief barriers to the appreciation of Pratt in many quarters is the tendency in him to be a popular poet. Like Kipling, and like Longfellow in a different way, he writes in a style that steers close to the perilous shallows of light verse. He is ready to linger over rather self-indulgent nostalgic or whimsical themes…. Again, he tends to accept the values of his society without much questioning. His assumptions about the Second World War, the Jesuit-Iroquois conflict, the relation of officers to men in war and of bosses to workers in peace, are those of an ordinary conservative citizen who reads the morning paper and believes, on the whole, what it says. In his poetry, as in his personal life, Pratt is someone who quite frankly wants to be liked, and liked immediately, not after a generation or two. (p. 189)
Many modern poets seem to strike their roots in a small and restricted locality…. Pratt's fundamental environment was the Avalon peninsula, the area of St. John's and the outports adjoining it….
[The] rigours of the life in the Newfoundland outports, the hard fight to survive and the frequency of violent death, threw into strong relief a fundamental cleavage in Christianity which runs all through his work and is the theme of his profoundest poem, "The Truant." (p. 191)
What Pratt's poetic vision first seized on was the contrast, in the life he saw around him, between the human heroism and endurance, in which the divine inheritance and destiny of man was so clearly reflected, and the moral unconsciousness of nature. (pp. 191-92)
[It] is the enduring, resisting and suffering Christ of "Gethsemane" who is at the centre of Pratt's religion. Over against him is the dead God of fatality, the mindless, pointless world of the wheeling stars and the crashing seas. In "The Highway" the poet speaks of nature in terms of an evolutionary scheme which seems to indicate some kind of purpose, even if a very slow-moving one; but we cannot accept this scheme without the feeling expressed by the myth of the fall of man, glanced at in the last stanza. Man's essential heritage is spiritual rather than natural: he is cut off from nature by his own consciousness, and has to turn for his loyalties to an ideal which (or rather who: the "Son of Man") is human and yet qualitatively different from human life as we know it. (p. 193)
Northrop Frye, "Silence in the Sea" (1968; reprinted by permission of the Memorial University of Newfoundland), in his The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination (copyright © Northrop Frye, 1971), Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1971, pp. 181-97.
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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] ambiguities in Pratt's work can be easily resolved if considered as peripheral to one simple and pervasive idea in Pratt, his critics have been thrown by them into confusion….
Once one gets past the confusions of the critics … and begins a direct reading of Pratt's poems, one sees that [Desmond] Pacey was most correct in terming these poems "deceptively simple." But, unfortunately for Mr. Pacey and his brethren, this simplicity is deceptive not in masking something more complex but merely in being, disappointingly, no more than itself. Pratt's shark ("The Shark") is only a shark, admirable for its latent and impersonal power. Pratt's cachalot is an aggressive and virile whale, stunning in its inherited energy and strength, but referential to no symbolic meaning outside itself. His Brébeuf is not remarkable either as a Christian or as a Christ-figure, but as an instance of the power to be gained by an individual through allegiance to the ideals of a group. (p. 55)
[Power] is one of the keys to Pratt's uncomplicated vision. He is fascinated by power much the way contemporary man has been fascinated by powerful automobiles and tempted to identify vicariously with them. Further, Pratt displays our culture's love of the underdog, believing along with this culture that the underdog somehow marshals more impressive power in either victory or defeat than any favourite can. (p. 56)
It is this complex of characteristics that we see in the attitudes of E. J. Pratt: a respect for raw material power ("The Shark," "The Submarine," "The 6000"), a complete and disciplined attention to things of this world (Behind the Log, Toward the Last Spike), and, except briefly, in Brébeuf, a blind eye for mystery and eternity. From the Renaissance through the eighteenth century such a world-view energized the mercantilist sensibility so well recorded by Defoe. In the nineteenth century it allied itself with Spencer's distortions of Darwinian theory and secured prolonged life for laissez faire economics. In the twentieth century it seeks yet more worldly power for the "truant" human race through the mechanical excesses of corporate enterprise. (pp. 56-7)
And with corporate enterprise we have entered deeply into the world of E. J. Pratt. What are the gods of this world but organization, planning, efficiency, regimentation, discipline, and order? To Pratt nature has this order and efficiency…. Men, in Pratt's view, acquire such order and efficiency not as individuals but as members of corporate groups. (p. 57)
Pratt seems to have the unique distinction among modern poets of being an enemy of individual action. One of the few characters in Pratt who happens to act not as an agent of society or member of a social order is the seaman Uno Wertanen of the Roosevelt…. The most blatant individualist in all of Pratt's work is "The Brawler in Who's Who."… In this poem Pratt clearly links individual heroism both with seriously anti-social behavior and with diminished chances for survival. The brawler, who has dissociated himself from the protection of the social order, dies in the middle of life, murdered. (pp. 57-8)
[Individual] men in Pratt who act as loyal members of a group can acquire the possibility not only of survival but also of participating in great and laudable deeds. (p. 58)
Throughout Pratt's work there is a pervasive theme of collective action, of strength to be gained by identification with a group or cause. (p. 59)
Even Brébeuf and his Brethren loses much of the complexity which has puzzled critics … when it is regarded as merely another Prattian eulogy of the power gained by men when they unite in a common belief to a common purpose. The Christianity and the Catholicism of Brebeuf and his brothers are both essentially peripheral to the central meaning of the poem. These are merely parts of the vision which binds the participants to their tasks, and, as such, are parallel to the goal of the sea-to-sea railway in Toward the Last Spike or the goal of convoy survival in Behind the Log. (p. 60)
Throughout Brébeuf and his Brethren what seems most striking to Pratt is that Brebeuf does not act as an individual. He is before all else a member of a corporate body, the Jesuit order, and as such is informed by "the winds of God" which are blowing into the hearts of many men at this time across Europe. Further, he is directly informed by divine presence, a "Real Presence"—by his vision of "a bleeding form / Falling beneath the instrument of death". Thus he is more than the agent of a holy order; he is the agent of divine will as well. Knowing that he may face martyrdom in the New World, Brebeuf studies the temptations that such a fate can offer. What is the chief temptation?—that of "the brawler," individual glory. (pp. 60-1)
[As Brebeuf is carried by] events he is admired by Pratt largely because he is worthy of them, because he is loyal to the vast movements which are giving to his life its significance. (p. 61)
This is the loyalty which Pratt admires in men, the loyalty of "simple" courage, the submission of individual will to group projects significantly greater than oneself. The glory that Pratt admires is not that of the defiant individual but that of the defiant group (his "truant," after all, is generic) which can be vicariously enjoyed by the individual either in a sacrificial death or a participatory triumph…. Today this kind of glory is the kind offered by large corporations to their loyal employees…. This is the fate of Brébeuf, of the nameless sailors of Convoy SC42, of the masses who built the CPR, even of the cachalot: to be great only as agents of oppressively vast powers, forces, traditions…. It is a fate which McLuhan terms "a nightmare dream" but which Pratt extols.
Pratt's story of the Titanic is the story of the consequences of man's failing to live up to tradition and duty, of his failing to exhibit Conradian restraint and solidarity upon the sea. Machinery requires for its management in Pratt the utmost in disciplined civilized values…. On the Titanic men have become so dazzled by the qualities of the machine with which they have been entrusted that they fail to be worthy of this trust…. The Titanic's crew believe that "caution was absurd" and disregard the disciplined and efficient management necessary for any ship's safety.
Throughout the poem the crew's aloofness and difference from the crews of other ships are clearly developed. (pp. 61-2)
So remote are the passengers from the requirements of discipline, attention, and duty at sea that some of them suggest the crew to be superfluous. (p. 63)
Once the iceberg has punctured the illusion of the crew and passengers that social irresponsibility is a condition possible for man, there is a marked return among these people to the old loyalties…. [The] story of the Titanic is, like Pratt's other major narrative poems, a story of the necessity of social responsibility, of group action and group heroism, of men uniting in a common cause and gaining strength and inspiration from their own communality.
This theme of The Titanic is clearly the single most powerful constant of Pratt's poetry. It surpasses in importance both his theme of power and his intermittent theme of Christian love in that it subsumes both of these. It is through corporate action that power, both effective power and individual power, is realized. Christianity itself, especially in Brébeuf and his Brethren, is merely one more means of binding men together and giving to the individual totemistic or institutional support.
The question of whether this philosophy of Pratt's was felt by him to be relevant only to crisis situations or to all of human life has been raised by Northrop Frye, who, in suggesting the former, observed that Pratt "is almost always dealing with a society in a state of emergency." [See excerpt above.] This observation seems both insufficient for the conclusion and an over-statement of the case. The everyday building of the CPR certainly did not constitute a "crisis" to the ordinary labourer, and yet Pratt definitely expects a continuing loyalty and efficiency from him. In the case of the Titanic, the time period in which communality is lacking is that immediately preceding the crisis. Here Pratt's implication would seem to be that society-oriented or corporate action in everyday life is necessary to prevent states of emergency as much as to cope with them. Further, Pratt sometimes pointedly neglects to compartmentalize crisis behaviour from ordinary duties, and thus writes as if societycentred behaviour were no more than should be expected at any time from any man. (pp. 63-4)
In E. J. Pratt we have a committed and somewhat uncritical spokesman for the values of industrial man. He has frequently been acknowledged as a humanist. To be more specific, Pratt is actually a Pelagian liberal, not only casting original sin out on a torrent of words from his "truant" but continually presenting both the machinery of technology and the machinery of social organization as man's best way to salvation…. Pratt's own frequent use of the personal pronoun we by itself spells out his position…. Pratt typically cannot help but present himself as the voice of his society rather than as an individual man. The world of E. J. Pratt is a world where the individual voice, the lyric voice, is obligated to be silent, where gangs, crews, religions, and nations succeed, and private men die. (p. 65)
Frank Davey, "E. J. Pratt: Apostle of Corporate Man," in Canadian Literature, No. 43, Winter, 1970, pp. 54-66 (revised by the author for this publication).
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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 Newfoundland (1937) as "the ironic enigma of Nature in relation to the Christian view of the world", and by his early training in theology, much of Pratt's poetry can be seen as the attempt to make man more equal to the struggle against nature. Nature, in this sense, implies both external nature and man's own tendency to revert to primitive self-interest, a tendency which Pratt sometimes identifies with original sin. The central concern of Pratt's poetry is often the problematic nature of human progress and the danger of man's reversion to an earlier and more primitive stage of behaviour. (p. 414)
The development of Pratt's poetry suggests a series of evolutionary parables in which ethical man, or his surrogate in the giant animal or machine, is pitted against T. H. Huxley's "cosmic process". The cosmic process is evolution, but it is a later and Darwinian extension of Tennyson's nature "red in tooth and claw" in which evolving nature encompasses both external and human nature. Other than the primary revelation of the cruelty of the struggle for survival, the general effect of Darwinism upon Pratt, as upon Samuel Butler and T. H. Huxley, was the gradual breaking down of boundaries between the organic and the inorganic, between the human and the animal, and the discovery of similarities between these categories not previously recognized. (p. 415)
Ironically, Pratt's early movement towards the animal past is a devolutionary step in terms of man's ethical development; similarly, the latter movement towards the machine can also be a devolutionary step in ethical terms although it may be a step forward in terms of man's scientific progress. Like Samuel Butler in Erewhen, Pratt views the machine as one step above the animal on the evolutionary ladder…. The tremendous advantage of the machine is that it is better equipped to battle nature than are any of the natural creatures. The horror of the machine is that (like the iceberg from The Titanic, like the ship itself, and like the grand Panjandrum) it is activated by "mechanism" rather than the moral sense. (pp. 415-16)
Nature, in Pratt's view, is not that benign Romantic nature which embodies deity…. Pratt's nature is Huxley's post-Darwinian nature, profoundly inimical to man and his moral values…. Because Huxley's cosmic process is fundamentally amoral, the representative man of Pratt's poetry who differs from the rest of nature (or who can be a "truant" from it by virtue of his evolved reason and the moral sense) must forever struggle against it by opposing the cosmic process with human and moral values. (p. 419)
Like Samuel Butler whose thought his most resembles, Pratt was a sensitive man greatly troubled by the Victorian conflict between Science and Religion (or, more specifically, between evolution and ethics) and his poetry continually explores the possibility of finding some acceptable compromise between the two. (p. 422)
Despite the Eliot-like rattle of a jazz tune in The Titanic and a prevailing ironic perspective, Pratt is not a modern poet in the sense that his vision of the world is informed by The Waste Land but neither is he a simplistic primitive. Rather, he is a transitional Victorian, firmly rooted in the evolutionary ethic of the 1890s, and working out a fairly complex evolutionary structure. Like Samuel Butler, Pratt is attempting a compromise between the old teleology of received religion and the Darwinian world without design, ultimately insisting that design resides within the organism, within the blood and nerve cells of man. Pratt's particular vitalism wedded two of the theories of Wilhelm Wundt's evolutionary psychology to maintain that the mechanical act of "perception" (associated with the automatic will to action) can be informed by "aperception", the spontaneous recognition of a moral truth which can be transmitted through habit from generation to generation. (pp. 423-24)
Pratt was, in the best sense, a poet of the people as his poetry grew out of the Canadian experience. Darwin's evolution and Huxley's cosmology may have provided the intellectual outlines of Pratt's poetic world, but Canadian history, Canadian geography and Canadian cultural experience, as well as Pratt's good heart and his moral vision, give substance to this world. (p. 425)
Sandra Djwa, "E. J. Pratt and Evolutionary Thought: Towards an Eschatology," in The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 52, No. 3, Autumn, 1972, pp. 414-26.
E. K. Brown
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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 the work of a poet who has not yet come to grips with himself, although Pratt was forty years old when it came out: it is the work of an experimenter who is continuing to clutch at a tradition although that tradition is actually stifling him.
Only three years later appeared a book to which these remarks have no application whatever. Titans is the work of a poet who has defined his personality and determined his form. Some of Pratt's admirers still set it above everything he has done since; and indeed it is not easy to name any poem written in Canada at any time that is more satisfying than "The Cachalot," the short epic with which the book begins. Here for the first time what is peculiar to Pratt appeared in its full splendour…. The other narrative which rounds out the book, "The Great Feud," confirms the impression produced by "The Cachalot." (pp. 147-48)
What is the originality of these poems, and especially of "The Cachalot"? It is, as the deepest aesthetic originality commonly is, the full, happy, exciting expression of an original temperament. Pratt's choice of subject arose from his revolt against the abstract themes suggested to him by his philosophic formation; in this revolt he went back to the non-academic aspects of his experience, especially to what he had known in Newfoundland before he came to Toronto….
The poem immediately makes the reader think of Moby Dick. When he wrote it, Pratt had not read Melville's prose epic…. The whale, for Melville an incarnation of the evil in the universe, is for Pratt an incarnation of its strength, enviable, admirable. In the crushing of the ship by the whale, what Pratt sees is nature imposing her strength to rend the complex contrivances of artificial society, the primitive over-powering the intellectual. The angle from which the subject is here approached is fairly constant with Pratt: he occupied it again a decade later when he wrote The Titanic. For all his admiration of the energy and gallantry of passengers and crew, his spirit was then more fully satisfied by the spectacle of the great marine machine, supposed invulnerable, destroyed by the effortless, unconscious power of the ice-berg. (p. 149)
Along with his delight in strength, a violent and even a harsh quality, goes Pratt's abounding humour. The combination, or at his best the fusion, of humour and heroic strength allows him, as he has said, "to bring in with the more severe elemental qualities the human idiosyncrasies" which bulk large in his understanding of life. In the presence of strength Pratt feels pleasure as well as awe; there is very little terror in Pratt's world, and the reader never feels small in it; his pictures of strength release one from the petty round and make one feel the ally, not the victim … of universal power. Pratt's humour removes tension, and promotes an effect of heroic ease. Simple and primitive as this humour is, it is usually expressed in terms far from epic simplicity, terms sometimes extremely erudite. (p. 150)
Nowhere else is Pratt's verse so conspicuously original in texture as in "The Cachalot."… What dash! What trumpet notes! What power of personality! This was startlingly new to our poetry, and in no other poetry is its like to be found…. For the entire length of the poem the reader is whirled at a pace which dizzies and exhilarates him; and when the poem ends one feels that he has made a unique adventure, a journey into a realm of the imagination to which no other poet could admit him. It is notable that employing a range of diction which so often in other poets has produced effects which may be described as portentous or bombinating, Pratt, throughout "The Cachalot," maintains a nervous vigour and a fullness of meaning. (pp. 151-53)
[In The Roosevelt and the Antinoe] he comes closer to Masefield than anywhere else; and it has become the custom with some critics to think of Pratt as a local Masefield. I do not find the comparison illuminating, and in some respects it seems to me to be dangerously misleading. Masefield's is essentially a tender nature, lacking in humour; and when he exalts strength, as he often does, there is something maladif in his tone as there is in Henley's or Swinburne's. Tenderness is almost absent from Pratt's poetry: his approach to strength is much more masculine than Masefield's, and in this difference lies one of the great fundamental distinctions between the poetry of the two.
The other has to do with their treatment of character. Nothing is so difficult for a Canadian as to give a living presentment of a natural human individual. (pp. 154-55)
The closest that Pratt has ever come to animating a character with genuine life is in the latest of his major works, Brébeuf and His Brethren…. The poem centres in the figure of Jean Brébeuf; and he is as lifelike a full-length portrait as there has been in our poetry. Ten years earlier Pratt could not have drawn such a figure. He has come very slowly to believe that human beings radiate such excitement as he long found only in ice-bergs, whales, prehistoric giants and ocean storms. It will not, I hope, be mistaken for easy humour if I say that in the mould where Pratt cast his figure of the Jesuit priest something of the prehistoric giant, something of the whale, and even a little of the ice-berg remained. Brébeuf is much larger than life…. Brébeuf is a symbol: there is nothing complicated in him. He belongs in epic poetry, but he is not the kind of epic hero that Homer drew, or, to keep to more modest and modern names, that Morris gave us in Sigurd the Volsung. (pp. 155-56)
If some of his lyrics are admirable, his range in this kind of poetry is extraordinarily limited. Love and passion play an almost negligible part in Pratt's poetry. It is astonishing that in the robust elemental world of his narratives, where his heroes and his monstrous animals are for ever fighting and drinking and eating, sexual desire does not exist. When Pratt does, now and then, speak of love in his lyrics, the note is very gentle and the effect is weak…. Nor is Pratt a nature lyrist. Here and there, in his epic pieces, there are highly imaginative renderings of nature, passages in which nature comes alive for a moment. But nature is never more than the setting for action, a background for heroes: Pratt is cordially appreciative of Lampman and his company but the microscopic is not congenial to his space- and size-loving nature. (pp. 159-60)
In contemporary Canadian letters Pratt's place is unique. Some years ago I suggested that he was our only valid link between the elder and the younger poets. I did not mean that he derived from the old and produced the new. He resembles the old in some respects and the new in others and with reservations appreciates both, giving a lead to poets and critics alike to profess a generous but not spineless eclecticism. (p. 162)
E. K. Brown, "The Masters: E. J. Pratt," in his On Canadian Poetry (copyright © McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited and Mrs. E. K. Brown; reprinted by permission), revised edition, The Tecumseh Press Ltd., 1977, pp. 143-64.
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[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 sake, with the prime motive exemplified by the axiom that nature abhors a vacuum—the emptiness must be filled, the chaos ordered. (pp. 9-10)
Pratt's symbols for good are warm-blooded reasoning creatures—the dog in "Carlo", the "Apes" in "The Great Feud", and man at the top—which have potential for progress. His symbols for evil are cold-blooded, like the shark, locked in stasis, or like men such as the Nazis whom he depicts as regressing towards it. The moral quality contains the potential for sin, as in Tom in The Witches' Brew, but the main sin is perversion towards the amoral quality of the cold-blooded whose sole achievement is destruction, chaos. As he illustrates in poem after poem, the reasoning ability of man and his crowning achievement of complex communication becomes mechanistic and destructive when it is diverted from creative vision to passion or stasis. The myth rests of course on the assumption that progress, that is, achievement conducive to the advancement of civilization, is a "good". One might add "for its own sake" for despite Pratt's rhetorical insistance on ultimate moral imperative, the successes in his poems are attained without clear and plausible external ethical or religious motive. (p. 10)
Although the achievement myth sounds clearly in the lyrics, it peaks in the long narratives. Poems such as The Titanic and Brébeuf seem the reverse of achievement, but throughout Pratt's poems runs the theme that while individuals, even groups, with their flaws, may deviate from the achievement trajectory, the trajectory is true—the science of probability came into its own in the twentieth century. The Titanic sank but did not destroy the value of Lloyd's insurance system. In any event, the ship represents an immense technological achievement. As the poem shows, man's ingenuity is indeed capable of mastering the environment whereas individual people with their individual flaws may not. (p. 13)
Pratt rounds up most of his thesis of achievement in Towards the Last Spike, where the poles are clearly stated—on the one hand achievement, on the other stasis…. The poem is a paean to achievers…. The poem depicts the achievers as men of vision and faith, with the energy, courage, leadership, and knowledge to transmute dreams into facts…. (p. 15)
Considering Pratt's work as a whole, his tone is democratic and optimistic in that he celebrates those who do what they do with moral freedom, without compulsion other than cheerful compliance with values they respect. (pp. 17-18)
It is worth considering how Pratt's poetic mode suits the essential Prattian myth of achievement. His narratives are poetry of exclusion, and are therefore simple in contrast to poetry of inclusion with its complex problem of attaining unity from a mass of disparates. They are essentially tales of heroic adventure, and … relate mainly to the dynamics of physical force and counterforce. Most have the simple structure of an episodic journey, with the expected narrative arc from setting to conflict, build up of opposing powers, peaking of the action, and resolution—all on the physical plane under a controlling theme. Perhaps the best example is The Titanic in which we see the launching of the great ship and of its iceberg opponent, follow their incremental journey to the collision point, then see the final resolution, which confirms the theme of hubris so powerfully focused throughout the poem.
The narratives sweep unsubtly to their conclusions along courses remarkably alike…. Sub-plots scarcely enter; and where they do, as for example the Joques story in Brébeuf, they function to support closely the main story line. Avoidance of clutter is one of his characteristics. He applies means to end with the concentrated directness of a mediaeval ballad…. (p. 20)
Pratt's characters are elemental, cast from a heroic mould; and like all such heroes fixed and unchanging, so that there is no tragic tension within them. (p. 21)
Pratt seems to have made types of his characters deliberately, for example, Towards the Last Spike eulogizes the Scots by casting some of the protagonists in caricature as Scotsmen. His protagonists, like Tarzan or Superman, always overcome…. Where the outcome seems equivocal, nevertheless the narrative trajectory arcs to triumph. (pp. 21-2)
Pratt rigidly prescribes the consciousness of his characters; they are all male; there is no impingement on them of women or children, or of the softer sentiments. They are motivated by will and knowledge, by courage and tenacity, and by a passion to achieve—each at fever pitch….
The evocativally physical settings, cast like the heroes from moulds of heroic size, serve to keep the heroic scale of the characters in focus. Pratt uses gigantean settings; they are absolute in his fictional world in that he rigidly excludes extraneous features of landscape, seascape, or any human consciousness of them. The setting creates absolute moral order, devoid of metaphysical authority, consisting of and governed by the human codes fronting a mechanical universe. Time enters as a metaphor, of appropriate heroic scale and power. It functions as evolutionary force, on man and nature generally, and as tension…. (p. 22)
Pratt's essential myth is not tragedy but the achievements made possible by indomitable heroism. He sings an epic of achievement commensurate with the essential myth of Canadian Literature—that of dynamic prowess conquering a tremendous sweep of space and time from Atlantic to Arctic and Pacific…. [In his myth], man has the potential to triumph over time, over the human world, over the natural world, and over chance, with some suggestion that there may be an ambiguous God somewhere in the schema. Man has the potential, but Pratt also shows that he carries inhim traits from his ancestral background that constantly threaten to drag him back down the slopes of time. (p. 23)
Pratt's silences are highly indicative. The absence from his fictional world of human love, of existent evil (Satan) or good (God), of the anti-hero … helps define his fictional world as one in which God is progress … and evil is retrogression down the evolutionary scale…. (pp. 23-4)
The tone of voice reveals a zest for the wonder of things as they are, particularly if those things can be conceived of in heroic terms, and together with the compelling imagery creates an image of absolute knowledge, which is in keeping with the controlling myth of human capability to reach any goal its vision can articulate. Pratt closely controls the narrative voice, allowing it only a laconic factual rhetoric…. (pp. 24-5)
In his narrative stance he takes sides with his protagonists against his antagonists; and by a whole battery of narrative devices—from letters in Brébeuf, overheard speech in Behind the Log, Van Horne's dreams in Towards the Last Spike, to telegrams and poker games in The Titanic—insists that the reader's commitment prarallel his own.
He also marshals a powerful array of prosodic devices to help snare the reader. (p. 26)
The imagery focuses on primitive nature, on evolutionary time, and on power and its multi-faceted manifestations, studded with meticulously researched factual accuracy. Pratt orchestrates his instruments to his essential theme of achievement with remarkable economy and precision, and with a dynamic narrative surge that rarely falters. He makes epics without the usual pantheon of deities, using instead a supranatural scale—of characters, setting, and action—a device he uses to facilitate control…. (p. 28)
Pratt seems to predicate in these narratives by subject matter and mode that certainly man lives in a world of pressures and problems, enormous and complicated, including such obdurate inertial geological forces as the Laurentians and the Rockies, and such dynamic thrusting ones as weather, time and living enemies. But he also seems to predicate that men can overcome and that overcoming—achievement—is the dominant imperative of living things, and that even when he seems to fail the eventual result will be a triumph correlative to the effort needed to meet the challenge….
For whom did Pratt write his narratives? For what audience? They already need annotation for comprehension by younger readers…. [Their] fading topicality, coupled with the waning, as the twentieth century moves on, of society's acceptance of Pratt's essential myth of achievement will likely relegate him to the bench of the minor poets. But for the reader who takes the trouble to master Pratt's references, the reader who accepts the mythology of Pratt's fictional world, the powerful engines of Pratt's poetry will long throb in memory. (p. 29)
Pratt, in epic scope and dynamic concentration on the achievement theme, breaks new ground. He is the first and only Canadian creative writer to express truly the spirit that forged the nation. (p. 30)
[In Pratt's poems that] deal with war he often takes sides, so that they are in effect propaganda pieces rather than objectively about the "moral problem of war". He frequently loads the scale of his war poems so that they lack aesthetic balance. (p. 46)
One of Pratt's more remarkable war poems, "Cycles", calls for a Lord of Love and Life to resuscitate both sides…. Pratt here takes sides against the compounded destructiveness of impersonal scientific warfare, but closes with the ambiguity that then "The Lord of Love and Life may come …" [italics mine].
The Iron Door (An Ode) (1927) partially resolves the ambiguity. It only hints at the ultimate moral order—The Lord of Love and Life—but does contain its own order, that inherent in the poem, in the assumption of its speaker that there ought to be a suprahuman order to match the order displayed by the individuals who ask their questions of the door. Pratt does not depict an anti-order character in this poem—all his seven searchers seriously question the enigma of existence and their seriousness imposes its own order in which facetiousness would be out of place. The very seriousness of the single questioner in "The Truant" (1943) likewise serves to create in that poem its own moral order. While scarcely "war" poems, The Iron Door and "The Truant" do show Pratt's insistence that life has moral order.
"The Radio in the Ivory Tower" (1943) focuses specifically on the Second World War—September, 1939…. It attacks the militarism of the era of the First World War … and it condemns the events of late 1939…. It thus seems to be a piece of didacticism, a direct anti-war poem. Yet it sets a moral justification for the epics of war that come later, the justification of order as good, chaos as evil. It asks why the power of the Western world fell before Hitlerian rhetoric…. (pp. 49-50)
"Come Away, Death" (1943), an earlier statement of "Cycles", regrets time's traumatic effect on the nature of Death, from dignity in the past to indignity in the present, as seen particularly in modern war…. But Pratt here sets up a universal moral order based on the myth of progress—that the predator in the Second World War, likened by imagery to Death itself and "his traction tread" …, constitutes an evolutionary reversion; and as long as we believe in the myth of progress this moral order will have validity. (p. 51)
Both The Witches Brew (1925) and "The Great Feud" (1926) surge with lust of battle, and with wide-spread conflict. Each has a volcanic setting, with the suggestion of possible catastrophic intervention cyclopean in nature. Each unleashes a warrior of heroic scale. And each concerns itself with the genocidic effect of warfare unconstrained by either the referee Lord of Hosts or the therapeutic Lord of Love of "Cycles", with one life form turning on its kindred in blind fury, as man had done in 1914. Both seem to be war poems. However, any relevance The Witches Brew might have to war, any reading that would link the genocidal Tom to place or time, must take cognizance of the tonal gusto that celebrates his predatory prowess and achievement, as well as the absence of a moral order based on myth, in the poem. As a war poem it is ambiguous. (pp. 51-2)
"The Great Feud" can … be read as an allegory of man and his various potentials: calibrated killing for a cause, and blind purposeless slaughter—both shown as chaotic or negative; and the imposition of will on emotion to achieve order—shown as positive. The prime powers in its fictional world are Nature—depicted as chance; and human-like will—seen as good, as long as it is morally oriented, i.e., leads towards order and away from chaos. (p. 53)
With Dunkirk (1941) we have, at last, a direct war poem. Its action is motivated by the myth of political freedom, "Freedom to them was like the diver's lust for air" … and, as in "Cycles" and "Come Away, Death", by the myth of devolution…. The freedom myth would anchor the poem in a more credible moral absolute, but Pratt in this poem takes sides…. The Germans are tersely caricatured as mechanical creatures "set to a pattern of chaos" …, the British portrayed at great length as full of humour and the common touch and by analogy "the liberal imbecilities" … and the motivation is halfhearted…. Pratt extolls Caractacus and Boadicea for waging defensive war aginst the Romans … and, more significantly, omits to give the parallel of the Germanic peoples in Roman times who were more successful than the British in fighting off the Romans in order to preserve their freedom. What Pratt says about his two combatants might be true, or be made to seem true, but the fictional world of the narrative is too sketchily shown to prove it, too much like a cartoon to seem to be true. The complexities he deals with would require a scale more like Tolstoy's War and Peace to come truly into proportion. As a result the poem is verse propaganda. (pp. 56-7)
[Although] Pratt insists, in poems such as The Iron Door and "The Truant", that life has moral significance, this moral order applies ambiguously in his poems about conflict. In some he evidently celebrates or condemns conflict, didacticism gets in the way. Instead of experiencing at first hand the dramatic conflicts through ironical, auditory, tactile images of environment and action, the reader is often told what reaction he is supposed to have. In other poems Pratt creates credible fictional worlds centered on human strife. The difference lies mainly in the myths involved. When the moral order rests on decaying myth, or a myth inadequately sustained by the details of the poem, he is less successful. Where it rests on living myth, or where his narrative propriety is such that the detail informs the myth, he comes into his own. But in general he does not create poems that seriously concern the morality of war because he does not have a consistent moral attitude towards it. (p. 61)
What [The Iron Door] says is plain enough but how it says it invests it with a veil that renders it not plain at all but elusive, uncertain, sombre, even menacing.
The twenty-one sections which make up the poem vary in length from three lines to twenty-four; each has one to two sentences and focuses on one feature of the dream. The verses all run on to an end-of-line stop, with variations of verse length substituting for pauses within the line. The spondee and trochee metrical variations act dramatically against the basic iambic rhythm to drive home the sense of unease…. The loose verse form seems used not because it is the "in thing", nor because Pratt wants to avoid regularized poetic form; but … because this verse cadence best fuses the other components of the poem, so that the tension between order and disorder induces a cumulative effect of uncertainty, of ambiguity, of flux without discernable authority. (p. 63)
There is a tension also in the language, between on the one hand such mind-wandering words as "credulities", "emptiness", or "questionings", and on the other such precisely used words as "cruciform", "lintell", "architrave", "sextant", or "davits", which authenticate and focus attention on scene and action…. At the same time, the syntax of long compound sentences provides an undertow rhythm consonant with the recurrent references to the sea and tidal movement.
In its figurative language, this is a highly visual poem. (pp. 63-4)
Rhyme is irregular but its sound patterns, weaving back and forth, give an echoing coherence within the sections…. [Rhyme] functions in Pratt's poem. (p. 64)
Sound imagery echoes fitfully … but as the poem mounts towards climax and the great door opens, full and continuous sound rolls in….
Most components of the poem contribute towards the pervading sense of enigma, of doubt, of skepticism, if not pessimism, about cosmic nature—but not all…. (p. 65)
[In] summing up the forces that may have caused the door to open, the dreamer cites only the five speakers who had shown at least some belief, and omits the two most skeptical ones, i.e., the philosopher and the artist, leaving the impression that perhaps faith had been the prime mover.
The choice of the dreamer as the point of view from which we are to apprehend the poem is most apt; for he discloses only the half-facts, half-suppositions of dream, without the need for Pratt to introduce other narrative devices in order to convey the sense of doubt and ambiguity. This feeling is efficiently inherent in the speaker….
In my appreciation its components coalesce into a lyrical lament for lost friends and a song of hope that they have all met a just and spiritual reward; but to me it also conveys a sense of refusal to credit that the evidence before man can support this view, and that the human situation should be otherwise, that sacrifice, courage, duty, achievement for the public good—all the virtues of the nineteenth-century Victorian ethic so succinctly summed up in the questions posed by the seven speakers—should be rewarded in kind….
Form and meaning fuse in The Iron Door. The form as well as the meaning exists in the language of the poem, in which the grief and hope and uncertainty, and the sense of desolation present in the uncertainty, are memorable because the words make sad and sombre music. (p. 66)
Glenn Clever, On E J Pratt (copyright © Glenn Clever, 1977, Borealis Press, 1977, 67 p.