E.J. Pratt: The Master Years, 1927-1964

by David G. Pitt
555 pages,
ISBN: 0802057535

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Cautios Ned
by Al Purdy

During most of the years mentioned in the book's title, Edwin John Pratt, an expreacher from Newfoundland, was generally regarded as the foremost poet in Canada. Pratt's bibliography lists 17 books of poetry, including three Governor General's Award winners. Many other honours, medals, honorary degrees from universities, memberships in learned societies, etc., were showered on him. Despite the contemporary presence of A.J.M. Smith, F.R. Scott, A.M. Klein, and Wilson MacDonald, Pratt was considered to be the poet, a monolithic presence, a dominating figure and was scarcely known at all outside Canada.
Pratt's poetry deals with "society in a state of emergency," according to Northrop Frye. Others have called it epic and heroic in conception. Men and the sea are major motifs; verse forms are traditional and nearly always metrical; Canadian history is a large theme. Nevertheless, Pratt was something of an anomaly, partly because of the largeness of his themes and his muscular treatment of them. Nothing even resembling him had ever occurred in CanLit. The short lyric had always been most prominent despite oddballs like Heavysege - in this country. I doubt that Pratt ever wrote a poem in the first person, or dealt with a personal theme except in the abstract.
I had previously conceived of Pratt as something like his poems, monolithic and stern, unapproachable and given over completely to duty and literature. Pitt's biography changes that picture somewhat. Teaching at the University of Toronto for most of his adult years, Pratt was a gregarious man with many friends (quite a number of whom just happened to be critics and book reviewers), hosting "stag parties" and hoisting the convivial glass fairly often. A family man with one daughter (whose long-term illnesses were always in his mind), perennially short of money, he worked summer and winter, teaching and writing, with few holidays. Pratt was a conservative, in both philosophy and literature; some of his friends called him "Cautious Ned" for his refusal to espouse causes.
The Pitt biography deals with Pratt's life in minute detail, describing a milieu of readings, teaching, stag parties, friends, feuds, talk, and even a minor extramarital love affair. There are some interesting incidents: Pratt was a spiritualist, attended seances, and believed he communicated with his dead mother at one of them. Ellen Elliott, a publisher's secretary, was one of his occasional "mediums." In 1942 she held a seance for Mackenzie King, at which the spirits present included Queen Victoria, Florence-Nightingale, Anne Boleyn, Sir Frederick Banting, and others.
Pratt's tongue could be sharp on occasion. He described Audrey Alexandra Brown as "a stuck-up little thing, [who] spoke about Nanaimo as claiming her and not Victoria. Yes siree she belonged to Nanaimo." Pratt's contemporary, Wilson MacDonald, said nasty things about him on the reading circuit. But our man gave as good as he got. Pratt described MacDonald as "the goddamnedest ass is Canadian history. He is such a shit that I would even pity his own poems if they were shoved up his ass." Now that's talent!
In 1941 Sir Charles G.D. Roberts decided to publish an anthology, Voices of Victory, to aid the wartime British Bomb Victims Fund. Pratt was one of a panel helping Roberts make selections from among the large number of lady poet contributors. When the panel threw out poems, Sir Charles immediately reinstated them. Pratt's comment We friend was (quote): "For including their stuff, Charley probably got a fuck a page." And that, too, takes talent!
My own ambiguous feelings about Pratt remain, despite the human and rather likeable mail emerging from his biography. I disagree profoundly with his marching metrics and monotonous rhymes. But I admire the man's thoroughness: he researched his epics of sea and land like a historical novelist, strove for accuracy and verisimilitude. Remove certain short passages, and they become little lyrics. This from Brebeuf:
But not in these was the valour or stamina lodged:
Nor In the symbol of Richelieu 's robes or the seals
Of Mazadn's charters. nor in the stir of the lilies
Upon she Imperial folds; nor yet in the words
Loyola wrote on a table of lava-stone In the cave of
Manresa -- act in these the source -
But in the sound of invisible trumpets blowing
Around two slabs of boars, right-angled,
By Roman nails and hung on a Jewish hill.
That takes you there emotionally, and almost physically.
But in many ways Pratt strikes me as a poet-engineer. There was no first period in his work; he never dealt with relations between men and women in any meaningful, way; he had no personal voice. And yet, but, still - he heard those "Invisible trumpets blowing."
All the reviewer-friends and academic admirers of the years 1927 to 1964 who thought Edwin John Pratt a genius are now at least middle-aged or dead: the poems must stand on their own. This biography with its engaging minutiae will ensure the name survives a little longer. But there seems to me something essential about Pratt that is missing in David Pitt's book. And the engineer-poet remains for the something like his own description of the iceberg that sank the Titanic:
The grey shape with the paleolithic face
Was still the master of the longitudes - as Pratt remains the master of a literary field in which there are few others in Canada.

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