E. J. Pratt (1882-1964)

Edwin John Pratt believed “rhyme and meter do not make a poem… The real flesh and blood of poetry lies in turns of phrases, vivid images, new and unusual thoughts and manners of expressing them” (Pratt, 1983, 33). Born in Western Bay, Newfoundland, the third son of John Pratt, a Methodist minister originally from Yorkshire and Fanny Knight, a Newfoundlander, he travelled extensively throughout outport Newfoundland with his family in his early years, including Bonavista, Cupids, Blackhead, Brigus, Fortune, the Grand Banks, and later St. John’s. For three years he apprenticed at a dry goods store in St. John’s, later taught for two years in Moreton's Harbour, and was a probationary Methodist minister in and around Conception Bay.

E. J. Pratt E. J. Pratt, n.d.
Much of Pratt’s poetry examines humanity's struggle with nature.

Photograph of a portrait by Kenneth Forbes, 1943. Photographer unknown. From E. J. Pratt, Collected Poems (Toronto: The MacMillan Company of Canada Limited, 1946) frontispiece.
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In 1907, he relocated to Victoria College, University of Toronto, where he earned a Ph.D. in theology in 1917. He had an intense interest in psychology, which he tutored, as well as working in the Department of Philosophy. He began writing after being invited to attend Pelham Edgar’s poetry reading group by Viola Whitney, who he married in 1918. Edgar became his mentor and by 1920 Pratt had taken a post with the Department of English, Victoria College. His long history with Victoria College, University of Toronto, is evident in the library there named in his honour.

Writing in the early twentieth century, Susan Gingell (Gringell, xi.) notes that Pratt followed three traditions: the English literary, the Canadian tradition, most notably piqued by the Confederation poets and the new verse stemming from Britain and the United States. Complementing these movements, there was Newfoundland ballads and folk songs mixed with a rising Canadian nationalism. All of these influences are found in his works.

Pratt’s Newfoundland depictions stem from his belief that poetry “came best out of the imagination working upon the material of actual experience” (Pratt, 1983, 33). His narrative and imagist poetry expounds on the perils of humanity’s struggle with a loving but cruel nature, in particular the sea. On one of his most recognized poems, “Erosion,” he recounts that it “sprang out of a circumstance related to my early life in Newfoundland. My father, who was a minister, found as the most trying of all his duties, the announcement of death to a woman whose husband or son had been lost at sea. ‘To break the news’ had a special Newfoundland ring about it and my father had sometimes to ask the local doctor to accompany him to the house. Once I went with the two of them and I still remember the change on the woman’s face-the pallor and the furrow as the news sank in. ‘Erosion’ was written more than thirty years after but the memory of the face is as vivid today as it was at the time.”

“Erosion” (1931)

It took the sea a thousand years,
A thousand years to trace
The granite features of this cliff,
In crag and scarp and base.

It took the sea an hour one night,
An hour of storm to place
The sculpture of these granite seams
Upon a woman’s face.

Many of Pratt’s works frequently ruminate about death. Besides witnessing numerous funerals and disasters under his father’s ministry, in 1898, he witnessed the Greenland bearing the frozen bodies of sealers back into St. John’s, a subject addressed in “The Ice-Floes.” Adding to this memorable tragedy, in 1912 his fiancée, Lydia Trimble, died, his friend and professor George Blewett drowned, by 1916 young Newfoundlanders died at the Battle of the Somme, and in 1924 his older brother committed suicide while his mother died a year later.

Most likely a result of his early experience with death, the heroism of humanity is sometimes hailed while at other times he writes of human defeat, tragedy and horror, reflected in his depictions of people as either saints or beasts. He also investigates the influence religion has on people, both its redemption and its paradoxes, which includes nature and humanity’s struggle with technology.

While Pratt worked to depict a Newfoundland that was yet “not characterised….by History’s pen” (Pratt, 1917, 245), with the publication of Titans (1926) Pratt had become the first ‘Canadian’ voice in a decade persistent to find an authentic Canadian poetry (Gringell, 2000, XV). As the editor of Canadian Forum, Barker Fairley noted, “Take any previous Canadian poet and you have to admit that an Englishman residing in Canada might have written his work. No Englishman could have written Titans” (Fairly, 148-9). Many of Pratt’s works depict Canadian content, contributing to a growing Canadian nationalism, most notably the epic poem The Last Spike.

While Pratt lived predominately in Toronto, the experiences and memories of his first twenty five years in Newfoundland shaped the content and style of his early poetry, along with the influence of his early education, most notably the Romantic poets.

Pratt has received numerous recognition including: Fellow of the Royal Canadian Society (1930), Editor and Contributing Founder of Canadian Poetry Magazine (1936), Governor General’s Award for The Fable of the Goats and Other Poems (1937), Brebeuf and His Brethren (1940) and for Towards the Last Spike (1957), Lorne Pierce Gold Medal (1940), Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (1946), Editor of Saturday Night (1952-1958), Honorary President of the Canadian Authors’ Association (1955), Canadian Council Award (1957), and Honourary Degrees from University of Manitoba, Queen’s University, McGill University, University of Toronto, Assumption, University of New Brunswick, University of Western Ontario and Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Article by Aaron Peach. © 2006, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.

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