Robert Hayman's Quodlibets
(1628), written while he was governor of the English colony at
Bristol's Hope, Newfoundland is often claimed as the first book
of English poetry written in what is now Canada. Despite that
fact, however, an imaginative, written literature which could be
considered indigenous did not develop in Newfoundland until well
into the present century.
Newfoundland's first book of English poetry, by Robert Hayman.
Originally published in London by Elizabeth Allde in 1628.
Copy courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies,
Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.
In the intervening years a rich
folk literature—a traditional literature dependant on the spoken
rather than the written word and circulated by word of mouth and
customary practice—developed and flourished alongside the more
familiar forms of written expression. Among the genres of oral
literature to be found in the Newfoundland context are folksongs
and ballads, folk drama, proverbs, rhymes, riddles, jokes,
recitations and monologues, local legends, personal experience
narratives, and folktales. Some of these forms of folk
literature, which sustained the aesthetic needs and provided an
outlet for the creative energies of a large percentage of
Newfoundlanders for four centuries, have been extensively
collected and studied in recent times, and there has also been a
revival of interest in the performance of others. All of them
have had a remarkable impact on contemporary written literature
||Folk Literature Series: a
folklore/folklife educational series. ©1983.
“Folk Speech I,” by John Widdowson. One issue in a series of publications produced in
1983 focusing on the various types of Newfoundland folk literature.
Series courtesy of Breakwater Books Ltd., St. John's, Newfoundland.
Cover photo: 'A game of pitch and toss in Grey River, Newfoundland.'
Photo by R. Holloway, courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL).
An indigenous written literature
did not develop in Newfoundland until this century, but the
period between 1628 and 1923—the year E. J. Pratt published his Newfoundland
Verse and a convenient if arbitrary date to select as a
starting point for a discussion of the emergence of an indigenous
literature—saw the publication of a considerable amount and
variety of popular and scholarly writing dealing with life in the
province written by non-native missionaries, colonial officials,
historians, sportsmen, adventurers, travellers, and others.
|E. J. Pratt, ca. 1930.
Edwin John Pratt (1882-1964) was born in Western Bay, Conception Bay. After
leaving the province in 1907 to attend the University of Toronto, he published
his first volume of poetry, Newfoundland Verse, in 1923.
From David G. Pitt, E. J. Pratt: The Master Years 1927-1964,
vol. 2 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, ©1987). Courtesy of the M. Claire Pratt Estate.
A large number of journalists wrote for an equally large number of
newspapers, magazines, and periodicals during the 19th
century, and around the turn of the present century, local
propagandists and promoters produced a great deal of writing
which depicted Newfoundland as a haven for tourists,
health-seekers and sportsmen.
The literature which began to
emerge during the second quarter of this century was markedly
responsive and particularly reactive to the radical social,
cultural, and political changes which marked the period. The
local authors who produced this literature either drew heavily,
both for form and content, on the oral culture, or attempted to
ignore that in favour of emulating more cosmopolitan trends and
themes. Most of the writers, however, shared a notable tendency
to examine the nature of life in Newfoundland and to articulate
what are deemed to be its essential qualities. This, in turn,
gave rise to a protracted debate in the literature over the
relative merits of what was perceived to be the traditional
culture and its role in the life of the province generally. Even
those writers who were the most self-consciously cosmopolitan in
outlook and literary taste, and who had little or no firsthand
experience of the traditional culture seemed unable to avoid
dealing with it, usually in negative terms. On the other hand, a
group of less self-consciously literary, practically-minded
writers tended toward an idealization and romanticization of the
traditional culture in their writings. These opposing trends
tended to abate somewhat after the 1970s, but even today
Newfoundland literature draws heavily on the particulars and
peculiarities of Newfoundland history and society.
Updated March, 2007