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, Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Folk Literature

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 in Newfoundland.

Folk Literature Series: A Folklore/Folklife Educational Series
Folk Literature Series: A Folklore/Folklife Educational Series
"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, NL. Cover photo: 'A game of pitch and toss in Grey River, Newfoundland.' Photo by R. Holloway, courtesy of The Rooms Provincial Archives Division.

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
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.

Growth in Literature

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 first hand experience of the traditional culture seemed unable to avoid dealing with it, usually in negative terms. On the other hand, agroup 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.

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