Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone




Too much, in these days, are the eyes of Canada turned inland. Wheat, copper, lumber, water-power engross our imaginations and dominate our ambitions, till we forget that Canada, though occupying half a continent, is really a maritime nation. Our boundaries are drawn upon three oceans. Seven out of our nine provinces are truly "maritime" provinces, their shores washed by ocean tides, their ports accessible to the sea-borne traffic of the globe. Alberta and Saskatchewan alone are inland provinces. The two great races from which we spring are children of the sea. Its energy and its unflagging restlessness are in our blood. We are in truth a maritime breed.

Moreover, our future must come to be ever more and more dependent upon the sea. With our inexhaustible natural resources and our fervour in developing these resources we are essentially a producing nation. We produce so much more than we consume that our ships must cover every ocean in the quest of adequate markets. The sea is our life-blood. Of it, with long travail, were we born. By it we have been cradled. Through its aid and nourishment shall we grow to our full stature.

And yet, for all this, we are not "sea-minded." Our thoughts and our dreams, as I have said, turn inland. It is surely desirable that this tendency should be counteracted. The tendency of the inlander is toward provincialism in thought and culture. But every sea-port is a window from which to look forth upon the world, to the great enlargement of outlook and enhancement of vision.

If it is to be desired that our people should become more sea-minded, let us direct the attention, and more especially the imagination, of the rising generation of Canadians to the sea. Let some portion of the literature which is put before them, both in school and out of it, be duly salted with song and story of the sea and of the part which it has played and must play in our history. It is therefore with special pleasure that I am writing a few words of introduction for this book of sea poems by E.J. Pratt, which is designed by the publishers as a supplementary reader for the pupils in the upper grades of our schools.

The author of "Verses of the Sea" knows his subject. Not intellectually only, but emotionally and spiritually as well, he is familiar with it. He has been admitted, as was his right to inheritance, to the intimacy of the sea. Born in 1883, at Western Bay, Newfoundland, Dr. Pratt is the product of a community which lives by and for the sea, and all his earlier years were passed in that strenuous environment. The son of a Methodist Clergyman, he matriculated at the Methodist College in St. John’s. Afterward he removed to Toronto to attend Victoria College and the University of Toronto, where he took the degrees of M.A. and Ph.D. His first book, "Newfoundland Verse", from which many of the poems in this collection are taken, was published in 1923. It was followed by "The Witches’ Brew" in 1925, "The Titans" in 1926, and "The Iron Door" in 1928. Dr. Pratt holds the position of Associate Professor of English at Victoria College, Toronto.

Though "Newfoundland Verse" attracted no very wide and immediate attention on its appearance, discerning readers were quick to see that it was a significant and distinctive contribution to Canadian Letters. Here was a new voice, virile and convincing, which sang with zest of new scenes and matters of vivid human interest. There was no fantastic striving after effect, no extravagant challenging of the eternal laws which govern all enduring artistic expression in whatever form. There was none of that violent posturing with which some (though by no means all) of the more radical among contemporary writers seek to advertise an originality which might not otherwise be perceived. Nevertheless, by reason of the blunt, primitive speech employed and bold handling of the themes, the effect achieved was distinctly that of originality and strength.

With the publication of his next volume, "The Witches’ Brew", Dr. Pratt came at once into the front ranks of Canadian poets. This audaciously robust and uproarious extravaganza might well have been regarded askance by reviewers here at home but for the fact that it had been received with hilarious approval by such masters of poetry and poetic criticism as J.C. Squire, of The London Mercury, Professor George Gordon, of Oxford, John Masefield, and Lawrence Binyon. And so it came about that, while many readers took to the strange new brew enthusiastically and others could not stomach it at all, everyone was ready to agree that it was such a piece of work as could not possibly be ignored. Here was a flavour very unexpected and indisputably pungent. Those whose palates were not sympathetic to it could hardly be blamed for their hesitancy. Not everyone at first trial likes caviar-and-onion; but they who like it like it exceedingly.

To my mind "The Witches’ Brew" is unique,—a masterpiece of exuberant imagination, riotous humour, and sound, constructive craftsmanship. It is big-limbed and throbbing with life. It is Gargantuan,—plus the sheer beauty of music and colour which plays over the massive bulk of it in frequent and elusive scintillations. It is to be regretted that the editor of this volume of selections has not found suitable for inclusion any extract from this poem.

The qualities of force and imagination which make "The Witches’ Brew" a great poem are to be found in no less degree in "The Cachalot", which seems to me the more important of the two poems which make up the volume called "Titans". This poem, which is no extravaganza, but straight narration, is the epic of a gigantic sperm whale,—a hero, though by no means a mythical one, of its splendid and tremendous breed. The story is as faithful to the known facts of natural history and to the details of the great adventure of whale-fishing as Frank Bullen’s remarkable story of the sperm whale, but all sublimated into swift and imperishable poetry.

"The Great Feud", companion work to "The Cachalot" is a greatly daring attempt to translate the dark and monstrous turmoil of prehistoric times into poetry. The result is an amazing achievement of the imagination. But the work as a whole does not seem to me quite equal to its two remarkable predecessors. It has the telling phrase, the fire and the exuberance of these. The rushing narrative carries their reader along with it. The creative vigour is unflagging. But I feel that it lacks unity of conception. At times it is as sound in its scientific basis as the story of the cachalot. At other times it slips into the sheer extravaganza of "The Witches’ Brew". Both methods are admirable, in Dr. Pratt’s skilled hands. But they do not seem to me to mix well. They more or less neutralize each other. And the result is a confused impression. The author, to be sure, guards himself against such a criticism by calling the poem "A Dream of the Pleistocene". Dreams have a right to confusion. They laugh at consistency. So perhaps what I am inclined to find fault with is just the effect which Dr. Pratt set out to produce.

"The Iron Door" marks a very wide departure, both in matter and in manner, from "The Witches’ Brew" and "Titans". In a certain sense it is a return to the austere atmosphere of "Newfoundland Verse". But there resemblance ends. To the creation of this noble elegiac ode the poet has brought all that "high seriousness" which Arnold designates as the essence of great poetry. Into its lucid phrases and stately cadences he has packed his maturest thought, his deepest emotion, his most far reaching vision. In its clarity of expression and the orderly development of its structure one is liable at first to overlook the mysticism which is the core of its inspiration. Probably this poem will not call forth as much comment as its predecessors. It is not so much a challenge to discussion. But it is perhaps the most complete and convincing proof of its author’s title to distinction.

Such a survey, however brief and superficial, of Dr. Pratt’s work as a whole has seemed to me essential as preface to this volume of selections, which, restricted by the limits of its theme and purpose, could not otherwise convey a just impression of the breadth and range of the author’s genius. But as a help toward awakening in our younger generation some measure of that "sea-mindedness" which we need to stimulate, this collection seems to me admirably adapted. The sincerity, directness, and vivid picturesqueness of these poems, their dramatic vigour and arresting colour, should make immediate appeal to the youthful and adventurous imagination. There is no over-sophisticated suggestion, no sloppy sentimentalism, no egotistical ranting, no slovenly craftsmanship, to set up false standards in the mind of the young reader. Over all these pages there breathes the authentic breath of the sea. They ring with the hearty speech of sailormen, with the luring call of ships and far adventure. They are filled with the beauty and terror and wonder and strange voices of the sea.


"Introduction," E.J. Pratt, Verses of the Sea (Toronto: Macmillan, 1930), xiv [back]