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