Expansive Poetry & Music Online Review



Edward Zuk

Canadian poetry today is something of an afterthought in the literary world, both for readers in the United States and, more regrettably, for those in Canada as well.  As a result, its supporters have always put on a slightly embarrassed air whenever they speak of it, making their advocacy seem more like an apology.  “If evaluation is one’s guiding principle,” Northrop Frye wrote in what has since become the most famous essay on the subject, “criticism of Canadian literature would become a poor naked alouette plucked of every feather of decency and dignity.”  Frye was anticipated in this opinion by another University of Toronto professor, E. K. Brown, a supporter of Canadian literature who nevertheless wrote a long essay explaining why it is mediocre, perhaps inevitably so.  This state of affairs has improved somewhat in recent years, but for the most part poets from Canada have approached their national literature with diffidence, partly because modesty is a very Canadian virtue, and partly because this attitude, strange as it seems, forms a part of their literary inheritance.

But this modesty is, of course in large part a pose, and so I hope that I can write an introduction to a Canadian poet without beginning with an apology.  Canadian poetry does not deserve to be as neglected as it is.  While it may be an acquired taste, there are compelling reasons why any reader of poetry – and admirers of Expansive poetry in particular – ought to develop at least a passing acquaintance with it.  If Canadian literature can boast no poem to match King Lear or The Prelude, one does not have to read very deeply to find smaller gems like “At the Cedars” by Duncan Campbell Scott, which describes a fatal accident during a log run down a river:

    The whole drive was jammed
    In that bend at the Cedars,
    The rapids were dammed
    With the logs tight rammed
    And crammed; you might know
    The Devil had clinched them below.

    We worked three days – not a budge,
    ‘She’s as tight as a wedge, on the ledge,’
    Says our foreman;
    ‘Mon Dieu! boys, look here,
    We must get this thing clear.’
    He cursed at the men
    And we went for it then;
    With our cant-dogs arow,
    We just gave he-yo-ho;
    When she gave a big shove
    From above.

The poem continues for another five stanzas of varying length and rhyme scheme (Scott produces vers libre in the original sense of that term – a freedom in the choice of metre and rhyme, and not an absence of metre and rhyme), but this excerpt is enough to point out the strengths of Canadian poetry in general.  “At the Cedars” dates from 1893, and I find that it holds up better than most of the decadent poetry that had become the fashion in England during the 1890’s.  The lines quoted above (not the best in the poem) possess a vitality that I find far more appealing than the world-weariness of a stanza like this:

    We fling up flowers and laugh, we laugh across the wine;
       With wine we dull our souls and careful strains of art;
    Our cups are polished skulls round which the roses twine:
       None dares to look at Death who leers and lurks apart. 
                        (Ernest Dowson, “Carthusians”)

Dowson’s lines are, I think, more accomplished pieces of writing, but technical prowess is not everything, or even the main thing, in poetry.  “At the Cedars” demonstrates one of the advantages of writing in a provincial or colonial setting.  While the provincial writer may find it harder to obtain a high polish or to keep up with literary fashions, he or she has access to simpler pleasures – in this case a sense a fresh subject matter and first-hand contact with it – that are difficult for those writing in a cultural capital to acquire.

The ability to retain such older virtues of poetry in an era when they were neglected is, I think, one of the main reasons to turn to the work of Canada’s greatest poet, E. J. Pratt (1882-1964).  Pratt came of age as a poet during the 1920’s and 30’s, right at the height of the Modernist dominance in the arts.  Written at the same time as the major works of Eliot and Joyce, Pratt’s shorter poems, not surprisingly, show a flirtation with various Modernist modes:  the free verse lyric, Eliotic quatrains, and the Imagist poem among them.  But part of Pratt’s genius was resistant to Modernism, and the works for which he is best remembered – the works that are most typical of him – are traditional narratives on nationalistic themes, a yearning for a modern epic of a kind which finds no counterpart in the collected works of Eliot, Pound, Williams, or Stevens.  For this reason, Pratt helps to modify our perception of literary history.  The years 1920-1980 have been criticized by Expansive poets, on the whole rightly, for having abandoned longer narrative poetry in favour of the lyric.  Pratt’s work contains several important poems that were written between 1935 and 1953 which reshape this picture, letting us see that the narrative impulse, though it was suppressed by many poets, remained alive in the work of others.

To appreciate Pratt fully, we must first dispel a myth about what constitutes the attraction of a poet.  There are, broadly speaking, two ways in which a poet’s life can be related to his art.  For some poets, something like a manic energy seems to propel every facet of existence, so that it becomes impossible to disentangle the life from the art, or the works of art from the life.  Examples of this type of poet include Christopher Marlowe, Dylan Thomas, and Sylvia Plath:  the same impulse that lent such vitality to their poems destroyed them as persons, so that one cannot read their poetry without reference to their biographies.  Goethe provides an example of this type of poet who did not end in tragedy.  This type of poet tends to attract an undue amount of attention since political intrigue, alcoholism, or suicide are more immediately arresting than poetry.  But there is a second type of poet, less glamorous perhaps, whose art and biography are not linked in any obvious way.  Instead, the outward existence is calm and uneventful, and all of the artist’s energies are concentrated into the art.  This type of poet creates an intensely vivid imaginative life without giving rise to an equally vivid personal one; as a result, the work has a greater aesthetic purity.  Shakespeare (as far as we can tell), Emily Dickinson, and Wallace Stevens provide examples of this type.  E. J. Pratt was of their number.  As far as his art was concerned, the one notable year in his life occurred in 1920, when he agreed to join the Department of English at the University of Toronto and abandoned his earlier plans to become a Methodist minister in Newfoundland.  Pratt appears to have spent the remainder of his years more or less happily in academia, enjoying the company of younger colleagues like Northrop Frye and writing his poems.
As if to compensate for this uneventful life, Pratt was drawn to dramatizing great events of Canadian history, in the process producing the closest things to a national epic that we Canadians possess.  The sinking of the Titanic 95 miles off the Grand Banks in Newfoundland in 1912 inspired Pratt’s long poem The Titanic (1935), a recreation of the disaster written, ironically, in heroic couplets.  A more successful work, his blank verse epic Brébeuf and his Brethren (1940), depicts a group of French Catholic missionaries who are captured by hostile Iroquois and are eventually tortured to death, only to amaze their executioners with the inner strength granted to them by their faith.  Pratt’s most successful poem is probably another blank verse epic, Towards the Last Spike (1952), which describes the engineering feats and political scandals that surrounded the building of the Canadian national railway, the only historical event that, for various reasons too complex to go into here, has captured the imagination of the Canadian public.  It is the combination of public spiritedness and the epic impulse that makes these longer works of Pratt’s oeuvre seem at once modern and anti-Modernist, a welcome supplement to the lyric experiments that dominated his era.

As distinguished as Brébeuf and his Brethren and Towards the Last Spike are, the work I would like to focus on in this essay is “The Ice Floes” (1922) from Pratt’s first professionally-published book, Newfoundland Verse.   This narrative is the most accessible and entertaining poem that Pratt wrote.  In a letter likely written in April or May 1922 to Arthur Phelps, Pratt complained of the effort it cost him.  This care is reflected in his artful uses of his sources.  “The Ice Floes” is loosely based on a disaster that killed 25 men on the SS Greenland in 1898, after 48 of the crew had become lost on the ice during a seal hunt.  Pratt distances the tragedy from its origin, changing the name of the ship to the Eagle (a well-known sealing vessel from his youth) and erasing any reference that places the poem in the past.  He also heightens the tragedy, having it claim the lives of 60 men.  As a result of his efforts, the poem becomes what Coleridge once described as being “of no time,” drifting in a kind of unspecified world near our own. 

The poem is, at its most basic level, a story of human greed and the terrible justice that the natural world can bring.  The Eagle is a sealing vessel, transporting its men to the ice floes off the island of Labrador to slaughter infant seals (the ‘harps’ of the poem) for their pelts.  The men approach their work with enthusiasm, even though they are in awe of the seals’ ability to adapt to the Arctic landscape.  The narrator recounts that:

    . . . unimaginable thing
    That sealers talk of every spring –
    The ‘bobbing-holes’ within the floes
    That neither wind nor frost could close;
    Through every hold a seal would dive,
    And search, to keep her brood alive,
    A hundred miles it well might be,
    For food beneath that frozen sea.

The amazing thing is that each mother seal “would turn and find her way / Back to the hold, without the help / Of compass or log.”  This description, which is stretched over seventeen lines, may appear to be overly long at first, but it is vital to the unfolding of the poem.  The ambivalence of the narrator’s stance – his barely-concealed love for the seals combined with a willingness to slaughter them for profit – is one of the lifesprings of the poem.  The contradiction is at once understandable and, at a deeper level, inexplicable, and it lends a sense of realism to “The Ice-Floes” by humanizing the narrator and the other sealers before the tragedy.  This passage is also an obvious foreshadowing as the unnaturalness of the sealers’ greed and their inability to adapt to their environment will lead to their deaths.

At first the slaughter of the seals goes well, and the crew of the Eagle is able to harvest nine thousand pelts in a single afternoon, forming “pyramids” of carcasses in Pratt’s discomforting image.  But the men soon become too caught up in the frenzy of slaughter and, reckoning that “an added thousand or more” will help them “make the last record pan,” they head back to the herds of seals and miss the Eagle’s signal to return.  Their greed is punished swiftly and mercilessly.  A storm sweeps in as the men harvest  the last round of seals, and by the time they realize their mistake, they have lost contact with the ship and are stranded on the floes.  Blinded by snow, the sealers cannot find their way back to the ship or determine in which direction it lies.  The men soon break up into small groups and wander helter skelter, dazed and hallucinating, unable to understand what they are facing or what they should do:

    Here one would fall as hunger took hold
    Of his step; here one would sleep as the cold
    Crept into his blood, and another would kneel
    Athwart the body of some dead seal,
    And with knife and nails would tear it apart,
    To flesh his teeth in its frozen heart.

Meanwhile, the ice floes begin to break apart in the wind.  The irony of the situation, of course, is that the men lack the homing instincts of the seals, who are unaffected by the storm which revenges their slaughter.  Here Pratt touches on a theme that saturates Canadian poetry and which arises in virtually every discussion of it.  Nature contains a sense of right and wrong in “The Ice Floes,” but one that does not act according to human concerns.  It is moral and indifferent, just and cruel.  As a result, by the time the storm clears, sixty men have either frozen to death or fallen through the cracks of the ice into the Atlantic and drowned.

At this point, I am tempted to pause my analysis and simply admire the many felicities of the poem.  There is, for example, the image of the sealers as hounds running down a caribou (line 46) which later changes to an image of huddled sheep (line 114), charting their transformation from hunters to hunted.  There is also the heartbreaking and violent image, quoted above, of the sealers who spend their last moments eviscerating the dead seals in a final attempt to reassert control over their situation.  I also admire Pratt’s use of nautical jargon, especially near the beginning of the poem, to establish the realism of the narrative.  Then there are the depths of thought and questioning that the poem reaches.  Pratt suffered a crisis of faith during the writing of the poem, and “The Ice Floes” reveals a deep ambivalence towards Christianity.  The poem is in one sense a Christian one as the men are punished for their pride, greed, and failure to show a proper stewardship of Nature.  But Nature in the poem is a moral force that is not explicitly linked to God or Christ, and Pratt at least leaves open the possibility that the physical universe is a self-correcting entity, one capable of acting independently of any deity.

But instead of pursuing these ideas further, I would like to devote the remainder of this essay to discuss one of the main wellsprings of the vitality of “The Ice Floes”:  its roots in the ballad tradition.  The ballad represents one of the oldest and strongest musics in English, and whenever it has been successfully revived, there is a quickening in the lines, a true vigour that lends new life to the poem.  It is one of a handful of literary forms which has been adopted spontaneously without the help of any literary authority, though it informs several of the monuments of English verse.  The earliest ballads reach back to the age of Chaucer and therefore the beginnings of our poetry, and they certainly provide an alternative to the more literary couplets or stanzaic forms that Chaucer imported from Italy.  The ballad flourished when Shakespeare wrote King Lear, that most English of the tragedies, which draws heavily from the ballad’s spirit and its versification in the famous scenes on the heath and its moral universe, while the form’s prominence during the Romantic era reveals the depth and strength of the sources of that remarkable period.

“The Ice Floes” is a novel adaptation of the ballad to modern poetry, though the versification of the poem hides the debt somewhat.  Pratt writes in a very loose 4-beat iambic line, most often in couplets, which may seem distant from the familiar 4-3-4-3 pattern of the ballad.  But several early ballads were composed in four-beat lines:

    ‘O I fear you are poisoned, Lord Randal, my son!
    I fear you are poisoned, my handsome young man!’
    ‘O yes, I am poisoned; mother, mak my bed soon,
    For I’m sick at the heart, and I fain wad lie down.’     (“Lord Randal”)

In others, the three-beat lines are clearly filler, so that the verse is carried wholly by the four-beat ones:

    There was three ladies playd at the ba’,
    With a hey ho and a lillie gay
    There came a knight and played o’er them a’,
    As the primrose spreads so sweetly

    The eldest was baith tall and fair,
    With a hey ho and a lillie gay
    But the youngest lookd like beautie’s queen
    As the primrose spreads so sweetly

    The knight bowd low to a’ the three,
    With a hey ho and a lillie gay
    But to the youngest he bent his knee
    As the primrose spreads so sweetly . . .      (“The Cruel Brother”)

The ballad is in reality a highly flexible form, and the addition of extra nonsense lines can stretch the stanzas to five and six lines or more.  To participate in this tradition, a poem needs to be written in lines of four stresses (usually alternated with lines of 3 stresses) with a rhythm which is loose enough to capture common, as opposed to formal, speech.  “The Ice Floes” fits these criteria easily, and in spirit it is pure ballad.

But the influence of the ballad goes deeper than the rhythm.  Whenever I reread Pratt’s poem, I find myself being drawn into the ballad’s familiar universe.  The ballad is not only a literary form, but also an entire aesthetic and world-view, and Pratt seems to relish, in this work at least, the entire tradition which it invokes.  The poem’s ease in describing action and its variety of narrative modes are ballad-like.  Take, for instance, the stanza that ends the poem:

    And the rest is as a story told,
       Or a dream that belonged to a dim, mad past,
    Of a March night and north wind’s cold,
       Of a voyage home with a flag half-mast . . .

The retrospective view of these lines and the finality of the deaths makes them resemble the ending of “Sir Patrick Spens” and dozens of other ballads:

    Half o’er, half o’er to Aberdour
       It’s fifty fathom deep,
    And there lies guid Sir Patrick Spens,
       Wi’ the Scots lords at his feet.

The sparse and objective description of the action (this in spite of the first-person narrator, who remains an unrealized figure) and the refusal to make the narrative psychological or subjective are also hallmarks of the ballad.  The moral universe which the poem inhabits also derives from this source.  Whenever I reread “The Ice Floes,” I find myself being drawn into a familiar country in its evocation of vast forces of good and evil, the links it forges between character and fate, its belief in the inevitability of tragedy, its demotic language, and its delight in describing physical action for its own sake. 

What “The Ice Floes” proves is the durability and flexibility of the ballad, even if one takes liberties with its form, if such a proof is needed.  Yet I read few modern ballads in my favourite literary journals (at least compared to the scores of sonnets or dramatic monologues or even sestinas that litter their pages), and so Pratt’s work may act as a timely reminder that there is an older and deeper tradition of narrative in English verse than light comedies written in elaborate stanzas or short stories transferred to blank verse.  Certainly, as the popular revival of narrative poetry proceeds apace, the ballad deserves to recapture its honoured place as one of the wellsprings of our literature.