Silence in the Sea


     It is a genuine pleasure, and of course a great privilege, to inaugurate this series of annual lectures in honour of E. J. Pratt. As I understand that it is intended to devote the series to modern poetry in general, it seems logical to speak in this opening lecture about Pratt, but about Pratt in the context of modern poetry, and in the further context of the relation of modern poetry to modern civilization.

     Pratt's life, like an ellipse, revolved around two centres. One centre was where I am, in Victoria College in the University and city of Toronto. The other centre was of course where you are, in south-eastern Newfoundland. I shall start with my centre, and then try to establish the connexion with yours.

     The fact that so many important modern poets are professional men as well -- Eliot a banker and publisher, Williams a doctor, Stevens an insurance executive -- suggests that the ability to write poetry often goes with an unusual ability to organize one's time and social schedule. Similarly Pratt was in a university, not as a "writer in residence," but as a full-time teacher and scholar, with the same load of graduate and undergraduate teaching as any other colleague of his seniority, and he had come into English after completing graduate degrees in theology and psychology. It is true that his erudition, his love of technical language, and the careful research he did for each of his long narratives, are [181] presented in a humorous and sometimes deprecating way. The lumbering polysyllables of The Great Feud remind us of Wyndham Lewis's remark that writers, unless they are bluffing, use their full vocabularies only for comic purposes. Nevertheless he is one of our scholarly poets. It is also true that Pratt diligently cultivated an image of himself as an incompetent and hopelessly absent-minded duffer. This is what poets and professors are popularly supposed to be, and so the image was accepted by those who did not notice that he was for years carrying on, quite without secretarial assistance, a formidable teaching, speaking and social schedule, in addition to his writing. The reason for the duffer image was that it enabled him to escape the vast accumulation of committee and paper work (or pseudo-work) which causes the real fatigue in the modern university. In the background of Victoria was the city of Toronto itself, where he carried on his legendary parties and golf games. And Toronto, according to Morley Callaghan, who should know, is a good place for a writer to work: he can have all the friends he likes, but there is something in the Canadian reserve that allows him to write without feeling that anyone is breathing down his neck.

     I have often been asked why I went into English teaching, with a second half of the question, "when there were better things you might have done," sometimes being obviously suppressed. But no one who knew the teachers I had at Victoria: Pelham Edgar, Pratt himself, and J. D. Robins, would be in the least surprised at any student's wanting to pursue the careers they were so brilliant an advertisement for. This extraordinary trio had two qualities in common. One was an unusually fresh and detached interest in the contemporary literary scene. I say unusually, because such an interest could by no means be taken for granted among English professors in the nineteen-twenties. As few contemporary writers were on any course, this often meant digression and self-interruption in order to mention them at all, which is good testimony to the genuineness of the interest. But Robins would interrupt a lecture on the [182] ballad to read us a story by Hemingway -- not a household word among Canadian undergraduates in 1929 -- and Edgar would digress from Shakespeare to tell us something about the narrative techniques of Virginia Woolf. Pratt was a more conventional teacher, but any interested student could get vast stores of information about contemporary poetry out of him. And I say detached, because at a time when many professors were still telling their students that Joyce and D.H. Lawrence were degenerates wallowing in muck, these three would discuss them seriously and (considering that Joyce and Lawrence were by no means favorite authors of theirs) sympathetically. What they also had in common was a keen and generous (often very practically generous, as many could testify) interest in younger Canadian writers, and a desire to do what they could to foster the creative talent around them.

     What they did not have in common was a set of scholarly interests that complemented one another in a way very profitable for their students, Pratt's knowledge of modern poetry being rounded out by Edgar's knowledge of modern fiction. I doubt if I should really have got to appreciate Pratt properly if it had not been for Robins. Robins' special fields were the ballad and oral literature, along with folktales and popular literature in that orbit, and Old English. This combination of interests was not an accident: through him I began to understand something of the curious affinity between the spirit of Canadian poetry, up to and including Pratt, and the spirit of Anglo-Saxon culture. In both the incongruity between a highly sophisticated
imported culture and a bleakly primitive physical environment is expressed by familiar, even ready-made, moral and religious formulas which raise more questions than they answer. And what I think would have fascinated me in Pratt's poetry, even if I had never known him, is the way in which, unlike any other modern poet I know, he takes on so many of the characteristics of the poet of an oral and pre-literate society, of the kind that lies immediately behind the earliest English poetry. There was no reason for Pratt to be this kind [183] of poet except the peculiar influence of his Newfoundland and Canadian environment on him: I am quite sure that he was unconscious of this aspect of his work.

     In an oral culture, which has to depend so much on memory, the poet is the teacher, the one who remembers. (I am speaking here of the professional oral poet, there are of course other kinds.) It is he who knows the traditions of his people, its great heroic legends, the names of its kings, its proverbial philosophy, its rudimentary sciences in which there is still a great deal of magic, the stories and myths of its gods, the details of correct ritual in religious and social life, the calendar with its lucky and unlucky days, the mysteries of taboo and the complexities of family and class relation-ships. The poet knows these things because verse, by which I mean poetry with a relatively simple metrical or alliterative structure, is the obvious way of organizing words so that verbal information can be easily remembered. The fact that names of Anglo-Saxon kings so often begin with the same letter has, or had originally, much to do with Old English alliterative verse. Such a poet is a profoundly impersonal poet. He does not write love poetry or cultivate his private emotions; he hardly thinks of himself as a personality separate from his public. Homer, and the surviving poems of the heroic age of the North, give us some notion of what the vast corpus of oral poetry, lost because not written down, must have been like. The name of Homer, along with more legendary names, survived for centuries as symbols of a remote past in which the poet had a central social function from which he has since been dispossessed.

     As time goes on, and literature assumes different functions, we may come to feel rather condescending about this early function of poetry; but poets and readers alike impoverish their literary experience if they underestimate it. W. H. Auden remarks that if we really like lists and catalogues in poetry, such as the roll-call of ships in the second book of the Iliad, that liking is probably the sign of a serious interest in poetry. This principle, which so obviously applies to, for instance, Whitman, could also be applied to such catalogue features in Pratt as the brands of liquor in The [184] Witches' Brew. Similarly Pratt has a primitive sense of the responsibility of the poet for telling the great stories of his people. At first his stories are typical stories, like The Roosevelt and the Antinoe or The Cachalot; then they be-come such central stories as the martyrdom of the Jesuits and the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, to which, most unfortunately, the story of the Franklin expedition was never added. It is in Brébeuf particularly that Pratt shows his affinity to the oral poets in his respect for his sources. He does not use the Jesuit Relations as a basis for fine writing: his whole effort is to let the Relations tell their own story through his poem. His genre is the narrative poem, and the narrative has a unique power of dry impersonal statement which makes sophisticated or clever writing look ridiculous.

     A pre-literate culture is a highly ritualized one, where doing thing decently and in order is one of the most essential of all social and moral principles. The care that Pratt expends on a sequence of physical movements meets us everywhere in his work: in the throwing of the harpoon in The Cachalot, in the getting out of the lifeboats in The Roosevelt and the Antinoe, in the manoeuvring of ships in Behind the Log that forms so ironic a contrast to the bland strategic directives at the beginning. Such delight in sequential detail shows his sense of a mode of life where safety, or even survival, depends not simply on activity, but on the right ordering of activity. At the other extreme are the first-class passengers on the Titanic, who have, literally, nothing to do, and so ritualize their lives by a poker game. In religion, we notice how clearly Pratt, himself a Nonconformist Protestant, understands the immense importance, for a Catholic, of the unbroken repetition of the mass at Ville Marie, which he makes the conclusion of his poem on Brébeuf. And certainly no poet without so intensely ritualistic a feeling would have symbolized the end of the "depression" (i.e., human history) by an "apocalyptic dinner." There is also the beautiful evocation of the sense of ritual surrounding death, some of it the sacrament of extreme unction, some of it going back to pre-Christian times, but in every age assimilating the dramatic moments of life to the [185] recurring rhythm that gives a sense of spaciousness and dignity to the individual consciousness:

          There was a time he came in formal dress,
          Announced by Silence tapping at the panels
          In deep apology.
          A touch of chivalry in his approach,
          He offered sacramental wine,
          And with acanthus leaf
          And petals of the hyacinth
          He took the fever from the temples
          And closed the eyelids,
          Then led the way to his cool longitudes
          In the dignity of the candles.

     I spoke of the poetry of an oral culture as simple in rhythmical structure, however subtle the effects of which it is capable. Verse is a much simpler and more obvious way of conventionalizing ordinary speech than prose is, which accounts for the cultural priority of verse to prose. It is consistent with Pratt's general attitude to poetry, not merely that he should be conservative in his diction, which never plays any syntactical tricks, and in his standard metres, but that his poetry should reflect the pleasure of linear movement, whether directly physical, as in "The 6000," or subtilized into following the swift pace of a story-teller's narrative. It is normally only the standard metres (especially, perhaps, Pratt's beloved octosyllabic couplet) that can convey this particular kind of poetic pleasure, one of the most ancient that poetry can give. Even some of the poems that are technically in free verse, such as "Newfoundland" and "Silences," express something of the recurring wash of the sea on rocks. Another ancient and primitive pleasure of poetry is the sententious utterance that gives epigrammatic form to a familiar but deeply held idea, and the tight stanzaic patterns of Pratt's lyrics are well adapted to give this too.

     When the poet has so central a relation to his society, there is no break between him and his audience: he speaks for, as much as to, his audience, and his values are their values. Even if a professional poet, he is popular in the sense [186] that he is the voice of his community. Shakespeare, who is still essentially an oral poet, shows a similar identification with the assumptions of his audience. It is particularly this empathy between poet and listening audience that is broken by the rise of a writing culture. In a writing culture, philosophy develops from proverb and oracle into systematic concept and logical argument; religion develops from mythology into theology; magic fades out and is absorbed into science. All these speak the language of prose, which now becomes fully developed, and capable of a conceptual kind of utterance that poetry resists. It is the discursive writer or thinker who is assumed to have the primary verbal keys to reality; the norms of meaning become the norms of a prose sense external to poetry. As a result the poet becomes increasingly isolated in spirit from much of the thought of his time, even though he continues, as a rule, to be a scholarly and erudite person, aware of what is going on in the rational disciplines. As the structures of philosophy and science become more complete, the poet retreats from large-scale cosmological and epic themes summing up the learning of his time, and partakes of a growing fragmentation of experience. He tends more and more to convey his meaning indirectly, through imagery and metaphor, and the surface of explicit statement that he shares with other writers becomes increasingly opaque. He is sometimes difficult to read -- Eliot even suggests that difficulty is a moral necessity for writers of his time -- and above all, originality, saying things in one's own way instead of simply saying them in the way that they have always been said, becomes accepted as part of the convention of serious literature.

     This means that the serious poet is likely to have a restricted audience of cultivated people -- "fit audience find, though few," as Milton said of Paradise Lost -- and that the importance of social function is not widely recognized or understood. Shelley called the poet an "unacknowledged legislator," in a "Defence of Poetry" which was an answer to a brilliant and paradoxical essay of his friend Peacock, in which Peacock had noted a primitive, even an atavistic, quality in the poet's mind, and its affinity with an earlier [187] has been, in Canada, a kind of unofficial poet laureate; this was an office that Whitman would have been delighted to hold for America, and that Tennyson, who did hold it in Great Britain, worked hard to maintain in dignity. With the twentieth century the tension between the desire to be popular and the necessity to be restricted in audience takes some grotesque forms. One thinks of Eliot, ending his Waste Land with a quotation in Sanskrit, yet speaking of the advantage, for the dramatist, of an audience that could not read or write; or of Yeats trying to bring drama to communities that often could hardly read or write, yet filling his poems with recondite Cabbalism. But the idioms of popular and serious poetry remain inexorably distinct. Popular poems tend to preserve a surface of explicit statement: they are often sententious and proverbial, like Kipling's "If" or Longfellow's "Psalm of Life" or Burns' "For A' That," or they deal with what for their readers are conventionally poetic themes, like the pastoral themes of James Whitcomb Riley or the adventurous themes of Robert W. Service. Affection for such poets is apt to be anti-intellectual, accompanied by a strong resistance to the poetry that the more restricted audience I spoke of finds interesting.

     One of the chief barriers to the appreciation of Pratt in many quarters is the tendency in him to be a popular poet. Like Kipling, and like Longfellow in a different way, he writes in a style that steers close to the perilous shallows of light verse. He is ready to linger over rather self-indulgent nostalgic or whimsical themes, as in "Reverie on a Dog" (not reprinted in his second edition), or in "Magic in Everything," or in "Putting Winter to Bed." Again, he tends to accept the values of his society without much questioning. His assumptions about the Second World War, the Jesuit-Iroquois conflict, the relation of officers to men in war and of bosses to workers in peace, are those of an ordinary conservative citizen who reads the morning paper and believes, on the whole, what it says. In his poetry, as in his personal life, Pratt is someone who quite frankly wants to be liked, and liked immediately, not after a generation or two. To some extent he has succeeded: his readiness to disarm the suspicions of [189] the ordinary reader has gained him an unusually large number of ordinary readers, at least in Canada. But he has raised other suspicions in other readers, not accustomed to poets who expect them to be complaisant, and who consequently feel that this poet must be simple-minded in a way that, say, Ezra Pound is not.

     Perhaps this means only that, like the seventeenth-century British poets who wrote in Latin instead of English, Pratt has had his reward of recognition in his life, and is likely to be neglected in future for having backed the wrong horse. I think there are other factors to be considered, however. When I edited Pratt's poems in 1958, I remarked that, if to be "modern" is a virtue, Pratt looked more modern and up to date in 1958 than he did in 1938. I was thinking then mainly of the growing tendency to write in more conventional metres and to provide a more explicit surface of direct statement. I now feel that it is possible to update the remark to 1968, though for somewhat different reasons. In the last few years there has been a startling social development which makes all my talk about oral and pre-literate poets much more relevant both to Pratt and to the contemporary scene. The rise of communications media other than the book has brought back some of the characteristics of oral culture, such as the reading of poetry to a listening public, often with some musical accompaniment, the employing of topical themes, the tendency to the direct statement of a social attitude which the audience is expected to share, and many other features of oral literature that have not been genuinely popular for centuries. True, most of such poetry is associated with a dissenting or protesting social attitude, and from its point of view Pratt's poetry would look like a defence of establishment values. But the dissenting values of today are the establishment values of tomorrow, and perhaps Pratt will come into an even clearer focus in 1978. [190]


     Many modern poets seem to strike their roots in a small and restricted locality. Thus Frost is a poet of northern New England, Stevens of southern New England, Yeats of Sligo, Eliot of the City of London (it has even been asserted that Eliot's London allusions are within a single postal district), Dylan Thomas of Southern Wales, Jeffers of the Monterey and Carmel region of California. They may live in and write poetry about many other places, but the relation to a specific environment is still there. And Pratt's fundamental environment was the Avalon peninsula, the area of St. John's and the outports adjoining it. Like all poetic environments, his was a mixture of memory and literary convention, and many of you might not recognize it as the place that you actually live in. But it would certainly never have existed without this actual place.

     Pratt's immediate contact with this community was through religion, as exemplified in his father's profession, which he followed. Perhaps his training as a preacher, which certainly influenced his admiration for the rhetoric of Spurgeon, and, later, of Churchill, also had something to do with his attitude to poetry as a kind of rhetorical friendly persuasion, the winning over of an audience. In any case the rigours of the life in the Newfoundland outports, the hard fight to survive and the frequency of violent death, threw into strong relief a fundamental cleavage in Christianity which runs all through his work and is the theme of his profoundest poem, "The Truant."

     Christianity has always been both a revolutionary and an institutionalized religion: subversive and repressive social movements have both appealed to its principles. The revolutionary core of Christianity is its identifying of God with a suffering, persecuted, and enduring man. It was in the sign of the cross, a ridiculous and shameful emblem, that an outcast religion conquered the world's greatest empire. But the conquest itself began to shift the attention of Christianity to an establishment God, one who created and governed the order of nature. What Pratt's poetic vision first seized on was [191] the contrast, in the life he saw around him, between the human heroism and endurance, in which the divine inheritance and destiny of man was so clearly reflected, and the moral unconsciousness of nature. Whatever the source of the latter, it is there, and there is little point in trying to see it as somehow reflecting a will or providence or intelligence that has planned it all quite coherently and has foreseen all difficulties. Such a Supreme Arranger of order and authority may be called God or Nature -- it makes little difference which -- but invoking it affects us as a complacent denial of the reality of human feeling:

          The doctor spoke
          Of things like balance, purpose -- balance? Yes,
          We got that from a dory in a gale,
          From weights and springs and piling rock in holds
          Through lack of cargo. Purpose? Faith -- we knew that;
          Assumed it in the meshes of a net,
          Or else denied it when a child was drowned.
          But these were matters past the doctor's mind --
          "Sharks too had purpose for the sea would rot
          Without them." This too strong a dose for us ...

Many arguments of the "what are sharks good for?" type were in Pratt's cultural background, the efforts of intellectual conservatism to fit the facts of its existence into some prearranged scheme. Such conservatives would often have taken a religious line, but the man who, like the man in an unreprinted poem in Newfoundland Verse, "sticks by Moses" is more likely to be sticking by some kind of Stoic universal governor imported into Christianity to rationalize its adherence to established authority. For the Stoic is the most impressive example of the man who tries to find some kind of moral order behind nature, and so tries to keep neutral in the struggle of human heroism and natural indifference: a neutrality always dubious and in the twentieth century entirely impossible:

          What are the Stoic answers
          To those who flag us at the danger curves
          Along the quivering labyrinth of nerves? [192]

     We notice how it is the enduring, resisting and suffering Christ of "Gethsemane" who is at the centre of Pratt's religion. Over against him is the dead God of fatality, the mindless, pointless world of the wheeling stars and the crashing seas. In "The Highway" the poet speaks of nature in terms of an evolutionary scheme which seems to indicate some kind of purpose, even if a very slow-moving one; but we cannot accept this scheme without the feeling expressed by the myth of the fall of man, glanced at in the last stanza. Man's essential heritage is spiritual rather than natural: he is cut off from nature by his own consciousness, and has to turn for his loyalties to an ideal which (or rather who: the "Son of Man") is human and yet qualitatively different from human life as we know it. Such an ideal is not in nature, where visions of apocalyptic human cities like the one in "The Mirage" are only illusions destroyed by "the darker irony of light," and where the struggle to survive knows no more of ultimate purpose than a coral insect knows of a coral island, developing as it did,

          Away back before the emergence of fur or feather,
          back to the unvocal sea and down deep where the darkness
          spills its wash on the threshold of light, where the lids
          never close upon the eyes, where the inhabitants slay in
          silence and are as silently slain.

Students of the submarine world tell us that the sea is not silent, and that its creatures manage to make a fair amount of noise in spite of the impediment of water. But the silence in this poem is the symbolic silence of a moral chaos in which the creative word has not yet been spoken, the word of the conscious mind able to detach itself from a life wholly engaged in predatory aggression and see and judge of what it is doing. The door of the cottage closed against the storm in "The Weather Glass," "The Lee-Shore" and elsewhere is a simple but very central image of separation between conscious and mindless worlds.

     But of course human life itself, as the "Silences" that we have just quoted from shows, exhibits the conflict between the spirit and the nature of man, between the [193] unspoken ferocity which makes man the devil of nature, infinitely more evil than Tom the Cat from Zanzibar, and the speaking of the word, which, even if a word of enmity, may still be the basis of community. The demonic in human life expresses itself in a peculiar form of mechanism: in the developing of a technology which symbolizes a will to merge human life into a vast destructive machine. The reason asks questions to which, as in quadratic equations, there are two answers. One answer is the fatalism which makes the total commitment to death in modern warfare consistent with the reason, one logical consequence of the relation of nature and man, and absurd only to the rebellious free spirit:

          Seven millions on the roads in France,
          Set to a pattern of chaos
          Fashioned through years for this hour.
          Inside the brain of the planner
          No tolerance befogged the reason.

There is another answer, less narrowly logical, and this takes us back to our discussion of the social function of the poet.

     I have spoken of the primitive function of the oral poet as the teacher of his society, which sounds as though he were a mere repository of facts, an ambulatory Larousse. But, of course, the oral poet does not deal in facts at all, as such: what he deals in are myths, that is, stories of gods, historical reminiscences, and concepts founded on metaphors. Such myths are neither true nor false, because they are not verifiable. Myths are expressions of concern, of man's care for his own destiny and heritage, his sense of the supreme importance of preserving his community, his constant interest in questions about his ultimate coming and going. The poet who shapes the myth is thus entrusted with the speaking of the word of concern, which, even though in early times it may often have been a word of hostility and a celebrating of war and conquest, is still the basis of social action. Primitive myths are conservative because primitive societies are conservative, and last a long time without much change. But the myth-making impulse is recreated in each generation, as the [194] wonder which Samuel Johnson called the effect of novelty upon ignorance awakens in every child:

          We showed them pictures in a book and smiled
          At red-shawled wolves and chasing bruins --
          Was not the race just an incarnate child
          That sat at wells and haunted ruins?

With Romanticism, when the poet's sense of isolation from society reached an extreme and began to turn back again, poetry once more became mythopoeic. The new myths that came in with Romanticism, however, were often revolutionary, expressing hopes for greater freedom than man had hitherto had. At the centre of these revolutionary myths is Shelley's hero Prometheus, who is also the hero of many of Pratt's poems, including "Fire." Prometheus is the symbol of the technology which is developed by man in the interests of his own concern for a fuller human life. This is the technology which so fascinates Pratt and which he has celebrated in his work more eloquently, perhaps, than any other poet of his time. At the centre of this imaginative technology is the signal, the scientific extension of the human word, and around the signal all genuine science, science as a form of human life and achievement rather than as a death-wish, takes shape:

          He had an instrument in his control
          Attested by the highest signatures of science ...
          And here, his head-phones on, this operator,
          Sleeve-rolled mechanic to the theorists,
          Was holding in his personal trust, come life,
          Come death, their cumulative handiwork.
          Occasionally a higher note might hit
          The ear-drum like a drill, bristle the chin,
          Involving everything from brain to kidneys,
          Only to be dismissed as issuing
          From the submerged foundations of an iceberg,
          Or classified as "mutual interference."

     The operator gets only puzzling answers from nature, but there is an answer from nature none the less. As soon as [195] man splits his life-impulse off from his death-impulse, and stops thinking of his technology as primarily a way of making war, the nature around him also takes on a twofold aspect. The death-impulse is answered by the ferocity and destructiveness of nature, but the life-impulse is answered by the energy and the inner exuberance in nature -- much the same phenomena, but seen from the inside as a living process rather than from the outside as something completed by death. The energy of life is nature's response to human concern: this is the reason for that curious identity between the pursuer and the pursued which John Sutherland has noted in his study of Pratt. Man being what he is, he often tries to dominate nature in ways that choke the life out of it, even if he is not actually engaged in war. The poet of Newfoundland, with its sparse soil, knows that the life of "The Good Earth" is precious, and that nature, being a part of man too, always makes the appropriate response, whether to love or to contempt:

          Hold that synthetic seed, for underneath
          Deep down she'll answer to your horticulture:
          She has a way of germinating teeth
          And yielding crops of carrion for the vulture.

     The attitude I have been trying to trace in Pratt and associate with his Newfoundland origin is most clearly expressed, naturally, in the poem called "Newfoundland" which stands first in his collected poems. As the poet watches the sea beating on the Newfoundland shores, a possible ironic or fatalistic vision is dismissed and the vision of the unquenchable energy and the limitless endurance which unite the real man with real nature takes its place:

          Here the tides flow,
          And here they ebb;
          Not with that dull, unsinewed tread of waters
          Held under bonds to move
          Around unpeopled shores --
          Moon-driven through a timeless circuit [196]
          Of invasion and retreat;
          But with a lusty stroke of life
          Pounding at stubborn gates,
          That they might run
          Within the sluices of men's hearts.

And just as the closed door separates the world of consciousness and feeling from the blind fury of storms, so the open door unites man and his world in a common vision. Even the "iron door" of death opens a crack to enable the poet to
catch a fleeting glimpse

          Of life with high auroras and the flow
          Of wide majestic spaces

but fortunately it was to be a long time before that wider life claimed him. In this life he took his place at the centre of society where the great myths are formed, the new myths where the hero is man the worker rather than man the conqueror, and where the poet who shapes those myths is shaping also a human reality which is greater than the whole objective world, with all its light-years of space, because it includes the infinity of human desire. This greater universe is revealed to us in whatever poetry is founded on the vision expressed in the closing lines of "Newfoundland," a vision

          Of dreams that survive the night,
          Of doors held ajar in storms.

(1968) [197]

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