Edwin John Pratt

Pratt began publishing poetry in 1914, but made no notable impression until Newfoundland Verse (1923).

Pratt, Edwin John

 Edwin John Pratt, poet, professor, critic (b at Western Bay, Nfld 4 Feb 1882; d at Toronto 26 Apr 1964). Son of a Methodist minister, Pratt grew up in a succession of Newfoundland outports, completing his schooling at the Methodist College, St John's. After teaching for 2 years he became a candidate for the Methodist ministry in 1904, serving a 3-year probationship before entering Victoria College, University of Toronto, where he studied theology and psychology. Ordained in 1913, Pratt never served as a regular minister, teaching psychology at University of Toronto before being appointed to the department of English at Victoria College in 1920, where he taught until retirement in 1953.

Pratt began publishing poetry in 1914, but made no notable impression until Newfoundland Verse (1923). Thereafter in a dozen volumes of varied poetry, from The Witches' Brew and Titans in 1926 to Collected Poems in 1958, he established himself as the foremost Canadian poet of the first half of the century. Recipient of many honours, he was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 1930, and was awarded its Lorne Pierce Medal for poetry in 1940. Books of his poetry won Governor General's Awards in 1937, 1940 and 1952. In 1946 he was made a CMG by King George VI. From 1936 to 1943 he was editor of The Canadian Poetry Magazine.

Pratt's poetry frequently reflects his Newfoundland background, though specific references to it appear in relatively few poems, mostly in Newfoundland Verse. But the sea and maritime life are central to many of his poems, both short (eg, "Erosion,""Sea-Gulls,""Silences") and long, such as The Cachalot (1926), describing duels between a whale and its foes, a giant squid and a whaling ship and crew; The Roosevelt and the Antinoe (1930), recounting the heroic rescue of the crew of a sinking freighter in a winter hurricane; The Titanic (1935), an ironic retelling of a well-known marine tragedy; and Behind the Log (1947), the dramatic story of the North Atlantic convoys during WWII.

Themes from science and technology also appear frequently in his work, and during the 1930s his poems manifested much concern with contemporary economic and social problems; The Fable of the Goats (1937) was an antiwar poem written on the eve of WWII. In Brébeuf and His Brethren (1940) and Towards the Last Spike (1952), Pratt turned to specifically Canadian, historical, heroic themes, in the former recounting with accuracy and vivid depiction the martyrdoms of the Jesuit missionaries to HURONIA in the 17th century, and in the latter giving a dramatic account of the building of the CPR. Pratt presents a generally realistic, unsentimental view of life, often tinctured with humour and irony. The qualities he most values and celebrates are courage, self-sacrifice, loyalty and defiance of oppressors. A major poet, he is, nevertheless, an isolated figure, belonging to no school or movement and directly influencing few other poets of his time.

Further Reading

  • Sandra Djwa, E.J. Pratt: The Evolutionary Vision (1974); David G. Pitt, E.J. Pratt: The Truant Years 1882-1927 (1984) and E.J. Pratt: The Master Years 1927-1964 (1987); E.J. Pratt, Collected Poems, ed N. Frye (1958); John Sutherland, The Poetry of E.J. Pratt: A New Interpretation (1956); Milton Wilson, E.J. Pratt (1969).

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