E.J. Pratt: Apostle of the Techno/Corporate Culture?
by R.D. MacDonald
In Apostle of Corporate Man, Frank Davey notes Pratts fascination with raw material power and with the gods of the corporate worldorganization, planning, regimentation, efficiency, discipline and order (56-57). He argues that as Pratt admires heroic collective action of any kindwhether it be that of a Christian nation or a national railroad or an Allied war effort or even a Nazi submarine missionhe becomes an uncritical spokesman for the values of industrial man (65). In E.J. Pratt: Rationalist Technician, Davey sees a propagandist standing over and above his literary materials, an authoritarian craftsman . . . forging a specific effect and superimposing an intellectualized structure on reality (66-67), fabricating rather than discovering reality, reducing complex historical realities, and concealing his own private responses or any hint of ignorance or ambiguity or mystery (71). The imposed ideology is supposedly that of a Pelagian liberal or humanist who believes not only that original sin can be cast out but that the machinery of technology and the machinery of social organization [are] mans best way to salvation (Apostle of Corporate Man 65)that any difficulty can be overcome by social co operation, discipline, vigilance, the application of reason, and the suppression of individualism (Rationalist Technician 77).
Desmond Pacey shows a similar generalizing or hypermetropic perspective while considering historical influences upon Pratts writing. Under the influence of Wilhelm Wundts Principles of Physiological Psychology, Paceys Pratt reduces the human mind to a nervous mechanism (Ten Canadian Poets 171), and he presents mans war machines in terms of gigantic mechanical monsters and birds of prey . . . nightmare creatures of the new but ancient barbarism (191). Against this background, however, Pacey also sees Pratt turning toward a joyous life of spontaneous energy (173) and toward that most highly evolved man, Christ, the true apocalypse, the supreme revelation of the divine purpose: the way of sacrificial love (193)the way of courage, compassion and courtesy (182). Unfortunately, the alliterated patness of this conclusion detracts from Paceys more complex recognition of the tissue thin, the disturbingly close and living relation, the ongoing and conflicting relation between our civilized and primitive being. Paceys neatness of thought finally throws out of focus the bristling and unsettled edges and energies of Pratts writing and Pratts heroes.
I find a similar reductiveness in many of Pratts critics. John Sutherland sees in Pratts writing a conflict between consciousness and subconsciousness . . . between a creative and destructive impulse in man himself (John Sutherland: Essays, Controversies and Poems 175). Like Pacey, Sutherland easily resolves this dialectic into a dominant emotion . . . [a] strong Christian element [of] compassion . . . which the poet regards as heroic and most fundamental (175). A.J.M. Smith sees a similar fusion of the Demoniac and Heroic into compassion and harmony by means of irony: Irony gives Pratts poetry its intellectual tang: what humanizes it and gives it its final calm is compassion (A Garland for E.J. Pratt 82). Earle Birney, however, insists upon the struggle itself and emphasizes Pratts high heroic role as epic narrator courageously confronting the chaos and decline of his era, not retreating to some remote high-wire lyricism but taking on the whole circus with a ringing authenticity of passion (E.J.Pratt and his Critics 93). Henry W. Wells and Carl F. Klinck transform Pratts compassion into militaristic self-sacrifice: their Brébeuf, a Jesuit soldier of Christ, shows, in Pratts own words, the iron in the human soul (Men, Tools and Machines 96). Here Pratts poetry expresses the great cultural problem of our age: the relation of man, compounded of flesh, blood, nerves and thoughts, to his cold and impersonal machines (183). Pratts Submarine, then, relentlessly take[s] the soft cover off the guns to reveal the menace of the hard steel itself and savour[s] the infamous and dehumanizing powers of the machine, almost as much in evidence in peace as in war (188-89). Unlike Frank Davey, Wells and Klinck do not question whether Pratts detachment may itself be symptomatic of the technological agewhether Pratt simply fails to think beyond the prevailing mindset and mythology.
The ground tone that Louis Dudek hears in Pratts poetry is not compassion but the beat of pistons, the metallic clangour of wheels and the apparently unreflective energy of matter (Poet of the Machine Age 93-94). Dudek feels a peculiar kind of energy, a physical drive, a mechanical exuberance (89). In Pratts cachalot and kraken, Dudek observes naked, natural appetite unmodified by moral considerations (89), immense destructive powers running in a straight line to the irrational violence of the Second World War and . . . the Machine Age as a whole (92). Dudek finds Pratts perspective oddly truncated and circumscribed (94). This peculiarity of perspective is also noticed by Vincent Sharman who sees a similar Machine at the heart of Pratts nature, an uncaring and amoral God who is more like the Great Machine than anything else (Illusion and Atonement: Pratt and Christianity 110). Here Sharman moves Pratts Christian compassion front and centre but demystifies the sacred base as Christ becomes the highest example of courageous self-sacrifice in mankind.
In Silence in the Sea, Frye dwells upon Pratts long view of natures unending vastness, the mindless, pointless world of wheeling stars and crashing seas operating aeons long before and still operating throughout the minuscule human present. Over and against this naturalistic world, however, Frye sees an enduring, resisting and suffering Christ of Gethsemane who is the Son of Man (134). Pratt himself becomes to Frye a throwback to a primitive oral culture, a poet speaking in a dry impersonal voice (124- 25), speaking for as much as to his audience(127)his political views, like those of an ordinary conservative citizen who reads his morning paper and believes, on the whole, what it says (130).
I question whether Pratt is this uncritically conservative and conventional spokesman. Where in Pratts Silences Frye hears 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 [able to] see and judge what it is doing (134-35), I read a more disturbing possibilitytwo all too-conscious adversaries. Surely Pratts poem works in the tradition of Blakes Poison Tree and Freuds Civilization and Its Discontents: it exposes a civility that contains and transforms anger into a toxic poison. I also question Fryes assumption that Pratt expresses the modern myth of liberation, the new myth where the hero is man the worker rather than man the conqueror, and where the poet who shapes those myths is shaping a human reality greater than the whole objective world, with all its light-years of space, because it includes the infinity of human desire (138). As for Fryes confident handling of Pratts Newfoundlandwhere he sees irony or fatalism displaced by a vision of unquenchable energy and limitless endurance in the interchange of the sea and mankind (138)I would argue that Pratt does not find these infinite longings and vast aeons liberating. It would be as accurate to say that Pratt shows our titanic longings to be not infinite but infantile, for these longings are also the origin of our sufferingof our short-term triumphs and bingesin a vastness that never releases us from our small margin of safety.
D.G. Jones and George Whalley make a just estimate of Pratts naturalismin Jones phrasethe elemental energies of wind and tide flow[ing] into human life (Butterfly on Rock 112). Jones observes Pratts detached or impersonal sympathy, a large and almost passionless irony toward an unreflecting humanityand with this, Pratts fear that man may reflect but not profoundly . . . [that man] may use his freedom only to increase his strength and thereby become the unwitting victim of the irrational and unconscious currents that run through the sea and through our own being (114-16). Both Jones and Whalley see mans triumphs arising, then, not from a defiant assault against nature but through an imaginative merging and a fusing of human ways to the ways of nature (Jones 119). Whalley contends that Pratts fondness for technology starts from the linking and projecting pow ers of the human imaginationthe recognition of a potential one ness in the human and natural worlds: thus machines and engineering projects here become extensions or projections of mans capacities and senses. Here while the whale may be a marvellous piece of engineering and the submarine a biological masterpiece (Birthright to the Sea 186), the machine that cease[s] to be an extension of man becomes a pitiless instrument that draws us down to a lower naturefor cruelty can make a shark of man (196). In Pratt, himself, however, Whalley finds an answering potency, a masculinity not only courageous, enduring, strong and skillful, but also . . . compassionate, patient, self-sacrificing, unas suming, hospitable, reticent, knowing that we share at times delight and accomplishment, and certainly we share suffering and loss (196).
Obviously, this catalogue has little in common with Frank Daveys version of Pratt as the corporate man. It is also far removed from the perspective of Pratts contemporaries, the reactionary modernists of the Third Reich, who celebrated trains as the embodiment of the will to power or [who] saw the racial soul expressed in the Autobahn (Herf, Reactionary Modernism 13), who took the explosion of grenades [to be] the external expression of inner impulses toward life . . . some Ding an Sich immune to ratio nal description (34). This kind of steely romanticism, this notion of a nation or a generation as a closed fraternity sharing a great mission and immune to bourgeois and feminine refinements and beyond pain (Herf 73-75, quoting Jungers Battle as an Inner Experience) has little to do with Pratts holistic vision. Working from J.C. Smuts Holism and Evolution, Sandra Djwa argues that Pratts presentation of the Canadian Pacific Railway advancing through the Rockies recapitulates . . . the evolutionary develop ment of life itselffrom inanimate matter, through worm casts to man (123). She argues that Smuts philosophy of holism showed Pratt an evolutionary process which fundamentally moulds all life and history and leads to co-operative regroupings of smaller states into larger structures such as the proposed United Nations (E.J. Pratt: The Evolutionary Vision 122-23). This meliorism has little to do with Daveys carpings about Pratts being the spokesman of techno/corporate culture and even less to do with the heroic activism, the steel romanticism of the Second World War. Pratts hopeful vision includes neither an unlimited domination over nature, nor a fundamental transformation of the naturally constituted existences of men (Here I use the phrases of Carl Schmitt, Der Begriff des Politischen  as quoted in Herf, 120). Such belief in technological progress is repeatedly punctured by Pratts ironic asides, by his overview of our vulnerability before the gigantic caprices of nature.
What differentiates Pratts vision from this steely romanticism, these masculine celebrations of a primal geist, of will and technology and nation? To answer this question properly, one must consider Pratts poetic perspective, his syncretic vision of the biological/technological (sharks as killing machines and submarines as sharks), the difficulties of his impersonality (his dispassionate/compassionate perspective), his heroic ideal of self-sacrifice for the whole, and his conservative sense of the whole as a containing but shadowy matrix within which our free will is exercisedbut not fully liberated.
Pratts soft or tender mindedness must not be overlooked. His poem, A Call, for example, speaks in a caring voice like that of Blakes indulgent nurse in the Songs of Innocence. But where she lets the children play on into the darkness, Pratts care-taker suddenly fears the sunlit tranquillity, the peace invasions of the lee shore, the charged air with its load of clam and balsam smells like musk. Thus he (or she) attempts to call the children home. While the blue eyed children cannot see why, the speaker repeats his call, knowing that he alone / Could penetrate that sign of rain, / The stalking thunder in that drone. He knows too that the daylight cannot be washed from the childrens eyes. The final stanza denies memory of the momentary peace and affirms only the memorythe premonitory cry,/ Unanswered stillCome home, come home (Complete Poems 2:192). The very rhyme of foam and home the suspension of any rhyme until the fourth line of each quatrain (abcb)echoes the speakers apprehension of a last minute but inevitable order realizing itself even as it brings destruction down upon humanity.
Pratts poem Myth and Fact also explores our vulnerability in the daylit world. Resorting to the light of reason, the parental figure tries to exorcise the childrens nightmare fears raised by folk and fairy tales and classical mythJack the Giant Killer, Little Red Riding Hood, the tales of Medusa and Cyclops: We sought to prove they could not literalize / Jack though the giant shook with laughter. Against the drift of the poem, however, apparently despite himself, the reassuring voice uncovers reason for anxiety in huge forces threatening to break out of the ordinary light of day. In this ironic overview, mankind never outgrows primal fears and powers:
This nightmare premonition arises from the advanced technology of World War II buzz bombs and Cold War missiles. Even our outer senses seem to be expressed in terms of a turned-off Early Radar Warning System: We shut our eyes and plugged our ears, though sound / And sight were our front-line defenses. Therefore the adult returns to the restorative powers of traditional myths and fairy tales, the willed make-believe by which the Cyclops can be killed and the giants and dragons can remain unmeasured: now the leaves of these books furnish the mind with an [a]sylum in the foliage (2:194). Here the horrors of the imagination are exceeded by what the actual solar hounds in tally-ho / Could do when once they sniffed the pillows (2:195). The poem ends then ostensibly where it beganin a prayer that imaginary truth with its fearsome powers preserve the child from the daylight truth of reason with its even greater horrors.
It would be a mistake, however, to see this poem of the 1950s to be merely symptomatic of a late softening of heartfor Pratts earliest poems dwell upon the suffering of the vulnerable, especially of women losing fathers, husbands and sons to the sea and war. From the beginning, grief is an index of the overwhelming and implacable powers of nature. For example, in Rachel: A Sea Story of Newfoundland in Verse, Pratt unfolds the cycle of a widows son growing up, feeling the call of the ocean, following the same course toward destruction as his father and grandfather. Here the heroic longings of the boy merge with the energies of the sea:
Later the boy transfigures the ocean into a cathedral sanctuary of faith and sacrificea treacherous illusion that Pratt plays upon in many of his poems:
But the poem dwells less upon the boy than upon the impact of his being lost at seai.e., upon his widowed mother who had already read the darker lines of the fickle sea despite her hopes in him (28). At the peaceful close, Pratt assuages the mothers grief with the unending rhythm of the ocean waves: . . . the placid requiem of death. / The stirring of new notes, tranquil and free, / Pulsing their way into a deathless life (1:37). But how is one to read these last few lines except with a pitying and unbelieving overview? The endless pulsation of the waves implies a human peace achieved only in oblivion or unconsciousness. Surely Anna Lees final rest underscores her earlier sense of injustice, the inconsolable grief of this daughter-wife-mother wandering toward
Indeed quite apart from Pratts unusual projection of guilt upon naturean ironic projection that surely points beyond to natures indifferencePratt uses the womans grief to magnify the colossal and uncontrollable powers of nature.
Sea Cathedral also works against the capricious remoteness of nature. Again Pratt pictures a miraculous answering of our deepest wishesthe epic and cathedral iceberg, vast and immaculate beyond all reach of human majesty, encircled by a sunlit halo in festoons / Over spires, with emerald, amethyst, / Sapphire and pearl, accompanied by a music of foam bells and the purl of linguals. But the lush litany turns into gothic melodrama, into the storm-whirled and crashing noise of floes from far-off spaces where / Death rides the darkened belfries, and it ends in an unseen and unheard oblivionthe iceberg drawn down by the inveterate sea / Without one chastening fire made to start / From altars built around its polar heart (1:167). In Pratts poem The Mirage, the iceberg is even more transitory. For the moment with its glowing towers and golden base, its Cathedral spires and the calm and holy in its Sabbath mood, Pratts language echoes Wordsworths nature worship, but in the next moment the iceberg disappears, only to reveal itself no more than an airy mirage, a momentary refraction of the darker irony of light (1:282-83). This deceptiveindeed treacherousbeauty shows itself again in The Titanic, where the iceberg shambles and stumbles and drifts in the path of the unwary ship: this iceberg starts from a familiar facade suggesting inward altars and steepled bells, but
It is carved finally into a sloping spur that tapered to a claw, a [c]orundum form stripped to its Greenland core (1:305)an unsheathed weapon upon which unwary humans impale themselves.
Pratt is not only wary of natures appearances, he repeatedly points to the disparity between the made truths of poetry and the natural truths that we are made to live within. Ode to December, for example, starts from the overpowering force of a December storm, laments the loss of Springs flowers, and gradually transforms natures conflicting powers into human conflict:
The storms lightnings transfigure into Heavens lightnings flash[ing] from out a darker scroll, and into Death clothed as some dread angel of Apocalypse from whom fall the swift strokes of sword/lightning. In this mythic development, the tempest becomes a titanic will whose function lies alone in power to wreck (1:96). Further, the alien blast turns into a bugle summons to
By this time, the winter nadir has turned into a bloody human nadirand the nameless triad of the years into the three-year period of 1914-1917 in World War I. With this merging of the natural and the human, one might expect the poem now to return mythically to a pastoral, springtime refuge. Instead Pratts long lines invoke even harsher winter winds, winds that will more than stir the old ashes, winds that will lift us once again to God and finally
Here Pratt turns aside conventional longings for mercy, for the return of thy bounteous plan or for the quietening of his own cries. Instead he calls for a New Act of Creation arising through apocalyptic destruction. But the imagery of an unbounded wind singing through the afterswells of an oceanic storm, blowing out sin and fear and hate and guilt, and pealing forth a new unbounded love anthemthis full-blown, melodramatic imagerysurely draws attention to itself, to a wish for an enlarged human world realizable only in the imagination itself. Surely there is no hint of nature answering such an invocation.
In his elegiac dialogue Fragments from a Story, Pratt debates whether wars destructiveness serves any larger natural purpose. Thaddeus the traveller tells the horrors of war; Julian the old man questions whether the waste of life can ever be restoredeven with the example of springtimes regeneration. The poem moves through a series of Whitmanesque tableausfirst, soldiers suddenly blighted and soon to be displayed under the ironic light of a swollen harvest moon:
Pratt implies the irresistibility of this pestilence by his indiscriminate linking of a field mouse and a war shipthe unrelated small and great suddenly and arbitrarily taken down together:
Both speakers ask whether the victims of such wholesale destruction can rest their hopes in the turn of the seasonal cycles or in the ongoing renewal of youth perennial. But Julian asks in return, Who yields to such delusion? (1:116)for Novembers particular leaves and flowers, there is no resurrection; and the newly hatched birds have nothing to do with the dead ones of last year. Thus he returns to the harsh truth of the particular:
Thaddeus too returns to the particular, to glorious exceptions: life [like a springtime crocus] push[ing] its way through mire of death, to a young girl sacrificing her place in a lifeboat for an older woman, to wartime nurses tending to the hot flush of wounds / Made by steel of surgeon and of foe (1:117), to a lad eagerly sacrificing himself in a dark storm and falling near his place of starting (1:118). On a larger scale, however, Thaddeus sees the Causes of wars massive destruction returning endlessly as a pestilence, mad blasts that periodic run / Their cycles of decay (1:119). Thus Julian the old man asks how [one can] strike this foul, insistent integer / Clean from his life . . . .The taint is in the blood (1:120).
Nevertheless in Part II, A Later Spring, Thaddeus celebrates the new regenerative cycle of flowers and birds in the early spring and dawn, a quality in this air that stirs / The blood as readily as the balsam sap. He asks what brew, what chemistry: what hand is this / That grips the pestle? Yet as he approaches the older man drunk with life, he oddly voices this vitalistic renewal in terms applied earlier to the pestilence of war:
to which Julian replies in a similar languageYou would infect the blood of an old man (1: 123)and he asks whether this renewal arises merely from days unawareness of the diurnal alternation of light and dark:
Thaddeus final appeal to the older man is made through the image of a church organs uplifting harmoniesthe concord depending upon the craft of him who plays:
This harmony, however, starts not only from the player but also from the uplifting notes preceding him in nature. This basis of hope, however, is drawn out with calculated skepticism: while confessing the aridity of his old age, Julian admits that even he feels
This conditional could/would response of the old man to Thaddeus dancing words and to the impelling blood pulsations beyond the grammared confines of slow speech leaves an uneasy mixture of hope and doubt: the vernal impulse and the human emotion are both vital and fatal. Renewal also implies destruction as the diastole implies the systoleand this ongoing contradiction leaves the poem deliberately unresolved and uncertain.
Whatever Pratts natural world is, then,and whatever natural forces pulse through usnature is an uncontrolled and dangerous titan: thus our survival depends upon our vigilance before this stranger.
Yet in Ground Swell, Pratt suggests a primal presence in common, the tide and ebb calling us with a low insistent note at noon, dusk and midnight, creeping up from the shore, smiting the window-pane, sounding a dull pang akin to human grief:
This endless flow and ebbthis primeval pang pre-sounding human griefseems at once both remote and kindred.
In Newfoundland, this nearness is closer yet: the rhythm of the surrounding tides and waves drives through our very being. The kelp on the shore red as the hearts blood, / And salt as tears, especially as it winds itself about the wreckage of spar and rudderimplies a close, if sinister, mingling of water and blood (1:100). Indeed in the interchange of the Newfoundland waters and the long-lived human shore, Pratt supposes more than the thunder of insentient seas. He suggests a virtual co-presence in the human minds projecting itself into the flexing violence of the oceanthe mind that reads assault / In crouch and leap and the quick stealth, / Stiffening the muscles of the waves. At the poems close, the rubble of the shore records the desolate aftermath of the warring forcesTide and wind and crag / Sea-weed and sea-shell /And broken rudderbut finally the story is told otherwise: the desolation is contained within a vital human framework [o]f human veins and pulses / Of eternal pathways of fire where (even as the sea washes through our very being) we maintain our human difference in a vigilant hope and fearOf dreams that survive the night / Of doors held ajar in storms (1:101).
What could more aptly suggest this difference between conscious humanity and unconscious nature than Pratts mythic ballad of Old Harry? In this tale, the sea has faceted a basalt crag into the shape of a human head and thereby given it its devils name. The crag incarnates and incarcerates a demon ruler of the foam . . . changed into an imbecile, condemned forever within this cell to [l]isten to shrieks of dying men / And stare at phantom ribs and then / Listen again and clutch and stare. The sea-crazed sen tinel, Old Harry, himself weary of the waves unending destruction stands then forever vigilant but dumb and mad with salt weed matted locks and foam forever upon his lips (2:38). The poem not only dramatizes the mind-numbing cycles of sea waves; it virtually enacts a human revenge by turning these mindless forces back upon themselves, making the crag itself endure the unutterable endlessness of natural degradation.
Yet Pratts attitude toward nature is often difficult to pin down. For example, his presentation of the shark betrays a remote yet uneasy compound of wonder, fear and admiration. George Whalley writes:
Yet, while the poem is a virtual dumb show without conclusion, the action of the sharks swimming is explained so far as the speaker says the leisurely shark seems to knowif not ownthe harbour or human haven. The shark, however, is abstracted into a triangular knife-edge fin stirring not a bubble; beyond the sharks generalized U-turn, the speaker notes only one particular act (in the flash of its white teeth and throat) as it snaps at a flat fish. Everything else about this fishits eyes metallic grey /Hard and narrow and slit, its body tubular, tapered, smoke blueimplies the functional design of a machine, not a particular living creature. Thus, the recapitulated details of the close vary only so far as they imply even greater mechanical efficiency: the knife-edge fin is now (positively) shearing (instead of negatively stirring not a bubble); the swimming is now not only leisurely but lithely. Pratts final two lines themselves mimic the movement of this strangely mechanical yet supple fishfor the shortest of moments, Pratts analogies take hold of the predatory nature of the shark as vulture and wolf, but then Pratt releases the shark: the poet lithely denies his analogies and flicks sharply in a new direction, giving a new twist to the submerged and hackneyed metaphor of cold blooded murderer:
The shark is a sinister visitor sharing a common cold origin with usapparently familiar with us but with whom we are allowed no familiarity. Like a god-fearing Job, Pratt not only refuses to land his formidable leviathan, he finally refuses even to barb his poets hook.
In The Submarine, Pratts shark displaces the German commander from the centre of the poem. The man ends as a mere mechanical sensor calculating distance and direction, and unleashing torpedoes toward an Allied troop and supply ship. In Pratts short lines, perception, reaction and calculation become virtually one
Human consciousness reverts to a rhapsodic blood lust for fat mammalian prey:
The human eye becomes a glass lens remotely transfiguring the torpedoes fatal trajectory into no more than tenuous feather, a birds wing skimming the swell (34). The release of the torpedoes transfigures into the delivery of shark offspring immediately ready to kill. The submarine mother herself originates neither in natures random selection:
Nor in any deliberate human selectionfor with the commander or master having himself devolved into mere hands or eyes, the submarine takes over the feeling presence:
With feeling and will having devolved from the masters hand to the machine, the submarine makes its own descent into darkness; through its oscilloscope, it registers and immediately interprets the approaching rhythmtoo rapid, too hectic for freighter or liner! . . . She took her course . . . She drove her nose down . . . away from the scent and lust / Of a killer whose might was as great as her own (2:35). Here the ideological war between democracy and fascism is no more than the proving ground for the evolution of autonomic killing machines. While the poet himself seems strangely absent from the poem, his silent displacement of the commander by the machine can be seen (again in Whalleys words) as a premonitory gesture unexplained: Pratts submarine surely points the way to the late-twentieth century, a world of sensors, guided missiles, bureaucratic and computer programmes, integrated systems all too often without a helmsman. As Whalley suggests, unleashed, unguided, and unreflecting powers become our nightmare. In a world where submarine encounters destroyer and where the human presence is an absence, Pratt dramatizes the horror of mindless, objective destruction.
In The Prize Cat Pratt brings this nightmare home through the hackneyed language of advertisingthe cat is [p]ure blood, domestic, guaranteed. Sharply chosen words puncture the speakers blandly stupid and self-congratulatory musing upon technological control, upon the cat fanciers shaping of his breed How human hands had disciplined /Those prowling optic parallels (1:301). The word prowling rubs against the machine language of physicsrestless eyes not tamed to optic parallels. Moreover Pratt implies that the tabbys feral instincts are more fixed than its standardized points of breed. Thus the sudden leap of the tabby for the sparrow brings to mind a fixed, mechanical, reflex springand the scream of an Abyssinian child heard in the whitethroats scream appropriately recalls not only a large cat taking down its prey but also Abyssinia taken down by the imperial predator, Italy. The sudden assault implies colossal powers uncontrolled and irresistiblenot just out there in the external world but here, close by, inside the domestic cat and within our own civilized self. Indeed the ellipsis, the undeclared logic resting between two blandly simple statements, silently presents an undeniable natural reflex:
Such ironic understatement forces one to question terms like humanity or human progressand to reconsider bland formulations about Pratts own humanityhis courage, compassion and courtesy.
Pratts last major poem, Towards The Last Spike, would seem to be an epic celebration of Canadas social mythology, a nations successful joining of itself from sea to sea by railby human imagination, ingenuity, will and courage. The metaphor of marriage between our Lady of British Columbia and Sir John A. Macdonald, the closing of the enormous distances of Canada, the working against the North-South drift of the stars and the natural North/South tradeall this would seem to imply an imposition of human will over and upon an alien yet ultimately pliable and domesticable nature. It would also seem to contradict my earlier contention that as Pratt insists upon the vulnerability of mankind, he thereby magnifies the powers of nature, even as he shows feral powers rising through the machines which supposedly liberate mankind from natures limits.
Yet Towards the Last Spike, in its romance and realism, remains true to Pratts overall meaning. The union of Canada, the triumph of civilization, is genuine, but in Pratts mock epic and ironic overview, temporary, costly and fragile. In his opening, Pratt once again takes on the familiar, inflated, self-congratulating language of progress, but here mankinds exceeding of old limits and records takes place only within limits or degreesfor Pratts natural world is elusive, shifting and dynamic but ultimately obdurate and limiting. The fittest humans who attempt to take hold of this natural world are themselves shifty in their energetic adaptation of alternative means to their single-minded ends, but Pratt finally implies a natural world forever beyond the grasp of our controlling human consciousness. The difference between Pratts view and that of his nineteenth-century American predecessors, Walt Whitman and William James, then, is that Pratt does not imagine a world encircled or contained by human purpose, or a malleable world (with our aid) capable of being redeemed or saved. Instead Pratts Canadian hinterland is so vast and remote, it shows the hollowness of the myth of progress. Like Leacocks final chapter, LEnvoi in Sunshine Sketches, where the return is finally no more than a wish out of the Mausoleum Club, Pratts railway ending is derailed by humour. In Pratts tale, the point of arrival is no more than an awkward pause at a new point of beginning.
Significantly, then, in his opening peroration, Pratt writes of the same world then as nowthe same in the 1950s as in the 1880s except for little differences of speed and power, new lenses for correcting and extending vision, new medicines for anaesthetizing or sensitizing nerves, new mathematics and physics for re-mapping the enlarged heavens, new words or images or analogies or prayers like, Give us our daily bread, give us our pay (2:201). But he implies that these needs and endsif not the meansremain the same, as do our finite seeing and reaching remain the same: The same world then as now thirsting for power / To crack those records open, extra pounds / Upon the inches, extra miles per hour (2:202). Final goals and truths then, take on an unreal, nominalist quality, especially as they are relayed through the hyperbolic and transitory catchwords of the newspapers. Pratt mimics the hot air and turbulence of the headlines:
But while the age-old battle between believers and doubters remains the same, while mortality (the same red blood keeping its ancient colour but threatening always to rupture its banks) remains unavoidable, Pratt maintains a skeptical distance from his human drama: he implies that the heated debate of the moment is no more than a conflict of willsthe latest slogans, no more than convenient fictions or clichés:
And yet while Pratts historicism implies the incompleteness of any achievement, he obviously sides with the warm-blooded believers and doers.
Certainly in Towards the Last Spike, Pratts sympathizes with his corporate and political adventurerseven as they smack of shysterism. Sir John A. Macdonald, the wordsmith politician, searches his mind for the opportune word or phrase that will make his people realize his East/West vision: words become mere rhetorical cogs or wheels in his engineering of the union:
In this game or battle of wills, Truth is at best convenientat worst, an inconvenient obstacle. Indeed as the insomniac and crafty Macdonald searches the cluttered night skies for confirming signs of his way, he finds only inconvenient truthsthe north-south drift of the stars, constellations bumping into each other, and blizzards of stars clouding the truth beyond. Moreover history and memory become no more than a storehouse of convenient figures of speech: the Red River settlement by the Scots crofters becomes a mere peg on which to hang a patriotic appeal:
Pratts modulation of his narrative voice into this self-dramatizing soliloquy reminds one of Shakespeares racy poet/villains rehearsing their schemes, savouring with their playwright the deviousness of their strategies. But Pratt takes on an even more playful turn: Van Home, the Bunyanesque man of action, appears in a busy linguistic medium that plays ironically against itself, against the bombastic stuff of heroic frontier legend; and yet the kinetic hyperbole works both wayssimultaneously deflating and inflating Van Home into an insatiable hero always reaching for more:
Indeed with a similar extravagant mock-seriousness, Pratt attributes the vigour of the Scotsmen (who realized Macdonalds and Van Homes dream) to the nutritive chemistry of oatmealthis lowly food transubstantiating small men into bristling giants of work:
But standing against the success of this comically inflated and bristling spirit is the costive, phlegmatic spirit of Blake and the obdurate natural world itself, the Laurentian Shield, in Pratts metaphor of the sleepy dragon. Even the leader of the opposition, Blake, however, is capableto the chagrin of Macdonaldof chancing upon a galvanic metaphor: thus Macdonald prays that Blake not stray from his dour ways. As Blake argues that it cant be done:
Moreover Blakes quirky wit parallels the unplumbed and unpredictable mega-quirksthe glacial and volcanic twitchesof the torpid, almost timeless bulk of the Laurentian Shield, the female dragon lying in the way of the romantic and epic hero. In one of his readings, Pratt attributed the dragons lethargy or unresponsiveness to its female temperament and (cunningly?) assigned its femaleness to his wifes reading of his dragon:
Indeed this passive bulk . . . neither yielding nor resisting . . . / Top heavy with accumulated power / And overgrown survival without function, sounds increasingly like a member of an outmoded and privileged class, one who is put off by noisy and busy upstarts. She resents their foreign build, their gait of movement, / They did not crawlnor were they born with wings. They stood upright and walked, shouted and sang (2:229). She also resents these men out for business blasting and exposing her mineral innards: The caches of her broods / Broke nickel, copper, silver and fools gold / Burst from their immemorial dormitories / To sprawl indecent in the light of day (2:239). But she answers this indignity swiftly by means of her muskeg, whose surface betray[s] visual solidarity as deceptive as the carnivorous bladder wort and pitcher plant. She takes down three engines and seven tracks without a tracea mere hint of what she can do in periods of ice or fiery convulsion (2:239). Thus she turns again to her sleepy folds knowing someday perhaps she would claim their bones as her possessive right / And wrap them cold in her pre-Cambrian folds (2:239-40).
That this kind of gigantic engulfment is potential is suggested through a tiny aberration in Pratts triumphant but off-key denouement. Instead of choosing silver or gold for the ceremonial last spike, Van Home insists upon Iron. In Pratts replication of the famous snapshot, the men stand like unreal properties upon a stage rather than as excited celebrants; the surrounding air is taut / With silences as rigid as spruces (2:248). All seems understated but charged and ready. But the laconic comment of the narrator The job was doneis as understated as the iron spike and as deliberately off the mark as Donald Smiths mis-gauging and mis-hitting the iron spike:
For all his lifetime of clever timing, the canny Scottish financier is made a fool. Thus the lesson: several cautious taps with the hammer and then one last battle-axe blow, an enraged ram[ming] it to its home, then the raucous cheers and once again Van Homes understated Well donetied in a knot of monosyllables. But the last word is given over to the silent lizard who hears the stroke: The breed had triumphed after all (2:250). But what kind of triumph is it, after all? We were warned earlier of the lizards glacial and volcanic caprices. Now in Pratts long range present, this metaphor of natures unconscious obduracy hunkers down once again in sleep:
Against this vast backdrop, Pratts tiny but sturdy human actors make triumphant noises that sound off-key. Canadas supposed apostle of the corporations and technology shows a surprisingly wry and remote perspective upon both mankind and nature.
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