by George J. Dance

Edwin J. Pratt

E.J. Pratt in 1944. Photo by Gordon Powley. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

E.J. Pratt
Born Edwin John Dove Pratt
February 4, 1882
Western Bay, Newfoundland
Died April 26, 1964
Toronto, Ontario
Language English
Nationality Canada Canadian
Citizenship British subject
Education Master of Arts
Alma mater

University of Toronto

(Victoria College)
Genres Poetry
Notable award(s) Governor General's Award, FRSC, Lorne Pierce Medal
Spouse(s) Viola Whitney Pratt

Edwin John Dove Pratt, FRSC (February 4, 1882 - April 26, 1964) was "the leading Canadian poet of his time."[1]



Originally from Newfoundland, Pratt lived most of his life in Toronto, Ontario. A 3-time winner of the country's Governor General's Award for poetry, he has been called "the foremost Canadian poet of the first half of the century." [2]

Youth and educationEdit

Pratt was born in Western Bay, Newfoundland, the son of Fanny and John Pratt. John Pratt was originally a lead miner from Old Gang mines in Gunnerside, a village in North Yorkshire, England. In the 1850s he became a Methodist minister, immigrated to Newfoundland, and married Fanny Knight, daughter of a local sea captain.

Edwin and his 7 siblings were under the strict control of their father, who had high expectations of all of them. (E.J. Pratt's brother, Calvert Pratt, became a Canadian Senator). However, they had a break when their father was gone on his rounds. "Fanny Pratt was easy-going and unpunctilious where John was careful and exacting, lenient and forbearing where he was strict and inflexible, soft hearted where he was hard-headed.... Raised in a less rigoristic household than he, she was prepared to take her children for what they were, make allowances for their fallen natures, and generally overlook their innocent iniquities."[3]

E.J. Pratt graduated from St. John's, Newfoundland's Methodist College in 1901.[4] Like his father he became a candidate for the Methodist ministry, in 1904, and served a 3-year probation before entering Victoria College of the University of Toronto (U of T). He studied psychology and theology, earning a B.A. in 1911 and a Bachelor of Divinity in 1913.[2]

Pratt married fellow Victoria College student Viola Whitney, herself a writer, in 1918. They had one daughter, Mildred Claire Pratt, who also wrote poetry.


Pratt was ordained as a minister, in 1913, and served as an Assistant Minister in Streetsville, Ontario, until 1920. Also in 1913, he joined the U of T as a Lecturer in psychology. As well, he continued to take classes, receiving his Ph.D. in 1917.[4]

Pratt was invited by Pelham Edgar in 1920 to switch to the University's faculty of English, where he became a professor in 1930 and a Senior Professor in 1938. He taught English literature at Victoria College until his retirement in 1953. He served as Literary Adviser to the Editorial Board of the College magazine, Acta Victoriana.[4] "As a professor, Pratt published a number of articles, reviews, and introductions (including those to four Shakespeare plays), and edited Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree (1937)." [5]

Pratt founded Canadian Poetry Magazine in 1935, and served as its editor until 1943.[6] He published 10 poems in the 1936 "milestone selection of modernist verse," New Provinces, edited by F.R. Scott.[7]


Early writingEdit

Pratt's earliest published poem was "A Poem on the May examinations," printed in Acta Victoriana in 1909 when he was a student. In 1917 he privately published a long poem, Rachel: A Sea Story of Newfoundland.[4] He then spent 2 years working on a verse drama, Clay, which he ended by burning (except for a single copy which Mrs. Pratt managed to save).[8]

It was only in 1923 that Pratt's debut poetry collection, Newfoundland Verse, was released.[4] It contains "A Fragment of a Story," the only piece of Clay that Pratt ever published, and the conclusion to Rachel. "Newfoundland Verse (1923), is frequently archaic in diction, and reflects a pietistic and sometimes preciously lyrical sensibility of late-Romantic derivation, characteristics that may account for Pratt's reprinting less than half these poems in his Collected poems (1958). The most genuine feeling is expressed in humorous and sympathetic portraits of Newfoundland characters, and in the creation of an elegiac mood in poems concerning sea tragedies or Great War losses. The sea, which on the one hand provides 'the bread of life' and on the other represents 'the waters of death' ('Newfoundland'), is a central element as setting, subject, and creator of mood." [5]

With illustrations by Group of Seven member Frederick Varley, Newfoundland Verse proved to be Pratt's "breakthrough collection." He would publish 18 more books of poetry in his lifetime.[9] "Recognition came with the narrative poems The Witches' Brew (1925), Titans (1926), and The Roosevelt and the Antinoe (1930), and though he published a substantial body of lyric verse, it is as a narrative poet that Pratt is remembered." [10]

"Pratt's poetry frequently reflects his Newfoundland background, though specific references to it appear in relatively few poems, mostly in Newfoundland Verse," says the Canadian Encyclopedia. "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." [2]

Another constant motif in Pratt's writing was evolution. "Pratt's work is filled with images of primitive nature and evolutionary history," wrote literary critic Peter Buitenhuis. "It seemed instinctive to him to write of molluscs, of cetacean and cephalopod, of Java and Piltdown Man. The evolutionary process early became and always remained the central metaphor of Pratt's work." [11] He added that evolution provided Pratt "the solid framework within which he could achieve an epic style," and also "gave him the themes for his best lyrics" (such as his much-anthologized "From Stone to Steel," from 1932's Many Moods.)

In 1937, with war on the horizon, Pratt wrote an anti-war poem, "The Fable of the Goats," which became the title poem of his next volume. The Fable of the Goats, and other poems, which included his classic free-verse poem "Silences," won him a Governor General's Award .

World War II and afterEdit

File:North American Martyrs.jpg

Pratt returned to Canadian history in 1940 to write Brebeuf and his Brethren, a blank-verse epic on the mission of Jean de Brebeuf and his seven fellow Jesuits, the North American Martyrs, to the Hurons in the 17th century; their founding of Sainte-Marie-among-the-Hurons; and their eventual martyrdom by the Iroquois. "Pratt's research-oriented methodology is made clear in the precise diction and detailed, documentary-style recounting of events and observation in this, his first attempt to write a national epic; but in his ethnocentrism Pratt presents the Jesuit priests as an enclave of civilization beleaguered by savages." [5] (To others, though, the Iroquois of the poem look like symbols or surrogates for the Nazi 'savages' then invading Europe and, by extension, the 'savage' potential in every person.)

Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye has said that Brebeuf and His Brethren expresses "the central tragic theme of the Canadian imagination." [12]

Expounding on that theme in 1943, in a review essay of A.J.M. Smith's anthology The Book of Canadian Poetry, Frye stated that, in Canadian poetry:

The unconscious horror of nature and the subconscious horrors of the mind thus coincide: this amalgamation is the basis of symbolism on which nearly all Pratt's poetry is founded. The fumbling and clumsy monsters of his "Pliocene Armageddon," who are simply incarnate wills to mutual destruction, are the same monsters that beget Nazism and inspire The Fable of the Goats; and in the fine "Silences," which Mr. Smith includes, civilized life is seen geologically as merely one clock-tick in eons of ferocity. The waste of life in the death of the Cachalot and the waste of courage and sanctity in the killing of the Jesuit missionaries are tragedies of a unique kind in modern poetry: like the tragedy of Job, they seem to move upward to a vision of a monstrous Leviathan, a power of chaotic nihilism which is "king over all the children of pride." [13]

By the time Brebeuf was published the war had begun; and "in his next four volumes, Pratt returned to themes of patriotism and violence. Sea poetry merges with war poetry in Dunkirk (1941), which recounts the epic rescue of British forces while also emphasizing its democratic nature.... Language plays a pivotal role as Churchill's call inspires the miraculous deliverance. The title poem in Still Life and Other Verse (1943) satirizes poets who ignore the destruction, the still life, all about them in wartime.... Other poems include 'The Radio in the Ivory Tower,' which shows isolation from world events to be impossible,... 'The Submarine,' which highlights the atavism of modern warfare by treating the submarine as a shark; and 'Come Away, Death,' which personifies death to show its new horrors in modern times." [6]

Still Life, and other verse included another poem, "The Truant," which Frye later called "the greatest poem in Canadian literature." [12] In "The Truant," a "somewhat comic deity, who speaks in evolutionary terms and metaphors, has man hauled before him to be punished for messing up the grand evolving scheme of things. Cheeky genus homo, instead of being duly cowed by the Great Panjandrum, points out that He is largely man's invention in any case." Says Buitenhuis: "The poem is too simplistic to be convincing, but is essential reading for anyone who seeks to understand Pratt's thought." [14]

Pratt's next book, "They are Returning (1945) celebrates the anticipated end of the war, but also introduces an early treatment in literature of the concentration camps. And retrospectively, Behind the Log (1947) commemorates the wartime role of the Royal Canadian Navy and the merchant marine." [6]

By 1952, Frye was calling Pratt one of "Canada's two leading poets" (the other being Earle Birney).[15] In that year Pratt published Towards the Last Spike, his final epic, on the building of Canada's 1st transcontinental railroad, the Canadian Pacific Railway. "Presenting an anglo/central-Canadian perspective, the poem interweaves the political battles between Sir John A. Macdonald and Edward Blake with the labourers' physical battles against mountains, mud, and the Laurentian Shield. In a metaphorical method typical of his style, Pratt characterizes the Shield as a prehistoric lizard rudely aroused from its sleep by the railroad builders' dynamite." [5]

Pratt's reputation as a major poet rests on his longer narrative poems, "many of which show him as a mythologizer of the Canadian male experience; but a number of shorter philosophical works also command recognition. 'From stone to steel'asserts the necessity for redemptive suffering arising from the failure of humanity's spiritual evolution to keep pace without physical evolution and cultural achievements; 'Come away, death' is a complexly allusive account of the way the once-articulate and ceremonial human response to death was rendered inarticulate by the primitive violence of a sophisticated bomb; and 'The truant'dramatically presents a confrontation in a thoroughly patriarchal cosmos between the fiercely independent 'little genus homo' and a totalitarian mechanistic power, 'the great Panjandrum'. Pratt's choices of forms and metrics were conservative for his time; but his diction was experimental, reflecting in its specificity and its frequent technicality both his belief in the poetic power of the accurate and concrete that led him into assiduous research processes, and his view that one of the poet's tasks is to bridge the gap between the two branches of human pursuit: the scientific and artistic." [5]

The Canadian Encyclopedia adds of Pratt: "A major poet, he is, nevertheless, an isolated figure, belonging to no school or movement and directly influencing few other poets of his time."[2]


Pratt won Canada's top poetry prize, the Governor General's Award, three times: in 1937 for The Fable of the Goats and other Poems; in 1940 for Brébeuf and his Brethren; and in 1952, for Towards the Last Spike.[4]

He was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 1930, and was awarded the Society's Lorne Pierce Medal in 1940. In 1946, he was made a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George by King George VI.[2]

He was awarded a Canada Council Medal for distinction in literature in 1961.[16]

He was designated a Person of National Historic Significance in 1975.[17]

The University of Toronto's Victoria University library currently bears his name,[18] as do the University's E.J. Pratt Medal and Prize for poetry.[19] Winners of the award include Margaret Atwood in 1961 and Michael Ondaatje in 1966.

The E.J. Pratt Chair in Canadian Literature was created in his name by the University of Toronto in 2003. The chair has been held since its founding by George Elliot Clarke.[20]



  • Rachel: A sea story of Newfoundland. privately published, 1917.
  • Newfoundland Verse (illustrated by Frederick Varley). Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1923.
  • The Witches' Brew (illustrated by John Austin). Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1925.
  • Titans ("The Cachalot" & "The Great Feud") (illustrated by John Austin). Toronto: Macmillan, 1926.
  • The Iron Door: An Ode (illustrated by Thoreau Macdonald). Toronto: Macmillan, 1927.
  • The Roosevelt and the Antinoe. Toronto: Macmillan, 1930
  • Verses of the Sea (introduction by Charles G.D. Roberts). Toronto: Macmillan, 1930.
  • Many Moods. Toronto: Macmillan, 1932.
  • The Titanic. Toronto: Macmillan, 1935.
  • New Provinces: Poems of several authors. Toronto: Macmillan, 1936 (eight poems).[7]
  • The Fable of the Goats, and other poems. Toronto: Macmillan, 1937
  • Brebeuf and his Brethren. Toronto: Macmillan, 1940; Detroit: Basilian Press, 1942.
  • Dunkirk. Toronto: Macmillan, 1941.
  • Still Life, and other verse. Toronto: Macmillan, 1943.
  • Collected Poems of E.J. Pratt. Toronto: Macmillan, 1944; New York: Knopf, 1946.
  • They Are Returning. Toronto: Macmillan, 1945.
  • Behind the Log. Toronto: Macmillan, 1947.
  • Ten Selected Poems. Toronto: Macmillan, 1947.
  • Towards the Last Spike. Toronto: Macmillan, 1952.
  • "Magic in Everything" [christmas card]. Toronto: Macmillan, 1956.
  • Collected Poems of E.J. Pratt (2nd edition; introduction by Northrop Frye). Toronto: Macmillan, 1958.
  • The Royal Visit, 1959. Toronto: CBC Information Services, 1959.
  • Here the Tides Flow (with introduction by D.G. Pitt). Toronto: Macmillan, 1962.
  • Selected Poems of E.J. Pratt (edited by Peter Buitenhuis). Toronto: Macmillan, 1968.
  • Birthright to the Sea: Some poems by E.J. Pratt (edited by George Whalley). St. John's, NL: Memorial University, 1978.[21]
  • Complete poems (edited by R.G. Moyles & Sandra Djwa). (2 volumes), Toronto: Macmillan, 1989.[22]
  • Selected Poems (edited by Sandra Djwa, W.J. Keith, & Zailig Pollock). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998).[23]


  • Studies in Pauline Eschatology. Toronto: William Briggs, 1917.
  • "Canadian Poetry: Past and present," University of Toronto Quarterly, VIII:1 (Oct. 1938), 1-10.
  • E.J. Pratt on His Life and Poetry (edited by Susan Gingell). Toronto & Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press, 1983.[24]
  • Pursuits Amateur and Academic: The selected prose of E.J. Pratt (edited by Susan Gingell). Toronto & Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press, 1995.[24]


  • The Shark / Seagulls (illustrated by Jeremy Bennison). Oakville, ON: Rubicon, 2009.[24]

Collected editionsEdit

  • Collected Works (edited by Susan Gingell & Sandra Djwa). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.[24]


  • Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree. Toronto, Macmillan, 1937.
  • Heroic Tales in Verse. Toronto, Macmillan, 1941; Miami, FL: Granger, 1977.


  • Letters (edited by Elizabeth Popham & David G. Pitt). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017.[25]

Except where noted, bibliographical information is from Selected Poems of E.J. Pratt (1968) [26]

Audio / videoEdit

"The Shark," by E.J

"The Shark," by E.J. Pratt

The Prize Cat

The Prize Cat

  • E.J. Pratt: Reading his own poems (78). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Vocarium Records, 1944.

See also Edit


  • Sandra Djwa, E.J. Pratt: The Evolutionary Vision. Toronto: Copp Clark, 1974.
  • David G. Pitt, E.J. Pratt : the Truant Years, 1882-1927. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.
  • David G. Pitt, E.J. Pratt : the Master Years, 1927-1964. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.



  1. "E.J. Pratt," Encyclopædia Britannica,, Web, May 3, 2011.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 David G. Pitt, "Pratt, Edwin John," Canadian Encyclopedia (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1988), 1736. Print.
  3. Pitt (1984), 32.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 "E.J. Pratt:Biography," Canadian Poetry Online, University of Toronto Libraries. Web, Mar. 17, 2011.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Susan Gingell, "E.J. Pratt Biography - (1882-1964)", Encyclopedia of Literature, 8534., Web, Mar. 26, 2011.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 W.H. New, Encyclopedia of Canadian Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2002), 901. Google Books. Web, Mar. 19, 2011
  7. 7.0 7.1 Michael Gnarowski, "New Provinces: Poems of Several Authors," Canadian Encyclopedia (Hurtig: Edmonton, 1988), 1479. Print.
  8. Robert Gibbs, "A Knocking in the Clay," Canadian Literature No. 55, 50., Web, Mar. 27, 2011.
  9. Brian Trehearne ed., "E.J. Pratt 1882-1964," Canadian Poetry 1920 to 1960 (Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 2010), 21. Google Books, Web, Mar. 20, 2011.
  10. Nicola Vulpe, "Pratt, E.J. 1882-1964," Reader's Guide to Literature in English., Web, Mar. 26, 2011.
  11. Peter Buitenhuis, "Introduction," Selected Poems of E.J. Pratt (Toronto: Macmillan, 1968), xiii.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Northrop Frye, "Preface to An Uncollected Anthology," The Bush Garden (Toronto:Anansi, 1971), 173.
  13. Northrop Frye, "Canada and Its Poetry," The Bush Garden (Toronto:Anansi, 1971), 141.
  14. Peter Buitenhuis, "Introduction," Selected Poems of E.J. Pratt (Toronto: Macmillan, 1968), xvi.
  15. Northrop Frye, "from 'Letters from Canada' University of Toronto Quarterly - 1952," The Bush Garden (Toronto:Anansi, 1971), 10.
  16. "Edwin John Pratt - Chronology," Selected Poems of E.J. Pratt, ed. Peter Buitenhuis (Toronto: Macmillan, 1968), x.
  17. "Persons of National Historic Significance," Wikipedia, Web, Apr. 22, 2011.
  18. "About the Library," E.J. Pratt Library. Web, Mar. 18, 2011.
  19. "E. J. Pratt Medal and Prize in Poetry, University of Toronto. Web, Mar. 17, 2011.
  20. University of TorontoE.J. Pratt Chair in Candian Literature
  21. Search results = au:George Whalley, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Oct. 12, 2014.
  22. Search results = au:E.J. Pratt yr:1968-2014, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Oct. 14, 2014.
  23. "The Selected Poems of E.J. Pratt: A hypertext edition,", Web, May 3, 2011.
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 24.3 Search results = au:E.J. Pratt, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Jan. 17, 2015.
  25. E.J. Pratt Letters, University of Toronto Press. Web, Feb. 7, 2017.
  26. "Bibliography," Selected Poems of E. J. Pratt (edited by Peter Buitenhuis). Toronto: Macmillan, 1968, 207-208. Print.

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