A Conception Bay boyhood: The power of poetry
According to the CBC, The Telegram (August 7, Pg. A23) and The Globe and Mail ( August 7, A9), the Second World War still matters. As long as it does, survivors, historians and writers will recall the Dunkirk evacuation of late May and early June, 1940. Seventy years ago this summer, nearly 336,000 British and French troops were extricated from the beaches of death and shame by Herculean efforts from the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the 1,000 or so ìlittle boats of Britain.
That effort stunned and startled the world. The Miracle of Dunkirk, as it was called then and since, gave heart to the British and their dominions around the world, o f which Newfoundland and Labrador was then one. It stirred them to carry on the struggle against the Nazi leaders who had wrested control of the German people in 1933 and whose mechanized legions had sliced through France and Belgium in a remarkable combination of infantry, armor and air forces.
That was May, 1940, and the speed of the advance was such that the British Expeditionary Force was sent reeling back on the French port of Dunkirk where there seemed little chance of their safe return to England. But return they did through a popular surge of patriotism that made the world marvel as 1,000 oddly-matched volunteer craft carried out what the Navy could not do on its own. After Dunkirk came the Battle of Britain, when barely 2,000 Allied airmen handed Adolf Hitler his first defeat of the war and just maybe saved the world.
A Methodist Boyhood
Talk of the Miracle of Dunkirk was not lost on a University of Toronto professor of English who had been born in Western Bay in 1882. His name was Edwin John Pratt or E.J. Pratt in Canadian letters and he was destined to become Canada’s greatest narrative poet. Pratt was the son of a Methodist minister who would hold postings in Cupids (1885), Blackhead (1888), Brigus (1891) and Bay Roberts ( 1898). It is one of the contentions of MUN’s emeritus Donald G. Pitt in his magisterial first volume biography of Pratt, titled The Truant Years, 1882-1897, that the poet had carried in his head indelible images of his boyhood spent among Newfoundland outports. Pratt’s poetry included such staples as The Ice Floes, The Sea-Cathedral, Sea-Gulls, Newfoundland Seamen, and The Way of Cape Race, sympathetic depictions of an outdoor boyhood yet as hard as diamonds, verse testimonies clearly rooted in human and natural experiences that touched him deeply.
The desperate Miracle of Dunkirk, so dependent on the sea and the people who loved it, penetrated deeply into Pratt’s mind and spirit to stir one of his most neglected poem, called simply Dunkirk. Across these lines and stanzas it is not hard to discern the years the poet spent around the bays and harbours of his native island. It is a highlycompressed and often brilliant poem. It is the British Tommies trapped at Dunkirk who are Pratt’s main subject, but there are lines and phrases that leap out at anyone born in the Newfoundland and Labrador, phrases that seem appropriate to the tenth Province:
The sea was their school; the storm, their friend.
Pratt had italicized this line in Dunkirk, as well he might. Earlier Pratt had written of doors held ajar in the storm. A Methodist pastor’s son, who often accompanied his father on hardship visits to families where the breadwinner had been lost at sea, knew all about the drama of the sled and dory. In Dunkirk, Pratt sketches with admirable efficiency the long history of the British. This included by extension experiences Newfoundland school children had once been brought up with:
Trafalgar, Frobisher, Hawkins and Drake - these were once names to conjure with in Newfoundland school readers. The phrase lovers of the beef of language could fit a puncheon tub full of Newfoundland politicians and public figures who need no naming here, but who exhibited an unconsciously Shakespearian love of speech that shows up in such rare popular roundelays as Heart’s Content, Heart’s Desire and Heart’s Delight or Fogo-Twillingate-Moreton’s Harbour. That gift for lyrical robust speech lingers today in Rex Murphy and Bill Rowe.
The Comic Touch
It is Pratt’s ever-present gift for what Pitt calls fanciful humour that emerges at unexpected times. Take the section in Dunkir where he celebrates the motley crews that traversed the English Channel to bring the army home - herring smacks, row-boats, barges or even private yachts. It was a community of seamen that saved the British in 1940:
Who but a boy infatuated with the speech-patterns and the daily rhythms of colourful expressions would not delight in rhyming the almost improper noun saliva? Joey Smallwood, Pat O’Flaherty and Buddy Wassisname would understand and reflect this latent wit lying behind the everyday potential of language. Pratt’s keen ear for dialogue, dialect and fascinating language structures sunk down deeply, absorbed in the bays and coves of home as he swam off the dock at Grand Bank, taught school at Moreton’s Harbour or brief ly preached at Clarke’s Beach.
A Spiritual Finale
Overtones of the miraculous aspect of the Dunkirk evacuation may have led Pratt to compose the poem in the first place. In his final paragraphs he pays full regard to the otherworldly features of the successful evacuation of the fog that sheltered most of the little boats and blinded the dive bombers while the treacherous Channel remained as calm as a mill pond. His Methodist father would have been pleased with the denouement:
The poem underscores the poet’s early familiarity with what fog could do, would do along the shores of home. Pratt’s The peace that passeth all understanding is of course, biblical, from Philippians 4: 6-7 and it must have been a verse Pratt heard often as he squirmed through his father’s sermons in Cupids, Blackhead and Brigus. Blessed conveys a sense of benediction both on the Dunkirk Miracle and on Pratt’s finale, dignifying the rather prosaic point that there is always more going on than meets the eye in human affairs. It also means that the old saw is still true: You can take the boy from the bay but not the bay from the boy. Seventy years later, it is a point worth remembering.