A Con­cep­tion Bay boy­hood: The power of po­etry

The Compass - - NEWS - BY NEIL EARLE The Dean and his lord­ship, the Bishop, are here, And your sloop, sir, is ready down at the pier. And may I go with you? Mead­ows said, No, roared the Colonel, as he creaked out of bed, Blast­ing out damns with a spot of saliva, Yet the four of

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.

786-4502 • Cell 222-0202 Email: bhan­ra­han@cal­le­grow.com • www.cal­le­grow.com

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