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ENG354Y1 (1)

May 30th Lecture (E. J. Pratt).doc

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University of Toronto St. George
Vikki Visvis

ENG354: Canadian Poetry Lecture Outline: “Native” versus “Cosmopolitan” Debates and E. J. Pratt’s Towards the Last Spike 1. “Native” versus “Cosmopolitan” Debates A) The Debate - The main dichotomy that defines this field is the split between the modernists and the traditionalists, often referred to as Victorians or the Maple Leaf School of writing. - They were alternatively referred to as the “cosmopolitan” or international school and the “native” or the nationalist school. - They debated about how to write poetry and whom it should be written for - Most modernists, who emphasized modern diction and new forms, wanted Canadian writers to apply international literary standards to Canadian literature, whereas many traditionalists, who favoured rhyme, metrical forms, and archaic diction, wanted to develop national literary standards specifically for Canadian literature. In other words, they often relied on Victorian aesthetics and dealt with identifiable Canadian subject matter. i) Canadian Forum in debates - Aim of its editor’s stated in the first issue was to “secure a freer and more informed discussion of public questions… and trace and value the developments of art and literature that are distinctly Canadian” - Gave the modern Canadian writers a voice - This lasted for a long time  and it was widely distributed - The forum was the offspring of a University College magazine entitled the Rebel, and then it became a mature journal - Crucial time, Canada had come out of a great war (WWI) and they needed to build a nationalist Canada - Canadian forum did in the 20 30 40, offered a forum for Canadian audience that discussed Canadian literature  before this, literature was written for Britain ii) Why no real Canadian literature? - Too often convictions are offered from London and New York (forum said) - No country has reached its full stature which makes it goods at home but not its faith and philosophy (forum)  they are saying that they have to start developing a Canadian philosophy for writing poetry and literature - It straddled both the scholarly crowd and the popular crowd  had leftist ideas but not so left poetry - The forum became the most modern magazine in Canada - 1921 and 23, EK Brodus rails against the new unstructured poetry  and this is followed by AJ Smith - Movement from complacent acceptance of Victorian and confederation poets, to a growing awareness of modern poetry, prose, and criticism. - Canada is really becoming a nation after the WW1  Canada’s war of independence (from the British and the colonies) - Now have Canada as a state of mind  where does Canada fit in relation to the world in this modern period? - Both groups wanted a Canadian literature, but what constituted this form of literature s what distinguished them  Victorian and traditional vs. TS Elliot style with Canadian content - Why no real Canadian literature? o Colonial mentality  an inferiority complex, Britain as the motherland o AJM Smith’s “Wanted Canadian Criticism”  divided modern Canadian poetry into two groups iii) A. J. M. Smith’s “Wanted—Canadian Criticism” - The poet-critic A. J. M. Smith divided modern Canadian poetry into two groups. - To one, he assigned “native” poets like E. J. Pratt, Earle Birney, Dorothy Livesay, and Anne Marriot. (The traditionalists) - In the second group, he placed “cosmopolitan” poets like F. R. Scott, P. K. Page, Margaret Avison, and Patrick Anderson. (The modernists) - The “natives” he viewed as attempting “to describe and interpret what is essentially and distinctly Canadian and thus come to terms with an environment that is only now ceasing to be colonial.” - The “cosmopolitans” he characterized as metaphysical, not directly concerned with nature, making “a heroic attempt to transcend colonialism by entering into the universal, civilizing culture of ideas.” - This second group, which Smith clearly favoured, was characterized by intelligence, direct speech, and allusive imagery—all qualities that he had recognized in T. S. Eliot’s criticism, notably in the essays on “The Metaphysical Poets” and “Tradition and Individual Talent.” iv) F. R. Scott’s “New Poems for Old” - Decrease in imagination and increase in observation - Making something concrete took precedence over abstract generalization (which is far more common in romantic poetry) - Free verse and imperfect rhyme were preferable - Poets such as Livesay were experiencing with both schools of thought - Both the traditional and modern schools of thought were impacting these poets, but at times one school of thought impacted some poets more than others  EJ Pratt went back and forth between the two 2. E. J. Pratt in Debates - E. J. Pratt was a transitional figure who appreciated and worked in both Victorian and modernist forms. 3. Towards the Last Spike - How is it traditionalist?  the language - Content  it is traditional in that it is very heavy on national content - Form  iambic pentameter, sort of an epic in style  lots of elevated diction A) National Context - Published in 1952 - Responding to an anxiety that was coming out of the Second World War - Nationalism was staring to change, and the anxiety that came along with it - An increasing anxiety that the US would gobble Canada up - Ththe was anxiety about national resources and national identity - 19 century railway project  historically minded remembered that half a century over resisted the temptation to take the cheap way and insisted on an all Canadian railway - This impossible feat was carried through a remarkable enterprise by private corporation and public - The complex and costly railway was the material basis of nationalist existence B) Nationalism in Poem i) Celebration of nationalism - Most critics focus on the positive elements of this poem - We move across the development of this poem - MacDonald discussing the British Columbia issue (annexation) - Staggering difficulties of the terrain - Mid way, Van Horne  who oversees the project - Road is more than a road - Must be Canadian from coast to coast - He focuses on the characters of the central figures involved  MacDonald, Van Horne, Edward Burke (opponent?) - He focuses on history and the characters involved - They are heroic figures who by greatness and tenacities make a grander future out of a sluggish path and a reluctant physical world - This is a period of change and development - Easy to focus on the positive ii) Critique of nationalism - Just written after the second world war - Greater anxieties as well, cold war - Through the lens of the railway, the poem reconsiders nationalism  documents the prosper of nationalism and the violence - Massey  Nationality has been the excuse for violence - Pratt is reminding us of this - Where does nationalism cause problems? He is interested in the ruptures - The Chinese only mentioned once in the poem - He is alluding to how tricky Nationalism can be - Canada is the child of the empire - Both in 1880’s (distinguish form the British) and in the 1950’s (when Canada was trying to distinguish itself from the US) - By only focusing on the celebratory nature of the poem, we flatten the poem - The space and ambiguities (space of benefits and costs of nationalism) of the poem  within the nationalist pride, there are allusions that complicate nationalism as a problem  doesn’t dismiss the nationalist project but it does complicate it iii) Limited readings of Pratt’s work - Frye says that Pratt saw himself as the voice of the community - He tended to accept the values of the society without much questioning (said Frye) - An extension of Pratt himself, a celebration of technological progress, a history lesson have traditionally been the way this poem have been read. Now people talk about the irony and complexity iv) Irony and complexity in the poem - Opening metaphor: Myopia o 12 intro lines  set almost entirely in the later part of the th 19 century (the poem) so he uses this stanza to draw the attention of the readers to his moment (the mid 20 century) o He is placing the contemporary in a position of priority o He is saying this isn’t just about then, also about now o The first line suggests that Pratt doesn’t see history as an isolated event  these lines advocate that we read then and now in tandem, together, looking for points of connection and divergence o The world of then, the late 19 century, Pratt suggests is like the world as now accept for little differences of speed and power and means to treat myopia (lines 2 -3) o Myopia, which he near sightedness and sometimes narrow mindedness  limited vision and figuratively limited is a national affliction at these two times  Myopia is afflicting Canada at these times - Dangers of Myopia: Technology o The catalogue of technological changes after this myopia suggests maybe have corrected it o The world has developed technological power as of his now (4-5) (axe blade infinitely sharp, splitting infinitely small) o The science of now, as said on lines 6-7  this science is at a new myopic extreme  we have gotten so focused on tiny things (like atoms) that our vision is limited in focus that the big picture is kind of alluding us o Even though we have developed progress, he is alluding to the dangers of this technological progress  atom and
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