E.J. Pratt Reading from Collected Poems (1944)
recorded March 1956 in the Victoria College Library

Contents

  1. Introduction to "The Truant" [1:27; 938Kb]
  2. "The Truant" [10:36; 6,848Kb]
  3. the passion and death of Brébeuf from Brébeuf and His Brethren [3:47; 2,447Kb]
  4. Introduction to "The Prize Cat" [0:07; 82Kb]
  5. "The Prize Cat" [1:09; 754Kb]
  6. "The Highway" [1:21; 879Kb]
  7. "On the Shore" [0:59; 582Kb]
  8. "The Empty Room" [0:55; 598Kb]
  9. "Seen on the Road" [0:48; 521Kb]
  10. "Sea-Gulls" [0:55; 594Kb]
  11. Introduction to "No. 6000" [0:11; 120Kb]
  12. "No. 6000" [4:31; 2,922Kb]
  13. the conclusion of The Titanic [1:52; 1,216Kb]
  14. "Erosion" [0:29; 321Kb]
  15. Introduction to "Old Harry" [0:15; 162Kb]
  16. "Old Harry" [1:40; 1,084Kb]
  17. "The Shark" [1:24; 911Kb]
  18. "The Drag-Irons" [0:33; 360Kb]
  19. "From Stone to Steel" [1:10; 764Kb]
  20. "Cherries" [0:53; 582Kb]
    1. "Introduction to "The Truant"
    
    
    2. "The Truant" "What have you there?" the great Panjandrum said To the Master of the Revels who had led A bucking truant with a stiff backbone Close to the foot of the Almighty's throne. "Right Reverend, most adored, And forcibly acknowledged Lord By the keen logic of your two-edged sword! This creature has presumed to classify Himself -- a biped, rational, six feet high And two feet wide; weighs fourteen stone; Is guilty of a multitude of sins. He has abjured his choric origins, And like an undomesticated slattern, Walks with tangential step unknown Within the weave of the atomic pattern. He has developed concepts, grins Obscenely at your Royal bulletins, Possesses what he calls a will Which challenges your power to kill." "What is his pedigree?" "The base is guaranteed, your Majesty -- Calcium, carbon, phosphorus, vapour And other fundamentals spun From the umbilicus of the sun, And yet he says he will not caper Around your throne, nor toe the rules For the ballet of the fiery molecules." "His concepts and denials -- scrap them, burn them -- To the chemists with them promptly." "Sire, The stuff is not amenable to fire. Nothing but their own kind can overturn them. The chemists have sent back the same old story -- 'With our extreme gelatinous apology, We beg to inform your Imperial Majesty, Unto whom be dominion and power and glory, There still remains that strange precipitate Which has the quality to resist Our oldest and most trusted catalyst. It is a substance we cannot cremate By temperatures known to our Laboratory.'" And the great Panjandrum's face grew dark -- "I'll put those chemists to their annual purge, And I myself shall be the thaumaturge To find the nature of this fellow's spark. Come, bring him nearer by yon halter rope: I'll analyse him with the cosmoscope." Pulled forward with his neck awry, The little fellow six feet short, Aware he was about to die, Committed grave contempt of court By answering with a flinchless stare The Awful Presence seated there. The ALL HIGH swore until his face was black. He called him a coprophagite, A genus homo, egomaniac, Third cousin to the family of worms, A sporozoan from the ooze of night, Spawn of a spavined troglodyte: He swore by all the catalogue of terms Known since the slang of carboniferous Time. He said that he could trace him back To pollywogs and earwigs in the slime. And in his shrillest tenor he began Reciting his indictment of the man, Until he closed upon this capital crime -- "You are accused of singing out of key, (A foul unmitigated dissonance) Of shuffling in the measures of the dance, Then walking out with that defiant, free Toss of your head, banging the doors, Leaving a stench upon the jacinth floors. You have fallen like a curse On the mechanics of my Universe. "Herewith I measure out your penalty -- Hearken while you hear, look while you see: I send you now upon your homeward route Where you shall find Humiliation for your pride of mind. I shall make deaf the ear, and dim the eye, Put palsy in your touch, make mute Your speech, intoxicate your cells and dry Your blood and marrow, shoot Arthritic needles through your cartilage, And having parched you with old age, I'll pass you wormwise through the mire; And when your rebel will Is mouldered, all desire Shrivelled, all your concepts broken, Backward in dust I'll blow you till You join my spiral festival of fire. Go, Master of the Revels -- I have spoken." And the little genus homo, six feet high, Standing erect, countered with this reply -- "You dumb insouciant invertebrate, You rule a lower than a feudal state -- A realm of flunkey decimals that run, Return; return and run; again return, Each group around its little sun, And every sun a satellite. There they go by day and night, Nothing to do but run and burn, Taking turn and turn about, Light-year in and light-year out, Dancing, dancing in quadrillions, Never leaving their pavilions. "Your astronomical conceit Of bulk and power is anserine. Your ignorance so thick, You did not know your own arithmetic. We flung the graphs about your flying feet, We measured your diameter -- Merely a line Of zeros prefaced by an integer. Before we came You had no name. You did not know direction or your pace; We taught you all you ever knew Of motion, time and space. We healed you of your vertigo And put you in our kindergarten show, Perambulated you through prisms, drew Your mumu's through the Milky Way, Lassoed your comets when they ran astray, Yoked Leo, Taurus, and your team of Bears To pull our kiddy cars of inverse squares. "Boast not about your harmony, Your perfect curves, your rings Of pure and endless light -- 'Twas we Who pinned upon your Seraphim their wings, And when your brassy heavens rang With joy that morning while the planets sang Their choruses of archangelic lore, 'Twas we who ordered the notes upon their score Out of our winds and strings. Yes! all your shapely forms Are ours -- parabolas of silver light, Those blueprints of your spiral stairs From nadir depth to zenith height, Coronas, rainbows after storms, Auroras on your eastern tapestries And constellations over western seas. "And when, one day, grown conscious of your age, While pondering an eolith, We turned a human page And blotted out a cosmic myth With all its baby symbols to explain The sunlight in Apollo's eyes, Our rising pulses and the birth of pain, Fear, and that fern-and-fungus breath Stalking our nostrils to our caves of death -- That day we learned how to anatomize Your body, calibrate your size And set a mirror up before your face To show you what you really were -- a rain Of dull Lucretian atoms crowding space, A series of concentric waves which any fool Might make by dropping stones within a pool, Or an exploding bomb forever in flight Bursting like hell through Chaos and Old Night. "You oldest of the hierarchs Composed of electronic sparks, We grant you speed, We grant you power, and fire That ends in ash, but we concede To you no pain nor joy nor love nor hate, No final tableau of desire, No causes won or lost, no free Adventure at the outposts -- only The degradation of your energy When at some late Slow number of your dance your sergeant-major Fate Will catch you blind and groping and will send You reeling on that long and lonely Lockstep of your wave-lengths towards your end. "We who have met With stubborn calm the dawn's hot fusillades; Who have seen the forehead sweat Under the tug of pulleys on the joints, Under the liquidating tally Of the cat-and-truncheon bastinades; Who have taught our souls to rally To mountain horns and the sea's rockets When the needle ran demented through the points; We who have learned to clench Our fists and raise our lightless sockets To morning skies after the midnight raids, Yet cocked our ears to bugles on the barricades, And in cathedral rubble found a way to quench A dying thirst within a Galilean valley -- No! by the Rood, we will not join your ballet."
    3. the passion and death of Brébeuf from Brébeuf and His Brethren Now three o'clock, and capping the height of the passion, Confusing the sacraments under the pines of the forest, Under the incense of balsam, under the smoke Of the pitch, was offered the rite of the font. On the head, The breast, the loins and the legs, the boiling water! While the mocking paraphrase of the symbols was hurled At their faces like shards of flint from the arrow heads -- "We baptize thee with water ... That thou mayest be led To Heaven ... To that end we do anoint thee. We treat thee as a friend: we are the cause Of thy happiness; we are thy priests; the more Thou sufferest, the more thy God will reward thee, So give us thanks for our kind offices." The fury of taunt was followed by fury of blow. Why did not the flesh of Brébeuf cringe to the scourge, Respond to the heat, for rarely the Iroquois found A victim that would not cry out in such pain -- yet here The fire was on the wrong fuel. Whenever he spoke, It was to rally the soul of his friend whose turn Was to come through the night while the eyes were uplifted in prayer, Imploring the Lady of Sorrows, the mother of Christ, As pain brimmed over the cup and the will was called To stand the test of the coals. And sometimes the speech Of Brébeuf struck out, thundering reproof to his foes, Half-rebuke, half-defiance, giving them roar for roar. Was it because the chancel became the arena, Brébeuf a lion at bay, not a lamb on the altar, As if the might of a Roman were joined to the cause Of Judaea? Speech they could stop for they girdled his lips, But never a moan could they get. Where was the source Of his strength, the home of his courage that topped the best Of their braves and even out-fabled the lore of their legends? In the bunch of his shoulders which often had carried a load Extorting the envy of guides at an Ottawa portage? The heat of the hatchets was finding a path to that source. In the thews of his thighs which had mastered the trails of the Neutrals? They would gash and beribbon those muscles. Was it the blood? They would draw it fresh from its fountain. Was it the heart? They dug for it, fought for the scraps in the way of the wolves. But not in these was the valour or stamina lodged; Nor in the symbol of Richelieu's robes or the seals Of Mazarin's charters, nor in the stir of the lilies Upon the Imperial folds; nor yet in the words Loyola wrote on a table of lava-stone In the cave of Manresa -- not in these the source -- But in the sound of invisible trumpets blowing Around two slabs of board, right-angled, hammered By Roman nails and hung on a Jewish hill.
    4. Introduction to "The Prize Cat"
    5. "The Prize Cat" Pure blood domestic, guaranteed, Soft-mannered, musical in purr, The ribbon had declared the breed, Gentility was in the fur. Such feline culture in the gads No anger ever arched her back -- What distance since those velvet pads Departed from the leopard's track! And when I mused how Time had thinned The jungle strains within the cells, How human hands had disciplined Those prowling optic parallels; I saw the generations pass Along the reflex of a spring, A bird had rustled in the grass, The tab had caught it on the wing: Behind the leap so furtive-wild Was such ignition in the gleam, I thought an Abyssinian child Had cried out in the whitethroat's scream.
    6. "The Highway" What æons passed without a count or name, Before the cosmic seneschal, Succeeding with a plan Of weaving stellar patterns from a flame, Announced at his high carnival An orbit -- with Aldebaran! And when the drifting years had sighted land, And hills and plains declared their birth Amid volcanic throes, What was the lapse before the marshal's hand Had found a garden on the earth, And led forth June with her first rose? And what the gulf between that and the hour, Late in the simian-human day, When Nature kept her tryst With the unfoldment of the star and flower -- When in her sacrificial way Judæa blossomed with her Christ! But what made our feet miss the road that brought The world to such a golden trove, In our so brief a span? How may we grasp again the hand that wrought Such light, such fragrance, and such love, O star! O rose! O Son of Man?
    7. "On the Shore" Come home! the year has left you old; Leave those grey stones; wrap close this shawl Around you for the night is cold; Come home! he will not hear your call. No sign awaits you here but the beat Of tides upon the strand, The crag's gaunt shadow with gull's feet Imprinted on the sand, And spars and sea-weed strewn Under a pale moon. Come home! he will not hear your call; Only the night winds answer as they fall Along the shore, And evermore Only the sea-shells On the grey stones singing, And the white foam-bells Of the North Sea ringing.
    8. "The Empty Room" I know that were my soul tonight Strung to the silence of this room, I'd hear remembered footfalls light As wayward drift of lotus bloom. Nor would it just be make-believe, Were I to find her in this chair, Or catch the rustle of her sleeve, Or note the glint upon her hair. Say, would you blame me if I knelt To put faith to its enterprise? So surely must her touch be felt In liquid coolness on my eyes. Now listen! If the veil should part Within this holy ritual, You'll hear a voice call to my heart More lovely than a madrigal.
    9. "Seen on the Road" The pundit lectured that the world was young As ever, frisking like a spring-time colt Around the sun, his mother. The class hung Upon his words. I listened like a dolt, And muttered that I saw the wastrel drawn Along a road with many a pitch and bump By spavined mules -- this very day at dawn! And heading for an ammunition dump. The savant claimed I heckled him, but -- Hell! I saw the fellow in a tumbril there, Tattered and planet-eyed and far from well, With Winter roosting in his Alpine hair.
    10. "Sea-Gulls" For one carved instant as they flew, The language had no simile -- Silver, crystal, ivory Were tarnished. Etched upon the horizon blue, The frieze must go unchallenged, for the lift And carriage of the wings would stain the drift Of stars against a tropic indigo Or dull the parable of snow. Now settling one by one Within green hollows or where curled Crests caught the spectrum from the sun, A thousand wings are furled. No clay-born lilies of the world Could blow as free As those wild orchids of the sea.
    11. Introduction to "No. 6000"
    12. "No. 6000" For creatures of this modern breed, Reared from the element of flame, Designed to match a storm for speed, Ionia would have found a name, Like Mercury or Bucephalus -- Some picturesque immortal label That lifts a story into fable, Out of the myths of Uranus; Then changed its root to demonize The nature of its strength and size With fictions out of Tartarus. Those giants of Vulcan, leather-skinned, Whose frightful stare monocular Made mad the coursers of the wind, And chased the light of the morning star Away from the Sicilian shore, Would have been terror-blind before This forehead which, had it been known In Greek or Scandinavian lore, Had turned the hierarchs to stone, Had battered down the Martian walls, Reduced to dust Jove's arsenals, Or rammed the battlements of Thor. His body black as Erebus Accorded with the hue of night; His central eye self-luminous Threw out a cone of noon-day light, Which split the gloom and then flashed back The diamond levels of the track. No ancient poet ever saw Just such a monster as could draw The Olympian tonnage of a load Like this along an iron road; Or ever thought that such a birth -- The issue of an inventor's dream -- With breath of fire and blood of steam, Could find delivery on this earth. In his vast belly was a pit, Which even Homer would admit, Or Dante, searching earth and hell, Possessed no perfect parallel. Evolved from no Plutonian forge, The tender, like a slave, that followed, Conveyed bitumen to his gorge, Which on the instant it was swallowed Ran black through crimson on to white. Above the mass floated a swirl Of crystal shapes, agate and pearl And rose, like imps a-chase, and light As thistledown, while the blast roared With angry temperatures that soared To seven hundred Fahrenheit. Outside, the engine's dorsal plate, Above the furnace door ajar, Revealed the boiler's throbbing rate, By dial fingers animate, Like pulses at the jugular. For every vital inch of steel, A vibrant indicator read Two hundred pounds plus twenty-five, Waiting for the hour to drive Their energy upon the wheel In punches from the piston head. And there another one supplied The measure of the irrigation, Whereby the lubricating tide, Through linear runs and axle curves, Made perfect his articulation. And ramifying copper wire Made up the system of his nerves, In keeping with his lungs of fire. Now with his armoured carapace On head and belly, back and breast, The Taurian prepared to face The blurring stretches of the west. To him it was of no concern The evening gale was soon to turn To the full stature of a storm That would within an hour transform The ranges for a thousand miles, Close up all human thoroughfares, Sweep down through canyons and defiles, And drive the cougars to their lairs. A lantern flashed out a command, A bell was ringing as a hand Clutched at a throttle, and the bull, At once obedient to the pull, Began with bellowing throat to lead By slow accelerating speed Six thousand tons of caravan Out to the spaces -- there to toss The blizzard from his path across The prairies of Saskatchewan.
    13. the conclusion of The Titanic Climbing the ladders, gripping shroud and stay, Storm-rail, ringbolt or fairlead, every place That might befriend the clutch of hand or brace Of foot, the fourteen hundred made their way To the heights of the aft decks, crowding the inches Around the docking bridge and cargo winches. And now that last salt tonic which had kept The valour of the heart alive -- the bows Of the immortal seven that had swept The strings to outplay, outdie their orders, ceased. Five minutes more, the angle had increased From eighty on to ninety when the rows Of deck and port-hole lights went out, flashed back A brilliant second and again went black. Another bulkhead crashed, then following The passage of the engines as they tore From their foundations, taking everything Clean through the bows from 'midships with a roar Which drowned all cries upon the deck and shook The watchers in the boats, the liner took Her thousand fathoms journey to her grave. * * * And out there in the starlight, with no trace Upon it of its deed but the last wave From the Titanic fretting at its base, Silent, composed, ringed by its icy broods, The grey shape with the palaeolithic face Was still the master of the longitudes.
    14. "Erosion" It took the sea a thousand years, A thousand years to trace The granite features of this cliff, In crag and scarp and base. It took the sea an hour one night, An hour of storm to place The sculpture of these granite seams Upon a woman's face.
    15. Introduction to "Old Harry"
    16. "Old Harry" Along the coast the sailors tell The superstition of its fame -- Of how the sea had faceted The Rock into a human head And given it the devil's name. And much there was that would compel A wife or mother of a seaman To find a root in the belief The rock that jutted from the reef Was built to incarnate a demon. But there's a story that might well Receive a share of crediting, And make the title fit the look Of vacancy the boulder took Under the ocean's battering. Within that perforated shell Of basalt worn by wave and keel The demon ruler of the foam One night upon returning home Was changed into an imbecile, Ordered to stay within his cell, Clutch at the spectres in the air, Listen to shrieks of drowning men, And stare at phantom ribs and then Listen again and clutch and stare. So like a sea-crazed sentinel, Weary of sailors and their ships, Old Harry stands with salt weed spread In matted locks around his head, And foam forever on his lips.
    17. "The Shark" He seemed to know the harbour, So leisurely he swam; His fin, Like a piece of sheet-iron, Three-cornered, And with knife-edge, Stirred not a bubble As it moved With its base-line on the water. His body was tubular And tapered And smoke-blue, And as he passed the wharf He turned, And snapped at a flat-fish That was dead and floating. And I saw the flash of a white throat, And a double row of white teeth, And eyes of metallic grey, Hard and narrow and slit. Then out of the harbour, With that three-cornered fin Shearing without a bubble the water Lithely, Leisurely, He swam -- That strange fish, Tubular, tapered, smoke-blue, Part vulture, part wolf, Part neither -- for his blood was cold.
    18. "The Drag-Irons" He who had learned for thirty years to ride The seas and storms in punt and skiff and brig, Would hardly scorn to take before he died His final lap in Neptune's whirligig. But with his Captain's blood he did resent, With livid silence and with glassy look, This fishy treatment when his years were spent -- To come up dead upon a grapnel hook.
    19. "From Stone to Steel" From stone to bronze, from bronze to steel Along the road-dust of the sun, Two revolutions of the wheel From Java to Geneva run. The snarl Neanderthal is worn Close to the smiling Aryan lips, The civil polish of the horn Gleams from our praying finger tips. The evolution of desire Has but matured a toxic wine, Drunk long before its heady fire Reddened Euphrates or the Rhine. Between the temple and the cave The boundary lies tissue-thin: The yearlings still the altars crave As satisfaction for a sin. The road goes up, the road goes down -- Let Java or Geneva be -- But whether to the cross or crown, The path lies through Gethsemane.
    20. "Cherries" "I'll never speak to Jamie again" -- Cried Jennie, "let alone wed, No, not till blackbirds' wings grow white, And crab-apple trees grow cherries for spite, But I'll marry Percy instead." But Jamie met her that self-same day, Where crab-apple trees outspread, And poured out his heart like a man insane, And argued until he became profane, That he never meant what he said. Now strange as it seems, the truth must be told, So wildly Jamie pled, That cherries came out where the crab-apples grew, And snow-winged blackbirds came down from the blue, And feasted overhead.