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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Patterns of imagery and symbolism in the poetry of E.J. Pratt. Sharman, Vincent Douglas


From the canon of the poetry of E. J. Pratt emerges a composite picture of man, the various elements of which are given cohesion by patterns of images and symbols. It is the purpose of this thesis to trace these patterns, to discover their relation to Pratt's main themes of man and the mechanical universe, and to reveal his view of man. Chapter I discusses the patterns of images and symbols that exist in Pratt's lyrics and less successful narratives. Image patterns of the sea, ships, machinery, heroes, light and religion reveal that Pratt sees man as surrounded by death, which he fights with machines, the products of his reason, and with his feelings which may lead him to sacrifice himself so that others may live. The two most significant image patterns in these poems are those of the sea and of light. The sea symbolizes both death and the Void of the universe, from which, in Pratt, all life comes and to which all life returns. Light symbolizes the determination of the human spirit to overcome death, but in images of hell-fire, light symbolizes the evil in men. Christianity is not so important in Pratt's work as Desmond Pacey and John Sutherland maintain. Pratt does not view Christ as divine. God is no more caring of man than He is of his other natural, products. Chapter II deals with The Roosevelt and the Antinoe as Pratt's greatest expression of the conflict between man and death. Common men rise to godhead when they overcome the forces of death (symbolized by the sea) through feeling for others and through their determination to succeed (symbolized by light). A pattern of images of machines reveals that the power of men acting for others' benefit transcends the power of the natural universe. Religious images suggest that, to Pratt, God is uncaring of men and that those who believe that He is beneficient are deluded. Pratt's world emerges as a world of chance. Chapter III examines The Titanic, in which Fate, rather than death, is the antagonist. The transcience of the material world of man (symbolized by the "Titanic") is posed against the permanence of the natural world (symbolized by the stars). Fate is an eternal force. Patterns of imagery of light dominate the world of the ship and symbolize men's illusions of strength over death, nature, and Fate. A pattern of images of heroes is discussed in relation to the wealthy passengers whose self-sacrifice is a ritual atonement for their hubris, and for the catastrophic results of their materialism on the rest of mankind, represented by the immigrant passengers. Chapter IV examines the patterns of fire, religion, and hero images in Brébeuf and His Brethren. These patterns present Pratt's view that the Jesuits are misguided. Their ambition to succeed as martyrs and as Jesuits blinds them to the need for communication of feeling among men. The Jesuits exist in the illusion that religious abstractions are more vital to men's welfare than are kindness and charity. Both Jesuits and most of the Indians, in their zeal, devote their energies to death rather than to life, and both exhibit in extreme the misdirection of the human will to succeed. Chapter V presents minor patterns of imagery and symbolism in which images are contrasted or balanced to reveal the strengths and weaknesses in men. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the total image of man in Pratt's work: man is both good and evil; he rises to his highest levels through communication with other men in transcending death by heroically opposing it; he sinks to his lowest levels when he becomes an incommunicative agent of death. Man exists in illusion when he believes that his machines or his faith in God and hope in religious systems can overcome death.

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