Edwin John Pratt

Edwin John Dove Pratt (1882-1964) was primarily Torontonian, but had a cottage in the Bobcaygeon area. He was a three-time winner of the Governor General’s Award for poetry and winner of many other awards, including in 1946, Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George by King George VI.

In 1935, the Montreal branch of the Canadian Authors Association had been running a successful annual poetry contest. They appointed a committee to see if publishing a periodical would be financially feasible. Disappointed by the results, they decided to not go through with the project.

One member of the CAA’s executive, another local Kawartha Lakes writer, E. A. Hardy heard about the end of the project and urged the national executive to take it on as a means of doing something for the entire membership. They agreed and the first issue of Canadian Poetry magazine was published in 1936. Pratt was appointed editor and served in that role until 1943.

EJ Pratt and Clare Pratt in Bobcaygeon, c 1931.

Pratt was born in Newfoundland on 4 February 1882, where he also trained to be a minister like his father, but instead went on to study psychology and theology at Victoria College at the University of Toronto. Themes of religion and psychology would thread his poetry.

While at Victoria College, Pratt met Viola Whitney, where they both worked for the college newspaper, of which Viola was the editor. Viola was also a writer and would go on to be a magazine editor. After four years of engagement, they married 20 August 1918.

Their daughter Claire was born in 1921. At just four years old, Claire contracted polio. The disease would affect the rest of her life, but not prevent her from becoming a publishing editor and author.

While at Victoria College, he met life-long friend, Arthur L. Phelps, another Bobcaygeon cottager and writer.

The Pratts visited Phelps and his wife Lila at their new Bobcaygeon home, and were immediately taken with it. Pratt almost bought a Bobcaygeon cottage in September 1918, but it didn’t work out. It wasn’t until 1921 when Pratt finally bought the Bobcaygeon cottage where he would do most of his writing during his summer vacations from his work at the University of Toronto.

Viola Pratt said, “Ned loved the place, which surprised me at first, because he wasn’t the type who ordinarily enjoyed ‘roughing it in the bush.’ He hated the mosquitoes — and we surely had lots — but he devised ways to combat them, and after a while he didn’t mind so much… It was really a delightful spot, right on the lake, surrounded by trees, mostly cedars, with a clearing out back that we called the Glade.” (Pitt. E.J. Pratt: the truant years. p. 199)

The Pratts financially extended themselves to acquire the cottage. They didn’t have a car; they took the train from Toronto to Bobcaygeon.

Pratt started a backyard garden, growing corn, beans, tomatoes, and squash. He’d hoped to grown enormous squash.

Pratt built himself a small cabin away from the cottage, where he went to write.

Pratt became a weekend host to his friends. He even picked them up at the train station– in a canoe. Weekend pastimes included canoe trips to Nogie’s Creek, a cookout at the stone fireplace by the lakeshore, and poetry readings.

The Bobcaygeon summers, especially the early ones were golden times for Pratt, among the happiest he would ever know… halcyon days.

Pitt. E.J. Pratt: the Truant years.

Among his guests were William Arthur Deacon, who also bought a cottage nearby, Fredrick Philip Grove, Pelham Edgar, E.K. Brown.

Pratt was known to lend the cottage, as he did to Deacon in 1926 when Deacon and family were looking to get away from the city. Pratt wrote to Deacon, “From the 15th of June until July 20th it is at your disposal. Why not send Mrs Deacon and the Kiddies up there on the earlier date, you going, say, week ends till your vacation starts. The Phelpses are next door and will give her all the advice re food and other desirables. By then the lettuce will be up and by July the peas ought to be forming. The strawberries look promising.” (https://www.trentu.ca/faculty/pratt/letters/texts/260603dea.html)

Pratt family with Deacon family, c. 1930.

Frederick Varley, one of the founding members of the Group of Seven, was the artist for E.J. Pratt’s Newfoundland Verse (1923). When Varley and his family were evicted from their Toronto house, Pratt let Varley, his wife Maud and their four children camp in a tent on the lot next to the Pratt’s cottage. “A large army tent pitched on a wooden platform supplied them with at least a shelter from the elements, and the Pratt cottage the necessary domestic facilities. Not infrequently too the grocery bill to feed five extra mouths was paid out of Pratt’s meagre pocket.” (Pitt. E.J. Pratt: the truant years. p. 226.)

During that time, Varley made a charcoal sketch of his wife Maud with their youngest son, Peter, curled up in her lap. The tent can be seen in the upper left corner. The sketch, titled Bobcaygeon, 1923 (private collection), was sold in 1926 by Maud to raise enough funds for her to travel with the children to Vancouver. Varley painted a similar picture, Evening in Camp, 1923 (private collection.) (Katerina Atanassova, F.H. Varley: portraits into the light, Dundurn Press. 2007.)

Sometimes Pratt’s summer retreats involved golfing in Lindsay with Watson Kirkconnell.

[Pratt] needed a little relaxation before completing his preparations for what he was already planning to make a ‘triumphal progress.’ Having promised Kirkconnell a few games of golf on the course at nearby Lindsay, where ‘Kirk’ usually spent his summers, Pratt took his clubs with him and during the first week or so of his holiday pleasantly indulged himself in his favourite sport for almost the first time since the previous autumn.

David G. Pitt. E.J. Pratt: the master years (1927-1964), page 22.

As he was closing the cottage in the autumn of 1925, Pratt asked a local handyman to build a swimming dock, using the wood from Varley’s tent platform. Pratt wanted “an enclosure in which little Claire might paddle, safe from the remnants of submerged tree stumps and the danger of going beyond her depth.” He suggested if the the handyman needed more lumber he could get it from the local lumber ‘magnate’ and building contractor (i.e. Mossom Boyd Lumber Company.)

What Pratt found the following spring was “a leviathan of a wharf.” It seems the handyman placed an order in Pratt’s name with the contractor for an “Ontario dock,” or pier. It was built by half-a-dozen carpenters and “vast quantities of the best materials.” Arthur Phelps described it as big enough “to tie up an ocean liner at if one ever came into the Kawartha region.”

The bill was equally as enormous. Pratt, feeling he’d been tricked into the large pier, chose to fight. He wrote his tale in full to a lawyer. The lawyer agreed to appear in court in Lindsay, if the case went to trial, which it did not. Both parties agreed to compromise. Pratt ended up paying $200 and the “magnate” withdrew his suit for further payment. (Pitt. E.J. Pratt: the truant years. page 298-299.)

The summer of 1935 was the last summer in Bobcaygeon for Pratt. Financial reasons due to Claire’s numerous operations and the economy of the times, forced Pratt into one of the hardest decisions he had ever made. The cottage was in need of numerous repairs, but ultimately the decision to sell was due to Claire: “her condition was unlikely to permit her ever again to take full advantage of the natural amenities, swimming in particular,” which Pratt felt was the best thing about Bobcaygeon. (Pitt. E.J. Pratt: the master years. page 164-165.)

That last summer at the cottage, Pratt wrote The Titanic, a dark, tragic poem that he found depressing and was glad when he finished it.

Pratt never returned to Bobcaygeon, though he missed the cottage days and would reminisce with his friends of his halcyon days there.

Pratt’s cottage was featured in John Robert Columbo’s Canadian Literary Landmarks (1984.) At the time of printing, the cottage was still standing. Overlooking Sturgeon Lake, the cottage had a verandah and a green den, according to the brief write-up.

Arthur Phelps said, “One of the best things that ever happened to Ned Pratt was his marrying Viola Whitney. Up until then he was just drifting hither and yon with every tide that rose and fell. He had no settled way of life, no regular job, not actual goal in life. And this was bound to militate against any real creativity. But after he got married all that began to change…” (Pitt. E.J. Pratt: the truant years. p. 172)

But without his cottage, it seems Pratt became untethered.

In the summer of 1937, Pratt went to teach summer school at the University of British Columbia where he began an extramarital affair with a graduate student. She transferred to Victoria College (Toronto) in the fall and the affair continued until the spring of 1938. Although his college friends knew about the affair and encouraged him to end it, his wife and daughter never knew and the affair never affected his career. (http://www.trentu.ca/faculty/pratt/letters/texts/38springdea.html)

Pratt is internationally famous for his epic poems of national significance. He won the Governor General’s Award three times: in 1937 for The Fable of the Goats and other Poems; in 1940 for Brébeuf and his Brethren; and in 1952, for Towards the Last Spike.

But his works have been criticized for racism.

In 1966, F. R. Scott published the poem, “All the Spikes but the Last,” in response to Pratt’s “Towards the Last Spike,” calling out Pratt’s omission of the Chinese workers. Over 17,000 Chinese people came to Canada to work on the railroad. Over 700 were killed due to unsafe working conditions. The last spike was the only spike driven by white people.

Pratt was also known for misogeny.

His biographer, David Pitt writes, Pratt had been a “faithful if less than zealous member [of the Canadian Authors’ Association]. But he had no wish to be anything more, partly one gathers, because a large proportion of the Toronto membership was made up of ‘literary females,’ a species of which he was not particularly fond.” (Pitt, E.J. Pratt: the truant years. pages 312-313.)

Pratt and his friends Deacon and Edgar were not at all kind to women authors, even if the women were incredibly successful, as seen these notes about how they treated Madge Macbeth and Lucy Maud Montgomery:

Although it did have slightly more women members, the association was continually run by men, some of whom fought against female leadership. Carole Gerson, for example, points to an example of this “gendered subtext to Canadian literary politics” in Kathryn Colquhorn’s description of Madge Macbeth’s reception at a C.A.A. convention. Macbeth went to Toronto to make a speech at the Annual C.A.A. dinner:

[Macbeth] had a pretty mean reception here . . . Pratt was in the chair and he, and Prof. De Lury, spoke so long, that she didn’t get a chance to say a word. A lot of people thought that it was a put up job, as Pratt had charge of things as chairman. Then, when she was elected National President, none of the Executive, Pratt, Deacon, or Edgar, attended the Convention. (Kathryn Colquhorn qtd. in Gerson “The Canon” 54)

Christopher M. Doody. “A Union of the inkpot: the Canadian Authors’ Association, 1921-1960.” 2016.

E. J. Pratt died 26 April 1964 in Toronto.

He was designated a Person of Historical Significance in 1975.

The library at Victoria College in Toronto was named after him and contains his fonds. The university also awards the E.J. Pratt Medal and Prize for poetry and past winners included Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje.

The University of Toronto created the E.J. Pratt Chair in Canadian Literature, which since its founding has been held by George Elliot Clarke.

In 1983, Canada Post issued an E.J. Pratt commemorative stamp.


Rachel: a sea story of Newfoundland, (1917)

Newfoundland Verse (1923)

The Witches’ Brew (1925)

Titans (“The Cachalot, The Great Feud”) (1926)

The Iron Door: An Ode (1927)

The Roosevelt and the Antinoe (1930)

Verses of the Sea (1930)

Many Moods (1932)

The Titanic (1935)

New Provinces: Poems of Several Authors (1936)

The Fable of the Goats and Other Poems (1937) 

Brebeuf and his Brethren (1940)

Dunkirk (1941)

Still Life and Other Verse (1943)

Collected Poems of E. J. Pratt (1944)

They Are Returning (1945)

Behind the Log (1947)

Ten Selected Poems (1947)

Towards the Last Spike (1952)

“Magic in Everything” [Christmas card] (1956)

Collected Poems of E. J. Pratt (1958)

The Royal Visit: 1959 (1959)

Here the Tides Flow (1962)


Studies in Pauline Eschatology (1917)

“Canadian Poetry – Past and Present,” University of Toronto Quarterly, VIII:1 (Oct. 1938)


Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tre. (1937)

Heroic Tales in Verse (1941)

Further Reading:

E. J. Pratt: The Truant Years 1882-1927. David G. Pitt. (1984)

E. J. Pratt: the Master Years 1927-1964. David G. Pitt (1987)

“A Union of the inkpot: the Canadian Authors’ Association, 1921-1960” Christopher M. Doody. (2016) https://curve.carleton.ca/system/files/etd/2ba135b5-e6aa-4948-88db-475bc1459398/etd_pdf/bc7ec72be549d1074904d707d90adb1a/doody-aunionoftheinkpotthecanadianauthorsassociation.pdf

The Hypertext Pratt, a project by Trent University: http://www.trentu.ca/faculty/pratt/welcome.html

Pratt photo source: Trent University: https://www.trentu.ca/faculty/pratt/graphics/illustrations/pratt1931_claire.jpg

Pratts with Deacons photo source: Trent University: https://www.trentu.ca/faculty/pratt/timeline/illustrations/pratt1930c_family_deacon.html

Lucy Maud Montgomery: the gift of wings. Mary Henley Rubino. Doubleday Canada. (2008)

“The Canon between the Wars: Field-notes of a Feminist Literary Archaeologist.” Carole Gerson. Canadian Canons: Essays in Literary Value (1991)

7 thoughts on “Edwin John Pratt

  1. Pingback: William Arthur Deacon

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  3. Pingback: Claire Pratt

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  5. Pingback: Viola Whitney Pratt

  6. Pingback: Arthur L. Phelps

  7. Pingback: The Bobcaygeon Boys vs. L.M. Montgomery

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