Grief’s Geology – On Newfoundland’s East Coast Trail with E.J. Pratt and Gerard Manley Hopkins (so to speak!)


Near Maher Rock, Newfoundland, looking north to Red Head on the Avalon Peninsula

Near Maher Rock, Newfoundland, looking north to Red Head on the Avalon Peninsula














As I walked along the cliff edges of Newfoundland’s East Coast Trail a few days ago near Pouch (Pooch) Cove, the most easterly community in Canada, I couldn’t help being reminded of a poem by E.J. Pratt ( 1882 – 1964).

Pratt’s poem became a lens which changed the emotional content of everything I saw as I walked surrounded by a landscape contorted by geological forces and the ever-present North Atlantic. Because of the poem I saw more than rock; I saw a woman’s face eroded and changed by grief. Because of a poem I saw beyond what I saw. I saw with unusual eyes.

Pratt may not be a household name these days outside of Newfoundland but he should be. After all he won three Governor General Awards for his poetry between 1937 and 1957. A remarkable accomplishment. His was a singular Newfoundland/Canadian voice powerfully identified with place; not Toronto where he lived for most of his life but Newfoundland where he lived until he was twenty five.

The photograph I took above captures the primeval force of  coastal Newfoundland. Every fracture, rock layer and fault line is exposed. No secrets. So too, Pratt’s poem:


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.

E.J. Pratt from: E.J. Pratt: Complete Poems. ed. Sandra Djwa and R.G. Moyles, University of Toronto Press, 1989.

How is it that such a seemingly simple poem has such  force for me? Is it the exemplary use of the three R’s of poetry — rhythm, rhyme and repetition? Perhaps. But each time I read the second stanza I feel and hear the thunder-like boom the huge Atlantic breakers make against the cliffs I walked along high above the sea. The structure of the poem is so exact, the parallelism so precise: It took the sea a thousand years./ A thousand years to trace...contrasted so chillingly with, It took the sea an hour one night, /an hour of storm to place… And the power of just one sentence in each stanza broken up by four lines. The same breaking that occurs in the cliff and the woman’s face. And no direct mention of her son or husband’s death from the storm.

An on-line  biographical sketch of Pratt published by Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador quotes Pratt as saying Erosion sprang out of a circumstance related to my early life in Newfoundland. My father, who was a minister, found as the most trying of all his duties, the announcement of death to a woman whose husband or son had been lost at sea. To break the news had a special Newfoundland ring about it and my father had sometimes to ask the local doctor to accompany him to the house. Once I went with the two of them and I still remember the change on the woman’s face-the pallor and the furrow as the news sank in. Erosion was written more than thirty years after but the memory of the face is as vivid today as it was at the time.

Pratt’s memory might have been as vivid as the day he witnessed the woman’s grief but the accomplishment in Erosion is that it is as vivid surely, in the poem itself. The simple description of the cliff which becomes, so unexpectedly, the metaphor for the grief etched on the woman’s face holds a vitality that does not diminish as I read the poem again and again. And the metaphor was so vivid that I was assailed by the image of the woman’s face from the poem when I first encountered the imposing reality of Newfoundland’s coastal cliffs. What greater complement can I give a poem?

While it was Pratt’s voice I first heard reverberating from those massive cliffs and headlands I heard another older poetic echo as well. I heard the last six lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’  sonnet (one of the so-called Terrible sonnets), No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief. Here is that stanza:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1889) from The Major Poems, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1979

 This description of grief, or depression, a great darkness in the spirit of a man or woman, may be one of the most powerful in the English language. Especially these lines: O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall// Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Did Pratt think of these lines when he wrote his poem? I wonder.

When I joined my brother and sister for a two day, ten hour hike on Newfoundland’s East Coast Trail earlier this week I did not know I would have two other invisible  travelling companions. But I did. Pratt and Hopkins. These companions proved to me, once again, the incomparable power of metaphor and poetry. Oh yes, I walked for hours on the literal edges of cliffs, but also on much more! On the figurative cliffs of grief and the fear of death.


  1. Ingrid Bruck
    Posted June 19, 2015 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful walk you took with your family and these two poems. I wasn’t familiar with either poem, thanks for sharing

  2. Richard
    Posted June 19, 2015 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Ingrid. So glad you took the walk with me inside the post!

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