CANADIAN LITERATURE OF THE SEA. As with the majority of its
literature, Canada’s works about the sea can be divided geographically into
three major categories: the Atlantic/Maritimes, the Arctic*/Northwest
Territories, and the Pacific. What unites all three areas in the literature is
the recurrent theme of exploration on both a national and an individual
A great deal of Canada’s best writing about the sea is either autobiography
or nonfiction. This has set the tone for many of its creative works, as noted
by critic Northrop Frye. To Frye, beginning with tales of the early French
and English sailors, these stories establish what he describes as his nation’s particular documentary style of narrative. Among the major influences are
the exploits of such Arctic explorers as Samuel Hearne, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, and Captain John Franklin from the 1770s to the 1820s. The narrative style was still evident in stories of World War II North Atlantic
convoys, such as William Howard Pugsley’s Saints, Devils, and Ordinary
Seamen (1945). From the 1950s through the 1970s, Farley Mowat* reissued many of the explorers’ journals, including Hearne’s. He followed
them with a study of the easternmost province in the northern Atlantic
Ocean, New Founde Land (1989).
The Atlantic Maritime Provinces are the oldest of the European-speaking
settlements and speak in the most diverse literary voices. The first storytellers
were the aboriginal people of Canada, often referred to as the First Nations,
who met and joined voices in print with the French. New France stretched
from present-day New Brunswick westward down the St. Lawrence River;
this colony was also known as Acadia and was the initial setting for Henry
Wadsworth Longfellow’s* Evangeline (1847). The stories of the Acadians’
battles with the English, including colonists from New England, appear in
recent historical fiction such as Victor Suthren’s The Black Cockade: Paul
Gallant’s Louisbourg Command (1977), which focuses on attacks on the
French settlement in Nova Scotia during the 1740s. Many contemporary
Francophone writers of Acadian literature continue to explore the relationship between French Canadians and the sea, including poet Ronald Despres
in Paysages en contrebande (1979) and fiction writer Louis Hache in Toubes
jersiaises (1980). Toronto-based poet Robert Finch, who died in 1995, was
an avid sailor whose evocative collection of sea poems, Sail-boat and Lake
(1988), was introduced by Robertson Davies.
A whimsical work from Nova Scotia in the mid-nineteenth century, The
Letterbag of the Great Western (1840) is by legendary humorist T. C. Haliburton, who uses letters of fictional passengers to poke fun at American,
British, and Canadian travelers on the famous ship. A more adventurous
style belongs to Norman Duncan and his stories of life in Newfoundland
and Labrador, The Way of the Sea (1903). Poet E. J. Pratt in his first collection, Newfoundland Verse (1923), established his strength in narrative
verse. He followed with other books, including The Roosevelt and the Antinoe (1930) about the heroic rescue of a ship’s crew in the mid-Atlantic.
Pratt used irony in his epic poem The Titanic* (1935), often called a classic
of Canadian literature, on the tragic pride of people who believed that they
could conquer the sea.
Sir Charles Roberts, sometimes called the father of Canadian literature,
also took up the power of the sea late in his career with The Iceberg and
Other Poems (1934). Following Pratt’s example of the epic, historically based
narrative poem is Frederick Watt’s sixty-page documentary poem of the
North Atlantic convoys, Who Dare to Live (1943). Many of the convoys, as
had many luxury liners before the war, used Halifax as a main port. Fred Gogswell, Alden Nowlan, Robert Gibbs, and other so-called Fiddlehead Poets explore life in an environment dominated by the sea, as exemplified in
Gibbs’ poems “The Manes P. Aground off Fort Dufferin” (1971) and
“Travels: Eastbound/Westbound” (1985).
Canadian sea drama is marked by two high points: the performance of
the masque Le Theatre de Neptune on the water facing Port Royal in Acadia,
arguably the first dramatic work performed in North America (1606), and
Michael Cook’s Newfoundland Plays, a cycle that includes Quiller (1975),
about a provincial outpost; On the Rim of the Curve (1977), showing the
demise of the Beothuk, Newfoundland’s aboriginal people; and The Gayden
Chronicles (1979), telling the story of a Royal Navy rebel hanged in 1812.
Newfoundland’s conflict over accepting confederation into the rest of Canada, which lasted from the late nineteenth century into the middle of the
twentieth, is told in Tom Cahill’s As Loved Our Fathers (1974).
As for more contemporary Maritime prose, there are Mowat’s entertaining
tales for juvenile* readers, among them The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float
(1968) and The Black Joke (1974). Alistar MacLeod’s collection The Lost
Salt Gift of Blood (1976) tells of life on and off the coast of Cape Breton
in such pieces as “The Boat” and the title story. These narrative explorations
continue with works such as Jane Urquhart’s* Away: A Novel (1993), with
settings reaching out to the Irish Sea, with her short story “The Boat”
(1996), and with Howard Norman’s historical novel The Bird Artist (1994),
which has a Nova Scotia location and features a lighthouse.*
The St. Lawrence River and its modern incarnation as the St. Lawrence
Seaway have always been important in politics, society, and economics. A
popular novel of its time, Altham: A tale of the Sea (1848) follows the main
character, paralleling author John Swete Cummins’ own life, from Great
Britain, to the ocean, to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The War of 1812, much
of which was fought along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes,* appears
in the works of well-known writer and commentator Pierre Berton. A multiple winner of the prestigious Governor General’s Award, Berton wrote The
Invasion of Canada (1980) and Flames across the Border (1981), colorful
histories of the people and the geography. The waterways are central in
Charles Sangster’s collection The St. Lawrence and the Saguenay and Other
Poems (1856), especially the title piece. Sangster is sometimes referred to as
the poet laureate of colonial Canada. The Gulf of St. Lawrence is the setting
for a popular novel of a later time, The Sacrifice of the Shannon (1903) by
W. Albert Hickman, about an icebreaker and her crew.
There are some stories handed down by the First Nations’ peoples about
the coast and Vancouver Island, including the stories and poems of E. Pauline Johnson, who took the name Tekahionwake in 1886. Her “Deep Water” appears in Suthren’s Canadian Stories of the Sea (1993). Because of the
many nearly mythic, real-life adventures that occurred in connecting the
Pacific coast region to the rest of Canada, many writers use it as a metaphoric location that can represent ideas such as hope, perseverance, or salvation.
This happens in Jack Hodgins’ Spit Delaney’s Island (1977), a book of parables, many redemptive, set on Vancouver Island. In his novels about the
Barclay family, particularly The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne (1980), in
which a tidal wave brings both a lost ship and a magical woman to the
island, Hodgins promotes a world in which the characters can create and
re-create their lives. A more recent work of fiction is William Gaston’s Deep
Cove Stories (1989), also set along the Pacific coast. Sharon Pollock’s play
The Komagata Maru Incident (1978) is based on a 1914 clash, when Sikh
immigrants were not allowed to disembark in Vancouver. Highly imaginative, Gothic poems constitute Susan Musgrave’s Songs of the Sea-Witch
(1970) and The Impstone (1976).
Among fanciful works of children’s literature on sea themes are George
H. Griffin’s At the Court of King Neptune: A Romance of Canada’s Fisheries
(1932) and Legends of the Evergreen Coast (1934). The Boatman (1957;
revised 1968) by Jay Macpherson is a collection of poetic recastings of classic
and religious parables, often compared to the work of William Blake. Pratt’s
humorous fantasy The Witch’s Brew (1925) is a Prohibition satire about a
drunken fish and other creatures of the deep.