ACQL 2008 Winner – Erica Kelly

“Was Ever an Adventure Without its Cost?”: The Price of National Unity in E. J. Pratt’s Towards the Last Spike

In December of 1939, the Canadian government appointed a committee to begin planning for the end of the Second World War, chiefly through consideration for the eventual return and rehabilitation of Canadian forces. The collective quickly realized, however, that their recommendations would have to move beyond the scope of the individual soldier: what needed to be researched and addressed was the changing nation to which veterans would return. In 1941, the Advisory Committee on Reconstruction began the work of “explor[ing] the whole field of Canada’s post-war reconstruction policy” (1) and of Canada’s post-war identity in general. Much was changing in mid-century Canada: the Bank of Canada, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), and Trans-Canada Airlines, all creations of the late 1930s, demonstrate Canada’s desire to establish itself in the eyes of its citizens and in the eyes of the world as an independent, self-sustaining nation. Despite the success of these projects (and others on the horizon, including the Trans-Canada Highway, the Trans-Canada Pipeline, and the St. Lawrence Seaway, large-scale construction projects initiated in the decade after the war’s end), the Advisory Committee’s 1943 Report betrays fears that the country may be losing its grasp on independence. [1] The Report calls on the government to “safeguard [Canadian] resources for the use of the people of Canada” (2.3) and warns that “[u]nless adequate precautions be now taken, much of our natural wealth will rapidly disappear” (2.4). The end of the war would present possibilities of national re-creation, and the Advisory Committee wanted to ensure the strongest Canada possible.

Six years later, in 1949, focus on national re-construction had broadened to include not only physical but also cultural autonomy, and the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences (known as The Massey Commission, for its chair, Vincent Massey) began a cross-country tour to take stock of Canadian access to and attitudes toward national culture. Like the Advisory Committee of 1941, the Massey Commission understood the country as positioned at a turning point: if Canadian culture was not immediately bolstered and celebrated, the Canadian public would be abandoned to American cultural influences, already pervasive in Canadian border towns (23). In championing an all-Canadian approach, the Report attempts to inspire its audience with a reminder of the nineteenth-century national railway project:

The historically-minded remembered that half a century earlier, Canadians had resisted the temptation to take the cheap way from Montreal to Winnipeg via Chicago, and had insisted on an all-Canadian railway. This apparently impossible feat was carried through by a remarkable combination of private enterprise and public support and control. The policy was sharply criticized both then and later, but it has since been generally accepted that Canada’s complex and costly railway system is the essential material basis of national existence. (23-24)

It was the memory of the railway’s success, the Report continues, that encouraged ordinary citizens to support the establishment of the CBC. Had the railway failed, “economic and even political annexation” (24) to the States would have been certain. Support for national cultural endeavours, the report suggests, will have similarly salvational results. [2]

Despite the inevitable erasures of such commemoration (and the consequent overwriting of the Pacific Scandal and subsequent financial difficulty, as well as the displacements and violence enacted in the railway’s completion), the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was mythologized in the national imagination. The Canadian railway had become a symbol of all that was possible for a nation united by a common purpose, and a favourite success story for anyone campaigning for the all-Canadian way, whether in construction projects or cultural initiatives. It was this earlier story of nation building, at this moment of national redefinition, that E.J. Pratt chose for his 1952 Governor General’s Award winning poem, Towards the Last Spike. Pratt’s chronicling of the CPR, a chapter of national history that closed almost eighty years before the poem’s release, must be considered a response to the cultural and economic climate that precipitated the Massey Report’s admonitions. [3] But Pratt does not tell the story with the same unquestioning reverence as does the Massey Report. Instead, through the lens of the railway, Towards the Last Spike reconsiders nationalism, and documents not only the profits but also the potential violence of nation building. In 1930, nineteen years before his participation in the Royal Commission on Arts and Letters, Vincent Massey qualified his support for national art with the admission that “[n]ationality has been the excuse for deeds of violence and selfishness since nations were known”; at the same time, he suggested, nationalism, when “rightly understood[,] surely provides the very pillars on which a sound internationalism can rest” (cited in Finlay, 120). Pratt makes the dangerous ambivalence of nationhood the space of Towards the Last Spike, and foregrounds the places in which nationalism becomes divisive.

Pratt’s articulation of Canada and of Canadian nationalism is a history neither simple nor celebratory. Instead, Pratt allows the ambiguity of the Canadian railway story to stand, so that even the moments of accomplishment in Towards the Last Spike are darkened by the sacrifices and erasures underwriting the project’s completion. His retelling is tinged with irony, a tactic that W.H. New argues is particularly well-suited to the “Grandchild[ren] of Empire,” to those attempting to write themselves and their nations out of the legacy of colonial rule. The return to railway history demonstrates a concern with Canada as the child of Empire, trying to define itself, both in 1880 and 1950, as independent, strong enough to resist American annexation. While Pratt undoubtedly celebrates the achievement of the railway, he refuses a naïve nationalism and instead frames his history in critique. Despite the complexity of Pratt’s retelling, critical commentary often flattens the poem by focusing only on the celebratory nature of the narrative, the overall trajectory of a seemingly impossible goal ultimately accomplished. Such readings overlook the irony, “the divergent relation between an apparent surface intent and an often political undertow” (13, New’s emphasis), that makes Towards the Last Spike more than a useful history lesson: the space of ambiguity that the poem explores, the space between the benefits and the costs of nationalism, provides Pratt with room to question, without dismissing, projects of national unification.

Pratt’s student (and later a colleague at the University of Toronto) Northrop Frye observes that, in his lifetime, Pratt was the “unofficial poet laureate” (129) of Canada, and suggests that his popularity may have limited the scope of critical readings of his work. Yet despite this observation of a critical lack, Frye, too, saw Pratt as a simple writer. Pratt, Frye argues, recognized his status as “the voice of the community” (127) and attempted to write in the tradition of the oral poet, whose task it was to preserve the community’s stories for transmission to the next generation. In accordance with his role, Pratt did not shade his poetry with his own judgments; instead, he merely catalogued, and “tend[ed] to accept the values of his society without much questioning” (130). Other critics have made similar pronouncements. Frank Davey says that each of Pratt’s poems is “no more than itself” (55), and Jed Adams, in a 1959 interview with Pratt, claims that Pratt’s work “can be enjoyed as simply as a good meal or a hockey game” (cited in Gingell 53). Pratt’s poems, in other words, are easily digestible and offer healthy portions of Canadian content. The tendency to read Pratt as an impersonal and detached recorder of community history has narrowed the realm of engagement between poet and reader, and has resulted in a critical undervaluing of Pratt’s subtlety that is at its most obvious in many readings of Towards the Last Spike.

Instead of being read in the context of its historical and cultural moment, Towards the Last Spike is made to fit into bigger critical pictures of Pratt, and, because it was written near the end of his career, is itself designated the “last spike,” nailing together the various frames into which Pratt’s poetry has been made to fit. The poem “marked [Pratt’s] retirement as Professor Emeritus from Victoria College in 1952” (Djwa 134); as his final epic piece, it is often read as the culmination of his work in Canadian writing. Sandra Djwa finds first and foremost in Pratt an “evolutionary vision,” and so Towards the Last Spike becomes, for her, a celebration of technological progress: Djwa writes that, “[a]s Pratt whimsically presents it, this co-operative holistic process moves towards the completion of the railway and the good of the nation” (131). To Davey, who understands Pratt as consistently celebrating cooperation, the poem demonstrates the possibility of shared human accomplishment: because he “admires any kind of heroic collective action against long odds” (60), Pratt places emphasis throughout “on the collective nature of the great success of men” (59). Angela McAuliffe, whose book is subtitled “The Religious Dimensions of the Poetry of E.J. Pratt,” reads Pratt’s writing of the railway as “the construction of a road through the desert” and “the fulfillment of prophetic vision” (38). James Johnson calls Towards the Last Spike “triumphant” (149): like the “technological miracle” (149) of the railway itself, Pratt’s poem embraces all of Canada, and offers a “statement of faith in the continuity of the human spirit and in the strength of the Canadian will” (147). While each of these readings is helpful in understanding the trajectory of Pratt’s writing career, none credits the irony and complexity of Towards the Last Spike: none accounts for the poem’s fragmented form, for its metaphors of violence, for its proliferating references to war and rebellion, or for the darker moments that tinge what is too often taken to be a purely celebratory history.

R. D. Macdonald, in his 1995 call for a reconsideration of Pratt’s poetry, acknowledges that critical readings of Pratt have been “reductive” (18). Macdonald suggests that the railway, and by extension Confederation itself, is portrayed in Towards the Last Spike in a manner that cannot be summarized as either celebratory or defeatist. Instead, Pratt’s view of “[t]he union of Canada, the triumph of civilization, is genuine, but in Pratt’s mock epic and ironic overview, temporary, costly, and fragile” (35). Macdonald’s suggestions can be taken as a call to reconsider the nationalistic and celebratory light in which Towards the Last Spike is most often recalled. [4] Evidence of Pratt’s apprehension and unease with projects of national definition can be found throughout Towards the Last Spike: from the opening metaphor to the closing image, the poem troubles a simple celebration of Canadian connectedness.

The opening section of this poem, and especially the twelve introductory lines, are essential to an understanding of Pratt’s challenge. Though Towards the Last Spike is set almost entirely in the later part of the nineteenth- century, Pratt uses his opening stanza to write of his “now” (1), the mid twentieth-century, placing the contemporary in a position of priority. The opening proclamation—”It was the same world then as now” (1)—suggests that Pratt does not see the history he relates as an isolated event. Instead, these opening lines advocate reading then and now in tandem, reading for points of connection and divergence. The world of “then,” Pratt suggests, is like the world of “now,” “Except for little differences of speed / And power, and means to treat myopia” (2-3). Myopia, which here reads as both near-sightedness and narrow-mindedness, and represents limited vision in a double sense, is a national affliction in both 1880 and 1950. While Pratt marks a contemporary difference in the treatment of myopia, a difference heightened by the emphatic placement of “Except” at the beginning of the second line, he does not suggest that society has cured itself of its limited perspective. In fact, the catalogue of technological change that follows the observation of “differences” suggests not a correction, but an intensification of the dangers of myopic existence. The world of “now” has developed the technological power “To show an axe-blade infinitely sharp / Splitting things infinitely small” (4-5); the science of “now” could “Provide the telescopic sight to roam / Through curved dominions never found in fables” (6-7). The point of view becomes dizzyingly narrow, as the perspective moves closer and closer to that which it examines, eventually dissecting to view microscopically the internal workings of its object. This is science at its new myopic extreme.

This divisive near-sightedness has permitted the development of new extremities of destruction. As Tom Middlebro’ observes in his 1976 “Commentary on the Opening Lines of E.J. Pratt’s Towards the Last Spike,” the “algebraic substitutes for nouns” (9) to which Pratt alludes must suggest “the algebraic equation E=MC2” (242). Djwa, in the Introduction to her new co-edited volume of Pratt’s work, similarly suggests that Pratt’s focus on the “axe-blade” and his emphasis on science’s new capability of “splitting things infinitely small,” call to mind “the splitting of the atom” (xix). Djwa reads this focus as suggestive of scientific advancement, arguing that Pratt’s charting of science’s penetrating vision “implies progress” (xix). Scientific vision’s alignment with the “axe-blade infinitely sharp” (4), however, suggests the dangerous and violent potential of such new discovery, and undermines any straightforward celebration of science’s new sight.

The instability of Pratt’s “now”—North America in the 1950s, caught in the tensions of the Cold War—further undermines the suggestion that Pratt’s call to science should be read as a simple celebration. An allusion to the splitting of the atom must, in 1952, call to mind the destructive legacy of the atomic bomb. And here is Pratt’s example of science at its most myopic. Pratt’s allusion to atomic potential, written in the midst of the Cold War, only five years after the detonation of atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cannot be purely celebratory. Pratt’s letters make clear that his thoughts were clouded by worry over war during the writing of Towards the Last Spike. In January of 1950, Pratt was “[d]eeply disturbed by President Harry Truman’s announcement . . . that the United States would develop a hydrogen bomb” (Pitt 415-16), a weapon with even more destructive potential than its predecessor, the atomic bomb. He “knew of no way, he wrote to [Earle] Birney, ‘to get the pressure of hydrogen off my chest,’ other than through the medium of verse” (Pitt 416). Poetry is Pratt’s direct response to the threats of war, which signals both that Pratt had war, and the potential dangers of scientific myopia, on his mind at the time of writing this poem, and that he saw poetry as a means of  challenging science’s potentially suffocating presence. [5] Pratt opens his poem  with that which worries him most, and invites his reader to consider the national history he presents through the lens of modern-day Canada. Clearly, Pratt does not see the creation of the Canadian railway as a project equivalent to the creation of the atomic bomb; he does, however, draw a connection between the two that is worthy of tracing through the rest of the poem. [6]

Pratt’s allusions suggest that the “power” (3) of the new world is potentially self-destructive. Scientific formulas intrude on the imagination. The scientists are the “sky cartographers” (10) of the day (a fitting label, suggestive of the dreams of the scientific discipline but also the arrogance of presuming to chart the heavens), and their formulas “hang like signboards” (10) in the dreamspace of “our thoughts” (11). Pratt’s use of the pronoun here is noteworthy, since the voice of the first person very rarely enters this poem.  “Our,” then, is significant: Pratt’s narrator aligns himself with the tongues silenced by hubristic science. The “signboards” (10) of science “trespass on our thoughts to stop / The stutters of our tongues with their equations” (11- 12). This “trespass,” Jonathan Kertzer argues, is a “trespass without sin” (81), an overstepping that refers “to the audacity of the human mind as it enlarges its scope” (79). Yet it is arguable that trespass, here, is not innocent: instead, the term carries its traditional negative associations of both sin and intrusion, and its deployment suggests something of a battle between the scientists and the poets. [7] But the magnitude of atomic potential gathers the scientists, too, under the pronoun “our,” and the narrator’s fear becomes one of complete destruction. Pratt’s use of the conditional tense in this figurative fight for territory between the scientists and the poets is important. The scientists “would hang” (10) their formulas in the poets’ sky, suggesting that they desire to mark the spaces of poetic thought, but also that they have not yet done so. There is room for change, the narrator avows.

Pratt questions the driving forces behind this national unification. His narrator worries that, like “now,” “then” may have been more intent on breaking records than on real and lasting achievement. The world of the railway’s creation was “[t]he same world then as now,” a world “thirsting for power / To crack those records open” (51-52). This metaphor (which again alludes to the destructive power of atomic warfare) is tellingly violent: this is not a vision of cooperation and building, but a competitive understanding of creation, in which the new must destroy what came before. The battle is endless, and increasingly aggressive: “the tougher armor followed the new shell; / The newer shell the armor” (46-47). This cycle of destruction destabilizes the notions of progress underwriting the railway’s construction. Families, too, were sacrificed to the project: the railway’s cost was an argument that “rent / God-fearing families into partisans” (33-34). Pratt’s narrator asks, “Was ever an adventure / Without its cost?” (41-42). Taken on its own, this question may seem to justify sacrifice as necessary. But sandwiched as it is by references to endless battle and civil war, the weight of the question rests on the costs, which pile up one on top of another. The theme of destructive splitting, begun with the image of the axe-blade, carries throughout the poem. The nation’s planners, all myopic, have risked sacrificing long-term vision for short-term gain.

The men amalgamated for the purpose of the line’s construction become an army, divided among ranks. The troops are drawn “From down-and-outers needing roofs, whose hands / Were moulded by their fists, whose skins could feel / At home incorporate with dolomite” (58-60); supervisors will be men “with marshal instincts in them” (61), “[d]irect[ing] their battalions from the trestles” (63). The militaristic metaphors stack up quickly, and are perhaps at their most violent in the workers’ battle with the land itself. The construction-destruction troops prepare for an offensive effort: they survey “the bastions of the Rockies” (971)—fortified land—in an attempt to find a weak point, susceptible to attack. In strategizing how to best conquer these mountains, William Van Horne (manager of the CPR, and so chief marshal of the railway troops) wonders whether the range can perhaps be “outsmarted on the flanks” (959). In a passage labeled “Internecine Strife,” Pratt’s narrator describes the fierce combat that has existed for ages among the forces of nature, between the “Guerrilla evergreens” (1057) and the mountains, “Rock versus forest” (1066), forces which “were hammering one another at this moment” (1043). The violence of this language suggests that this is land as it is viewed by railway engineers: this survey is part of the railway army’s strategic planning. If the land itself is already under siege, is already a battlezone, its destruction becomes natural and even necessary, legitimating the railway’s declaration of war—”Frontal assault!” (1341)—on the mountains.

Language itself becomes both a weapon and a secondary theatre of war in the railway’s battle against the land. The railway’s proponents fight “against two fortresses: the mind, the rock” (1016): both sites must be gained to win the war. In a section titled “The Attack,” Pratt focuses on the warring parliamentary speeches, “the battle of ideas and words” (470). Here, Edward Blake’s professed opposition to John A. Macdonald’s plan is described as “dangerous” (510); Blake’s words become “artillery” (516) and “gunfire” (519) against the railway. His metaphors, perilous “flash[es] of fire” (537), “burn” (534) their way into public consciousness. Blake’s speeches are described as “salvos” (517), a word that means both a verbal attack and a discharge of artillery. [8] Language throughout seems to have the capacity for such violence. The repetition of such militaristic metaphors must undermine any attempt to read this poem as light “intellectual comedy” (Smith 151).

The true violence of the attack on the land becomes clear when the land is personified and granted voice. The lizard of the North Shore, meant to represent the Laurentian range (a region that proved particularly difficult for railway construction), calls attention to the ambiguity of the national project as a whole. This lizard is not the fearsome dragon some critics have made her out to be: she breathes fire only because the men who invade her plant dynamite along “her insides” (945). Before their invasion and her “violation” (913), she “lay snug” (874), satisfied to exist quietly. Pratt suggests that he “wanted a very old form, something reptilian, so I made the Laurentian range a hybrid monster, a lizard held within the folds of the pre-Cambrian Shield” (Pratt, cited in Gingell 147): his creation is multiply “hybrid,” “conceived, / But not delivered” (871-2), “too old for death, too old for life” (884), “neither yielding nor resisting” (908) her attackers. Though the narrator later calls her “survival without function” (910), this lizard clearly plays a pivotal role in the maintenance of her home: her tail “swished / Atlantic tides” (875-6). And with increasing efficiency,

Her back grown stronger every million years
She had shed water by the longer rivers
To Hudson Bay and by the shorter streams
To the great basins to the south, had filled
Them up, would keep them filled until the end
Of Time. (894-9)

The lizard regulates the tides and sustains the rivers: without her, the nation will not function. Immediately following this catalogue of the lizard’s voluntary contributions to her environment, the narrator asks, “Was this the thing Van Horne set out / To conquer?” (899-900). The line break here emphasizes the questioner’s disbelief: the incongruity of the situation takes an extra second to register. The doubt will, in the following lines, be explained in relation to the lizard’s enormous bulk, but at the moment of its asking, this question suggests a disbelief not because the war is unwinnable, but because the enemy is a friend.

The personification of the lizard, and Pratt’s decision to script this section of the battle from her point of view, make the violence of her invasion all the more extreme. The men who violate her, who make “her insides / The home of fire and thunder” (945-6), attack her despite her passivity. [9] The railway crew’s digging and blasting becomes a “consistent punching at her belly,” (1256) as day after day their “fire and thunder slapped her like an insult” (1257). When asked why he makes his lizard a “she,” Pratt suggests that he is simply following the custom of referring to boats and countries in the feminine (cited in Gingell, 147), but the lizard’s status as female also serves to heighten the violence of the workers’ penetration. Perhaps this interaction could be read, on some level, as a rape of the land. Pratt’s narrator does not assign clear moral value to the lizard’s abuse, but the ambivalence of the lizard’s position permits such interpretation. Her only defense “her passive corporal bulk” (951), the lizard sets a muskeg “trap” (1263) to defend herself. While man’s invasion has been violent and aggressive, the lizard’s response is natural and passive. Just as the “Carnivorous bladder-wort” (1268) swallow the “water-fleas” (1269) that buzz about them, so will the lizard swallow the invading men:

She took three engines, sank them
With seven tracks down through the hidden lake
To the rock bed, then over them she spread
A counterpane of leather-leaf and slime. (1276-1279)

Though the railway seems to have tamed the dragon, pinning her to her place, her swallowing of her enemy proves that her reign is far from ended. “[S]ome day” (1284), at a moment of her choosing, “She might stir in her sleep and far below / The reach of steel and blast of dynamite, / She’d claim their bones as her possessive right” (1286-88). The construction crews think they have subdued the beast, but their victory is superficial and only temporary.

The lizard disrupts a celebratory reading of this history, but even more unsettling are the allusions to Louis Riel and the Riel Rebellions, which have been largely left out of critical readings of the poem. Kertzer suggests that Pratt “must brush aside competing visions of justice (the Riel Rebellion),” as such opposing views would “contaminate the poem with a different vision of nationhood” (80). It seems, however, that it is not Pratt, but critics themselves who have bracketed Riel’s presence in this poetic retelling of Canadian history. Pratt, I would suggest, does not bracket the Riel Rebellion: instead, his allusions have precisely the opposite effect, permitting the Rebellion to creep in from the margins, to which it has been relegated by nationalist histories. Riel was hanged in 1885, the same year the last spike was driven, but this is a connection that moves far beyond similar dates. The railway—the line that would define the nation—was a priority for John A. Macdonald’s Conservative government: anything or anyone understood as barring the way would be violently displaced. Such willingness to sacrifice whatever does not align with the national picture is amply demonstrated in the story of the CPR through the history of the Selkirk colony, the site of the Riel Rebellions. The Selkirk land has a complicated history of ownership, making it a fitting site from which to complicate understandings of nationalism. Lord Selkirk records in his writings that he purchased the title to the Red River colony in 1811; here, he established his colony of Scottish settlers (111). Selkirk bought the land from the Hudson’s Bay Company, who had themselves been granted the land by the British government. Despite the British, HBC, and Scottish claims to ownership, the land was inhabited by Native and Métis peoples (Bumstead, Introduction 15). This conflicted territory serves in Macdonald’s daydreams (lines 178-193) and nightmares (1391-1419) as a gauge of the public relations success of the project of national definition as a whole.

Pratt’s Macdonald has two significant moments of remembering Selkirk: one that affirms his goals, and one that undermines the project entirely.  Early in the poem and early in the railway’s chronology, Macdonald wakes from a nightmare and attempts to calm himself with place names: Selkirk,  he said, “had the sweetest taste” (183). Macdonald says that he remembers a time in Selkirk history, “Ten years / before [when] the Highland crofters had subscribed / Their names in a memorial for the Rails” (183-85). “Ten years before” would refer to early 1860, and the memorial to which Macdonald refers is an 1863 document, transcribed by Sir Sanford Fleming, who would later become the Chief Engineer of the CPR. In this document, the “people [read ‘white men’] of Red River Settlement” (6) record their support for territorial roads through their colony with the understanding that these will eventually become railways. Moving further back in history, Pratt’s narrator, through Macdonald, recalls in brief the violent development of this colony. Macdonald will make use of Selkirk’s struggles, incorporating this story into his war of words. Selkirk’s Scottish men become brave “pioneers” (200) in Macdonald’s propaganda; like the train itself, these men are part of a mission to civilize their rough surroundings. Selkirk’s history soothes Macdonald back to sleep because the history of this place reinscribes his own power to erase that which refuses to fit his plan.

Pratt’s Macdonald is attempting to comfort himself by remembering that his project has the support of Selkirk. But he is recalling this history in 1871, strategically forgetting the first scene of this Métis uprising, the Red River Rebellion of 1870. In 1869, the Red River was sold to the Canadian government, which was looking to expand west (Bumstead 136). The Métis, in an attempt to defend their homes, took prisoner all trespassers on their land. One such trespasser, Thomas Scott, had been working to plan the new roads in the settlement (Bumstead 103). The Métis were nervous about these roads, since they often ran directly through property and homes. Scott was killed at Riel’s order, executed for trying to incite a riot among fellow prisoners. This is the killing that eventually led to Riel’s own death. Meanwhile, in the poem, the railway spikes continue their westward advance, and have reached “across the Red to Selkirk” (419). Fourteen years after the first appearance of Selkirk, Macdonald again cannot sleep. The railway has pinned Selkirk to its place within the nation, but its history continues to trouble the national line. The Red River history is no longer comforting: instead, Macdonald is haunted by the ghosts of those he has silenced, and especially by their representative, Riel. Riel’s executioners’ “marching choruses” (1403) intrude on Macdonald’s thoughts: “We’ll hang Riel up the Red River, / And he’ll roast in hell forever” (1404-5). This chant Macdonald labels as the echo of the shot that Riel ordered fifteen years earlier. Though Riel’s death would seem to put an end to the controversy, Macdonald is acutely aware of the fact that this is only the beginning. Immediately after this haunting nightmare, Macdonald is “sick indeed” (1420): the “Métis’ sullen tread” (1417) runs ceaselessly through his mind. Even more worrying, the Riel Rebellion triggers not only troublesome memories, but also nagging concerns of “treaty-wise” (1418) Natives and future land claims to be addressed: this realization makes Macdonald sick.

The connection between the CPR and the Métis of Red River is direct: both claim the same land. Furthermore, the railway promised increased military capability in the quelling of this and future land disputes. The railway was of chief importance in quieting the Red River Rebellion, as troops could quickly arrive at the site to silence dissenters. Sir Sanford Fleming, in his previously cited “Memorial” requesting the government run their railway directly through Red River, wrote “[i]t requires no argument to prove that the Railway and the Electric Telegraph are the most perfect means for concentration of military power that could possibly be desired” (46). These technological advances promised to police the land, keeping the colonizers safe and keeping those colonized quiet. CPR President George Stephen, defending the company’s financial record at the 1885 annual shareholders’ meeting, praised the military benefit of a national railway: “[t]he speed with which that transport [of military troops to Selkirk] was effected, contributed, in no small degree, to the suppression of the outbreak. This circumstance has drawn attention . . . to the probability that the railway may, upon its completion to the Pacific Ocean, bear a still more important part in the defense of the Empire” (“Canadian Pacific”). Charles Everett, a Conservative Member of Parliament, went so far in noting the connection as to publicly thank the CPR during a speech in the House of Commons. The defense the railway offered, Everett believed, would be fundamental to new Canadian settlement and civilization: “We have here an enormous quantity of land fit for cultivation, on which we desire to see a large portion of our own people—people from our fatherland” (4). The CPR promised to provide to these pioneers “the fullest protection the law of the country can provide” (4). These military connections helped Macdonald to finally convince parliament that the railway was integral to the creation and defense of the Canadian nation. And yet, Riel’s death haunts Macdonald, as the Rebellions have continued to haunt national cohesion. Macdonald’s nightmares remind the reader of the many unanswered questions of Confederation. What would be done with those who were in the way? The CPR was granted $25 million and 25 million acres of land from the Canadian government (Hedges 24, 31), land that was gifted, of course, without consultation of its occupants. The story of Red River is only one of many instances of invasion and forced relocation in the history of national development.

The final scene of the poem, perhaps more than any other, undermines national unity. Pratt carefully sets the stage for the driving of the railway’s final spike. While “No flags or bands announce this ceremony” (1535) this is, nevertheless, a symbolic moment: the railway runs from coast to coast; “The job was done” (1565) and “well within the pledge” (1564). The battle is finished. This should be the ceremony of victory. Instead, however, Donald Smith (a CPR investor and a founding member of the CPR syndicate who was chosen for the honour of delivering the final blow) missed the last spike. The picture is marred. Catherine McKinnon Pfaff, in her helpful study of Pratt’s historical references, notes that only one of Pratt’s suspected historical sources mentions that the last spike was missed before it was hit (56). The choice to conclude with this dramatic miss hammers home the poem’s cautionary note: national projects are never guaranteed to hit their mark. R.D. Macdonald aptly labels this closing scene Pratt’s “triumphant but off-key denouement” (40). The initial miss colours and mars the eventual sinking of the final spike. “Outwitted by an idiotic nail” (1584), Smith, “head bowed” (1583), seeks revenge. In his final blow, a blow which comes to represent the builders’ final word on the railway, Smith,

invoking his ancestral clan,
Using the hammer like a battle-axe,
His eyes bloodshot with memories of Flodden,
Descended on it, rammed it to its home. (1591-94)

Smith’s use of a “battle-axe” in this final blow recalls the “axe-blade infinitely sharp” (4) of the poem’s introduction, a return that links the historic miss to the contemporary myopia.

It cannot be merely the defiant and “grinning” (1586) missed nail that has motivated such passion in Smith’s second blow. This second strike, a vengeful blow, the Scotsman Smith executes with blood in his eyes. Through the allusion to Scotland’s loss to English soldiers at Flodden, more than three hundred years earlier (Djwa et. al. 235), the “grinning” nail comes to stand for more than the logistical difficulties of the railway. Instead, the mocking spike stands in for Smith’s enemy, his final strike the final blow of battle. The story of the railway closes, as it opened, with allusions to war. But it is the lizard who gets the last word: “To drown / The traffic chorus, she must blend the sound / With those inaugural, narcotic notes / Of storm and thunder which would send her back / Deeper than ever in Laurentian sleep” (1622-26). If the lizard, the land, can incorporate the noise of the railway with the sounds of her natural existence before the intrusion, she will sleep again. There is still the sense that the battle’s finale is conditional. If nature and technology can coexist, the land will rest. The railway complete, the “[human] breed has triumphed” (1620) after all. But is this moment truly triumphant?

Pratt does not dismiss the value of this accomplishment, but refuses to label the railway project as an unquestionable sign of progress. Instead, the poem advises caution, suggesting that science that races ahead without vision of its goal inevitably divides and destroys. F.R. Scott, in 1957, writes back to Pratt, asking “Where are the coolies in your poem, Ned? / Where are the thousands from China who swung / their picks with bare hands at forty below?” (1-3). Scott was right to ask: Pratt does not expose the darkest moments of Canadian railway history. He does not write the history of the exploited workers, so often victims of racism in its deadliest form, but he does include a gesture towards their suffering: “Ring, Ring the Bells,” a self- contained section of the poem that runs from lines 1132 to 1147, could be read as a muted elegy for the workers sacrificed in the race to build the railway. “Sorrow is stalking through the camps” (1135), and visits everyone involved in the railway, from the “Blackfoot tepee” (1137) to the “coolie’s door” (1139). The section ends almost callously, as anonymous men are sacrificed to  the project:

Ring, ring the bells but not the engine bells:
Today only that universal toll,
For granite, mixing dust with human lime, 
Had so compounded bodies into boulders
As to untype the blood, and, then, the Fraser,
Catching the fragments from the dynamite, 
Had bleached all birthmarks from her swirling dead.
Tomorrow, and the engine bells again! (1140-1147)

All but the last line of this section is set off in italics: by the final line, both the font and the construction schedule have returned to normal. Ultimately, the loss of workers’ lives is depicted from the point of view of the railway’s supporters, and so the sacrifices represented by these deaths become another of the justified costs of the adventure. Pratt’s minimization of these losses, and the cold return of the final line, become, when read in context, a critical commentary on the cost of nation building. Though these details are left unexplored, Pratt’s focus on the big picture of railway development demonstrates that the frame surrounding the entire project is one of violence and war: in some way, then, Pratt invites these workers’ stories to be told on their own terms.

In a 1969 essay, Dorothy Livesay suggested that the documentary poem is a particularly Canadian genre, and Pratt one of the chief examples of the documentary poet. [10] But for Livesay, the marker of the Canadian documentary is not the voice of objectivity and transparency that critics such as Frye see in Pratt. Instead, Livesay argues, Canadian writers manipulate the documentary form, using its conventions to make room for argument and observation. The Canadian documentary strategy uses “the story [as] a frame on which to hang a theme” (269). Pratt’s retelling is less a reading of “then” than a comment on “now”: he makes use of the history of the Canadian Pacific Railway as a frame on which to hang his theme, his argument for a cautious nationalism, an alliance aware of its risks and benefits. The simplified story of the railway came to stand as a symbol of progress and national unification for the Canadian public, evidence that the country could thrive without taking the American way. But the railway also became the nation’s “central devouring obsession” (Frye 22). Pratt’s “now” seeks a space of existence between a new and mighty collective dream and a devouring future.


  1. [ref] The Alaska Highway, completed in 1942, just one year before the Advisory Committee’s Report was issued, stands as a special case in the list of war-era construction projects intended to mark independence: this project, which would link the lower United States to Alaska by way of British Columbia and the Yukon, was financed by the United States, and was initiated under the agreement that Canada would take possession of the road once the war had come to an end. The Alaska Highway marks both the desire for Canadian autonomy and the realization of America’s existing military and economic authority.
  2. [ref] Clearly, the railway was idealized in such strategic remembering: railway history was established, Maurice Charland explains, as “the basis for a nationalist discourse” (200), though often a hollow and circulatory discourse which “equates the construction of the CPR with the constitution of Canada and praises each with reference to the other” (197). The CBC, in turn, was “legitimated in political discourse by the CPR” (197). Just what it was that was being unified was generally left unquestioned, as technologies of communication were praised for their own sake.
  3. [ref] Pratt began work on Towards the Last Spike in January of 1950 (Pitt 411). The creation of the Massey Commission was announced in the throne speech of January 1949 (Litt 30), and the Commission’s public hearings visited Toronto (where Pratt lived and worked) in November of 1949 (57). Even before the release of the Massey Report, the Commission’s concerns were public knowledge, and the issues the Commission set out to address surface frequently in Canadian newspapers and magazines from the late 1940s on (57).
  4. [ref] Jonathan Kertzer’s Worrying the Nation (1998) implies, but does not explore, such a rethinking. Kertzer theorizes the tensions and contradictions inherent in the idea of nationality, but then resists locating challenges to nation in Towards the Last Spike.Instead, he says, Pratt works “[t]o maintain the spectacle” (85) of national cohesion:Towards the Last Spike, Kertzer argues, “exhibits great confidence in civilization and progress, in the myth-making powers of thought, and in the legitimacy of the national dream” (80).
  5. [ref] Of course, war was not a new concern for Pratt: see his earlier poems, especially “Come Away, Death” (1941), for more on this theme.
  6. [ref] In his reading of Pratt’s letter to Birney, Kertzer suggests that the railway served as a pleasant distraction, “offer[ing] compensation for distressing current events” (81). If this were the case, Pratt’s opening twelve lines would have been excised from Towards the Last Spike and allowed to stand on their own as a comment on the arms race.
  7. [ref] “The Truant” (1942), in which a “bucking truant” (3) confronts “the great Panjandrum” (1), is Pratt’s quintessential commentary on the battle between science and imagination. C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures (1959) explores this dichotomy as a popular mid-century theme.
  8. [ref] Macdonald prays to speed up the production of such cutting metaphors in “Tory factories” (541-2), calling to mind an image of wartime munitions factories. Here it is words, not bombs, that are being manufactured, but they are used to wage war.
  9. [ref] Armed with “shovels” and “pickaxes” (918), these men echo the actions of Mammon’s “Pioneers” of Paradise Lost, who, “with Spade and pickaxe arm’d” (676) “and with impious hands / Rifled the bowels of their mother Earth” (686-87). Pandemonium is built in similar cannibalistic fashion. That Pratt’s railway construction parallels the building of Hell’s capital city is surely significant.
  10. [ref] Roy Miki criticizes Livesay’s own documentary poem, “Call My People Home,” as reinscribing the internment of the Japanese-Canadians whose story it claims to represent, and “effectively stripping away the subjectivities of those depicted” (103). Towards the LastSpike does not claim to tell the entire story of the railway, but refutes the sanitized version of CPR history that has been claimed for the national imaginary. Rather than resolve the disjunctures it represents, (a closure that Miki equates with assimilation in Livesay’s documentary,) Towards the Last Spike reinforces the understanding that much is left unresolved

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