Brébeuf and his Brethren

October 22, 2008

Brébeuf and his Brethren (1940)
E.J. Pratt (Macmillan, 1974)
80 p.  First reading.

Every year at about this time the University of Toronto hosts a series of second-hand book sales, and this year I found this little volume at one of them.  It is discoveries like this that make attending these sales so worthwhile.

E.J. Pratt was for many years a professor of English Literature at the University of Toronto, and three times the winner of Canada’s Governor General’s Award for poetry (1937, 1940 (for this poem), and 1952).  Brébeuf and his Brethren tells the story of the mission and martyrdom of St. Jean de Brébeuf and his Jesuit brothers who came as missionaries to the native peoples of North America in the seventeenth century.

Brébeuf first came into (modern) Ontario in 1625, following in the wake of Champlain, and committed himself to the care, both physical and spiritual, of the Huron tribe.  Over the years he was joined by other Jesuits from France, and they slowly established a modest mission amid difficult circumstances.  They learned the language, produced a written form of it, and studied the native culture, intent on finding ways in which the people might be receptive to the gospel.  Pratt, speaking of Brébeuf, emphasizes the self-denial this mission demanded of these men, and imagines how their presence may have been perplexing to those whom they sought to serve:

Three years he had been there, a friend
Whose visit to the tribes could not have sprung
From inspiration rooted in private gain.
He had not come to stack the arquebuses
Against the mountains of the beaver pelts.
He had not come to kill.  Between the two —
Barter and battle — what was left to explain
A stranger in their midst?

By the 1640s their patient presence began to bear fruit in the form of baptisms and newly established mission outposts.  Meanwhile, however, hostilities were brewing between the Huron and the Iroquois, with river ambushes and war raids increasingly common, and the mission became dangerous.  It is also true that some regarded the priests — the “black robes” — as shamans who brought trouble with their foreign rites and their prayers to a strange God.

Though given the opportunity to return to France, many decided to remain and continue the work, despite the danger and the very real possibility of death.  They were not naive.  Isaac Jogues, who joined the mission in 1642, was captured by the Iroquois and enslaved.  He was brutally tortured, beaten with clubs and made to roll in hot coals, his fingernails plucked out, his fingers and thumbs mutilated or torn off.  Near death, he was offered escape on a Dutch trading vessel, and took it.  Yet after returning to France and recovering his health, he returned again to Canada to rejoin the mission.  In 1646 he was taken by the Iroquois and beheaded.

There are other stories like his.  St. Antoine Daniel advanced toward an Iroquois war party carrying a cross aloft, intending to buy the Huron time enough to escape before he was filled full of arrows, like St. Sebastian.  St. Jean de Brébeuf and St. Gabriel Lallemant were also captured by the Iroquois, tortured, boiled alive, and scalped.  For their commitment to their mission and the sacrifice of their lives, Brébeuf and seven of his brothers were canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930.  Together with St. Joseph, they are the patron saints of Canada.

Considered as an interesting and informative account of the mission, Brébeuf and his Brethren is an admirable poem.  Considered qua poetry, however, I’m less enthusiastic.  It begins this way:

The winds of God were blowing over France,
Kindling the hearths and altars, changing vows
Of rote into an alphabet of flame.
The air was charged with songs beyond the range
Of larks, with wings beyond the stretch of eagles.

I guess that’s alright.  I’m not a great lover of blank verse, so perhaps my prejudices are getting in the way.  He is at his best when painting the physical hardships and the rugged, untamed landscapes, as in this passage:

…the stories of those northern boundaries
Where in the winter the white pines could brush
The Pleiades, and at the equinoxes
Under the gold and green of the auroras
Wild geese drove wedges through the zodiac.

But I’m afraid that such evocative images are the exception, and the text too often sounds like prose that has been carefully converted to poetry by judicious insertion of carriage returns.  Here is a passage chosen more or less at random that can be considered representative:

Bad days had fallen on Huronia.
A blight of harvest, followed by a winter
In which unusual snowfall had thinned out
The hunting and reduced the settlements
To destitution, struck its hardest blow
at Sainte Marie.

I suppose that is not quite drab prose — not as drab as my prose, for instance — but neither is it quite poetry, at least not to my ear.

Even so, I’m counting my blessings.  This poem could almost certainly not be published today, not with its politically incorrect subject matter (it would have to be filed under “cultural genocide”) and its un-ironic, admiring treatment of missionaries.  Even if it were published today, it would almost certainly not be published by a major press like Macmillan.  And if it were published by a major press, it would almost certainly not win the Governor General’s Award.  There are few things as valuable as the past to show us the present.


Audio clip: E.J. Pratt discusses the poem (Duration: 1:41)
(Recorded in 1960)

Audio clip: E.J. Pratt reads from Brébeuf and his Brethren (Duration: 3:47)
(Recorded at Victoria College Library, Toronto in 1956)


Related reading:
Brian Moore – Black Robe (also a film)
John Gerard, S.J. – Autobiography of an Elizabethan

2 Responses to “Brébeuf and his Brethren”

  1. You have helped me to appreciate the Brebeuf poem by Pratt that I consumed with wonder and admiration yesterday. I have visited the Martyrs’ Shrine and paddled the changeable waters of Georgian Bay. Never to be forgotten. Thanks…Doug Blair

  2. cburrell Says:

    You are most welcome, Doug. It’s been several years since I visited the Martyr’s Shrine; I’ve never paddled the Bay.

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