I float down the hall in the arms of a benevolent universe. Did the venerable old sage really agree to take
me on? No, he’s considering it. The best I could have expected. Write up your proposal and drop it in my
box. Come back in three weeks. We’ll discuss it then.
He’s given himself some wiggle room. I can’t blame him. He doesn’t know what I’m capable of. It’s all I
could have hoped for from an academic idol.
A dozen years earlier another student of Frye’s, Margaret Atwood, must have glided down this same hall
after she’d won the E.J. Pratt medal for her poetry. Okay, no comparison. But with a good imagination you
can see where I might be headed. She’s made a name for herself I envy—a Governor General’s award
for more poetry, two novels given the star treatment. And just last year she made a splash with a book that
analyzes Canadian literature. A startling book, really. The title says it all: Survival. I can relate to that. For
Can Lit it’s the struggle against geography, for me it’s the struggle against myself. Yes, you say, everyone
has that. But it’s not a moot point: My two selves might annihilate each other. Stop dramatizing? Wait till
you know me better. I might surprise you.
I head out the door, wondering if Margaret had any misgivings along the way. I’ve seen her now and
then at Vic, a slip of a woman you wouldn’t notice in a crowd. With her mass of curly dark hair and
puckish expression, she could’ve been fashioned out of Frye’s rib. She must be visiting her mentors—not
only Frye, but also Jay Macpherson, a poet turned prof who herself was a student of Frye’s. This is the
charmed circle I’m trying to join.
The rain has stopped when I emerge from the New Academic Building, the boxy minimalist addition
to Victoria College. The sodden grounds between the buildings, the empty black flower beds, smell heavy
with spring. An hour ago I hadn’t noticed, but the air has changed: it’s ripe with promise.
I wait for a break between the cars to cross the street into Queen’s Park. Old maples and oaks grow
stolidly throughout the park, their trunks thick with years. Marching along one of the asphalt paths, I peer
up. Black branches reach into the sky, quivering with life again. In a few weeks the buds will erupt. By
then I will be in the throes of anxious expectation, waiting to hear from The Great Man about my proposal.
Fifteen years ago Frye produced Anatomy of Criticism, considered one of the most important works
of literary theory of the twentieth century. It drew all of Western literature into a coherent pattern, with a
comprehensive map of characters, plots, themes and metaphors. Literature, he claimed, evolved from
mythology and he took it upon himself to provide a systematic framework of the myths we live by. I’ve
learned a lot from him, but I’m not sure which myth I’m living by. I wish I knew how to ask him. I must get
home now and gather my thoughts and notes together to write the proposal.
My train of thought is derailed. Behind me in the park, the whoosh of fabric against fabric. I turn.
Hugh hovers in the waning light. Hugh. You had to expel a mouthful of air to say it. Could be mistaken for
a sneeze. The name and the man.
“Are you following me?” I have no patience for the tall scrawny figure still sporting a winter jacket.
Not enough meat on him to keep him warm. I need a man of substance with a barrel chest and muscular
“I’ve been trying to call you.” He speaks through his turned-up nose, affecting his usual English
accent. I imagine him practicing at home.
His pale skin reddens as he steps toward me. I hate blushing in a man. It’s undignified.
So are the stooped shoulders and the nothing chest his pea jacket can’t disguise.
“You’re hard to get hold of.”
I’ve trained my roommate to take messages, which I don’t return.
“I’ve been busy.”
“Term’s over now. You’ll have more time.”
Yes, that was my excuse for the past month. I squint at him, trying to recall what I ever found
appealing. I was attracted to him for about a minute when he was a teaching assistant in my Blake
seminar. It must have been his breadth of knowledge, his intellectual pretensions, which don’t allow him
to get a decent hair cut. Splinters of brown hair fall over his ears when he looks down. Since he’s in a
constant state of embarrassment, he’s always looking down. He may be brilliant, but he’s socially inept.
“I just want to talk to you. Can we go somewhere for coffee?”
“I have to get home.”
“Mel, what happened to us?” His grey eyes peer at me behind the wire-rimmed spectacles that give
him that indigent poet look. “You don’t call me anymore. You ignore me in the hall... I thought we had
I knew from the start I’d be sorry. “Look, Hugh, things don’t always work out.”
His thin lips form a line as the scholar’s brain dissects my words. He doesn’t appear convinced. I’m
not averse to lying to get him off my back.
“Anyway, I’ve met someone.”
His face darkens. His pupils turn into pinpricks. “It’s not that simple, Mel. I put my career on the line
for you. We broke the rules.”
I was hoping he wouldn’t stoop to playing the guilt card. He contemplates my poker face. “Well, no one
will ever know,” I say.
Hughie, Hughie, you can’t threaten me. “If you tell anyone, you’ll be in just as much trouble.”
His lips move like worms. “It’ll be worse for you.”
Men are so childish. Would he cut off his nose to spite his face? Okay, he put himself out for me. A
lot. But how long should I be beholden to him? He got his reward—payment in full.
“Look, Hugh, you’ve got a promising career ahead of you.” I will spell it out for him, since he
obviously has no imagination of his own. “I can see you ten years from now, Professor Hugh Woodley,
the upcoming authority on William Blake. All those nubile young women in your class, hanging on your
every word. At least one of them will find you irresistible and you’ll marry her and have two kids, a boy
and a girl. So don’t screw it up.”
He’s staring at me, not listening at all. “It’s you I want.”
“You’ll have to stand in line.” I turn to keep walking through the park.
He jumps in front of me with unexpected energy and grabs my arm. “Remember when we were…
together? I called you Rowena?”
That’s what I get for consorting with an English major. Frye lectured on the nineteenth century convention
of using two heroines, one dark, one light; Ivanhoe was a prime example. Hugh has mistaken me for the
light heroine, the blonde Rowena, as opposed to the dark Jewess, Rebecca. Which proves how little he
knows about me. And he is no Ivanhoe, which I am about to retort when he stops me cold.
I pull my arm away and blink at him. My first marriage proposal. “I’m flattered,” I say, lying. “I’m not
planning to get married.” Not to him, at any rate.
“I’d do anything for you.”
“Then let me go home. I’ve got things to do.”
His storm cloud eyes study my face as if he will find an answer in my skin. Maybe he thinks there’s still
hope. In case he does, I add, “You know that girl who sits beside me in your seminar? Jan something?
I’ve seen her looking at you. You should ask her out.”
I try to step around him, but he grabs my arm again, tighter this time. A side of him I didn't expect. Should I
“I don’t want anyone else! Stop and listen to me! I can help you with your thesis. I’m not going to use all
the research I spent years gathering. You can have it!”
His thin lips quiver with magnanimity. He has no idea that what he’s offering is completely useless to me.
I’ve kept my cards close to the chest about my thesis topic—he doesn’t know about Brébeuf. He thinks I’m
going to do a comparison of Pratt and Blake. Now I wonder where he got an idea like that.
“I’ll sleep on it,” I say, desperate to get away from him.
“I’ll call you tomorrow.”
His pallid eyes remind me of the winter that’s just passed. I wrench my arm from his grip.
“Remember what I said.”
I march away, eyes front, his stationary figure in my periphery vision. My breath comes in short spurts as I
head toward Hoskin Avenue on the other side of the park. His eyes are burning my back.
The park sits in the middle of Queen’s Park Crescent like a boulder in a river. The traffic flows
smoothly, like water, around the impediment of the park, forced around it on either side, only to rejoin
below. The cars on the west side speed south from Bloor Street, with only the obstacle of the park to slow
them down; those driving east along Hoskin try to avoid the current of the southbound lane. I must wait for
a break in traffic if I value my life. And I must say that today I do. Things are definitely looking up, in spite of
I reach St. George Street, massaging my arm. Twilight has descended. When I turn my head,
searching the sidewalk just to make sure, Hugh is gone.
In my flat on Madison Avenue, I sit at my desk by the large window, pen in hand. For inspiration, I have
put Pratt’s picture in front of me, the one on the frontispiece of his collection of poems. He stares into a
space above the camera, eyes dreamlike, other-worldly. You know the type: the person, no matter how
humble in appearance, gathers importance from the dramatic pose. Do photographers tell their subjects:
Look off as if you can see eternity? As if you’re solving the problems of the world? His picture looks like
that, with his wisp of a smile, fleshy cheek resting on his palm: Pratt contemplating eternity.
Frye wrote the introduction to Pratt's book of poems with a touching fondness, calling him Ned. I think of
Ned and Norrie sitting in a leathery den in the Fifties, discussing William Blake. Frye’s first book was
Fearful Symmetry, a study of Blake, the title from the poem every English major can recite in her sleep:
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
I hear them compare “The Tyger” to Blake’s companion poem, “The Lamb.” They discuss the former
as the beast within oneself, the dark shadow of the human soul. The lamb all grown up. They see a place
in the divine plan for both the lamb and the tiger, a balance of innocence and experience.
My typewriter is sleeping under its vinyl cover. I stare out at the street lamp. Should I mention, as
background in my proposal, how the ingenious Pratt raised money for his way to Toronto? It must’ve been
expensive to travel from Newfoundland. He concocted a—what would you call it?—an elixir for the local
fishermen out of cherry bark, spruce, sarsaparilla and a strong lacing of rum. This antidote to everything
sold well. Maybe it helped them forget they risked their lives every time they set foot in their boats. Maybe
the cod struggling in the nets didn’t remind them of their own death. Pratt made enough money from the
potion to support himself that first year. Would Frye appreciate my digging up that little tidbit?
Perhaps I should stick to Pratt as the tragic poet of the sea. He fell into the topic, so to speak. His
grandfather was a sea captain, his father a minister who had to break the news to relatives that their
husbands or only sons had drowned.
No, no. Get away from the damned water! It’s just a coincidence. The poet I chose to study for his
portrayal of Brébeuf also happened to write about the sea. A coincidence? I don’t believe in fate, though
apparently Pratt did. In a poem he wrote about the Titanic, the ship and the iceberg are predestined to
meet. He said God didn’t ordain tragedy, but permitted it. That as a child he’d been brought up to believe
in the goodness of God and yet had to reconcile tragedy with it. He was always under that shadow. Yes—
all that fits into Brébeuf. Hell, it fits into everything. But I don’t need to solve the problems of the world. Just
I see the bloody thing in my sleep:
And in Bayeux a neophyte while rapt
In contemplation saw a bleeding form
Falling beneath the instrument of death…
The fingers of Brébeuf were at his breast,
Closing and tightening on a crucifix,
While voices spoke aloud unto his ear
And to his heart—per ignem et per aquam.
Through fire and through water. Perfect. Fire for Brébeuf and water for me.
Pratt was a straightforward writer; some criticize him for his simplicity, some commend him for it. He pits
the aristocratic Brébeuf as Christian hero struggling against the barbaric Indian villain. Nice and simple.
And connects all this with a theme he likes to explore in his poetry—the temple and the cave, the struggle
between the civilized and the primitive in the world, the relation between reason and instinct. I, too, am
interested in this struggle. It happens to be central in my life.