What are the metaphors in Earle Birney's poem "Vancouver Lights," and how does each metaphor influence our understanding of the element within the poem to which is applied?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In his poem “Vancouver Lights,” Earle Birney employs an over-arching metaphor implicitly likening light to life. Yet the poem employs various other metaphors as well. Thus, line 1 compares night to a wimple (a feminine head-covering); line 2 compares night to a  kind of wrap, while in line 3 night suddenly seems alive as it “sucks at the stars” in a metaphor whose meaning does not seem especially clear. Emphasis on life continues later in that same line in a description of the “city   throbbing below,” but the metaphorical language shifts again in line 4, where the lights of the city are now likened to a kind of actively growing web that somehow continually extends its reach. In lines 7-8 the haze of a ship is compared to a “firefly” and the revolving light emanating from a lighthouse is compared to the spokes of a wheel. By the end of the first stanza, then, Birney has used many different metaphors to associate light with life, activity, and growth.

In stanza 2, the light of lamps is compared to a dry, warm, comforting “quilt” (11). Immediately juxtaposed with this metaphor is a metaphor implying something wet and seemingly uncontrollable.  Something unnamed and mysterious is “Welling from Europe’s bog” (12). Only when one reaches the end of the stanza and discovers the long-postponed noun “ink” (15) is it clear that the substance that is “Welling” is darkness, which is associated in this poem with the loss of light, the loss of life, the loss of human civilization. The darkness is compared to a rising, engulfing, and threatening flood (15). No “quilt” is likely to be a match for this flood.

In stanza three, the basic metaphorical contrast between light (life, civilization) and darkness (death, chaos) is maintained and elaborated.  Humans are compared to a mere “spark” in a huge surrounding darkness (19). As this stanza develops, the possibility of that spark of life and meaning being snuffed out by the darkness of nothingness is increasingly emphasized. The universe is a “black Experimentress” (21), a phrase that suggests the absence of any ultimate, reassuring, comforting design.  The sun – “Our Phoebus” (22) – is merely a “bubble”: tiny, ephemeral, doomed to pop or dry out, while for the universe itself (likened to a black “Nubian”), the lights of the planets and stars are mere ornaments, more decorations, worn “for an evening’s whim” (24).

Humans are even smaller, even less significant than planets when compared with the blackness of the universe.  We are mere “glowworms.” We may be “unique” (25), but we are tiny.  At the same time, we have indeed created and mastered our own small light. We have behaved, in a way, like magicians (27), and indeed in lines 27-29, the speaker emphasizes human power and collective human ingenuity. We have been weavers, and if we are destroyed we will ironically be the creators of our own destruction. In the final lines of the poem, we have gone from being evanescent glowworms to self-destructive gods. We may destroy ourselves, but the fact will always remain that there once was light, and life:

No one bound Prometheus      Himself he chained
and consumed his own bright liver      O stranger
Plutonian      descendant      or beast in the stretching night--
there was light



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