Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
Alfred Earle Birney was born on May 13, 1904, in Calgary, Alberta, which was then a part of the Northwest Territories. He spent his youth in Calgary, Banff, and Creston, British Columbia; graduated from Creston High School in 1920; and then worked at a variety of jobs to earn money for university study. By 1926, he had graduated from the University of British Columbia with first-class honors in English literature, and that autumn he entered the University of Toronto as a Leonard Graduate Fellow. During the next year, he concentrated on Old and Middle English, and his studies led to his later imitations of the Anglo-Saxon line in “Anglo-Saxon Street” and “Mappemounde.” He graduated with an M.A. in 1927 and was married the same year.
From 1927 to 1934, he studied at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as in Toronto. Two years later, he completed his Ph.D. thesis, “Chaucer’s Irony,” and received his degree from the University of Toronto. From 1936 to 1940, Birney acted as the literary editor of The Canadian Forum, writing numerous articles for this journal. When World War II began, Birney served overseas in the Canadian armed forces as a personnel officer. He would later use this experience as the basis for his comic war novel Turvey.
In 1945, at the end of the war, he was appointed professor of English at the University of British Columbia (UBC). While at UBC, he was instrumental in establishing the...
(The entire section is 494 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Alfred Earle Birney (BUR-nee) was among the most important Canadian poets of his generation. He was born on May 13, 1904, in Calgary, Northwest Territories (now Alberta), Canada, a rugged region of cattle ranches and wheat farms bordered on the south and west by the Rocky Mountains. His father, Will Birney, was a farmer and later a sign-painter and decorator; his mother, Martha Robertson Birney, was Scottish, with strong musical and religious interests. Both were self-educated. Earle worked as a bank clerk, mosquito controller, paper hanger, and mountain guide before entering the University of British Columbia in 1922. He took an honors B.A. in English in 1926 and, from the University of Toronto, an M.A. in 1927. With an academic specialty in Old and Middle English, he taught at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the University of Utah before taking his Ph.D. (with a thesis on Geoffrey Chaucer’s irony) in 1936 from the University of Toronto. Birney’s verse was marked from the beginning by a strong sense of the spoliation of beautiful natural places such as Alberta by modern civilization. His verbal ability, no doubt honed by his academic work in medieval English language and poetry, was also evident.
Beginning in 1929, Birney’s experiences of the Depression drew him into the leftist political circles of Toronto, where he became known as a Trotskyite. He was active in the Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party. At this time also, a first marriage was annulled, and Birney subsequently married Esther Bull; they had one son and were divorced in 1977. Out of these years, personally and socially turbulent, came Birney’s first published poems, which began to appear in periodicals in the late 1930’s. By 1942, he had assembled his first collection, David, and Other Poems, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for verse and a warm but mixed review by Northrop Frye, who praised the strong, heroic narrative of the title poem but disliked some of Birney’s free-verse mannerisms. Thoroughly Canadian and even regional, Birney was always a modernist,...
(The entire section is 900 words.)