"Vancouver Lights" appears in Birney's first collection of poems, David and Other Poems, most of which Birney wrote shortly after World War II began in 1939. The collection launched Birney's career as a poet and the book received the Governor General's Award for Poetry in 1942, the most prestigious award given for poetry in Canada. Birney read the poem on a CBC radio program on Canadian poetry in early February 1943. Consisting of five stanzas which utilize a kind of visual prosody, the poem is a lyric meditation on humanity's frailty, and on the possibility of faith in humanity's future. In that sense it is similar to Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach." However, "Vancouver Lights" is a much more difficult poem, to read and to understand. Birney's grammatical inversions, frequently abstract allusions, and at times impossible to grasp associations require multiple readings before meaning coheres. Although the poem suggests despair born of World War II, Birney's pessimism goes deeper, implying a cosmic hopelessness which has no remedy. Using thick descriptions of nature and humanity (figured as the lights from the city of Vancouver, British Columbia) colliding and overlapping, the speaker presents humanity as a small and insignificant part of the universe which has only itself to blame for its self-destructive behavior. The poem makes generous use of Greek mythology to underscore the idea that World War II is only the latest manifestation of humanity's impulse to destroy itself, that what history teaches us is that we make the same mistakes over and over again. At the end of the poem, the speaker questions whether humanity has the capacity to change its course.