Vancouver Lights Questions and Answers
by Earle Birney

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Please identify five metaphors in Earle Birney's poem "Vancouver Lights." How does each metaphor influence our understanding of the element within the poem to which is applied?

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The theme of Birney's poem, written shortly after the start of World War II, is that humankind has self-destructive tendencies and has only itself to blame for the situations it finds itself, such as war.

A metaphor is a comparison that does not use the words like or as. Five metaphors that Birney's speaker uses that are important to his theme are the following:

Light is important to this poem, and in the first stanza, the speaker compares the city he sees below him to a web of golden lights—"golden strands." That is an apt metaphor because it is what a city looks like seen from above. It emphasizes that the web we see is human made, not natural, pointing to the theme that we are responsible for what happens on our planet: we built the culture that goes to war.

In the second stanza, Birney's speaker expands the metaphor from the golden web of lights over one city to the "quilt of lights" that blanket the earth in the form of human civilization all over the globe, from Europe to Africa to Asia. Once again, humans are responsible for creating the civilizations we live in.

In stanza four, the speaker compares humans to "glowworms." This is an appropriate metaphor: it underscores our smallness in the grand scheme of things, but also indicates that we are the ones who set the world aglow with war: "we conjured these flames ... hooped these sparks." The same light or energy which makes cities glow like golden webs also makes the bombs that glow and explode.

In the final stanza, Birney emphasizes the smallness of humankind against the vast expanse of the universe. He compares humankind to "dwarfdom": we may think we are great, but we are tiny, especially compared to the moons and continents he mentions in this stanza. Second, he uses the metaphor of Prometheus to describe all of humankind. In Greek mythology, Prometheus defied the gods to give humans fire. He was punished by being bound by the gods to a rock. Harpies would eat out his liver, and it would grow back again, to be eaten and regrown in an endless cycle of torture. Birney changes the story to emphasize human responsibility for our suffering. In his telling, we humans (Prometheus) chain ourselves to a rock and eat our own livers out. This vivid metaphor shows his despair that this cycle can every change unless humans change.

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