What is the chief symbol of Earle Birney's poem "Vancouver Lights"? What does the symbol mean beyond its literal meaning?
The central symbol of Earle Birney’s poem “Vancouver Lights” – as the very title of the poem suggests – is light. Imagery of light appears throughout the poem and suggests a variety of meanings. The poem opens by emphasizing the darkness of a “moonless . . . night” (1), By the third line, however, the first reference to light appears when the speaker mentions both the “stars” above and the “city” below. The light provided by the city
webs the sable peninsula The golden
strands overleap the seajet by bridge and buoy
vault the shears of the inlet climb the woods
toward me falter and halt Across to the firefly
haze of a ship on the gulps erased horizon
roll the lambent spokes of a lighthouse (4-9)
Here the imagery of light is strongly emphasized, and it seems to be associated with the life and dynamism of human beings, who have overrun nature, creating what seems, at this point at least, a kind of vibrant beauty.
The second stanza implies that the light of civilization once spread from Europe and covered much of the globe, including the entire landmass of Canada, from the eastern coast to the farthest reaches of the west. Yet that light of civilization is now threatened by a rise tide of welling dark ink, representing the rise of dark chaos in Europe and the possible loss of all civilized light.
The heavens as depicted in these lines seem to provide no sense of comfort or consolation to the speaker. There is no hint here that beyond the small lights of the earth may lie the greater, more glorious Light of a conventional Christian heaven. Space is dark and empty. Only small bits of merely literal light illuminate tiny parts of it. Earth is merely a
. . . spark beleaguered
by darkness [a] twinkle we make in a corner of emptiness . . . (19-20)
The poem’s references to anything greater than humans – to possible supernatural beings – are merely fanciful (21-24). The speaker offers no real hope of anything greater than the little lights we have managed to create for ourselves here on earth. Seen from a cosmic perspective, even those lights are quite tiny and insignificant. Certainly they are nothing compared to the real lights that dot space, which themselves seem insignificant compared with the huge cosmic darkness that surrounds them.
Humans, apparently, are “unique glowworms” (25) who exist in a universe in which God is absent. The literal and symbolic lights that cover parts of the earth are creations of humanity itself, not reflections of some Greater Light (26-29). Human achievements must be acknowledged and even celebrated, even if they are impermanent and ephermeral, even if no one outside the earth is there to hear of our accomplishments, even if literal and symbolic darkness someday overtakes the earth, even if humanity itself ceases to survive (28-31). By the final stanza, the speaker imagines a time when humanity itself has destroyed itself, including all its literal and symbolic light. The speaker foresees a time when no light created by humans will any longer exist – including, presumably, the small light provided by this poem.