Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414

Earle Birney did not follow in the tradition of earlier nature poets such as Bliss Carman (1861-1929) or Archibald Lampman (1861-1899), whose romantic landscape poems celebrated the beauty, peace, and goodness of nature—but then, the rugged Canadian West of Birney’s experience hardly resembled the more tranquil scenery of the East that inspired the imagination of his predecessors. The awe-inspiring and fear-inspiring mountain wilderness shaped such poems as “David” (one of his best-known poems, about the fall and death of a young mountain climber) and “Bushed.” These poems are as much about the flaws and fears of human nature as they are about the fierce beauty and power of physical nature. As Birney stresses in such poems as “Maritime Faces” and “Climbers,” if humans are to survive in a harsh environment that is indifferent to their pretensions and vulnerability, they must come with respect, humility, knowledge, vigilance, and readiness to solve the problems they encounter, both around them and within them.

“Bushed” exposes the folly of a man who fails to take seriously either nature’s threat or his own limitations. His journey into the wilderness is a journey into madness and death. At first he presumes that the place he chooses to build his shack is safe and will accommodate his needs and desires. The “quills on his hatband” flaunt his arrogance. It is not so much nature around him that defeats him but his own nature, which is unprepared to take the proper measure of either his external or internal world. The mighty mountain looms high above him, and the confrontation with its shattering force soon seeps into his psyche and begins the unhinging of his mind. Increasingly, his mind mirrors the irrationality of a terror-stricken soul projected onto the vast indifference and impersonal force of his environment. The mountain comes alive, not with glorious splendor but as an ogre-god who wills the intruder’s death and marshals all its resources to accomplish its purpose. Thus the lake becomes the god’s lap of destruction, the ospreys become valkyries, the goats turn into guards, the lakeshore into totems, the owls into mockers, the cedars into threatening animals. The woods become “beardusky,” and the winds become the aerial blacksmiths that forge the fateful arrowhead. The man who came to conquer the bush rather than to seek kinship discovers that he came in ignorance. He retreats to his puny shelter, bars himself in, and waits for the death that his mind has imagined.

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