Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 898
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.
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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, cosmopolitan poet.
With the coming of World War II, Birney went on active duty with the Canadian army in 1942 and served in Belgium and Holland as a major in personnel selection. His second volume of verse, Now Is Time, appeared in 1945, and his third, The Strait of Anian, in 1948. These collections show the influence of his wartime experience. Notable poems include “The Road to Nijmegen,” with its powerful elegiac tone and its sense of the bleak destructions of history: “the bones of tanks/ beside the stoven bridges; old men in the mist/ knifing chips from a boulevard of stumps.” In 1952 came Trial of a City, and Other Verse, in which Birney developed one of his most characteristic themes, the decay and desperate plight of urban civilization. In its long title poem, a drama mingling verse and prose, and bringing witnesses from the present and the past, the city on trial is Vancouver, and the issue is simply whether it should continue to exist. A verdict is scarcely needed: The city is seen as gripped in its own death wish, the capitalist exploitation of human and natural resources.
By the end of the 1940’s, Earle Birney had been firmly established as a major Canadian poet. During the 1950’s, he turned aside somewhat from his poetry to work on two novels, to edit the important anthology Twentieth Century Canadian Poetry, and to develop as a scholar and a teacher at the University of British Columbia, where he was a professor of medieval English literature and later chairman of the Department of Creative Writing. In his first novel, Turvey, Birney created a satirical extravaganza about military life which also, in its darker passages, sees war as a metaphor for all human activity. Birney’s second novel, Down the Long Table, deals with the political milieu in Canada during the 1930’s from the perspective of a radical professor whose past is being investigated by a government committee in the McCarthyite atmosphere of the early 1950’s.
In the rich outpouring of Canadian verse in the later postwar period, Birney’s voice reached its full power. Ice Cod Bell or Stone and Near False Creek Mouth were triumphs of a senior poet projecting a more personal tone and content; these poems used the experiences of his many and extended visits to foreign countries. An example is the discursive “Cartagena de Indias” from Near False Creek Mouth, with its South American setting, its sympathy with the victims of centuries-long colonial exploitation, and its humor (“Where gems and indigo were sorted/ in shouting arcades/ I am deftly shortchanged”). A sense of history and a strong sense of place mix skillfully with an equally strong sense of himself as outsider in this representative poem. Birney’s most important volume of this period was his Selected Poems of 1966, judged “the major work of Canada’s major poet” by Bruce Nesbitt.
Birney was writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo, Ontario, before retiring from academic life in 1968. He continued to publish extensively and to travel widely. His extended visits to the United States, South America, the Caribbean, Australia, Africa, and Asia influenced his poetry markedly. In the mid-1970’s, he also started writing about the changes in Canadian literature that he had observed during his lifetime. Birney died in 1995 at the age of ninety-one.