Earle Birney

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What are the themes found in Earle Birney's poem "David"?

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The poem "David" by Earle Birney covers a summer of adventure for two young men.  It is written in free verse and is a rather long poem.  The beautiful Canadian Rockies invite the thrill-seekers to explore its dangerous cliffs.  The natural world calls to these boys to scale the heights of tall mountains.  Birney's descriptions and imagery place the reader on the mountains alongside the boys.

Narration for the story is supplied by Bob, who looks back on a life altering occurrence.  The other character David, the namesake of the poem, is Bob's partner in the expeditions.  Although both characters are good climbers, David is the more aggressive.

The boys  scale several mountains and find each more challenging than the previous one.  One of the  mountains, Sawback, has an overhanging  cliff that David names the "Finger."  This "remote and unmapped" area seem to obsess David, and he must scale and conquer it. On the last adventure while attempting to climb the "Finger," David slips and crashes about one hundred feet below.   Bob, thinking his companion dead, discovers that he is alive but gravely injured.  Beneath David is a six hundred foot drop to the ice.  One jagged edge has pierced David's back,  and he obviously will never walk again.  David makes the wish that no friend ever wants to hear:

Then he whispered, "Bob, I want to go over!"...For Christ's sake,  push me over!"...He breathed, "I'd do it for you, Bob."

Realizing that he could never get help in time and knowing that David  would never be happy paralyzed, Bob debates his choices agonizingly.  Finally, Bob feels that he cannot let down his friend, and although it is unsaid in the poem, Bob pushes his friend to his death.

The conflict of man versus nature is a theme found throughout the story.  The boys look as if they are one with nature when they scale their mountains .  But the finger symbolically extending an invitation to come, defeats them when David slips and falls.  There is no turning back.  The struggle is over and the strongest failed to survive, a variation of nature's law. 

Above us climbed the last joint of the Finger

Beckoning bleakly the wide indifferent sky

Even then in the sun it grew cold lying there...And I knew...

Bob's inner conflict with the killing of his friend is also thematic to the story.  The rising action ebbs forward as Bob realizes that his friend is more realistic in his views of death and survival.  The author's use of foreshadowing expresses the harshness of  nature when David kills a bird because his wing was broken knowing that it could never survive.  Would the bird (David) want to live? The pair also find a goat's skeleton that has fallen to this same death.  Bob reveals symbolically that "that is the first I knew that goats (David) could slip."  On one climb, David had even saved Bob from dropping to his death.  All  of these events lead to the choice that Bob has to make. Yes, David might have lived in a wheelchair, but would he be happy?  Even though David tries to release Bob from guilt, no one can change the feelings inside a person: fear, remorse, culpability.  Those live with a person forever.  In the end, Bob finds within himself the strength to end the friend's suffering; yet he knows that this was the end of his youth. Bob whispers:

And none but the sun and uncurious clouds have lingered

That day, the last of my youth, on the last of our mountains.

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