Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 878
The poem opens with the speaker describing the landscape surrounding him. The "moonless" night has an almost omnivorous quality, as it "wimples," "wraps," and "sucks" everything around it. Birney uses the word "wimple" to show the way the darkness creates what looks like folds or ripples around the mountain. The city itself "webs" the peninsula, suggesting its spider-like qualities. This buried metaphor is taken up again at the end of the fourth stanza. The lights of the city, which itself is described as "throbbing," are as active as the night is hungry, as they "overleap," "vault," and "climb" towards the speaker. In the distance, the speaker sees a lighthouse, from which light emanates like "lambent spokes." The overwhelming sense we have from the description is one of humanity and nature overlapping, with light serving both as both agent and effect of that overlapping. The speaker locates himself in an almost dreamlike world which we feel could change at any time. As is typical in lyric poems, the speaker will use his surroundings as backdrop and metaphor for the ideas upon which he will meditate.
The vague, dreamy setting described in the first stanza prepares us for the statements made in the second. Birney moves from an "I" to a "we," emphasizing that his descriptions are meant to speak for all of humanity, not just himself. He characterizes history as "feckless," meaning that it has been purposeless and meandering. But he also finds hope in humanity when he says that to look on it (figured as the city of Vancouver, itself figured as a "quilt of lamps") "is a troubling delight." This last phrase is an oxymoron, that is, it joins two terms which are contraries. The "bog" of Europe refers to the chaos of conflicts engulfing that continent during the onset of World War II, when Birney wrote the poem. The city's lights, paradoxically, drown the ocean's waves. Birney plays on images of lightness and darkness throughout the poem, suggesting a war between hope and mean-inglessness that humanity has waged and continues to wage. The final few lines in the stanza are ominous, as humanity, first represented by the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Canada's east coast, and then Vancouver, "this winking / outpost," located on the country's west coast, is on the brink of being overwhelmed by the ocean's dark waters, "the primal ink".
The mountain Birney refers to in the first line is Grouse Mountain, from whose high ridge one can look down upon Vancouver. By using the adjective "brutish" to describe the mountain's ridge, Birney echoes Thomas Hobbes's well-known statement that human life is "nasty, short, and brutish." He now considers humanity in light of the universe, and sees human beings as "a spark beleaguered / by darkness." The sinister "black Experimentress" is that darkness. Not even the sun god, Phoebus, can penetrate her black emptiness for very long. For all of his brightness he amounts to nothing more than "a bubble that dries on Her [microscope's] slide." The stars themselves (the "necklace of nebulae" the Nubian wears) are only an "evening's whim," to be extinguished in time themselves. Images of despair punctuate this stanza ("terror of space," "stark ranges / of nothing," "corner of emptiness"), underlining the speaker's own sense of foreboding.
Against all of this darkness and emptiness, against all the meaninglessness that the speaker catalogues, he nevertheless insists that "we must speak." Describing humanity as "unique glowworms," he claims that we have created the world "by our will." But not even Aldebaran (the red star which is the eye of the constellation Taurus, Birney's own astrological sign) which humanity has created by our sheer act of naming, will survive time. Speaking out for the voiceless has been a traditional role of poets, and one that Birney takes on in this poem to both describe the past and to sound a warning for the future. The last image of the stanza completes the weaving metaphor introduced in the first stanza.
In Greek mythology Prometheus was one of the Titans, a family of gods who roamed the earth before the creation of man. He and his brother were entrusted with providing man with animals and the means for preserving and taking care of them. With the intention of helping man, Prometheus gave him the gift of fire (which he stole) from heaven. Jupiter then created woman and sent her to Prometheus to punish him for stealing the fire. The woman, Pandora, was given a jar, or in some versions of the story a box, and forbidden to open it. She disobeyed orders and opened the box, releasing plagues of the mind and body upon humanity. The only thing which did not escape was hope, which lay at the bottom. Prometheus was punished by Zeus, who had him chained to a boulder, where an eagle pecked at his liver until he was eventually freed by Hercules. Contrary to Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound," in which humanity is described as having the capacity to perfect itself, Birney's Prometheus is responsible for his own suffering, and it is not clear that he will be rescued. Pluto is the god of the underworld and for Birney represents humanity's darker impulses, its drive towards self destruction.
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