"Vancouver Lights" appears in Birney's first collection of poems, David and Other Poems, most of which Birney wrote shortly after World War II began in 1939. The collection launched Birney's career as a poet and the book received the Governor General's Award for Poetry in 1942, the most prestigious award given for poetry in Canada. Birney read the poem on a CBC radio program on Canadian poetry in early February 1943. Consisting of five stanzas which utilize a kind of visual prosody, the poem is a lyric meditation on humanity's frailty, and on the possibility of faith in humanity's future. In that sense it is similar to Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach." However, "Vancouver Lights" is a much more difficult poem, to read and to understand. Birney's grammatical inversions, frequently abstract allusions, and at times impossible to grasp associations require multiple readings before meaning coheres. Although the poem suggests despair born of World War II, Birney's pessimism goes deeper, implying a cosmic hopelessness which has no remedy. Using thick descriptions of nature and humanity (figured as the lights from the city of Vancouver, British Columbia) colliding and overlapping, the speaker presents humanity as a small and insignificant part of the universe which has only itself to blame for its self-destructive behavior. The poem makes generous use of Greek mythology to underscore the idea that World War II is only the latest manifestation of humanity's impulse to destroy itself, that what history teaches us is that we make the same mistakes over and over again. At the end of the poem, the speaker questions whether humanity has the capacity to change its course.
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...
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