Humankind as a Prometheus
The late Canadian literary critic, Northrop Frye, used to tell a story about Earle Birney's poem "Vancouver Lights" and the events of one single winter evening that helped Frye, at least spiritually, through the darkest days of World War II. Just before Christmas in 1941, the prospects for Canada and Great Britain looked dim. Earlier in the month, the garrison at Hong Kong had fallen—taking with it a third of the Canadian Army, many of them University of Toronto students. The United States Pacific fleet had been mauled at Pearl Harbor. England lay devastated during the worst days of the Blitz and its gradually dwindling air force was a thin line of dogged determination that lay between the British Empire and Nazi domination. The overwhelming drain on manpower, from both the call to arms and the call to factory work had depleted the enrollment at the University of Toronto to the point where the university was about to close its doors and submit to the veil of darkness that lay across the free world.
On that winter night shortly before Christmas in 1941, Frye gathered at Earle Birney's apartment on Hazelton Avenue along with a group of other Canadian poets that included the Canadian poet laureate E. J. Pratt, and younger voices such as Roy Daniels and A. J. M. Smith. Binrey was about to leave academic life for a tour of duty in the Canadian Army (the events of which would form the basis for his comic novel, Turvey). Pratt opened the evening by reading his poem, "The Truant," a fantasy/satire which tells the story of how a little "three by six" foot man stands up to a huge deistic entity called "the Great Panjandrum." Daniels and Smith chimed in with their new wartime poems. Birney then followed with a poem he had written while out West to visit friends in his home city of Vancouver the previous summer.
"Vancouver Lights" was based on an actual experience that Birney had while climbing a mountain above the west coast metropolis. It was night time and, as Birney stared from the mountaintop down onto the city below, district by district of the city suddenly went black—the first of many wartime black outs. As Birney often later recalled during my many lunches with the poet, it "was as if I was witnessing the end of the world from the point-of-view of God in Heaven." Birney speculated on the annihilation of the free world and what would cause, in the words of Winston Churchill, "the lights to go out" not only "all over Europe" but around the world. At the same time, Birney was struck by the idea that even in the face of total darkness and a bleak future there still exists "a will to light and life."
It was the final line of "Vancouver Lights," that profound statement "there was light," that so moved Northrop Frye. Perhaps the light had gone out of the world for the perceivable future, but the memory of it continued to exist, and that alone was signal enough of why the university should remain open and why Canada and the free world should be dedicated to the cause at hand. Like the defiant Prometheus who was bound and chained to the mountain side, Birney perceived the very heroic, yet ultimately responsible position of mankind for the sad state of affairs the world had become in the winter of 1941. For Frye, that paradox, the possibility of the world seeing its way clear of Fascism and mass destruction, was a signal of hope, albeit a faint one, that gave him the reassurance that the free world would endure.
Some of that hope resides in the position of the persona in "Vancouver Lights." The voice is one of an individual who finds himself lost and awed by both the splendor and the horror of the world around him. The poem begins with the phrase, "About me the night moonless wimples the mountains" as if the darkness is enveloping everything. The word "wimples" is also unique in that it signals a sense of almost cloistered withdrawal on the part of the world from the aspects of light, a humbling gesture that covers even "the mountains." That...
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