The Treaty of Versailles, which had officially ended World War I, crippled Germany's economy, guaranteeing the country a future of social turmoil which only added to the insecurity the German people already felt. In 1933, The National Socialist German Workers Party exploited this sentiment and took power, installing Adolf Hitler as its leader. With much of the German population supporting him, Hitler spent the next six years re-building the German military while invading and occupying nearby countries such as Czechoslovakia and Austria. Exhausted from the first world war, European countries did little or nothing to confront Hitler, practicing appeasement and negotiation instead of militarily confronting Hitler's army.
When Birney wrote "Vancouver Lights" in 1941 he was already at the end of a decade-long experiment in extreme politics. As World War II approached, Birney become more and more disenchanted with organized revolution and finally managed to distance himself from it. He took up poetry writing in earnest shortly afterward. In a 1939 interview he says that "I was writing because I felt, dammit, I wanted to say this kind of thing, I wanted to do this kind of thing, or see if I could do it, for a long time, and now I see the war closing around me and I'm either going to go to jail [for his political work] or I'm going to go overseas, and don't know who's going to survive or what. In 1939 as soon as war's declared, I began writing poems" (quoted in Davey).
Canada had the spent the 21 years from the close of World War I until the beginning of World War II fighting for autonomy from Great Britain, which they finally achieved in 1931 when Britain passed the Statute of Westminster, a law which gave Canada the right to form its own foreign policy. But Canada's ties to the United Kingdom were hard to break, and they joined England in declaring war on Germany September 10, 1939. This was just nine days after Germany had sent troops and tank divisions into Poland, marking the beginning of the war, and just one week after Britain itself had declared war on Germany. Birney enlisted in 1941, serving as a personnel specialist with the Canadian army in Canada, Britain, and various locations in Northwest Europe, attaining the rank of major before he was sent home in 1945. In 1941 shortly before he enlisted, the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Merchant Navy, and the Royal Canadian Air Force were all fighting to help keep the sea lanes of the North Atlantic free of enemy warships. Halifax, Nova Scotia, which Birney names as a threatened city in the second stanza, was a major port from which Canada shipped goods and troops to the United Kingdom. The Royal Canadian Navy's chief responsibility during the war was escort work for cargo ships. It was dangerous work and many sailors died, as much from exposure and accidents in the treacherous Atlantic waters as from enemy fire. All told, Canada lost more than 40,000 men and women in World War II, no small number for a country its size. The war affected Canadians both economically and psychologically. On the one hand, employment soared and women entered the workforce in large numbers, taking jobs traditionally performed by men. By 1944 more than 400,000 women were working in the service sector while almost that many worked in manufacturing. On the other hand, there were shortages of basic foodstuffs and goods, and luxury items were hard to come by.
"Vancouver Lights" is a meditative-descriptive lyric. In five irregular stanzas, Birney uses a kind of visual prosody to map the poem and to embody the poem's subjects. His inter- and intra-sentence spacings makes for a kind of staccato reading experience: we read the poem in the same way that the light and darkness Birney describes appear to him. Similarly, his enjambed lines emphasize the overlapping of the natural and the human worlds.
The poem's descriptive elements utilize concrete imagery and symbolic metaphors to depict a turbulent sea and busy,...
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