Vancouver Lights Themes
by Earle Birney

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Vancouver Lights Themes

(Poetry for Students)

Birney's description of the relationship between nature and culture in "Vancouver Lights" is a metaphor for humanity's relationship to the universe and to history. In the first stanza the speaker, his vision "guided" by the moonless night, sees lights from the city "overleapping the seajet" and "vaulting] the shears of the inlet," metaphorically suggesting that human beings have overrun nature, that human-made things such as cities dramatically affect the ways in which we see and interact with the natural world. But nature also overruns culture, as in the second stanza when the ocean, metaphorically described as "the primal ink," threatens to engulf cities. Birney both underlines Nature's indifference to human concerns and figures Nature as a malleable substance which can be molded by human will. His description of the "mountain's brutish forehead" and night that "black Experimentress," which threatens to swallow all of human existence, shows a view of a natural world that does not need human beings. However, when he claims that "out of the water and rocks of our little world / we conjured these flames," Nature is presented as less threatening and a substance with which humanity can do as it desires. Birney also seems to imply that distinguishing between what is human-made and what is natural has become more difficult, giving rise to a greater sense of dislocation in human beings. This sense of "lostness" is reinforced in the many images of emptiness and space, and the description of history as "feckless years." The universe itself, the poem seems to say, is like history. Both are governed by whim and chance and circumstances beyond humanity's control. We attempt to control the randomness by controlling and colonizing the wilderness, but this also will prove impossible.

Meaning of Life
"Vancouver Lights" asks not what kind of meaning human life has, but if it has any. Writing like a prototypical existentialist, Birney appears to conclude that humanity is responsible for making its own meaning, and it will be responsible for negating that meaning. Birney underscores the randomness of human existence when he refers to history as "feckless," and he emphasizes that emptiness is at the root of life in his figure of the "black Experimentress," an all...

(The entire section is 558 words.)