David and Other Poems
Earle Birney's first collection, David and Other Poems (1942), won the Governor-General's Literary Award for poetry and received strong praise from such reviewers as E.J. Pratt and Northrop Frye.
Earle Birney's first collection, David and Other Poems (1942), won the Governor-General's Literary Award for poetry and received strong praise from such reviewers as E.J. Pratt and Northrop Frye. Designed by Thoreau MacDonald for the Ryerson Press, the book consists of 21 poems combining a western regionalism with anxieties about the Second World War, for Birney had joined the University of Toronto's Officer Training program in 1940. Noting the importance of Pratt as his mentor, Birney told Desmond Pacey that the war gave him "a sense of urgency," and that he "didn't set out to be a regional poet; it was simply that the absence of poetry dealing with my part of the world gave me a little more courage to try writing." After the famous title poem, the next ten poems culminate in "Eagle Island," a playful pastoral after the manner of Rupert Brooke's "The Old Vicarage, Grantchester." Ten poems then address the war, and the last, "On Going to the Wars," concerns Birney's decision to enlist.
Written in four-line stanzas with what Birney called "assonance or vowel-rhyme," "David" is a tragic narrative of the end of youth "on the last of our mountains." After Bob's carelessness causes David to fall when the two friends climb a remote peak, Bob feels that he must grant his friend's request for a merciful death. Although Frye used the poem to support his idea that "the outstanding achievement of Canadian poetry is in the evocation of stark terror," Birney notes that "It's not stone that lures and betrays, but man the animal, carrying within him both zest and grief, youth and age, love and hate, life and death." As a narrative with a sublime setting and a sense of hubris, "David" reveals Pratt's influence, as does "Vancouver Lights," one of the concluding war meditations. Alone on "this mountain's brutish forehead," the speaker worries that war will bring humanity to the verge of extinction in an indifferent universe. As Elspeth Cameron argues, the poem bears similarities to Pratt's "The Truant," and it was published first. Pratt moves from the horrors of war to heroic defiance, but Birney ends with a bitter revision of the Prometheus myth: "No one slew Prometheus. Himself he chained / and consumed his own bright liver." In "Hands," the differences between West and East, or between Canada and Europe, are no longer of interest: "We are gloved with steel, and a magnet is set us in Europe. / We are not of these woods, we are not of these woods, / Our roots are in autumn, and store for no spring." In "On Going to the Wars," the speaker hopes to "stand by those who strive to chart / A world where peace is everyone's," and then return to "the wide sundrenched Pacific." David and Other Poems made Earle Birney "the first significant Canadian poet to have been born west of Ontario," in Pacey's phrase.
Earle Birney, The Cow Jumped Over the Moon: The Writing and Reading of Poetry (1972); Elspeth Cameron, Earle Birney: A Life (1994); Sandra Djwa, "A Developing Tradition." Essays on Canadian Writing 21 (1981); Northrop Frye, "Canada and Its Poetry." Rev. of The Book of Canadian Poetry, ed. A.J.M. Smith. Canadian Forum (Dec. 1943); Bruce Nesbitt, ed. Earle Birney (1974); Desmond Pacey, Ten Canadian Poets: A Group of Biographical and Critical Essays (1958); Tracy, Ware, ed. "The Lives of a Poet: The Correspondence of Earle Birney and Desmond Pacey, 1957-58." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 56 (2005)