David

Original Text: 

Earle Birney, David and other Poems (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1942): 1-11.

I

2All week in the valley for wages, in air that was steeped
3In the wail of mosquitoes, but over the sunalive weekends
5Poker, the wrangling, the snoring under the fetid
6Tents, and because we had joy in our lengthening coltish
7Muscles, and mountains for David were made to see over,
8Stairs from the valleys and steps to the sun's retreats.
II
10To a curling lake and lost the lure of the faceted
11Cone in the swell of its sprawling shoulders. Past
12The inlet we grilled our bacon, the strips festooned
13On a poplar prong, in the hurrying slant of the sunset.
14Then the two of us rolled in the blanket while round us the cold
15Pines thrust at the stars. The dawn was a floating
17To snow like fire in the sunlight. The peak was upthrust
18Like a fist in a frozen ocean of rock that swirled
19Into valleys the moon could be rolled in. Remotely unfurling
20Eastward the alien prairie glittered. Down through the dusty
23Strides. I remember, before the larches' edge,
24That I jumped a long green surf of juniper flowing
26Spilled on the moss. Then the darkening firs
27And the sudden whirring of water that knifed down a fern-hidden
28Cliff and splashed unseen into mist in the shadows.
III
31An endless hour in the sun, not daring to move
32Till the ice had steamed from the slate. And David taught me
33How time on a knife-edge can pass with the guessing of fragments
34Remembered from poets, the naming of strata beside one,
35And matching of stories from schooldays. ... We crawled astride
36The peak to feast on the marching ranges flagged
37By the fading shreds of the shattered stormcloud. Lingering
38There it was David who spied to the south, remote,
41That day we chanced on the skull and the splayed white ribs
42Of a mountain goat underneath a cliff-face, caught tight
44And that was the first I knew that a goat could slip.
IV
46The long ascent of the lonely valley, the live
47Pine spirally scarred by lightning, the slicing pipe
50Taught me to read the scroll of coral in limestone
V
54The air howled from our feet to the smudged rocks
57Lobbed the iceaxe over the rocky lip,
58Slipped from his holds and hung by the quivering pick,
59Twisted his long legs up into space and kicked
60To the crest. Then, grinning, he reached with his freckled wrist
61And drew me up after. We set a new time for that climb.
62That day returning we found a robin gyrating
63In grass, wing-broken. I caught it to tame but David
64Took and killed it, and said, "Could you teach it to fly?"
VI
67Over a balsam fire. The woods were alive
68With the vaulting of mule-deer and drenched with clouds all the morning,
69Till we burst at noon to the flashing and floating round
70Of the peaks. Coming down we picked in our hats the bright
71And sunhot raspberries, eating them under a mighty
VII
74And hooked, till the first afternoon in September we slogged
75Through the musky woods, past a swamp that quivered with frog-song,
76And camped by a bottle-green lake. But under the cold
77Breath of the glacier sleep would not come, the moon-light
78Etching the Finger. We rose and trod past the feathery
79Larch, while the stars went out, and the quiet heather
80Flushed, and the skyline pulsed with the surging bloom
81Of incredible dawn in the Rockies. David spotted
83With yodels the ramparts redoubled and rolled to the peaks,
84And the peaks to the sun. The ice in the morning thaw
85Was a gurgling world of crystal and cold blue chasms,
87At the base of the Finger we tried once and failed. Then David
89Hundred feet we fought the rock and shouldered and kneed
90Our way for an hour and made it. Unroping we formed
93Of handhold. And one foot gave. I swayed and shouted.
94David turned sharp and reached out his arm and steadied me
95Turning again with a grin and his lips ready
96To jest. But the strain crumbled his foothold. Without
97A gasp he was gone. I froze to the sound of grating
98Edge-nails and fingers, the slither of stones, the lone
99Second of silence, the nightmare thud. Then only
VIII
101Somehow I worked down the fifty impossible feet
102To the ledge, calling and getting no answer but echoes
104What an answer would mean. He lay still, with his lean
105Young face upturned and strangely unmarred, but his legs
106Splayed beneath him, beside the final drop,
107Six hundred feet sheer to the ice. My throat stopped
108When I reached him, for he was alive. He opened his grey
109Straight eyes and brokenly murmured, "Over ... over."
110And I, feeling beneath him a cruel fang
111Of the ledge thrust in his back, but not understanding,
112Mumbled stupidly, "Best not to move," and spoke
113Of his pain. But he said, "I can't move. ... If only I felt
114Some pain." Then my shame stung the tears to my eyes
115As I crouched, and I cursed myself, but he cried,
116Louder, "No, Bobbie! Don't ever blame yourself.
117I didn't test my foothold." He shut the lids
118Of his eyes to the stare of the sky, while I moistened his lips
119From our water flask and tearing my shirt into strips
120I swabbed the shredded hands. But the blood slid
121From his side and stained the stone and the thirsting lichens,
122And yet I dared not lift him up from the gore
123Of the rock. Then he whispered, "Bob, I want to go over!"
124This time I knew what he meant and I grasped for a lie
125And said, "I'll be back here by midnight with ropes
127That the day and the night must pass and the cold dews
128Of another morning before such men unknowing
129The ways of mountains could win to the chimney's top.
130And then, how long? And he knew ... and the hell of hours
131After that, if he lived till we came, roping him out.
132But I curled beside him and whispered, "The bleeding will stop.
133You can last. " He said only, "Perhaps ... For what? A wheelchair,
134Bob?" His eyes brightening with fever upbraided me.
135I could not look at him more and said, "Then I'll stay
136With you." But he did not speak, for the clouding fever.
137I lay dazed and stared at the long valley,
138The glistening hair of a creek on the rug stretched
139By the firs, while the sun leaned round and flooded the ledge,
140The moss, and David still as a broken doll.
141I hunched to my knees to leave, but he called and his voice
142Now was sharpened with fear. "For Christ's sake push me over!
143If I could move ... Or die. ..." The sweat ran from his forehead,
145Blackly its wings over the wrinkled ice.
146The purr of a waterfall rose and sank with the wind.
147Above us climbed the last joint of the Finger
148Beckoning bleakly the wide indifferent sky.
149Even then in the sun it grew cold lying there. ... And I knew
150He had tested his holds. It was I who had not. ... I looked
151At the blood on the ledge, and the far valley. I looked
152At last in his eyes. He breathed, "I'd do it for you, Bob."
IX
153I will not remember how nor why I could twist
158Over the sun-cankered snowbridge, shying the caves
160On the ice, the running and falling and running, leaping
161Of gaping greenthroated crevasses, alone and pursued
162By the Finger's lengthening shadow. At last through the fanged
163And blinding seracs I slid to the milky wrangling
164Falls at the glacier's snout, through the rocks piled huge
165On the humped moraine, and into the spectral larches,
166Alone. By the glooming lake I sank and chilled
167My mouth but I could not rest and stumbled still
168To the valley, losing my way in the ragged marsh.
169I was glad of the mire that covered the stains, on my ripped
170Boots, of his blood, but panic was on me, the reek
171Of the bog, the purple glimmer of toadstools obscene
173And fell with a shriek on my shoulder. It somehow eased
174My heart to know I was hurt, but I did not faint
175And I could not stop while over me hung the range
176Of the Sawback. In blackness I searched for the trail by the creek
177And found it. ... My feet squelched a slug and horror
178Rose again in my nostrils. I hurled myself
179Down the path. In the woods behind some animal yelped.
180Then I saw the glimmer of tents and babbled my story.
181I said that he fell straight to the ice where they found him,
182And none but the sun and incurious clouds have lingered

Notes

1] survey: surveyors employed by the Geological Survey of Canada, in summers from 1913 to 1925, mapped the Continental Divide and proposed names for many of the peaks they mapped. Back to Line
4] ruck: piled-up clutter. Back to Line
9] Mount Gleam: an invented name for a mountain in the Canadian Rockies on the border between Alberta and British Columbia. Birney may have been thinking of Resplendent Mountain (53° north 119° west), the lesser, easier-to-climb companion of Mount Robson (3,408 meters, 11,181 feet). An ascent from the north-west passes Berg Lake. On the Alberta-British Columbia border near Jasper, Resplendent Mountain could give a view of the prairies to the east. David teaches Bob during this ascent. Back to Line
16] won / To: set to, fell to (OED, "win," v.1, 12d). Back to Line
21] Skree: scree, stone-swept slope. Back to Line
22] the give of shale: the yielding slipperiness of clayey loose shards of stone. Back to Line
25] gentian: flowering alpine plant. saxifrage: a small alpine plant with usually white flowers that grows low to the ground and often out of mossy rocks. Back to Line
29] A park range called the Ramparts standing over Amethyst Lake in the Tonquin Valley dominating Jasper National Park, Alberta. arête: a sharply rising edge of mountain that marks the beginning of the Rocky mountain ranges. Back to Line
30] blueing: from the cold. Back to Line
39] Sawback: the Sawback Range in the Canadian Rockies, northwest of Banff, and easterly of the Slate range. The Sawback Range extends about thirty-five kilometres from the Bow Valley west of Banff in Alberta to the headwaters of the Cascade River. Birney lived in Banff for a dozen years in his youth and mountain-climbed. The Sawback range gets its name from the almost vertical tilt of its peaks, which look like the teeth of a saw. Why the Finger got its name is obvious, but when and by whom is not. Back to Line
40] a talon: the hook of a bird of prey. The Finger is a still-unnamed high mountain in the Sawback Range (51° 13' 15" north, 115° 43' 0" west), rising 2,545 meters (8,350 feet), visible from the Trans-Canada highway. Back to Line
43] kites: hawks in 1966. Back to Line
45] Mount Inglismaldie, the second highest peak of the Fairholme Range in Banff National Park (51° 14' 30" north, Longitude 115° 25' 15" west). Birney climbed this mountain in the summer of 1922 (Cameron 36). Back to Line
48] pika: rabbit-like mammals. Back to Line
49] grizzly: bear, "a large and ferocious bear, Ursus horribilis, peculiar to the mountainous districts of western North America" (OED). Back to Line
51] trilobites: the fossils of extinct arthropods from the Cambrian period (500 million years ago) can be seen at the Burgess Shale site in the eastern Rockies. This world-heritage site was discovered in 1909 on the west side of a ridge linking Mount Field and Mount Wapta, near Field, British Columbia (51° 26' north, 116° 28' west). It is the subject of Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life. Back to Line
52] Cambrian waves: the Burgess shale fossils are of undersea arthropods, worms, and a little chordate, Pikaea, whose primitive "backbone" singles it out as the ancestor of our philia. Back to Line
53] col: a "marked depression in the summit-line of a mountain chain, generally affording a pass from one slope to the other" (OED). Sundance: Sundance peak, a high mount in the Sundance Range, east of Brewster Creek and west of Sundance Creek and the upper Spray River, extending from the Bow Valley south to the Spray Lakes Reservoir. Back to Line
55] balked: pulled up, stopped short. Back to Line
56] dint: indentation. scarp: escarp, steep wall or rock. Back to Line
65] The Fortess: a mountain on the continental divide (52° 23' 25", 117° 43' 20"), 3,020 meters (9,909 feet), north of the east end of Fortress Lake, on the border of Jasper & Hamber parks at the Alberta and British Columbia border. Back to Line
66] the forks of the Spray: a short tributary of the Bow river in western Alberta, flowing from Banff National Park to the Bow, i.e., the "forks." Back to Line
72] marten: polecat-sized mammal valued for its fur. Back to Line
73] unknown: still unnamed. Back to Line
82] moraine: a large deposit of rocks and debris left behind by retreating glaciation. Back to Line
86] seracs: "a tower of ice on a glacier, formed by the intersection of crevasses" (OED quotation, 1898). Back to Line
88] chimney: "a cleft in a vertical cliff by which it may be scaled, usually by pressing rigidly against the opposite sides" (OED). Back to Line
91] cairn: pyramid of stones to mark the successful ascent. Back to Line
92] giant Assiniboine: Mount Assiniboine, on the Alberta-British Columbia border near Calgary (50° 52' 10" north , 115° 39' 3" west; 3,616 meters, 11,864 feet), hugely pyramidal (like a "wedge"), the second-highest in Alberta and one of the great peaks in the Rockies. Back to Line
100] The: the in 1966. cascades: waterfalls.. Back to Line
103] cirque: a "natural amphitheatre, or rounded hollow or plain encircled by heights; esp. one high up in the mountains at the head of a stream or glacier" (OED). Back to Line
126] cradle: an idiom not found in the OED. Back to Line
144] head: eyes in 1966. kite: hawk in 1966. Back to Line
154] Bobbie had to return to the peak so as to descend via the chimney. Back to Line
155] traverse: where Bob crossed in a horizontal direction the face of the mountain. Back to Line
156] It: David's body. Back to Line
157] maw: stomach. bergschrund: "crevasse or series of crevasses often found near the head of a mountain glacier" (OED). Back to Line
159] névé: nêvé in 1966; the hard-packed snow at the top of a glacier. Back to Line
172] firewaste: an area burned down by fire. Back to Line
183] marks: David's blood spilled from the initial fifty-foot fall. Back to Line
184]

Commentary by Ian Lancashire

Earle Birney's "David," as much as any other Canadian poem,mythologizes the country north of the forty-nineth parallel as a land that loves the wilderness despite its toll on youth and human courage. This magnificent story pits the life-spirit of a young surveyor and mountain climber against a giant Goliath, the Finger peak in the Sawback Range of the Rocky Mountains, which will break his back and end the youth of his friend in lasting grief.

Birney based the story of David on the accidental death of his friend David Cunningham Warden, a Classics student at the University of British Columbia, in mid-September, 1927. While climbing the coastal mountains north of Vancouver with Wilbur Sparks, Warden fell fifty feet and broke his back against a "sharp rock-rib" (Elspeth Cameron, Earle Birney: A Life [Toronto: Viking, 1994]: 190). Sparks brought a rescue party a day later, but exposure and loss of blood as Warden lay paralyzed (though conscious) weakened him. Hedied in Vancouver General Hospital on September 19.

The setting of David's fall differs from Warden's. Birney imaginedthe events of his poem as taking place, not on the coastal ranges, but on "the peaks on the north of the Bow Valley above Banff, particularly MountLouis" (Cameron 189). The poem does not mention this peak, but it is in the Sawback Range, near the Forty Mile Creek Valley, and is visible from the Trans-Canada highway. Its limestone tower rises 2,680 meters (8,793 feet).There are some ten mountains in the Sawback Range, one of themthe Finger. Those that climb Mount Louis by the Gmoser route sometimes use a deep chimney that splits the tower of the peak, like the oneDavid and Bobbie climb on the final stage of the ascent. Birney himselfwas a mountain climber who grew up at Banff and who, when 17-18 years old in 1921-22, worked on a four-man surveying team. He knew the Sawback Range near Banff better than the coastal range (Cameron 34-36).

"David" tells the story of six mountains, a fictitious peak (Mount Gleam) andfive known ones: an unnamed peak in the Ramparts Range, Mount Inglismaldie, Sundance Peak, the Fortress, and the Finger in the Sawback Range. During these climbs, Bobbie learns techniques of climbing from David, some foreshadowing the final accident. On Mount Gleam he uses the instability or "give of shale for giant incredible / Strides." From the Rampart Range David sees the sunlit Finger to the south, "an overhang / Crooked like a talon"; and they find the skeleton of a goat eaten by hawks. Mount Inglismaldie also has associations with death: the tracks of a grizzy bear, and the fossils of extinct Cambrian trilobites. On Sundance David, at a difficult point in the climb, "Slipped from his holds and hung by the quivering pick"; and later, on the descent, he killed a robin that had a broken wing. His question to Bobbie, who wanted to save the bird, "Could you teach it to fly?", anticipates David's plea to him on the Finger. They took two attempts to scale the Fortress, and on their descent were "scouted" (hunted) by a marten.

Birney narrates the fall of David as if it was destined, being foreshadowed by ominous signs. The Finger also took two trials. Only when David found the chimney could they reach the top. There they unroped and made "A cairn on the rotting tip": in Biblical texts, a cairn can be a funeral monument for a hero. The word "tip" means, not just summit, but garbage dumped into a hole; and the term "rotting" anticipates the rockface that, "crumbled", was to pitch David to his death. The "give" of shale on Mount Gleam becomes the "slither of stones" that betrays David. Like the fallen goat, he also seems to have been seizedby a hungry bird of prey. The rock that breaks his back is "a cruel fang." When he begs, for a third time, to be pushed over the edge of the cliff, a hawk flies overhead. The Finger itself is the very personification of Alfred Lord Tennyson's nature in "In Memoriam" (a lengthy series of poems on the death of a friend), "red in tooth and claw." The Finger was "crooked like a talon" and "hooked."

The fall of a tragic hero in the English tradition normally happens, not by a little accident -- like slipping on crumbly rockface -- but as a result of a flaw in character or a moral mistake. Does either David orBobbie have such a tragic flaw? Although David claims that he did not test"his foothold" and so is responsible for his own fall, Bobbie knows this to be false. "It was I who had not." On the top of the Finger, Bobbie turned to look at Mount Assiniboine, "heedless / Of handhold. And one foot gave." He uses the same word that earlier described the way slate slides under one's feet. The accident was not David's, but Bobbie's. Yet carelessness does not amount to a tragic fault. Although Bobbie inadvertently caused the fifty-foot fall, David is right when he says, "Don't ever blame yourself."

Whose flaw, then, is it? Birney has the Finger "Beckoning [signaling] bleakly the wide indifferent sky." It is something much bigger than David or Bobbie that should be paying attention, and yet it is "indifferent." Does Birney mean that the mountain that kills Davidis "giving the finger" (showing contempt for) to the heavens? This American idiom dates from 1893.

When faced with David's plight, Bobbie's male instinct is to disbelieve it. But he knows that he lies when he says that David's bleeding will "stop" and that he will "last" long enough to be rescued. Once he accepts that David will die, Bobbie is forced to take complete responsibility for his friend's death by pushing him over a 600-foot drop. He must consciously, with full awareness of what he is doing, murder his friend if he is to make amends to David for what Bobbie's carelessness caused. When David asks Bobbie to kill him, and when Bobbie knows what he must do, his plight becomes tragic. Such self-knowledge ennobles David's otherwise accidental, meaningless fall. The only way Bobbie can grant his friend's wish, to ameliorate the pain that David suffers, is by finishing him off. Bobbie becomes a killer in spite of himself. So horrific is the act which transforms David into "It" that Bobbie cannot even explain what happened.

The landscape through which Bobbie travels sufficiently describes his own fate.The peak of the Finger is "wind-devilled", the bergschrund is a "grave-cold maw",and the snowbridge is "cankered" (that is, diseased). The seracs are "fanged / And blinding." The glacier has a "snout" as if it were a rooting beast. The poem's last line culminates in attributing the death of Bobbie's youth to the manner of David's death.

In one respect only does "David" allude to a flaw -- pride and overreaching -- that is responsible for the deaths of many classical tragic heroes. Bobbie says at the start of the poem that "mountains for David were made to see over." That last word, "over," recurs later when David begs, "Over ... over", "Bob, I want to go over!", and "For Christ's sake push me over!" Such a little word, and so ironically reused. A suicide wish, to be pushed over the cliff, rewards David's wish to see over the mountains.

"David" has a good claim to be high tragedy. Back to Line

Publication Start Year: 
1941
Publication Notes: 

First published in Canadian Forum (1941).

RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
2009
Rhyme: 
Form: 
Special Copyright: 

© the Estate of Earle Birney. This poem is protected by Canadian copyright law. RPO is grateful to Madam Justice Wailan Low, the executor of Earle Birney's literary estate, for permission to publish. Anyone wishing to reprint this poem must seek permission in advance from the Birney estate.