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
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
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
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
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
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
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
183] marks: David's blood spilled from the initial fifty-foot fall. Back to Line
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.