Purging the Fearful Ghosts of Separateness: A Study of Earle Birney's Revisions

by Laurence Steven

Certain poets display an intense concern for craft through the revisions they make to their work.   W. B. Yeats, to take the obvious example, had no belief in the inviolability of the published text.   His revisions are a manifestation, at the textual level, of Yeats's remarkable ability for self-rejuvenation.  In Canada, Earle Birney's poetic career has a similar vitality.  As with Yeats, Birney's extensive revising, which reveals developments of theme, poetic stance, and technique, is evidence that he has in no way allowed himself to calcify.  George Woodcock puts it aptly when he says, "This sense that the future is always open, that nothing written is ever quite finished while its author is still alive, is one of Birney's special characteristics". 1

     Considering the amount of revising Birney has undertaken (only eight of ninety-nine poems reprinted in Selected Poems 1940-1966 were not altered)2, one might reasonably expect to find critical studies dealing exclusively with this aspect of his work.  These studies, unfortunately, do not exist.  I hope this article may serve to entice other critics into this neglected area by showing, in a study of the published versions of only two poems — "Transcontinental" and "Man Is A Snow" — how rich a field Birney's revisions are. 3

     In The Creative Writer Birney says "the poet and the poetic novelist are . . .  trailed by the spectres of their experiences, and the poems or the novels are the counter-spells they create, to try to prevent these spectres from becoming permanent hallucinations."4  He goes on to say it took him two months and nine drafts to exorcize the ghosts which plagued him in the writing of "Bushed".  The first draft was satiric and was abandoned because it "was flip, too much on the outside."5  He realized "there was some far deeper emotion I wanted to get at than satiric amusement."6  In the final version of the poem he did get to that deeper emotion, got inside the experience of the old trapper and away from the moral-political satire of professors and atom bombs which had been the original impetus for the poem.  The final significance of "Bushed" is best expressed by Birney himself:

if the poem itself has, in any way, made you feel more understanding, more tolerant, of my old mad trapper in his cabin-if it has in any way "universalized" him, brought him and you and me into some community of sharing of the mysterious human condition, however briefly — then it serves in lam important capacity, for you.  For me it had already served when it purged me of yet one more of the fearful ghosts of my separateness. 7

The operative movement here is from separateness to community, from a poetic stance which is "on the outside", and potentially satiric, to one reflecting a "far deeper emotion" and manifesting tolerance and understanding.   This movement can be seen in the overall development of Birney's canon; as Richard Robillard observes in his introductory study of Birney:

For all their flexibility, many of the earlier poems suggested fixed perspectives; it was a poetry of metaphor, "conceits", allegories, pastoral worlds from which the speakers saw men at a distance; and also a poetry of urgent but imperacnal tooca.  This kind of poetry persists, but rather than move within the frames of metaphor, many of the travel-poems lead outward; in them, "nature" (with the rather fixed attitudes earlier implied in that term) becomes "experience".  The speakers in the travel-poems come to act their personalities . . . 8

While what Robillard says is true on the general level, he fails to take into account the fact that a very similar movement takes place in Birney's creative process itself.  This movement is reflected in his revisions, as his comments on "Bushed" indicate, and as my studies confirm.  The dominant trend of the revisions is toward broadening the perspective, toward expanding the poetic canvas to include more of the possibilities of life.


Those unfamiliar with the early history of "Transcontinental" may be surprised to learn that on its first and second appearances in print it was entitled "New Brunswick".  The change of name, itself indicative of a widening of perspective, did not appear until the third version was published in 1960, thirteen years after the original publication in 1947.  The first two versions do display a fixed and rhetorical perspective through which they view man's rape of nature.   But whereas the first version manifests, rather obliquely because of its ill-considered stridency, a sincere concern for nature, the second version, although technically more aware, appears to be only peripherally concerned with the "great green girl".  The placing of images and choice of diction draw attention to Birney's technical skill and away from his subject.

     Here is the first version of "Transcontinental" as it appeared in Contemporary Verse, XXI (Summer, 1947), 6:

New Brunswick

Now in your chaircars, like clever gnits
on a plush caterpillar, crawl
over this sometime garden and note
the birch like nerves in the vegetable body
Glance from the folders adazzle in your laps
and observe the truth beyond Tantramar's loops.

Consider this great green girl growing sick,
sick with man, sick with the likes of you. 
Toes mottled long ago by the soak of ports; ankles rashed with stubble,
papulous with stumps and scabbed with stables.

Pause where magotting miners bore her bones
to power your equipage,
or where scars of burns widening across the flesh,
tug scum in her blue eyes, logjams clogging the blood's flow,
ensure you a continuity of travelfolders

O she is ill, her skin is creased with your going and coming,
and you trail in her face the stale breath of her own dooming.

She is too big and strong, I think, to die of this disease
but she will grow quickly old, this maiden,
old with you, nor have you any medicine will help
except the lime of your own bodies.

The rigid, rhetorical perspective is established quite clearly in the first line.   The "your" signals a distinct separation between the speaker and the train riders which continues throughout the poem and tends to absolve the speaker of guilt while implicating everyone else: "sick with the likes of you", "power your equipage", "old with you".  This strident repetition, combined with the effects of the imperative mood in the first three stanzas and the rhetorical apostrophe in the fourth, betrays an idealistic fervour threatened with disillusionment.   Birney is attempting to impose a moral perspective on the situation rather than evolve one out of it.  His frustration with mankind forces him to retreat to the security of an impersonal stance from which he can rage at the follies of the "clever gnits".  The lack of any true foundation for this perspective is seen, ironically, in the cynical conclusion to the poem: "nor have you any medicine will help/except the lime of your own bodies." If this is all man can contribute to the healing of nature the adamant condemnatory stance seems pointless.  This stance is used, ostensibly, to change man's attitudes and behaviour through shocking and shaming him.  Birney, however, is liable to draw the anger of a reader who suddenly finds, after enduring the poet's bitter castigation, that he has been given no avenue through which to change the situation.

     That Birney allows this confusion to arise, between the poet's stance and the results it is intended to achieve, indicates that he does not fully understand the implications of the events described.  He has isolated himself too completely from the experience to be able to see all sides of it.   Although the attitude to nature is a sincere concern, the attitude to man is simply one of sarcasm and disgust.  And this attitude, being so prominent, tends to obscure the other.  The phrase "power your equipage", for example, was quite probably used to illustrate man's abstraction from nature.  But when the speaker's stance admits of no connection with sordid mankind the phrase appears only as an accusation hurled at us by someone of loftier vision.  And since know the voice belongs only to another man we are angered by its presumption, see the phrase as pretentious, and fail to see its original import.  Again, the fine image of the "great green girl", with its alliteration reinforcing the feeling of vastness, is almost completely obscured by the ponderous repetition and strident accusatory tone of "sick,/sick with man, sick with the likes of you."

     To prevent his concern for nature from being obscured Birney needs to modify his attitude to man, needs to make his assertions more tentative and, therefore, more tolerant, needs, in fact, to admit his own humanity.   The oiler tentative statement in this version comes in line twenty and deals with nature: "She is too big and strong, I think, to die of this disease".  The tentativeness, however, appears somewhat fraudulent beside the extremely assertive stance maintained elsewhere.  In its context, it seems gratuitous, tossed off.

     Confusion about what the experience demands, seen on one level through the inconsistency of poetic stance, is seen on another level in the choice of setting for the poem.  The title, "New Brunswick", and the reference to "Tantramar's loops", by setting up regional associations in the readers mind, force the poem into a specific locale.  Yet, at the same time, we are top imperatively to "observe the truth beyond Tantramar's loops" [my emphasis].  Though this shift in perspective from a specific locale to a more general vision is not problematic in itself — Birney has done this type of shift numerous times in, for example, poems such as "Vancouver Lights" and "November Walk Near False Creek Mouth" — when the shift combines with the inconsistency of tone and poetic stance seen earlier, one is left slightly unsure how to respond to the poem as a whole; left wondering, in fact, whether Birney has seriously considered the response he wants to evoke.

     The second version of the poem appeared less than a year later (March 1948) in The Strait of Anian:

New Brunswick

(Post Sir Charles G. D. Roberts)

Now in your chaircars line clever gnits
in a plush caterpillar, crawl
through a sometime garden and note
the birch like whitening hairs in the vegetable head.
Glance from your dazzle of folders and leap
to a truth beyond Tantramar's loops.

Behold this great green girl grown sick
with man, sick with the likes of you.
Toes mottled long ago by soak
of seaports, ankles rashed with stubble,
papulous with stumps and scarred with stables.

Pause where maggoting miners bore her bones
to feed your crawling host.
Yes, wide across her flesh the burns,
and in her lakeblue eyes the scum of tugs
and in her blood the clogging logs
ensure you continuity of travelfolders.

O she is ill, her skin is creased with your going and coming,
and you trail in her face the stale breath of her dooming.

I think she is too big and strong to die
of this disease, but she grows quickly old,
this lady, old with you,
nor have you any medicine to aid
except the speck of lime you will bequeath her.

Here, dispite a greater technical awarness, the inconsistencies of venues one persist.   The imperative rhetorical stance takes on a distinctly superior note with the change, in line seven, from "Consider" to "Behold", and this tone is furthered in line fourteen with the addition of the rhetorical "Yes" to introduce another indictment.  The last line, which in rhythm and sound is much more fluid than its counterpart in version one, has its true poetic value undercut by the cynicism and superiority of "speck" and "bequeath".  If the situation is as hopeless as the conclusion makes it, the cynicism and superiority have no point and appear as slick self-indulgence exercised at the expense of a reader who has been rendered helpless.  On the other hand, if the situation is not completely hopeless-and it is this that Birney's continued haranguing seems to suggest-then the conclusion is a mistake in judgement.  Some avenue of hope, however small, must be left accessible to the reader.  And if there is an avenue of hope it is doubtful whether Birney's strident rhetorical stance is going to entice many readers into exploring it.  In addition, the accent of superiority found in this version only serves to widen the already formidable gap between poet and reader seen in the continued use of "you" and "your" to designate the accused.

     The tentativeness of "I think" in line twenty has been maintained, but in the first version it came in the middle of the line and was set off by commas, suggesting that the poet is actually pondering the situation; in this version it introduces the line.  If the tentativeness appeared somewhat fraudulent In version one because of the sustained assertiveness elsewhere, here, placed in the forceful position at the beginning of the line and surrounded by an arrogant superiority, its element of insincerity increases.

     The inconsistency of locale becomes more problematic with the addition of the subtitle — "(Post Sir Charles G. D. Roberts)".  This adds an element of literary history to the physical specificity of New Brunswick and Tantramar.  Combined, these features militate against the potential universality of the perception and increase the potential for confusion in the reader's response.

     Greater technical skill does not, in itself, make for a better poem.  Often technical facility serves to distract us from discrepancies between theme and presentation.  In lines fifteen and sixteen, for example, the use of assonance and half-rhyme to reinforce the parallel structure in "scum of tugs" and "clogging logs" displays an increased awareness of sound.  Also, the placing of these phrases, with their hard g's, at the end of their respective lines draws us away from a contemplation of nature and forces man's effect upon nature into prominence.  Although this is done quite skillfully, it has the effect, ironically enough, of pushing nature into the background.  While Birney harangues us about our guilt, he is manifesting, stylistically and in tone, an attitude little concerned with nature.

     Man's unthinking arrogance in his dealings with nature produces the results Birney so clearly sees.  Faced with an apparently insoluble problem, Birney, in frustration and anger, lashes out at despicable mankind from his arrogant, rhetorical poetic stance.  The irony is that in maintaining this stance he is, in fact, perpetuating the problem.  The fixed, rhetorical perspec tive allows Birney a measure of poetic security, allows him to be the voice crying in the wilderness.   Unfortunately, it also effectively thwarts any possibility of change.

     Before he can seriously present any hope of a change in our relationship to nature Birney has to relinquish his rigid stance, needs to come in from the wilderness and join his fellow men.  We can see this happening in the next version of the poem, published in Poetry Northwest, II (Winter, 1960-61)9:


Crawling across this sometime garden
now in our chaircars like clever nits
in a plush caterpillar should we take time
to glance from our dazzle of folders
and behold this great green girl grown sick
with man, sick with the likes of us?

Toes mottled long ago by soak of seaports
ankles rashed with stubble belly populous with stumps?
And should we note where maggoting miners still
bore her bones to feed our crawling host
or consider the scars across her breasts
the scum of tugs upon her lakeblue eyes
the clogging logs within her blood-
in the pause between our magazines?

For certainly she is ill, her skin
is creased with our coming and going
and we trail in her face the dark breath of her dooming.

It is true she is too big and strong to die
of this disease but she grows quickly old,
this lady, old with us nor have we any antibodies for her aid
except our own.

The first thing we notice in this version, beyond the change of name, is the change in poetic stance from "your" and "you" to "our" and "us" — "our chair cars", "our dazzle of folders", "sick with the likes of us".  Birney has become a passenger on the train and now implicates himself, as well as the rest of us, in the guilt consequent upon our rape of nature.  This in turn produces a sincerely humble tone which replaces the strident rhetoric with a polite reserve: "For certainly she is ill".

     The humility and reserve are a valid response to a more realistic view of the situation.  They indicate an honest desire to manifest a change in our relationship to nature.  Whereas in the earlier versions Birney's strident attempt to impose a moral perspective on the situation ironically reflects man's unthinking imposition on and consequent destruction of nature, in this version the humble, shameful tone and note of reserve reflect a more suitable relationship to the great, green lady who needs to be treated with a certain humility, decorum and respect.  The new relationship is apparent in certain changes Birney makes in the positioning of images.  In lines thirteen and fourteen (lines fifteen and sixteen in the last version) the images have been reversed; those referring to man's pollution — "scum of tugs" and "clogging logs" — now come first, and those referring to nature — "lakeblue eyes" and "within her blood" — end the lines.  Nature now takes the prominent position.  Birney does not forget what man has done to her but the emphasis lies on what she is, or has been, rather than on man's destructiveness.  There is a wistfulness present which conveys nature's importance more effectively than strident indignation can do.  After the harsh consonantal stops of "tugs", the decline in intonation from "lakeblue" to the soft consonantal glide in "eyes", draws us toward a subdued contemplation.  And the same effect is captured more forcefully by the dash at the end of line fourteen.

     If this new attitude to nature is more than a superficial gesture we can expect to find it reflected also in the relationship of man to man.  And we do find it there, in the series of questions which forms the new structural framework of the poem and carries the images forward.  In the two "New Brunswick" versions the progressions were made through rhetorical assertion; in "Transcontinental" Birney asks "should we take time/to glance . . .  and behold . . .  ?", "And should we note . . .  or consider . . .  in the pause between our magazines?" The questions invite the reader to offer an af firmative response-yes, we should be concerned; the poetic stance of the earlier versions, in condemning mankind and separating the poet from us, denied the reader any chance to respond positively.

     The inability to understand that real concern for nature must inevitably be combined with concern for man was manifested, in the early versions, in the cynical conclusions.  In this version of "Transcontinental" the questions express a tentative hope which is finally stated at the end of the poem: "nor have we any antibodies for her aid/except our own." The final line is powerful in its starkness, and has a more lasting effect than the slick cynicism of the last line of the second version.  There the superior, mocking stance separated us from the poet and his concerns; here the reader is together with the poet in the final "our".  A new relationship has been tentatively established.

     We see, then, that while in the "New Brunswick" versions Birney works from a fixed perspective, a closed system, in this version he allows a more viable, open-ended perspective to grow out of the poem.   Certainly the metaphor of nature as the "great green girl" still governs the poem, but our response to this metaphor is not governed by an external, rigid poetic voice.  Even the new title reflects the widening of perspective.  We are no longer confined to a narrow, historical locale; now the entire continent is involved.   Birney takes the advice he was giving to the rest of us earlier, leaps to a truth beyond Tantramar's loops.  The experience is made more universal, through tolerance and understanding.

     In spite of this overall improvement line nineteen registers a slight inconsistency of tone: "It is true she is too big and strong to die".  Though it is mollified by the tentativeness of the surrounding context, the assertiveness in this line seems at odds with a conclusion that places the survival of nature squarely in our hands.

     This line survives through the next two published versions-Transatlantic Review, XXII (1966), and Selected Poems 1940-1966 10 -which contain quite minor changes.  The final version of the poem, the one eventually included in the Collected Poems (1975), first appeared in an anthology entitled Listen, published by Metheun in 1972 under the editorship of Homer Hogan.  Here, besides two minor verbal changes, there is one more substantial revision.  In line nineteen the assertiveness of version three has been modified: "She is too big and strong perhaps to die." The addition of "perhaps" gives the line that element of tentativeness which is needed both to unify the tone and to prevent the line from sapping strength from the final observations.

     Although the major revisions occurred in the third version, the poem took twenty-five years to assume its final form.  This is certainly evidence of a dynamic creative process and indicates the kind of reading we need to do when approaching Birney's poetry.  The degree of concern for subject and craft seen in the evolution of "Transcontinental" is not apparent in all Birney's poems, to be sure, but it is there in many; and to fail to recognize it, through ease of either praise or censure, is to deny the poetry an honest evaluation, which is its due.


In his perspective study of Birney's poetry W. E.  Fredeman observes that "Generally speaking, Birney's forte is the succinct, elliptical, highly compressed, tightly woven poem in which unity can be sustained without affectation or artificiality." 11  In the final version of "Man Is A Snow" these characteristics become the distinctive qualities of one of Birney's most successful poems.  The success did not come all at once; revision over a period of nineteen years was needed to bring the poem to its final form.

     Although the universal metaphor of the title indicates a fixed perspective toward man, the expression of this perspective changes greatly between the first and final versions of the poem.  It is, as with "Transcontinental", a movement from an external to an internal perspective.   Birney looks much more deeply into the situation and, consequently, understands its implications more clearly.  This results in a desire and ability to let the perception communicate itself as much as possible.  Superfluous elements are discarded, a fundamental structure emerges which orders and informs the theme, and the awareness of the potential of rhythm and sound is heightened.

     "Man Is A Snow" had its first appearance in the Queen's Quarterly, 54 (1947):

Man is A Snow

I tell you the wilderness we fell
nothing to the one we breed. 
Not the orange lynx of flame
leaping higher each year in the trees
nor the saw's bright whine where the cougar glides
into myth, but the forest succumbing
to rotograved lies, to the slum
and crucifix towns in Holland.

We are more than the Indians,
no greater, and torture
their history and horses
a tourists' rodeo.

Not the fouling of Columbiais coils
but the blood rushing more devious
than any river's, and colder.

Not the monotonous usurpation of wheat
but the gorging
while continents starve, the hoarding
and the blankness on the face of the gatherers.

Beauty goes
or stays and we do not know it.
Man is a snow
that cracks the trees' red arches.
Each heart
is a wintered cabin
where the frosted nail shrinks in the boards
and pistols the brittle air, and the ferns
of the lost world
unfurl and crusten over the darkening windows.

The opening two lines clearly establish the external perspective.   This authoritative comparison of the two wildernesses becomes the interpretative key to the poem; consequently, the poem as a whole suffers.  The eye keeps straying from the later stanzas back to the epigrammatic opening to sort the distinctions out.   The lynx, cougar and other images are not allowed to stand on their own as poetic creations; we turn to the key, unlock the distinctions between the wildernesses, and gain access to the significance of the images without having to deal with them directly. 

     The effect of this interpretative imposition is to render the poem static.  New awareness does not develop out of it, we are simply given various examples of, and variations on, the initial perception.  And because Birney has not explored the ramifications of his perception deeply, being content with his epigrammatic understanding, the examples and variations he produces do not cohere as a unified whole.  As in the early versions of "Transcontinental", the local elements — "slum/and crucifix towns in Holland", "Columbia's coils" — seem opposed to the universality of the controlling metaphor, and, leave the reader unsure of the poet's focus.  The second stanza, lines ten to thirteen, is pure cliche, because such an easy target, and relates to the rest of the poem only on a very superficial level of interpretation.  If we accept it we do so because the interpretative key of the opening has allowed us to read only the surface of the poem.   Further superfluous detail is seen in lines twenty-one and twenty-two: "Beauty goes/or stays and we do not know it." By this point in the poem this observation should be self-evident.  Birney's need to explain indicates that the creative process is not complete.  The perception has not yet assumed its own concrete form, and to compensate for this lack Birney imposes meaning in the abstract.

     This version has no consistent underlying structural principle.  The first stanza is, loosely organized around the syntactic pattern "Not . . .  but", but this, pattern does no more than differentiate the wildernesses which we have already had delineated for us in the opening lines.   In the third and fourth stanzas this same syntactic construction has assumed a more prominent function; however, the lack of consistency in its use between the first and these stanzas indicates that the conception of an ordering structural princi ple which has the images oscillating between the wildernesses, is still in its infancy.

     The order in which the images are presented reveals that Birney has not thought deeply about his subject.  The image of the blood in the third stanza for example, is quite foreboding in its implications.  Relating to how man creates a wilderness within himself, it is more intense, sinister and centrally thematic than the other images in the poem.  Yet it is surrounded by cliche in stanza two and, in stanza four, by images which are distinctly less intense.  Sandwiched in this manner its power is sapped away by its poetic context.

     There seems to have been little effort to realize the potential of sound and rhythm.  In stanza three, again, the consonantal stops in "colder" completely counteract the sinister effect of the fricatives in "rushing" and "devious".  Similarly, the superfluous phrase "than any river's" acts as an impediment to the natural rhythmic flow of the conception.  On the whole there is a loose and rambling element in both style and theme which suggests quick composition in the heat of an initial perception.

In the, second version of "Man Is A Snow", published in The Strait of Anon (1948), Birney has taken a closer look at the poem.

Man Is A Snow

I tell you the wilderness we fell
is nothing to the one we breed.
Not the cougar gliding to myth
from the orange lynx of our flame
and the saw's bright whine,
but the tree resurrected in slum
in rotograved lie
and a nursery of crosses in Europe.

Not the death of the buffalo grass
in the wheat's monotonous flooding
but that we harvest in doubt
and starve in the hour of hoarding.

Not the rivers we foul but our blood
rushing more devious and colder.

Beauty goes
or stays and we do not know it. 
Man is a snow
that cracks the trees' red arches.

Man is a snow that winters
his own heart's cabin
where the frosted nail shrinks in the board
and pistols the brittle air
while the ferns of the lost world unfurling
crusten the useless windows.

In this version there is a distinctive clash between the external and internal perspectives.  The interpretative key has been maintained, but here it is set off as an opening couplet.  This positioning reinforces the epigrammatic nature of the perception and increases the amount of attention we give it.  Consequently, we are more inclined to skim the surface of the rest of the poem.  This is unfortunate because Birney has given substantially more thought to the next three stanzas, lines three to fourteen. 

     In these stanzas the syntactic construction "Not . . .  but", used inconsistently earlier, becomes a regularized structural principle which orders the lines by oscillating between images of the wilderness we destroy and the one we create.  This syntactic oscillation is reinforced by the primarily trimeter lines which give an equal rhythmic weight to either wilderness.  In addition, the images themselves follow the regular, oscillating pattern.  Whereas, in version one, Birney pushed his meaning by presenting more images of the wilderness we create (the cliché second verse for instance), in this version both wildernesses get equal imagistic representation.

     This regularized balancing of opposed elements through syntax, rhythm and image might seem to invite monotony.  Birney overcomes this potential problem by gradually decreasing the distance between the wildernesses at the same time as he broadens the thematic scope of the images referring to the wilderness we create.  In stanza two (lines three to eight) each wilderness is given three lines, two of which are modifiers serving to maintain a certain distance between the wildernesses.  Lines four and five modify line three, and lines seven and eight modify line six.  The mechanistically sinister image of the "rotograved lie" has been placed alone in a dimeter line for increased effect.  The fine image of the "nursery of crosses" in line eight carries a greater poetic immediacy then the documentary "crucifix towns in Holland" from version one.   Birney has expanded the locale from Holland to "Europe", aligning his observations on war more closely with the universal metaphor of the title.

     In stanza three (lines nine to twelve) only two lines are given to each wilderness and there is only one modifying line for each; line ten modifies line nine and twelve modifies eleven.  The distance between the wildernesses has been diminished for a reason.  In section two Birney recorded his observations on war, on how man creates a wilderness in the most direct fashion.  In section three, in the images of starving and hoarding, he shows us how man creates a wilderness in a more devious manner because at a remove from direct contact.  The closer proximity of the wildernesses serves to supply something of this lost contact.

     In the fourth stanza there is no modification, the wildernesses meet directly: "Not the rivers we foul but our blood".   From observing the wilderness that man creates externally Birney turns to that which we create internally: that barren wilderness in our soul which breeds the barren external environment, observed earlier, in which we live.  The modification for the im age of the blood comes in line fourteen: "rushing more devious and colder." This line has been improved by the dropping of the superfluous phrase "than any river's", but the sinister effect is still undermined by having "colder" abruptly terminate the flow of the image.

     The progressive sharpening of perception and heightening of tension which these sections display is the result of Birney's holding his propensity for rhetoric in check and allowing the potentials of structure, rhythm and image to be realized.  Ironically enough, however, the reader who has been lulled into an easy perusal of the poem by the opening couplet may not do justice to this skillful development and may, consequently, only skim an epigrammatic meaning from the sinister central couplet.

     In the next stanza (lines fifteen to eighteen) overt rhetoric returns.  The abstraction about beauty has been retained from version one and placed beside the poem's first statement that "man is a snow".  By placing the abstraction and image together in a separate stanza Birney ensures that we recognize the significance of his theme.  Yet, as I indicated earlier, the abstraction should be self-evident by this time in the poem, and, consequently, we feel the meaning is being forced at us in an unnecessarily overt manner.

     Birney attempts to clinch he points by repeating "Man is a snow" in the opening line of the final stanza.  The repetition appears gratuitous and annoying after the ponderous statement of theme in stanza five.  The rest of the stanza, until the last line, is an improvement over the last version.  The line lengths do not seem arbitrary but reflect more natural segments of thought.  There is also an increased awareness of sound as the internal rhyming of "ferns" and "unfurling" in line twenty-three indicates.   These effects, skillful as they may be, are obscured by the rhetorical intrusion of the word "useless" in the final line.  If it is not apparent to us by this time that the windows are useless I doubt we will get the point no matter how overt Birney becomes.  The intrusion of the word at this point serves only to force an external perspective on us again.  Birney is still not confident that the poem's images and internal structure can convey the theme; he has to point.

     It is with the third version, published in Outposts, (Summer, 1948), that Birney finally allows the poem its head.

Man Is A Snow

Not the cougar leaping to myth
from the orange lynx of our flame
not the timber swooning to death
in the shock of the saw's bright whine
but the rotograved lie
the pine resurrected in slum
and a nursery of crosses in Europe.

Not the death of the prairie grass
in the wheat's monotonous flooding
but the harvest mildewed with doubt
and the starved in the hour of hoarding
not the rivers we foul but our blood
o cold and more devious rushing.

Man is a snow that cracks
the trees' red resinous arches
that winters his cabined heart
till the chilled nail shrinks in the wall
and pistols the brittle air
till frost like ferns of the world that is lost
unfurls on the darkening windows.

Virtually all obtrusive elements have been pruned away from this version.  Birney has enough confidence in his images to allow them to stand on their own without the help of the opening interpretative couplet.  A greater awareness of the persuasive power of rhythm, metre and sound is readily apparent in the first stanza.   The "Not . . .  but" structure is maintained, but this time we need to read through two negatives before we find the assertion.  The repetition of the negatives heightens our suspense slightly, but, at the same time, the parallel images of "cougar leaping" and "timber swooning", and the regular trimeter rhythm of the first four lines, tend to lull us off guard.  We are snapped back to attention by the only dimeter line in the poem — "but the rotograved lie". 12  The shortness of the line, the consonantal stops, and the mechanically precise image with its connotations of the grave, follow the pivotal "but" far more effectively than "the tree resurrected in slum" which accompanied it in the last version.  The image of the "rotograved lie", combined with the image of the "nursery of crosses" in line seven, enacts the concept of falsehood.  We mechanically mass produce death but gloss the issue.  As Robillard says, "the pun on 'nursery' of crosses . . .  suggests the domestication, the euphemistic evasion, of death."13  Birney creates the effect poetically, the meaning evolving from the experience which is the poem, and not being imposed from outside.

     The only element which mars this stanza is the inclusion of the sixth line-"the pine resurrected in slum".  Although a fine image in its own right, it is not strong enough for the context it has been placed in.  It appears superfluous between the two intense images just discussed and, consequently, weakens them.

     The second stanza combines the third and fourth stanzas of version two.  The sinister image of the blood was made very powerful in the second version by being separated off as a couplet, but it also ran the risk of receiving only an epigrammatic reading.  By combining it with the image which precedes it, Birney ensures that it will be seen as part of a poetic complex and not as an extractable adage.  Another effect of this act of combination is that the regular trimeter rhythm of the stanza carries us directly into the sinister image of the river of blood in a manner which reflects the devious workings of that element.  This concern for the melding of sound and sense is clear in the final line of the stanza: "o cold and more devious rushing." Certainly this is an advance on its counterpart in the earlier version: "rushing more devious and colder."

     The first line of the final stanza breaks the syntactic "Not . . .  but" pat tern and makes the poem's first categorical statement: "Man is a snow . . .".  This statement acts to unify into a coherent whole our varied response to the images preceding it.  In the previous version Birney needed to guarantee that we got his message by inserting rhetorical abstraction prior to the last stanza; here the observation that "Man is a snow . . ." rises out of the poem by a logic of association, being the result of a cumulative build-up of imagery, symbol and syntactic structure.

     Man keeps his heart in perpetual winter, freezing to death the life around him as well as his own.  The final lines carry a poignancy which version two attempted but did not achieve: "till frost like ferns of the world that is lost/unfurls on the darkening windows." The chiasmus in the first of these lines-internal rhyming of "frost" and "lost" combined with the assonance in "ferns" and "world" — tends to slow the reader down, make him ponder.  The effect is reinforced by the line length.  This line is the only tetrameter in the poem and contrasts with the only dimeter line — "but the rotograved lie".  The dimeter effectively emphasizes the mechanical wilderness man creates, while the tetrameter is effective in nostalgically evoking the idyllic "world that is lost".  The last line dramatizes this loss by combining the alliteration and assonance of the previous line in its first word, "unfurls", and then juxtaposing this word with "the darkening windows." This phrase breaks the flow of alliteration and assonance as it breaks the line of sight.  The total effect is very powerful.  There is no need for the word "useless", used in version two.  That simply pushed the poetic effect into blatant rhetoric and un dermined any attempt at poignancy being made.

     Although the text of the third version is substantially that of the final one, two significant revisions were still to be made.   In 1958 Ralph Gustafson published the poem in The Penguin Book of Canadian Verse.  There the final line of the first stanza reads, "and a nursery of crosses abroad".  Birney has again broadened the perspective, bringing it more clearly in line with the universal metaphor of the title.   The second significant change appeared when the poem was published in Selected Poems 1940-1966.  In this, the final version, the line "the pine resurrected in slum" has been dropped.  Consequently the powerful images, "the rotograved lie" and "a nursery of crosses", are brought into a closer proximity.

     These small but significant changes only reinforce what I have been arguing throughout: the movement of the revisions is generally toward letting the perception develop out of the poetic experience, rather than imposing a specific interpretation on that experience.  This parallels how meaning is arrived at in the experience of life, by trial and error, revising existing perspectives as new experience is felt.  As the experience of life offers many and varied possibilities, so Birney's poetry, as it grows to reflect experience, becomes increasingly more open-ended and able to accommodate a wider range of thought and emotion.  Birney's willingness to revise, like Yeats's, is indicative of a dynamic personality and vital creative process.


    1. "Turning New Leaves" in Earle Birney, Bruce Nesbitt ed.  (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1974), p.  166. [back]

    2. Preface to Selected Poems 1940-1966 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1966) p.   ix. [back]

    3. The copyright for all versions of these poems reprinted in this article remains with the author. [back]

    4. The Creative Writer (Toronto: C. B. C. , 1966), p. 28. [back]

    5. Ibid. , p.  29. [back]

    6. Ibid[back]

    7. Ibid, p33. [back]

    8. Earle Birney (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971), pp.  57-58. [back]

    9. In a letter to me dated August 1980, Birney says this version was submitted in October 1959. [back]

    10.   According to the same letter from Birney (see note nine), the Transatlantic Review version was accepted in April 1966, just prior to the appearance, one month later, of the Selected Poems version.  In the version in Selected Poems Birney replaced all commas with spaces.  This was part of a general move on his part to heighten the element of ambiguity in his poetry by discarding unnecessary punctuation.  "Man Is A Snow" underwent the same revision at this time.   Whether the change adds anything significant to the poems is debatable; it certainly does not detract from them. [back]

    11.   "Earle Birney: Poet" in Earle Birney, Bruce Nesbitt ed. , p. 111. [back]

    12.   I read this line as anapestic dimeter which, in my opinion, gives the most forceful interpretation of the image.  The line could conceivably be read as a trimeter made up of two trochees and an iamb but this seems genuinely weaker. [back]

    13.   Robillard, Earle Birney, p.  38. [back]