David By Earle Birney A generation of Canadian schoolchildren and university students has grown up knowing the story of a mountain climber who fell 50 feet to a narrow ledge, was badly injured, then pushed off the ledge to his death by his friend in an act of mercy. The climber’s name was David, also the title of the story. Its author was Earle Birney. At one time or another in the last 25 years, David has been required reading for high schools and universities in every Canadian province. Mountains that are actually on the map near the Banff-Lake Louise area – Inglismaldie, Assiniboine and the Sawback Range – form part of the setting.
Reaction on the part of teachers and students has been swift and marvelous: many fancied themselves literary detectives, deciding that Earle Birney had pushed his friend David off a high ledge to death in a remote Rocky Mountain valley. Which is murder, by some definitions. Birney was exasperated and frustrated by these interpretations of his fictional story. Carried to a most fantastic length, it didn’t seem entirely improbable that he might be hauled into court and charged with homicide. And sentenced to real death for committing a fictional murder? In fact, a number of schoolteachers in Ontario protested against having to teach a poem that “advocated mercy killing”. One Alberta university professor said in a 1971 essay: “..
there is proof that this was no fictional story. Birney’s companion on that fatal mountain climb was a real David. His death was reported as being due to a rockslide.” In a 1963 Canadian Alpine Journal there’s an article about Birney’s imaginary Finger Mountain, entitled “How Many Routes on the Finger?” It begins: “Modern legend, based on a poem written by Dr. Earle Birney, has led at least 10 climbing parties in the last few years to an intriguing rock climb near Banff. It is not known whether the hero in David actually climbed the spire..” Of course that article assumes David to be a real person.
Another odd thing: when Birney wrote his poem, the Finger was imaginary and did not exist. But since that time (1942) a mountain near Banff has actually been given the name. Chills must run up and down a writer’s back as the people in a fictional landscape gather round him with accusing glances. It’s little wonder that Birney doesn’t want to include the poem in his university readings. Or that he displays impatient irritation if some fledgling sleuth says to him: “Why did you kill David?” Especially since the poem’s genesis actually derives from a newspaper story in the twenties, about a student mountain climber. This man had broken his spine while ascending a mountain.
His fellow climber, unable to move him, had guided rescuers back to the accident within a few hours. But the real-life David was dead from his injuries and exposure. Birney appropriated his name for the poem. Birney is sick of the subject of David, and since I’ve known him for some 20 years, I have some idea of his feelings. It must be like being taken over by a Doppelganger or the ventriloquist’s puppet into which you’ve thrown your own voice.
Still, I’m fascinated by the idea of part of your personality getting away on you, having an existence of its own. And that is the ultimate tribute to the writer’s art, and to Birney himself. The poet-novelist-man-Birney is six feet tall, thin and built like a whiplash. Blue eyes and sandy-grey beard, with an energy that drives him pacing round the living room from typewriter to balcony to boxes storing hundreds of books, then back for more talking. His energy is something I’ve always envied. Birney is 15 years older than I am, and he’s leaving the country for London, Paris, Cairo, Bangkok, Singapore and Australia – with a zest for all the onrushing strangeness of other countries and the friends there he will see again.
He thinks of it as his “last hurrah”. Earle Birney is one of the two best poets in Canada (the other is Irving Layton). Honors have poured on him throughout a long life of writing and teaching: the Governor-General’s Award twice, a first Borestone Mountain poetry award, the Lorne Pierce Medal for Literature, several Canada Council awards. Beginning in 1942 with David, he has published some 20 books, including the two-volume Collected Poems published this fall. Projected works include one volume each of plays, short stories, political writings, Chaucer essays (he’s an authority on Geoffrey Chaucer), travel, literary essays and reviews. I suspect there are several more books gestating, although he says, “I know too much about poetry!” Meaning that mass accumulation of knowledge can overwhelm and stifle creativity.
It doesn’t seem to have worked that way in his case. Earle Birney was born in a log cabin on the banks of the Bow River in Calgary in 1904. Until the age of seven he lived on a remote farm in northern Alberta. When the family moved to Banff he played hockey in the days of the seven-man team. Because of his speed and agility he was the rover, the man expected to go everywhere on the ice. “But I was so light and skinny, I kept getting injured.
Where other kids got bruised, I came out of a scrimmage with broken bones. We were playing miners’ sons from Canmore in high school hockey; big hard kids, some of them 200-pounders. I learned to skate fast just to escape being killed.” And the young Birney wanted desperately to be part of school athletics. “As a boy, I felt superior in some ways, in others inferior. But never equal. I always wanted integration with other people – on my own terms.” But that time of racing the wind on Bow River ice ended in 1917.
The family moved again, this time to Erikson, British Columbia, near Creston in the Kootenay Mountains, where, tragically, there was no ice. They lived, Birney and his parents, on a 10-acre farm only partly cleared of bush. He was an only child, wanted to be average, but “I was always getting into quarrels and being beaten up.” There were compensations. His mother was religious, but a “complete mom”, and his father a restless man who kept moving from place to place, prototype of the compulsive wanderer Birney himself became. He rode a horse or sleigh in summer and winter to high school in Creston, and at the age of 14 “romance reared its lovely head”. The girl was Beatrice, a year older than Earle, and it was a “wrestling romance”.
Not in the way that description sounds, but because Beatrice’s twin younger brothers told Earle, “We don’t let any guy go out with our sister, not unless he can wrestle her down!” Birney’s first thought was that the twins themselves intended to beat him up. But no, they had decided he must prove himself a better man than Beatrice by wres …