David tells the apparently fairly simple story of two young friends feeling their youth, their growing friendship, and their love for the mountainous outdoors of rural Canada. The narrator, unnamed until nearly the end of the poem, falls under the charismatic spell of David, the leader and more experienced climber of the two.

After introducing us to David, the narrator describes a particular climb they had been anticipating for months. During the ascent, the narrator slips. David saves him and then slips and falls himself, landing many feet below on a jagged rock that has broken both his fall and his back, leaving him paralyzed. David asks his friend to push him over the cliff citing paralysis as no way for someone like himself to live, i.e., in a wheelchair. The narrator acquiesces.


Earle Birney, himself an avid climber, was one of Canada's premier poets, achieving prominence in the 1930s when he became literary editor of the Canadian Forum in 1936. His "David," a poem about euthanasia, became quite a controversial poem, frequently anthologized and taught in Canadian literature courses, winning for him the first of two Governor-General awards in 1943.

This poem is remarkable for its narrative power and the striking contrast between its lyric diction and the starkly tragic content of the poem, euthanasia by one young man of another at altitude. Clearly the work of a master poet, the poem's mountaineering lore adds verisimilitude and tension. Equally effective are the foreshadowing moments of the two young men finding the carcass of a mountain goat ("And that was the first I knew that a goat could slip") and later a spavined robin: "That day returning we found a robin gyrating / In grass, wing-broken. I caught it to tame but David / Took and killed it, and said, "Could you teach it to fly?"

Birney adeptly handles the poignant moments of two friends having to part ways in such a dreadful way and recalls the scenario In Joe Simpson's Touching the Void (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), wherein one friend, Simon Yates, has to sacrifice the other, the author, Joe Simpson, in a reasonable act of self-preservation. In both the book and the film that followed, Joe Simpson made it startlingly clear how reasonable he considered that act, one that he would have done as well. As David tells the narrator, "I'd do it for you, Bob."

Written in 1940, "David" forecasts the ethical debate (respect for one's autonomy despite seemingly irrational, i.e., suicidal, wishes) so prominent in more recent works like Whose Life Is It Anyway? and Dax's Case (see film annotations in this database).

Primary Source

Ghost In the Wheels: Selected Poems


McClelland & Stewart

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