The Best of Robert Service

THE SPELL OF THE YUKON

I wanted the gold, and I sought it;
   I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy—I fought it;
   I hurled my youth into a grave.
I wanted the gold, and I got it—
   Came out with a fortune last fall,—
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
   And somehow the gold isn’t all.

No! There’s the land. (Have you seen it?)
   It’s the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
   To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it;
   Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it
   For no land on earth—and I’m one.

So begins the opening poem of this selection; I fell in love with Service’s verses and the land that inspired them at the same time over twenty years ago. Robert Service was an English born poet and novelist who emigrated to Canada at the age of twenty one and ended up in Whitehorse, Yukon nine years later in 1904 working as a bank clerk. Although he had been writing verse since before he left England it was the environs of Whitehorse and the gold prospectors that he would meet there that inspired him to write his most famous works and it was these that first introduced me to Service. Although “The Best of Robert Service” includes works from several of his books I want to concentrate on the ones that were taken from his first book “Songs of a Sourdough”, this is for two reasons, firstly I bought the book in Whitehorse before setting off to kayak down the Yukon river in 1995 following the trail of the gold prospectors from Service’s day and secondly I want to cover another of his books in a later blog as it has an interesting structure.

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So why write about this book now? Well this is the 50th essay I have written for this blog so that brought the subject of gold to mind and frankly I’ve been meaning to write about it for some time. Songs of a Sourdough was an immediate hit, Service had intended it to be a small privately printed volume which he was going to give to friends and family but the printers that it was sent to loved it so much that they wanted to publish it properly and it went to numerous editions within the first year. He would eventually make over one hundred thousand dollars (more then two and a half million today) just from his first book and he became one of the richest authors of his day. Service can justifiably be compared to Rudyard Kipling, like him he was enormously popular but the critics of the day were rather sniffy about his work as they regarded his verse as little more than doggerel.  His most famous work is probably

The Cremation of Sam McGee

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursèd cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ’tain’t being dead—it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”

A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.”

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows— O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May.”
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked”; … then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

After three years in Whitehorse, he was transferred to the bigger branch in Dawson City which had been the centre of the gold rush, here he got to know more of the veteran prospectors and gained more tales to feed into his poetry. The Cremation of Sam McGee was based on a real incident that he heard about and apparently he composed the work that night. After a year the bank wanted him to move back to Whitehorse as manager of the branch but by now he was earning a good living as a poet so quit and became a full time writer from that point on. Service was not only a poet, he wrote several novels and lived most of his life in France after moving there as a journalist in 1913. After the war he enjoyed the high life as a wealthy author around Paris The book that features in this essay was published in Canada by McGraw-Hill Ryerson who sound like a character from one of his works and there are 101 poems featured giving a good overview of his output.

Sadly Robert Service seems to have slipped from the public conciousness nowadays, certainly I had never heard of him before picking the book up as something to read around the camp fire on the trip Dave and I made all those years ago, so just to give a feel of the beauty of the place where we went several days without seeing another human I’ll finish with some of the photos we took starting with me paddling at the front of the kayak. You can see why the place inspired Robert Service.

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On the shore of Lake Labarge

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More Lake Lebarge (it’s a very big lake)

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Bald Eagle by the Thirty Mile River

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Trappers hut at Hootalinqua

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Cyr’s dredge, an abandoned gold dredging machine, when it broke it was just too expensive to fix or take back from the river so it has sat there for decades.

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One thought on “The Best of Robert Service

  1. Pingback: It’s been a year – Ramblings on my bookshelves

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