Robert Service: Two Poems And A Biography

Robert Service, aka, Bard of the Klondike, penned memorable Yukon Gold Rush poems. He's the most widely read Canadian writer of the last century.

"There are strange things done in themidnight 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."

- excerpted from the "Cremation of Sam McGee" by Robert Service

"The Cremation of Sam McGee" was one of many enjoyable rhymed tales created by Scottish/Canadian poet and writer, Robert Service. He was a man who by his own admission, loved telling stories, craved adventure and travel,and in later years professed a deep appreciation for eight years spent in the lonely Canadian north, saying that his time there was the greatest of his life. An avid outdoorsman, Service enjoyed going for long, solitary walks through desolate wilderness. Yet it was there in the vast Canadian Yukon that he would come to create his best and most renowned work.

Robert William Service arrived in Canada in 1896 after becoming disillusioned by he felt was a static and routine lifestyle in his native Scotland. An adventurer at heart, and with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge coupled with an almost boyish allure for the "wild west", Service resigned his bank teller's job in Glasgow and sailed for Canada. He settled in British Columbia and over the next six years worked many different jobs. He even spent a few years travelling through California and exploring the Barbary coast.

By 1903 Service decided to return to Canada and found himself penniless in Vancouver. A local bank needed tellers and Service applied, finding himself doing the same work he had only a few years before disdained. New job postings came up for positions at the Bank of Commerce in Whitehorse, in the Yukon. Service moved north and immediately found himself captivated by the vast solitude and intrigued by the thousands of men arriving daily in search of Klondike gold.

Whitehorse also provided Service with just enough social contact to keep him happy. He often recited poetry or gave readings at socials or church concerts. A close friend, impressed by Service's oratory prowess, encouraged him to write, and suggested he start with tales about the Yukon. Service seized the opportunity and was almost immediately inspired by the bawdy celebration going on down the street at a popular saloon. These classic words popped into his head, "A bunch of the boys were whooping it up at the Malamute Saloon...." And so in a frenzy of creativity, and almost getting his head blown off the process, he wrote his most famous work, "The Shooting of Dan McGraw".

This first effort unleashed in Service an almost unstoppable creative streak. Over the next few months he wrote dozens more poems, enough to fill a small volume. He intended to compile the Yukon lore and give the poems to family and friends for Christmas. However, "Songs of the Sourdough", which contained the memorable, "Shooting of Dan McGraw", became a resounding success with New York publishers and established Robert Service's career as a storyteller and poet, and finally gave him financial independence.

In 1908 Service was transferred to a new bank in Dawson City, 400 miles north of Whitehorse. He lived and worked in a rustic cabin where he finished another volume of poetry entitled "Ballads of a Cheechako". His second book was another runaway success and the next year Service quit his bank job to write full time.

The gold rush was in full swing in Dawson City and Service decided this would be the theme of his next book. He travelled to boom towns and talked with prospectors and all manner of interesting and colorful characters along the way. Once he finished his book he left Dawson City, and moved to New York, where "The Trail of "˜98" became another success.

Service travelled to the southern United States, Cuba, and then back to Canada, returning to the Yukon via canoe up the Mackenzie River. He retired to his cabin and finished another book of poetry. When "Rhymes of a Rolling Stone" was completed in 1912, he sent it in for publication, and was then offered a job as war correspondent. While travelling in Europe, he married, then settled in Brittany, France. During the first WW Service again served as a war correspondent for Canada. After conflicts ended, he produced additional volumes of poetry and novels. He died in 1958 and was buried in Lancieux, France, and remains the most widely read poet of the 1900's.

Robert Service never returned to the land he loved most in the world, however, his many poems and stories remain a written tribute to the Canadian Yukon and to Service's life-long devotion to it.

"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"....

- excerpted from "The Cremation of Sam McGee" by Robert Service

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