Essays

The Poet With a Hammer — and a Heart

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The amazing, powerful, masculine poetry of Robert Service

by Michael Walsh

POETRY LOVERS are people who prefer their musings in colour to their thoughts in black and white. All reading matter penetrates; some hardly brush the skin but poetry reaches parts that others cannot reach.

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Service at his desk

Robert Service, the British-Canadian poet (1874-1958), is best known for his stories and poetry about the Yukon. For this reason he was known as “The Bard of the Yukon.” His better known verse includes “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”

Brace yourselves: Service’s verse is written in gold-digger’s lingo. If you are the type to reach for the smelling salts at the sight of a late-night Alaskan bar, stop reading right now.

THE SHOOTING OF DAN MCGREW

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune,
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light o’ love, the lady known as Lou….

A later verse:

There’s men that somehow just grip your eyes, and hold them hard like a spell;
And such was he, and he looked to me like a man who had lived in hell;
With a face most hair and the dreary stare of a dog whose day is done,
As he watered the green stuff in his glass, and the drops fell one by one.

An account of a barroom fight, the penultimate stanza goes like this:

Then I ducked my head, and the lights went out, and two guns blazed in the dark,
And a woman screamed, and the lights went up, two men lay stiff and stark.

Pitched on his head, and pumped full of lead, was Dangerous Dan McGrew,
While the man from the creeks lay clutched to the breast of the lady that’s known as Lou.

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Robert Service

A banker’s son, Robert Service was born in Preston, Lancashire a few miles from where I was born. Destined to be a bank clerk, he went on to break the mould and became one of the great poet-troubadours of all time.

When he was 21 years old, Service travelled to Vancouver Island and British Columbia. From there he drifted around North America, wandering from California and back to British Columbia. As he went on his merry and not-so-merry way, he took several jobs to keep body and soul together.

He went hungry in Mexico, lived in a Californian brothel, and he farmed and he loved on Vancouver Island. In 1899, Service looked after a store in Cowichen Bay where he had his first verse published. These related to the Boer War. His “The March of the Dead” brings to life the ghost army of dead that followed the triumphal victory parades:

And then came a shadow, swift and sudden, dark and drear;
The bells were silent, not an echo stirred,
The flags were drooping sullenly; the men forgot to cheer;
We waited and we never spoke a word,
The sky grew darker, darker, till from out the gloomy rack,
There came a voice that checked the heart with dread,
Tear down, tear down, your bunting now, and hang up sable black,
They are coming — it’s the Army of the Dead.

Of passing interest, Service’s brother Alick, with Winston Churchill, was among a batch of prisoners taken by the Boers.

Service fell in love with the Yukon, where from his pen the images flowed across the paper sheets. Caught up in the Klondike Gold Rush, the essayist brought to life such exotic places as the frontier town named Whitehorse and the famous Whitehorse Rapids, Dawson City, and the Yukon River. Mixing with prospectors who poured into the Yukon from the four corners of the earth, Robert Service did more than soak up the atmosphere — he was part of it.

ca. 1897, Yukon Trail, Dyea Valley, Alaska Territory, USA --- Prospectors Lunching --- Image by © CORBIS
Prospectors lunching

One night, returning from a late night stroll, he heard the sounds of high spirits. Inspiration to write comes to me the same way. The words, “A bunch of the boys were whooping it up,” popped into his head. From that moment on the words of the epic poem, “Dangerous Dan McGrew,” were already being transcribed in the poet’s consciousness. Dashing to the bank where he worked, he grabbed his pen and pad. Thus one of the world’s most famous poems was born.

klondike-gold-rushA month or so later he heard gossip about a Dawson man who cremated his pal in the frozen wilderness. Inspired by the story, Robert Service spent the rest of the night walking through the forest going over and over the words of a poem that was to soon become, “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”  Excuse me for saying so, but this really is a heart-warming story.

Service certainly had a way with words: “I have gazed on naked grandeur” …from which was to flow his “The Call of the Wild.”

When, eventually, he had composed sufficient poems for a book, the hobo poet sent his work, with a cheque attached, to a book printer. The poet’s intention was to give a copy of the collection to each of his friends as a Christmas gift.

The employees at the printer’s workshop were thrilled by the verse they found themselves printing and binding. The firm’s salesman even entertained the printers by reciting the poems.

With an eye to the quick buck, the printer’s representative sold 1,700 copies of Service’s collection from the printing galley proofs. Robert Service’s cheque was returned to him and with it went an offer of 10 per cent. royalties if he were to sign a contract.

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For Robert Service there was no looking back. Copies reached Whitehorse. There, his pastor gave the poet a dressing down for the wickedness of his poetry. Service supposedly “hung his head in shame,” but, not far behind, came the tourists who arrived in Whitehorse looking for the famous poet.

Feted throughout the world, the English-born author became perhaps the richest and most celebrated poet in history. Despite his fame and his riches, Robert Service served with distinction as a volunteer during the Great War.

A Parisian at the time, he was very nearly executed as a spy. He worked as a stretcher bearer and ambulance driver, whereupon he penned a book of war-related poetry, his most successful.

His wealth never separated him from the “luxuries of penury,” though. It speaks of his nature that, despite his riches, Robert Service spoke eloquently for the down-and-out, the hobo, and the drifter. It is this — these poems — that convince me that poets, like the great musicians, are indeed the voice of God.

You perhaps think that unlikely, but watch this space; allow me to indulge you in future “readings” and I think you will find your spirits have been ambushed.

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Source: Michael Walsh, journalist, broadcaster, author, and poet, is internationally recognised. With 12 poetry collections published he has penned more than 700 poems over 50 years. See his Immortal Beloved: Sublime Poetry for Romantic Souls

 

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