A Yankee Notebook

January 16, 2017


MONTPELIER – 	There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair…

It’s Martin Luther King, Jr., day as I write, and only four days till the next presidential inauguration. Big deals, both of ‘em; but to a small bunch of dedicated aficionados the 16th of January is most important as the birthday of Robert Service, a writer who disdained the title of poet and advised other strivers to write verses instead. Yet he gave us unforgettable characters with the names Dan McGrew, Sam McGee, Hard-Luck Henry, and the Lady That’s Known as Lou, all of whom have for decades brightened the circles around campfires all across northern North America.

Service was born in Lancashire, the third of ten children of a banker. He attended high school and university in Glasgow, and came to North America with nothing in particular in mind – though he was already writing verse and occasionally getting published locally. His subject at the time was the Boer War, in which one of his brothers was fighting (and was captured, along with Winston Churchill). His favorite poets were Browning, Keats, Tennyson, and Thackeray, whom you can spot in his meter now and then, but certainly not in his subjects.  

After a series of menial jobs and falling in love, Service finally got to Whitehorse, Yukon, as a bank clerk. Like many new arrivals in utterly foreign environments, he soaked up everything. The Gold Rush of ‘98 had pretty much abated, but the sourdoughs and old-timers who’d stayed on afterward told story after story about strange characters they’d known, unexplained events, and the challenges of life in the bush in the tree-cracking cold and the long darkness of winter, when strong men often went mad from the loneliness. One trapper, explaining why he’s murdered a neighbor in a nearby cabin, says, “I shot the galoot when he started to shoot electricity into my walls.”

I often remark how well Robert Frost absorbed the vernacular of New England, which was not his native home. Service picked up the grim, but wacky humor of the Yukon frontier and wrote about it so well that readers assumed he’d been a prospector himself. Far from it. I once, many years ago now, got to spend a couple of magic hours with Frost, who asked me who my favorite poets were. “Well, the two Roberts, you and Service,” I told him, “along with Tennyson, T.S. Eliot, and Edward Lear.” He nodded with what I chose to take for compassion.

Service couldn’t have published his first book, Songs of a Sourdough, at a more propitious time. The gold rush stampeders were back in the States after their adventure, and Canadians were delighted at the attention the book brought them. It also brought Service instant fame and fortune. Though he had sent the publisher a cheque for $100 to cover the cost of publication (he intended to give away copies to friends), the publisher sent back the cheque and bought the book, and within a very short time Service had become a genuine millionaire.

He left the Yukon for good in 1912 and, a rich man now, moved to France, where he fell in love with and married Germaine Bourgoin, a very comely distiller’s daughter. As the Great War approached, he covered the Balkan Wars and then volunteered for service. Turned down because of varicose veins, he became a stretcher bearer and ambulance driver until he was invalided out. About this time, his poetry began to reflect his current experiences in his next collection, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man. After the war, reputed to be the richest man in Paris, he played the swell by evening, but often went forth with his doorman to visit the deepest dives of Paris and walked about the streets by day disguised as a laborer.  Again his poems shifted settings, this time to his experiences on the fringes of the demimonde. But he remained by reputation “The Bard of the Yukon.”

		I wish I was back on the Hunger Plateaus,
And seeking the lost caribou;
I wish I was up where the Coppermine flows.
To the kick of my little canoe.

The Canadian explorer George Douglas, who had wintered over in the Canadian Arctic, pooh-poohed Service as a cheechako who had never walked the walk (on snowshoes, at that); but I have a photograph of Service in a canoe on the Coppermine as evidence that at least he’d tried.

I don’t remember when I first came across his verses, but do recall the instant impact they had. Somehow, even the grubby details of sub-Arctic winters in drafty log cabins seemed a marvelous adventure. My copy of Collected Poems was given to me by my mother, the source of all my poetry, for my 25th birthday, and I bought a paperback traveling copy in 1969.

I’ve memorized several of the poems, but my favorite is “The Ballad of Salvation Bill,” which I was once called upon to recite in an Alaskan roadhouse. I noticed halfway through that the owners and staff were disappearing, and found out later that we were in an evangelical setting, one in which humor was not part of the religious experience. No wonder they left when poor Bill, who’d negotiated the use of a Bible for his cigarette papers, described the experience:

And so I did, I smoked my way from Genesis to Job...

Photo by Willem lange