A Celebration of Women Writers

"Robert W. Service" [Robert William Service] (1874-1958) by John Garvin, (1872-1934)
Garvin, John William, ed. Canadian Poets. Toronto, Canada: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, Publishers, 1916. pp. 359-370.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 359]

Robert W. Service

The reason of the popularity of this poetry may be summed up almost in a word–it pictures human life. For, after all, nature worship or classic lore, ethics or abstruse philosophy, grow stale and flat when used continually as the basis of literary emotions, but every human being, who has not become a conventionalized fossil, always will be moved by the passions and moods of the surging, restless, primitive, even animal spirit of humanity that permeates Service's poems. . . . These poems must not be regarded as typically Canadian–they crystallize a phase of Canadian life, but it is a phase which has become Canadian by accident of circumstances. . . . . The rhythm of the poems has an irresistible sweep; no training in the technique of versification is necessary to catch the movement–it carries one away; and the plain, forcible language grips the attention and holds it, while short, vivid, insistent epithets hammer themselves deeply into one's mind.–DONALD G. FRENCH, in the 'Globe Magazine.'

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ROBERT W. SERVICE is not a Canadian poet in the truest sense of the term. He was not born in Canada, nor did he arrive in this land in early childhood and grow up in a Canadian environment. He was born in Lancashire, England, in 1876, and when six years of age moved to Scotland with his parents. He was educated in the city of Glasgow, his higher education being received in the Hillhead High School, and in the University of Glasgow.

At the age of twenty, Mr. Service came to Canada and made his way westward from city to city, until he arrived at Victoria, B.C. The next five years he wandered back and forth on the Pacific coast, travelling as far south as Mexico, residing temporarily in every city of importance, and learning by hard, personal experience, some of the deepest lessons of life.

Finally he became a clerk in the Canadian Bank of Commerce at Victoria, and subsequently was stationed at other branches in Vancouver, Kamloops, and White Horse in the Yukon District.

It was in White Horse that most of the poems published in Songs of a Sourdough were written. This volume appeared in 1907 and in a few weeks the author was famous. For Canadian poetry the sales were unprecedented, expanding in number in a few months into the tens of thousands.

The same author has given us since, Ballads of a Cheechako, 1909; The Trail of '98, a novel, 1910; Rhymes of a Rolling Stone, 1912; and The Pretender, a novel, 1914.

The Montreal Witness dubbed Service 'The Kipling of the Arctic World,' and it was soon discovered that Kipling was his favourite author. Said he:

Kipling comes first with me. He is the greatest of modern writers to my mind. In the poem, 'The Law of the Yukon,' they say I've had in mind his 'Red Gods.' I only wish I could write in his class. Of course, there is the Kipling idea, the Kipling method in his poem, and it's a jolly good method.

But as Mr. French also says:

Service is no mere imitator; his themes are his own, and poetic form in any case is governed largely by the subject matter. Even Kipling did not invent the ballad forms–he used what he found.

Service has also made the following interesting references to his poems:

I don't believe in pretty language and verbal felicities, but in [Page 361] getting as close down as I can to the primal facts of life, cutting down to the bedrock of things. . . . . My idea of verse writing is to write something the everyday workingman can read and approve, the man who, as a rule, fights shy of verse or rhyme. I prefer to write something that comes within the scope of his own experience and grips him with a sense of reality.

In recent years, Service has dwelt in Europe–most of the time in Paris. He was engaged in the second war of the Balkans, as a correspondent, and shortly after his return married a French girl, whom he met in a romantic way. He is now "doing his bit" in the Great War by driving a motor ambulance, and by the contribution of gripping ballads.

The Call of the Wild

HAVE you gazed on naked grandeur where there's nothing else to gaze on,
  Set pieces and drop-curtain scenes galore,
Big mountains heaved to heaven, which the blinding sunsets blazon,
  Black canyons where the rapids rip and roar?
Have you swept the visioned valley with the green stream streaking through it,
  Searched the Vastness for a something you have lost?
Have you strung your soul to silence? Then for God's sake go and do it;
  Hear the challenge, learn the lesson, pay the cost.

Have you wandered in the wilderness, the sagebrush desolation,
  The bunch-grass levels where the cattle graze?
Have you whistled bits of rag-time at the end of all creation,
  And learned to know the desert's little ways?
Have you camped upon the foothills, have you galloped o'er the ranges,
  Have you roamed the arid sun-lands through and through?
Have you chummed up with the mesa? Do you know its moods and changes?
  Then listen to the wild–it's calling you.

Have you known the Great White Silence, not a snow-gemmed twig aquiver?
  (Eternal truths that shame our soothing lies.)

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Have you broken trail on snowshoes? mushed your huskies up the river,
  Dared the unknown, led the way, and clutched the prize?
Have you marked the map's void spaces, mingled with the mongrel races,
  Felt the savage strength of brute in every thew?
And though grim as hell the worst is, can you round it off with curses?
  Then hearken to the wild–it's wanting you.

Have you suffered, starved and triumphed, grovelled down, yet grasped at glory,
  Grown bigger in the bigness of the whole?
'Done things' just for the doing, letting babblers tell the story,
  Seeing through the nice veneer the naked soul?
Have you seen God in His splendours, heard the text that nature renders?
  (You'll never hear it in the family pew.)
The simple things, the true things, the silent men who do things–
  Then listen to the wild–it's calling you.

They have cradled you in custom, they have primed you with their preaching,
  They have soaked you in convention through and through;
They have put you in a showcase; you're a credit to their teaching–
  But can't you hear the wild?–it's calling you.
Let us probe the silent places, let us seek what luck betide us;
  Let us journey to a lonely land I know.
There's a whisper on the night-wind, there's a star agleam to guide us,
  And the wild is calling, calling . . . . let us go.

The Law of the Yukon

THIS is the law of the Yukon, and ever she makes it plain:
'Send not your foolish and feeble; send me your strong and your sane
Strong for the red rage of battle; sane, for I harry them sore;
Send me men girt for the combat, men who are grit to the core;

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Swift as the panther in triumph, fierce as the bear in defeat,
Sired of a bulldog parent, steeled in the furnace heat.
Send me the best of your breeding, lend me your chosen ones;
Them will I take to my bosom, them will I call my sons;
Them will I gild with my treasure, them will I glut with my meat;
But the others–the misfits, the failures–I trample under my feet.
Dissolute, damned and despairful, crippled and palsied and slain,
Ye would send me the spawn of your gutters–Go! take back your spawn again.

'Wild and wide are my borders, stern as death is my sway;
From my ruthless throne I have ruled alone for a million years and a day;
Hugging my mighty treasure, waiting for man to come,
Till he swept like a turbid torrent, and after him swept–the scum.
The pallid pimp of the dead-line, the enervate of the pen,
One by one I weeded them out, for all that I sought was–Men.
One by one I dismayed them, frighting them sore with my glooms;
One by one I betrayed them unto my manifold dooms.
Drowned them like rats in my rivers, starved them like curs on my plains,
Rotted the flesh that was left them, poisoned the blood in their veins;
Burst with my winter upon them, searing forever their sight,
Lashed them with fungus-white faces, whimpering wild in the night;
Staggering blind through the storm-whirl, stumbling mad through the snow,
Frozen stiff in the ice-pack, brittle and bent like a bow;
Featureless, formless, forsaken, scented by wolves in their flight,
Left for the wind to make music through ribs that are glittering white;
Gnawing the black crust of failure, searching the pit of despair,

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Crooking the toe in the trigger, trying to patter a prayer;
Going outside with an escort, raving with lips all afoam,
Writing a cheque for a million, driveling feebly of home;
Lost like a louse in the burning . . . or else in the tented town
Seeking a drunkard's solace, sinking and sinking down;
Steeped in the slime at the bottom, dead to a decent world,
Lost 'mid the human flotsam, far on the frontier hurled;
In the camp at the bend of the river, with its dozen saloons aglare,
Its gambling dens a-riot, its gramophones all ablare;
Crimped with the crimes of a city, sin-ridden and bridled with lies,
In the hush of my mountained vastness, in the flush of my midnight skies.
Plague-spots, yet tools of my purpose, so natheless I suffer them thrive,
Crushing my Weak in their clutches, that only my Strong may survive.

'But the others, the men of my mettle, the men who would 'stablish my fame
Unto its ultimate issue, winning me honor, not shame;
Searching my uttermost valleys, fighting each step as they go,
Shooting the wrath of my rapids, scaling my ramparts of snow;
Ripping the guts of my mountains, looting the beds of my creeks,
Them will I take to my bosom, and speak as a mother speaks.
I am the land that listens, I am the land that broods;
Steeped in eternal beauty, crystalline waters and woods.
Long have I waited lonely, shunned as a thing accurst,
Monstrous, moody, pathetic, the last of the lands and the first;
Visioning camp-fires at twilight, sad with a longing forlorn,
Feeling my womb o'er-pregnant with the seed of cities unborn.
Wild and wide are my borders, stern as death is my sway,
And I wait for the men who will win me–and I will not be won in a day;
And I will not be won by weaklings, subtile, suave and mild,

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But by men with the hearts of Vikings, and the simple faith of a child;
Desperate, strong and resistless, unthrottled by fear or defeat,
Them will I gild with my treasure, them will I glut with my meat.

'Lofty I stand from each sister land, patient and wearily wise,
With the weight of a world of sadness in my quiet, passionless eyes;
Dreaming alone of a people, dreaming alone of a day,
When men shall not rape my riches, and curse me and go away;
Making a bawd of my bounty, fouling the hand that gave–
Till I rise in my wrath and I sweep on their path and I stamp them into a grave.
Dreaming of men who will bless me, of women esteeming me good,
Of children born in my borders of radiant motherhood,
Of cities leaping to stature, of fame like a flag unfurled,
As I pour the tide of my riches in the eager lap of the world.'

This is the Law of the Yukon, that only the Strong shall thrive;
That surely the Weak shall perish, and only the Fit survive.
Dissolute, damned and despairful, crippled and palsied and slain,
This is the Will of the Yukon,–Lo, how she makes it plain!

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.

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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 cursed cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet 'taint 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;

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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;

[Page 368]

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.

[Page 369]

The Lure of Little Voices

THERE'S a cry from out the loneliness–oh, listen, Honey, listen!
  Do you hear it, do you fear it, you're a-holding of me so?
You're a-sobbing in your sleep, dear, and your lashes, how they glisten–
  Do you hear the Little Voices all a-begging me to go?

All a-begging me to leave you. Day and night they're pleading, praying,
  On the North-wind, on the West-wind, from the peak and from the plain;
Night and day they never leave me–do you know what they are saying?
  'He was ours before you got him, and we want him once again.'

Yes, they're wanting me, they're haunting me, the awful lonely places;
  They're whining and they're whimpering as if each had a soul;
They're calling from the wilderness, the vast and God-like spaces,
  The stark and sullen solitudes that sentinel the Pole.

They miss my little camp-fires, ever brightly, bravely gleaming
  In the womb of desolation, where was never man before;
As comradeless I sought them, lion-hearted, loving, dreaming,
  And they hailed me as a comrade, and they loved me evermore.

And now they're all a-crying, and it's no use me denying;
  The spell of them is on me and I'm helpless as a child;
My heart is aching, aching, but I hear them, sleeping, waking;
  It's the Lure of Little Voices, it's the mandate of the wild.

I'm afraid to tell you, Honey, I can take no bitter leaving;
  But softly in the sleep-time from your love I'll steal away.
Oh, it's cruel, dearie, cruel, and it's God knows how I'm grieving;
  But His Loneliness is calling, and He knows I must obey.

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Little Moccasins

COME out, O Little Moccasins, and frolic on the snow!
  Come out, O tiny beaded feet, and twinkle in the light!
I'll play the old Red River reel, you used to love it so:
  Awake, O Little Moccasins, and dance for me to-night!

Your hair was all a gleamy gold, your eyes a corn-flower blue;
  Your cheeks were pink as tinted shells, you stepped light as a fawn;
Your mouth was like a coral bud, with seed pearls peeping through;
  As gladdening as Spring you were, as radiant as dawn.

Come out, O Little Moccasins! I'll play so soft and low,
  The songs you loved, the old heart-songs that in my mem'ry ring;
O child, I want to hear you now beside the campfire glow!
  With all your heart a-throbbing in the simple words you sing.

For there was only you and I, and you were all to me;
  And round us were the barren lands, but little did we fear;
Of all God's happy, happy folks the happiest were we. . . .
  (Oh, call her, poor old fiddle mine, and maybe she will hear!)

Your mother was a half-breed Cree, but you were white all through;
  And I, your father was–but well, that's neither here nor there;
I only know, my little Queen, that all my world was you,
  And now that world can end to-night, and I will never care.

For there's a tiny wooden cross that pricks up through the snow:
  (Poor Little Moccasins! you're tired, and so you lie at rest.)
And there's a grey-haired, weary man beside the campfire glow:
  (O fiddle mine! the tears to-night are drumming on your breast.)

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom