Thursday, January 1, 2015

Remembering Robert Service on His 104th Birthday

Who is this man, Robert W. Service, that his portrait and name should be emblazoned on the label of a Canadian beer bottle and repeated on a bar coaster?   Why would an English-born bank clerk, wannabe cowboy, and cat house gofer be so honored?  The answer to this rhetorical question:  Because he wrote two of the best loved poems in the English language.   

Robert William Service, whose 140th birthday we celebrate on January 16 of this year, began life in Preston, Lancashire, moving to Scotland as a child where eventually he was employed in a Scottish bank.  Struck with wanderlust, when he was 21 he traveled to British Columbia, Canada, reputedly owning a Buffalo Bill outfit and dreams of becoming a cowboy.  Shown here in maturity, Service drifted around North America, living in Mexico, California (site of the bordello) and returned to Canada where he found work as a teller in a Vancouver bank.
All the time Service was writing verses.  It was only when his bank sent him to the Whitehorse branch in the Yukon, however, that he found his true calling.  Whitehorse was a frontier town, less than 10 years old.  Located on the Yukon River, the settlement had begun as a camp for the prospectors on their way to join the great Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s.  Service’s housing became rustic cabins in the forest.   Although the mining fever had subsided and mired in the stolid world of banking, the poet listened avidly to stories of that wild and rowdy time and dreamed of having participated.
Returning from a walk one night, Service heard the sounds of revelry from a saloon, and the phrase, "A bunch of the boys were whooping it up" popped into his head. Inspired, he ran back to the bank to write it down (reputedly almost being shot for a burglar).  By the next morning "The Shooting of Dan McGrew” was complete:
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 that's known as Lou.

This poem has inspired many illustrations, re-printings and even a play or two since it was penned since it was written well more than a century below.  My Father, for whom it was a favorite piece of verse, could recite it from memory, often with dramatic embellishments to an audience of youngsters.  In a low growl he would intone the final words of the menacing stranger who had entered the saloon:  But I want to state, and my words are straight, and I'll bet my poke they're true,That one of you is a hound of hell . . . and that one is Dan McGrew.”  No matter how many times I heard him recite that line, it never failed to give me goosebumps.

It was only about a month later that Service wrote the second poem that would make him world famous.  He heard a Gold Rush story from a Dawson miner about a man who cremated his companion in the Yukon cold.  The yarn fevered the young bank clerk’s imagination and he spent the the night walking and composing the verses in his head.  The next morning he wrote it down from memory and called it 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.

My Father also could make this poem come alive in his rendition.  He made you feel the misery of the Southerner, Sam, in the cold Arctic air “moiling for gold.”  Before he dies Sam makes his mining pal promise to cremate him.   To keep the promise that miner finds a suitable place in a derelict ship rotting on the shores of the icy Lake Lebarge.  He stokes the boiler and stuffs in Sam’s body:
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.

Father’s recitation from memory made these lines particularly dramatic, drawing out the zzz’s in “sizzle” to elicit shudders as did his dwelling on the phrase, “greasy smoke in an inky cloak.”  It was almost like being there.  Despite the lugubriousness of the earlier lines, Service’s poem ends on a humorous note, as the narrator looks into the flames to see what has happened:

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.”

My Father always addressed those lines with a smile and pronounced “calm” as “ca’m” such as a Yukon miner might.  Many more famous people, like Johnny Cash, have been recorded reciting “The Cremation of Sam McGee,”  but I will always remember my Dad’s stirring rendition. 

It was Service’s own father who was responsible for his poetic fame.   When Robert had collected enough poems he sent them to his senior, who was then living in Toronto.  He wanted a few booklets published for friends.  The elder Service gave them to a local publisher who immediately saw their commercial value and printed them as “Songs of a Sourdough.”

Service’s book was an instant hit with the public, meriting multiple printings in Canada, the United States and England.  The London publisher went through 23 printings by 1910 and 13 more by 1917.  The poet eventually earned in excess of $100,000 (equivalent to $2.5 million today) from just this one book, published in the U.S. under the title, “The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses.” Service’s poetic works never achieved literary approval and were often disdained by the critics.  He himself called them simply “verse.”

Robert Service pursued a variety of interesting activities during his 84 years, including publishing novels, articles and many more poems, but it was the burst of creativity that he achieved in a two month period in Whitehorse that have caused him to be quoted and remembered year after year.  It is amazing how quickly he composed the two poems.  He himself said about “Dan McGrew”: "For it came so easy to me in my excited state that I was amazed at my facility. It was as if someone was whispering in my ear.” Remember too this was just after someone had tried to shoot him.  Service continued: "As I wrote stanza after stanza, the story seemed to evolve itself. It was a marvelous experience. Before I crawled into my bed at five in the morning, my ballad was in the bag.”
Devoted fans who want to visit the home place of Robert Service in Scotland can see a memorial, shown here, one that the poet  himself erected to his family in Kilwinning, Scotland, where he was born.  Service, however, lies buried elsewhere.  In his latter years he and his wife lived in France where he died in September 1858.  Shown here is Service’s gravestone in the village cemetery of Lancieux in Brittany.  Unlike his creation, Sam McGee, he was not cremated.

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