Education, History, Literature

The Bard of the Yukon: Celebrating Robert W. Service

There are some things that, when they erupt in my life, catapult me instantly back in time, or elsewhere in place or company. Certain smells, and I’m in Granny’s kitchen five or six decades ago. Or, it’s the early 1970s, and I’m cleaning fish on Court Brothers’ wharf in Rustico Harbour, PEI. Or perhaps I’m wandering around Kano Market in 1960, eyes and nose running at the variety of pungent spices and out-of-this-world hot peppers for sale, or just for breathing-in. (I’m thankful it’s only on rare occasions these days, that a redolent something wafts by and reminds me of the camels.) Particular colors, and my sister appears before me, as I think about how well a pair of earrings would suit her, or what use she could make of a gorgeous skein of yarn.

Flowers and landscapes–reminders of childhood, of places I’ve visited, of places I love–reminders of beloved friends, some still here, some, seemingly lost to me forever. All, at one time or another, a part of my life. All, when they happen now, becoming themselves a part of my life today.

There’s a poem that always transports me this way. And it might not be one you expect. It starts like this:

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.

Suddenly, it’s 1977 and my mates and I are in our early twenties. A small group of us ladies known, I kid you not, as the “Regular Morning Cuties,” meet a few of the faculty every day in the cafeteria for “Coke Time,” an event usually emceed by my dear friend and teacher Bernie. As we sip our (nonalcoholic) drinks, we discourse on the finer, and sometimes the lewder, points of The Canterbury Tales, we opine on whether or not any of us has been able to find a single joke or effulgence of actual humor anywhere in The Faerie Queene, or we howl over the ribald commentary of Shakespeare’s Nurse or the hilarious plots (usually involving drinking, sex, or mistaken identity) of our favorite eighteenth-century comedic playwright.

I’m pretty sure I learned more in those informal morning sessions than I did in any class I ever attended, and that what I learned has stuck with me far longer. (I even ended up marrying one of those professors, but that is another story for another time.)

Bernie loved literature–highbrow or lowbrow, it made no never mind to him. He’d read more, and knew more, than any man I’ve ever met, and he could quote poetry from memory at prodigious length. It was from Bernie that I learned of a uniquely American poem, with a uniquely American line, beginning, “There is no joy in Mudville,” one I deployed most appropriately after watching network coverage of the election returns on the night of November 8, 2016. Unfortunately, having nonchalantly tossed it off, I had to painstakingly explain it to my British family, which rather spoiled the effect.

But perhaps Bernie’s favorite declamatory poem was “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” It wasn’t one that was covered in any of my courses (I avoided the twentieth century whenever possible), and I didn’t think much about it, other than as a bit of doggerel, sort of ‘Kipling light,’ if you will. It wasn’t until several years later, when I was perusing an anthology of poetry at a second-hand bookstore in Wheeling, WV, that I came across it in print. And learned that it was written by one Robert W. Service, perhaps the most commercially successful poet of the first half of that same, spurned, twentieth century. (This month sees the 148th anniversary of his birth, on January 16, 1874.)

English by birth, Service moved to Kilwinning in Scotland as a child, to live with his father’s family. Upon finishing school, he took a job as a bank clerk, as part of which he spent quite a bit of time travelling, falling in love with the American and Canadian West as he did so. When his bank transferred him to the Yukon Territory, and inspired by his heroes like Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling, Service re-engaged with his childhood avocation of poetry-writing, and quickly penned “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” They proved hugely popular, as did his follow-on work, and his successful career as a poet and novelist enabled him to live comfortably for the rest of his life, with a few exciting detours along the way–as a correspondent for the Toronto Star during the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), and as an ambulance driver in France during World War I. He married and lived the rest of his life in France, where he holidayed in Nice with, among others, H.G. Wells, Somerset Maugham, James Joyce and Colette. He died in 1958, and although he is remembered for his prolific output of poetry, novels, and non-fiction, he never achieved much of a reputation as a “serious” poet (some might count that a feature, not a bug).

His first book of poetry, Songs of A Sourdough (retitled for the US market as The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses) earned Service the soubriquet “Bard of the Yukon,” and his two-room cabin where he lived from 1909-1912 is maintained as an historic site.

Of the genesis of The Cremation of Sam McGee, Service wrote,

“I took the woodland trail, my mind seething with excitement and a strange ecstasy…. As I started in: There are strange things done in the midnight sun, verse after verse developed with scarce a check … and when I rolled happily into bed, my ballad was cinched. Next day, with scarcely any effort of memory I put it on paper.”

We should all be so lucky. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, call your office.

Thank you, Robert W. Service, for a good life well-lived, and for the happy memories one of your earliest and best-known poems always conjures up for me.

Are there works of literature, good or bad, that conjure up memories for you? Please share.

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