This is the only record ever produced of Robert Service reciting his own poetry.
Robert William Service (January 16, 1874 – September 11, 1958) was a poet and writer. He is mostly well known for his writings on the Canadian North, including the poems "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee".
Service was born into a Scottish family while they were living in Preston, England. He was schooled in Scotland, attending Hillhead High School in Glasgow. He moved to Canada at the age of 21 when he gave up his job working in a Glasgow bank, and traveled to Vancouver Island, British Columbia with his Buffalo Bill outfit and dreams of becoming a cowboy. Hired by the Canadian Bank of Commerce, he was posted to the bank's branch in Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. Inspired by the vast beauty of the Yukon wilderness, Service began writing poetry about the things he saw.
Service became known for his work about the West and the Yukon gold miners. Such works as "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee" made him famous around the world. After having collected enough poems for a book, Service offered a publisher $100 of his own money to publish the work, but the publisher was so sure that the works would be popular (he had already taken 1700 offers for sale off the galley proofs), he returned Service's money and offered him a contract.
The book was published in 1907 in North America as The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses and in England as The Songs of a Sourdough. This made Service wealthy and he became known as the "Canadian Kipling". Within two years he was able to quit his job at the bank, and to travel to Paris, the French Riviera, Hollywood, and beyond. During his time in Paris he was reputedly the wealthiest author living in the city, yet was known to dress as a working man and walk the streets, blending in and observing everything around him. From 1912 to 1913 he was a correspondent for the Toronto Star during the Balkan Wars.
Service was not a conscientious objector during World War I; he was a British subject, and worked as an ambulance driver for the Canadian Red Cross, as well as working as a war correspondent for the Canadian government. He wrote a number of poems about the war, many appearing in a new book, Rhymes of a Red-Cross Man, in 1916. Some of these, along with his earlier "The March of the Dead" about the Boer War, were put to music and compiled into the anti-war album War, War, War by "Country" Joe McDonald in 1971. Many of Service's poems celebrated duty to country in war, and although he often pointed out the sacrifice of the common soldier in war, he could not be considered an "anti-war" writer.
Service is also noted for his use of ethnonyms that would normally be considered offensive "slurs", but with no insult apparently intended. Words used in Service's poetry include jerries (Germans), dago (Italian), pickaninny (in reference to a Mozambican infant), cheechako (newcomer to the Yukon and Alaska gold fields), nigger (African-American), and Jap (Japanese).
Service married Germaine Bougeoin, a Parisian, and they purchased a summer home in the Brittany region of France. At the outbreak of World War II he was in Poland and fled the country, going back to North America. He remained in Hollywood until the war's end, then he returned to his home in Brittany. Throughout all this, he remained a British subject and carried a British passport.
Service wrote two volumes of autobiography - Ploughman of the Moon and Harper of Heaven.
He died in Lancieux, Côtes-d'Armor, in Brittany, and is buried there in the local cemetery.
Robert Service lived between 1909 and 1912 in a log cabin on 8th Avenue in Dawson City, Yukon. His relative prosperity allowed him the luxury of a telephone. After he left for Europe, the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (I.O.D.E.) took care of the house until 1971, preserving it. Service eventually decided he could not return to Dawson, as it would not be as he remembered it.
In 1971, the Service cabin was taken over by Parks Canada, which maintains it, including its sod roof, as a tourist attraction. Irish-born actor Tom Byrne created The Robert Service Show which was presented in the front yard of the cabin, starting in 1976. This was very popular for summer visitors and set the standard for Robert Service recitations.
Ill health caused the elderly Mr. Byrne to discontinue the show at the cabin. The show was moved to a Front Street storefront and since 2004 has been held at the Westmark Hotel in Dawson. A local Dawson entertainer, Johnny Nunan, now recites Service's poetry (including the classic "The Cremation of Sam McGee") from a willow chair while visitors sit on benches on the front lawn. Following the presentation, visitors can view Service's home through the windows and front door. The fragility of the house, and the rarity of the artifacts, precludes any possibility of allowing visitors to walk inside the house itself.
Robert W. Service has been honoured with schools named for him including Service High School in Anchorage, Alaska, Robert Service Middle School in Toronto, Ontario and Robert Service School in Dawson City, Yukon. He was also honoured on a Canadian postage stamp in 1976. The Robert Service Way, a main road in Whitehorse, is named after him.
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 that's known as Lou.
When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and the glare,
There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.
He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength of a louse,
Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks for the house.
There was none could place the stranger's face, though we searched ourselves for a clue;
But we drank his health, and the last to drink was Dangerous Dan McGrew.
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.
Then I got to figgering who he was, and wondering what he'd do,
And I turned my head -- and there watching him was the lady that's known as Lou.
His eyes went rubbering round the room, and he seemed in a kind of daze,
Till at last that old piano fell in the way of his wandering gaze.
The rag-time kid was having a drink; there was no one else on the stool,
So the stranger stumbles across the room, and flops down there like a fool.
In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway;
Then he clutched the keys with his talon hands -- my God! but that man could play.
Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could HEAR;
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,
A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;
While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept in bars? --
Then you've a haunch what the music meant . . . hunger and night and the stars.
And hunger not of the belly kind, that's banished with bacon and beans,
But the gnawing hunger of lonely men for a home and all that it means;
For a fireside far from the cares that are, four walls and a roof above;
But oh! so cramful of cosy joy, and crowned with a woman's love --
A woman dearer than all the world, and true as Heaven is true --
(God! how ghastly she looks through her rouge, -- the lady that's known as Lou.)
Then on a sudden the music changed, so soft that you scarce could hear;
But you felt that your life had been looted clean of all that it once held dear;
That someone had stolen the woman you loved; that her love was a devil's lie;
That your guts were gone, and the best for you was to crawl away and die.
'Twas the crowning cry of a heart's despair, and it thrilled you through and through --
"I guess I'll make it a spread misere," said Dangerous Dan McGrew.
The music almost died away . . . then it burst like a pent-up flood;
And it seemed to say, "Repay, repay," and my eyes were blind with blood.
The thought came back of an ancient wrong, and it stung like a frozen lash,
And the lust awoke to kill, to kill . . . then the music stopped with a crash,
And the stranger turned, and his eyes they burned in a most peculiar way;
In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway;
Then his lips went in in a kind of grin, and he spoke, and his voice was calm,
And "Boys," says he, "you don't know me, and none of you care a damn;
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."
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, and 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.
These are the simple facts of the case, and I guess I ought to know.
They say that the stranger was crazed with "hooch", and I'm not denying it's so.
I'm not so wise as the lawyer guys, but strictly between us two --
The woman that kissed him and -- pinched his poke -- was the lady that's known as Lou.
While I am emulating Keats
My brother fabrics toilet seats,
The which, they say, are works of art,
Aesthetic features of the mart;
So exquisitely are they made
With plastic of a pastel shade,
Of topaz, ivory or rose,
Inviting to serene repose.
Rajahs I'm told have seats of gold,--
(They must, I fear, be very cold).
But Tom's have thermostatic heat,
With sympathy your grace to greet.
Like silver they are neon lit,
Making a halo as you sit:
Then lo! they play with dulset tone
A melody by Mendelssohn.
Oh were I lyrical as Yeats
I would not sing of toilet seats,
But rather serenade a star,--
Yet I must take things as they are.
For even kings must coyly own
Them as essential as a throne:
So as I tug the Muse's teats
I envy Tom his toilet seats.
The Three Bares
Ma tried to wash her garden slacks but couldn't get 'em clean
And so she thought she'd soak 'em in a bucket o' benzine.
It worked all right. She wrung 'em out then wondered what she'd do
With all that bucket load of high explosive residue.
She knew that it was dangerous to scatter it around,
For Grandpa liked to throw his lighted matches on the ground.
Somehow she didn't dare to pour it down the kitchen sink,
And what the heck to do with it, poor Ma jest couldn't think.
Then Nature seemed to give the clue, as down the garden lot
She spied the edifice that graced a solitary spot,
Their Palace of Necessity, the family joy and pride,
Enshrined in morning-glory vine, with graded seats inside;
Jest like that cabin Goldylocks found occupied by three,
But in this case B-E-A-R was spelt B-A-R-E----
A tiny seat for Baby Bare, a medium for Ma,
A full-sized section sacred to the Bare of Grandpapa.
Well, Ma was mighty glad to get that worry off her mind,
And hefting up the bucket so combustibly inclined,
She hurried down the garden to that refuge so discreet,
And dumped the liquid menace safely through the centre seat.
Next morning old Grandpa arose; he made a hearty meal,
And sniffed the air and said: 'By Gosh! how full of beans I feel.
Darned if I ain't as fresh as paint; my joy will be complete
With jest a quiet session on the usual morning seat;
To smoke me pipe an' meditate, an' maybe write a pome,
For that's the time when bits o' rhyme gits jiggin' in me dome.'
He sat down on that special seat slicked shiny by his age,
And looking like Walt Whitman, jest a silver-whiskered sage,
He filled his corn-cob to the brim and tapped it snugly down,
And chuckled: 'Of a perfect day I reckon this the crown.'
He lit the weed, it soothed his need, it was so soft and sweet:
And then he dropped the lighted match clean through the middle seat.
His little grand-child Rosyleen cried from the kichen door:
'Oh, Ma, come quick; there's sompin wrong; I heared a dreffel roar;
Oh, Ma, I see a sheet of flame; it's rising high and higher...
Oh, Mummy dear, I sadly fear our comfort-cot's caught fire.'
Poor Ma was thrilled with horror at them words o' Rosyleen.
She thought of Grandpa's matches and that bucket of benzine;
So down the garden geared on high, she ran with all her power,
For regular was Grandpa, and she knew it was his hour.
Then graspin' gaspin' Rosyleen she peered into the fire,
A roarin' soarin' furnace now, perchance old Grandpa's pyre....
But as them twain expressed their pain they heard a hearty cheer----
Behold the old rapscallion squattinn' in the duck pond near,
His silver whiskers singed away, a gosh-almighty wreck,
Wi' half a yard o' toilet seat entwined about his neck....
He cried: 'Say, folks, oh, did ye hear the big blow-out I made?
It scared me stiff - I hope you-uns was not too much afraid?
But now I best be crawlin' out o' this dog-gasted wet....
For what I aim to figger out is 'What the Heck I Et?'
Why am I full of joy although
It drizzles on the links?
Why am I buying Veuve Cliquot,
And setting up the drinks?
Why stand I like a prince amid
My pals and envy none?
Ye gods of golf! Today I did
A Hole in One.
I drove my ball to heaven high,
It over-topped the hill;
I tried to guess how it would lie,
If on the fairway still.
I climbed the rise, so sure I'd hit
It straight towards the green:
I looked and looked,--no trace of it
Was to be seen.
My partner putted to the pin,
Then hoarse I heard him call;
And lo! So snug the hole within
Gleamed up my ball.
Yea, it was mine. Oh what a thrill!
What dandy drive I'd done
By luck,--well, grant a little skill,
I'd holed in one.
Say that my score is eighty odd,
And though I won't give up,--
Say that as round the course I plod,
I never win a cup.
Say that my handicap's nineteen,
And of my game make fun,
But holler: 'On the seventh green
He Holed One.'
France is the fairest land on earth,
Lovely to heart's desire,
And twice a year I span its girth,
Its beauty to admire.
But when a pub I seek each night,
To my profound vexation
On form they hand me I've to write
So once in a derisive mood
My pen I nibbled;
And though I know I never should:
'Gangster' I scribbled.
But as the clerk with startled face
Looked stark suspicion,
I blurred it out and in its place
Then suddenly dissolved his frown;
His face fused to a grin,
As humorously he set down
The form I handed in.
His shrug was eloquent to view.
Quoth he: 'What's in a name?
In France, alas! the lousy two
Are just the same.'