Robert Service: People’s Poet
by Ron Dart
He (Robert Service) was a people’s poet. To the people,
he was great. They understood him, and knew any verse
carrying the by-line Robert W. Service would be a lilting
thing, clear, clean and power packed, beating out a story
with a dramatic intensity that made the nerves tingle.
Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph
Robert Service is ‘the singer of the common man’
I suppose all my life I have fought against obscurantism!
For me the true intellectual is a simple person who knows
how to be close to nature and to ordinary people. I tend to
therefore shy away from academic poets and critics. They
miss the essence.
Song and Dance
Most Canadians have heard of Robert Service (1874-1958) as the popular and successful author of The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee. These two ballad type poems catapulted Service to the forefront of popular Canadian literary life. These poems were published in Songs of a Sourdough (1907), and this slim missive became the first book of poetry in Canada that sold well and made a substantive profit.
Who was Robert Service, though, before Songs of a Sourdough was published to such acclaim and attention? And, what sort of path did Service hike after his early fame as bard and tale teller of the Yukon was left behind?
Robert Service was born in Scotland, and like most creative and gifted people, had a difficult time at school. He left the hallowed halls at the age of fourteen, and he worked in a bank until he was twenty-two. Needless to say, such potential could hardly be tamed and domesticated in the banking world.
There were hints of Service’s future political outlook and artistic abilities at work in such tender years. Service became quite involved with the socialist movement (while still working at the bank) in the 1890s, and he became an avid reader of Robert Blatchford’s leftist leaning The Clarion. The publication of Blatchford’s, Merrie England (1894), was ‘an immediate runaway bestseller’, and the young Robert Service was held and convinced by Blatchford’s simple, incisive and poignant socialist prose and arguments.
It was just a matter of time before Service had to make some hard decisions.
Would banking be the beginning and end of his trail, or were there other paths to hike with finer vistas to see? Service was attracted in the 1890s to Blatchford’s brand of ecological socialism that blended the importance of the common good and the life of being on the road with the hobo, worker and vagabonds. Service came to Canada in 1896 at the age of 22. He found a variety of jobs on Vancouver Island in the Cowichan Valley, and he also took a brief trip south to California. He took all sorts of jobs, and by taking low paying, unskilled labour work, he met and spent hours with men and women who lived, moved and had their being at the lowest end of the social scale and class structure. These experiences were to have a profound impact on the way Service wrote his poetry, prose and novels. Service was a poet of the people before Milton Acorn was offered such an award in 1970.
Robert Service was on the Canadian West Coast, except for his brief jaunt to California, from 1896-1904. This was a period of time in which he worked on ranches, wrote and read much. These were also the contentious years of the Boer War, and Service did not flinch from writing some stirring poems that pondered the tragedy of the war and the fate of many who lost their lives in it. Robert Service was no keen supporter of the war, and his poetry reflects, in a poignant and descriptive manner, the brutality of the carnage.
Service was offered a job with the Imperial Bank of Commerce on Vancouver Island in 1903, and by 1904, he was on his way to Whitehorse.
Whitehorse at the time had passed its bumper crop season of the gold rush, and it was a depressed and forlorn place. It did not take long for Service to enter the fray and join the life of the community. He worked as a banker during the day, and wrote during the evening. He often recited his long and engaging ballads to the workers of the town, and his poetry was received and welcomed by the people of Whitehorse.
Service collected many of his ballads, and in a tentative sort of way, sent the manuscript to Toronto (with money to pay for the printing). It was just a matter of months before Songs of a Sourdough became the literary talk of the town. This was poetry from the margins, poetry of the people, poetry that spoke of the life and everyday struggles of the far north.
The sheer success of Songs of a Sourdough worked their wonders on Service. Robert began to ponder whether he should and could leave his job as a banker and ponder the possibility of writing as a vocation. He was quite taken by the gold rush days of the Klondike, and he decided to follow the trail of those who panned for gold to Dawson City. The trip was made in 1908, and the missive produced from the arduous journey from Whitehorse to Dawson City was called Ballad of a Cheechako (1909). The slim volume was about his time in the Yukon, and it was written about Yukon life. Robert was thirty-five when Ballad of a Cheechako was published, and the fact it was a bumper crop success meant that life at the bank could be left behind.
The Trail of Ninety-Eight, A Northland Romance (1910) yet further consolidated Service’s reputation as the weaver of fine northern yarns.
The ascent, by many gold hungry miners, over the white capped peaks in search of their illusive fortune was not lost to the probing mind of Service.
‘Like a stream of black ants they were, between mountains that reared up swiftly to storm smitten palisades of ice’. The Chilkoot Pass claimed the lives of many, and the many black dots that ascended the imposing white snow boulders in search of their pot of gold led to many a tragic tale, and Service did not flinch from pointing out the foolishness of such never ending quests.
The royalties that poured in from Songs of a Sourdough and Ballad of a Cheechako meant that Robert was now free to explore and probe the Canadian north yet further. He decided to do the longer trip from Edmonton to Dawson City. He made the trip in 1911, and his third book of poetry, The Rhymes of a Rolling Stone (1912) reflected the arduous and demanding pilgrimage made.
The times they were a changing, though, and dark clouds were emerging on the horizon. Robert had also come to the end of season of his life. He had lived in the Yukon (for the most part) from 1904-1912. He had lived in British Columbia (for the most part) from 1896-1904. He had written about the people of the Yukon, and held high their courage and hard life. He had written about British Columbia and California. His books were selling well, but Robert longed to do and be more. Eastern Europe and the Balkans were heating up, and Service felt the heat and fire that was about to emerge. The journey across the ocean took him to different places than BC and the Yukon, and it was in his frontline experiences of war (and all its tragedy and carnage) that the poetry of Robert Service moved to greater depths and spoke with finer integrity.
The Balkan league (Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro) announced they were going invade the dying Ottoman empire in April.1912. Robert Service worked as a journalist and with the Turkish Red Crescent in the war. The gruesome nature of the war went deep into his poetic and sensitive soul.
The war ended in December/1912, and Service arrived in Paris in 1913. The trip to Paris altered the life direction of Robert Service in many different ways. It was in Paris that he met his wife (Germaine) in the spring of 1913, and Robert and Germaine lived in France (mostly in Paris) from 1913-1928.
It was in Paris that Robert met the literary and intellectual elite of the time, and from such meetings and interaction, he wrote and had published The Pretender: The Story of the Latin Quarter (1914).
It is important to remember that Robert Service had spent the previous two decades with the rough and tumble, the hard working and hard living miners, gold seekers and trekkers across the barren and frigid north. He had also just seen the brutality of war. The stark contrast between such a life and the more insulated, introverted and cultured intellectual class of Paris could not be more stark and obvious. There was pretense, pose and much posturing in such a class and clan. Service saw all this and wrote about it in a candid way and manner. Stephen Leacock did the same thing in Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1914). It is significant to note that both The Pretender: The Story of the Latin Quarter and Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich were published in 1914. This was the same year that Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist took to the streets, also. Tressell pulls no soft punches when it comes to the living conditions of the working person and the immoral gap between the rich and the desperate poor. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is so graphic in its telling detail that the full text was not published until 1955. There is no doubt, though, that Robert Tressell, Robert Service and Stephen Leacock were, in many ways, on the same page when it came to their view of the idle rich and the destructive aspects of capitalism. These men lived on the edge of WW I, and they saw the tragic and sad gap between the pandered rich and pretender class and the needs of the poor and the people. We find the same exposing of such an intellectual and artistic tendency in the way Mazo de la Roche etches in the character of Eden in Jalna and Whiteoaks. The immoral and indulgent aesthetic nature of some artists had to be called for what it was, and Robert Service, Stephen Leacock, Robert Tressell and Mazo de la Roche blew the whistle on the mirage and illusion with incisive and rapier like precision.
The gathering storm and dark clouds of WWI had their way in 1914. Robert Service, like many other writers (Hemingway, Cummings, Nordhoff, Dos Passos, Masefield, Seabrook, Maugham) became ambulance drivers. The sheer violence, brutality and carnage of the war went yet deeper into Service’s poetic imagination. Rhymes of a Red Cross Man (1916) became another best seller for Service. In fact, the many insightful poems in this tract for the times captured the nature of war so well that it was used in trauma clinics for Vietnam veterans. There is no doubt Robert Service had a way of hearing and heeding the times, and speaking the harder and more demanding concerns to the people in an accessible way and manner. Rhymes of a Red Cross Man does not romanticize or idealize war. The tragedy and ugliness of war is laid bare for all to see, and it was seen in an accurate way by Service the red cross man.
Robert was back with his wife in Paris in 1919, and living a more sane and settled life. The war was over, and much rebuilding had to be done. Robert Service had very much carved out for himself a life as writer, poet and bard.
He could live off the royalties of his many best selling books. He was forty-five, and still had much to write and say. Paris was a good place to say and write such things. Service wrote Ballads of a Bohemian in 1919, and it was published in 1921.
Hollywood became interested in The Shooting of Dan McGrew in 1921, so Robert and his wife, daughter and mother headed to California for a period of time. Novel writing replaced poetry for Robert Service in the 1920s, and
The Poisoned Paradise (1922) and The Roughneck (1922) were bestsellers and made into lucrative movies.
Service turned 50 in 1924, and his physician at the time told him he needed to do something about his waning health. The comments were not ignored. Robert began to seriously change his life style, and became a firm and committed advocate of regular exercise and healthy eating. His faithful reading public was rather shocked and surprised when he even wrote a book on the subject: Why Not Grow Young? Keeping Fit at Fifty (1928).
The optimistic 1920s were coming to an end, and the depression of the 1930s and WW II drew ever closer. The political right (fascists) and left (communists) in France demanded their oppositional due, and Robert Service walked the extra mile to hear the arguments from both sides in the heated debate. Service decided to go to the USSR, and he booked a trip with Intourist in 1938 to see what could and should be seen. Stalin was in power at the time, and Intourist (the Soviet travel agency) did its best to hide the worst aspects of Stalinism from naïve western tourists. Service was too bright to be taken in by the tale told. Germany was linking affectionate and conniving hand with the USSR, and Robert Service saw the worrisome writing on the wall.
The trip to the USSR inspired Service to begin a novel, Four Blind Mice.
WW II began in 1939, and France was caught in the vice like grip. The Service family managed to escape from Saint-Malo in France in June/1940 as the Nazis began their occupation and colonization process. They arrived in London and left before the intense bombing of the city in August 1940.
The boat trip from England to Canada was fraught with all sorts of dangers on the water, but the family made it to Montreal by August 1940. They were welcomed with much adoration and many an honour. The bard of the north and the Yukon, the poet of the people was back. Robert and family threaded their way slowly across the country, stopping and staying in Banff for a time, then settling into Vancouver life. Robert’s brother, Peter, owned Sourdough Bookshop on West Pender Street. The Canadian West Coast managed to hold the Service family for a few years.
They remained in Vancouver (going to California for short visits) from 1940-1945. He wrote the first part of his autobiography, Ploughman of the Moon (1945), and there were boosters and knockers of the book. Ploughman of the Moon, like most of Robert Service’s writings, took quickly to the top of the selling chart. Service was seventy-one when his autobiography was published, and most Canadians were pleased their bard was back even though the Robert Service who had returned was a different man than the one who had left many a decade ago. The balladeer of Songs of a Sourdough, Ballads of a Cheechako and Trail of the Ninety-eight had seen much since his Yukon days, and he was a different man as a result of it. But, most wanted the Robert Service of The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew.
WW II was now done and over, and Robert Service had entered the autumn years of his lingering life. The waning season can be a time of ease, comfort and the demands of life or the final burst of colour, splendour and beauty before winter finally arrives to claim its own. The final decade of Service’s was abundant with the sheer fullness of the best of the autumn season. Few could equal Service in their autumn season.
The Service family returned to France after WW II, and it was from Monte Carlo that he wrote much. His companion autobiography to Ploughman of the Moon was called Harper of Heaven (1947), and it sold well again. Robert wrote eight more books of poetry before he died in 1958. Robert did return to Vancouver in August 1948 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Trail of the Ninety-eight; this was the final visit of Robert Service to the Canadian West Coast.
There is no doubt that Robert Service was a Canadian for all seasons.
He was a people’s poet before the word was used, and he wrote for the common person in a direct and accessible way. It was on the Canadian West Coast and in the Yukon that Robert Service cut his poetic teeth and earned his literary stripes. He stands for a way of being Canadian that we can still learn much from in an age in which poetry and prose often ignores the common person and writes for, as Milton once said, ‘a fit audience though few’. Robert Service did not write for a fit audience though few, and he probably would have seen such people as ‘the pretenders’.
There is a direct line backwards from Milton Acorn’s More Poems for People to Dorothy Livesay’s poetic desire in Poems for People and Song and Dance ‘to be close to nature and to ordinary people’ to Robert Service’s poetry. People’s poetry in Canada has a compelling history, line and lineage, and Robert Service can be seen, in many ways, as the grandfather of such a heritage and tradition.
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email from Jim Christy
Thanks for sending along that piece by Ron Dart. I was pleased to see
old Bobby -- what us old Yukoners, call him -- receive a few kind words.
When you went to my art show in B'ville last May you would have seen a
poem collage on a board. Included thereon was a photo taken by me of the bank where Bobby used to work in Dawson City.
Is this Ron Dart the one who lives in Abbotsford?--which per capita has the highest murder rate in Canada and is known for religious fanatics and hatred of non-whites? I have an Abbotsford poem about a walk one day a few years ago to buy shoes. Before turning the corner to go back to where I was staying I was confronted by the King James box store and, on the other side of the street, something called The Kafka Centre (a clinic). In front of which was a bench warning that "They" didn't tell the fat pregnant girl that abortion causes cancer. Certainly a good place for a writer to gather material, particularly for a suicide note.
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Jack Kerouac ruined my son!
Many thanks for giving me permission to post this important (crucial) history of Canuck People's Poetry on my blog! I honestly didn't have a clue as to 'the rest of the story', or even of Robert Service's seminal influence on our tradition of People's Poetry.
My apologies if there are any strange line breaks or other oddities with the post - I did the best I could to post it as sent, but my Mac and the Google Blogger systems played mild havoc with the layout, & it took me almost an hour to clean things up, even after Anna kindly sent me the piece within the body of an email.
Anna, Ron has given us both permission to post this important lesson in Canadian poetry, so please go ahead & post it on your 'co-views' site.
Some of my personal history (& Jim Christy's) has been made clear from this piece. Jim told me yesterday that his father once exclaimed, "Jack Kerouac ruined my son!"
Ron, you have shown a clearcut lineage of the tradition of politikally progressive vagabond writer/poets from Robert Service & his influences thru Livesay - Acorn - to the present!
again, many thanks for writing this fascinating history, & for letting me post it ...
peace & poetry power!
Chris ... & Chase Wrfffffffffffffffzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
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