The Poets’ Niche
By Mark Sconce
Robert W. Service (1874-1958)
Certainly not a “serious”poet as defined by the poetry cognoscenti but one of my favorites because my mother introduced him to teenager me. She harbored a fascination for his poems and fell under the spell of the Yukon as depicted by Service during the great Klondike gold rush. She recited many of his poems by heart as readily as her Hail Marys. And so did many others. His first collection of poems was an immediate success and earned him the moniker Bard of the Yukon. It also earned him more money than a battalion of “serious bards” combined.
Born and bred in Liverpool and Glasgow respectively, a restless soul, Service sailed to Canada where he worked as a teller until the Canadian Bank of Commerce transferred him to the rip-roaring towns of Whitehorse and Dawson. There he chronicled the waning days of the Gold Rush and its hard-bitten prospectors from around the world enduring the savage conditions of the frozen North all for the yellow stuff.
The lonely sunsets flare forlorn/Down valleys dreadly desolate;
The lordly mountains soar in scorn/As still as death, as stern as fate.
The lonely sunsets flame and die/The giant valleys gulp the night;
The monster mountains scrape the sky/Where eager stars are diamond-bright.
Let the lone wolf-cry all express/Thy heart’s abysmal loneliness.
Two poems especially caught the imagination of readers who loved to memorize and recite them—and still do!
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.
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.
The Cremation of Sam McGee
Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
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.
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.”
Service then travelled — to Paris, the French Riviera, to Hollywood, and beyond. During World War I, he drove an ambulance and acted as war correspondent for the Canadian government. Later, he returned to writing fiction and more serious poetry. Several of his novels and his poem “McGrew” were adapted to movies. He even made a brief appearance with Marlene Dietrich in the 1942 film The Spoilers where he played The Poet, a fictionalized version of himself. But he kept his perspective:
Just think! Some night the stars will gleam upon a cold grey stone,
And trace a name with silver beam, and lo! ‘twill be your own.
That night is speeding on to greet your epitaphic rhyme.
Your life is but a little beat within the heart of Time.
A little gain, a little pain, a laugh lest you may moan;
A little blame, a little fame, a star gleam on a stone.