Friday, May 24, 2013

Robert W. Service, The Spell of the Yukon (1907)

Robert W. Service (1874-1958) burst upon the scene in 1907 with this collection of poems, published first in Canada as Songs of a Sourdough, where it was an immediate success. Born of a Scots family in England, he was living at the time in Whitehorse, Yukon, as an employee of the Canadian Bank of Commerce. He had already knocked about the West from Mexico to Vancouver. The bank job seems to have been an attempt to settle down and draw a regular paycheck.

He had been writing poems from boyhood and was encouraged to begin setting stories and impressions of the Great White North to verse. Thus originated two of his most famous story poems: “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” Those and more poems harked back to the 1898 gold rush that centered on Dawson City, 330 miles (532 km) down the Yukon River, which Service had yet to visit.

Success allowed him to eventually quit his day job and live as a writer, composing more books of verse and a novel, The Trail of ’98 (1910). He acquired material for this book while living for a time in Dawson, before settling in France with a French wife.

Klondike Camp, Yukon, 1898
The poems. Many of the poems are lyrical ballads, about the spell that the Yukon casts over the men who come to find a fortune there. The North is portrayed as a harsh mistress, luring many to their doom while bestowing her rewards on only the strongest and fittest.

This theme is spelled out in “The Law of the Yukon,” which tells of the merciless fate that waits for the weak, unfit, crippled, palsied, and infirm. In the voice of the Yukon herself, it laments the influx of the “dissolute, damned and despairful” men and women who are “the spawn of the gutters.” Send no misfits or failures, she warns. Only the strong and the sane will be granted treasures and sustenance.

The mining camps with their saloons and gambling are “plague-spots” that serve only one good purpose, to weed out the foolish and feeble. The Yukon will reward only those who risk all in the “uttermost valleys, fighting each step as they go.” Pregnant with “the seed of cities unborn,” she will be won by “men with hearts of Vikings and the simple faith of a child.”

“The Parson’s Son” provides a character study of a man ruined by the gold rush. After 20 years in the Yukon, trading in skins and whiskey, he remembers the days when the few white men there had “such a wild, free, fearless life beyond the pale of the law,” each with his “squaw.”

Gold miner at work, Klondike, Yukon, c1898
But the gold rush has been his ruin. Of Dawson he says, “No spot on the map in so short a space has hustled more souls to hell.” He has spent thousands on women, drink and gambling, ending up for a while in the “bughouse.” Now he lies dying on his bunk, and when he’s dead, we learn, his body will be eaten by his sled dogs.

Similarly, a fallen woman laments her lot in life in “The Harpy.” It matters not, she says, whether you are married or offering your body for hire. Either way you must serve the will of men. In “The Low Down White,” a man with half a lung waits for the return of his Siwash woman, who has been out trading sex for money. She’ll bring back three bottles, one for her and two for him.

Call of the Wild. A long opening poem, “L’Envoi” describes the addictive power of the North, though repellant, hellish, hostile, and menacing at first. Despite fighting hunger and scurvy, however, the gold seeker comes to love the stark beauties of the mountainous terrain in winter and the lush summers.

The poem introduces a theme that is repeated often in the collection. While the life of the North triggers great loneliness, a return to the South brings on restlessness and boredom. “The Heart of the Sourdough” faults civilization for its “make believe and show.” The gold-seeker yearns to head back, engaging with the wild, even though it “abhors all life.” Braving the elements, it matters not that he may die, like a wolf dog that fights and bleeds “till the snows are red under the reeling sky.”

Camp, Chilkoot Trail, 1898
“The Lure of Little Voices” describes how the poet feels the call of lonely places, which knew him before the woman beside him in his bed. They love him like a comrade, and his heart aches to be with them. He will leave his sweetheart, though it may be cruel to do so.

In “The Call of the Wild,” he challenges the reader to leave both friend and sweetheart to roam the West or North. One finds there “eternal truths” that put the soothing lies of convention and custom to shame. Mingle with “the mongrel races,” he says, and feel “the savage strength of brute in every thew.” In “The Lone Trail,” he admits that there are risks. You may die of thirst, fever, disease, or freezing, but the adventure is worth the cost.

Sentiment. In “New Years Eve” a starving bum slips into a waterfront bar in hopes of a free drink. He is lost in memories of a sweetheart from 50 years ago and a scene of love on a New Year’s Eve. Then at the stroke of midnight, the barman finds him dead.

In a long tribute to the workingman, “The Song of the Wage-Slave,” a man tells of laboring 60 years. He has worked for the wealthy, fat-bellied master, never shirking, a “primitive toiler, half naked and grimed to the eyes.” Now he is “broken and twisted and scarred.”

He has never known the tender mercies of wife or children, and “would gladly have gone to the gallows for one little look of love.” Instead he has thrown away his money on “whiskey and cards and women,” finding comfort at times in the arms of a harlot. His life over, he will “die like a dog in a ditch.”

Robert W. Service, Dawson, c1910
Wrapping up. Readers expecting more poems in the vein of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee” will be disappointed. They are the only story poems in the whole collection. Service went on to produce numerous volumes of verse. The Yukon continued as the subject of his Ballads of a Cheechako (1909).

After briefly serving in the Ambulance Corps during WWI, he penned the poems in Rhymes of a Red Cross Man (1916). Besides The Trail of ’98: A Northland Romance (1909), he wrote several other novels of romance and adventure. A few of his poems have served as the basis for films.

The Spell of the Yukon is currently available online at google books and Internet Archive, and for kindle and the nook. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.


Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Saturday music, Elvis


  1. I finished reading Best Tales of the Yukon not long ago and was blown away. I remember one or two Service poems from high school but didn't know much about his work in general. Wonderful stuff.

    1. As part of the gold-rush genre, tales of the Klondike are in a class by themselves.

  2. This is a fine summation of Service's work, much new to me. He epitomized the Victorian obsession with character, but only a certain sort of character, that which was "manly." One small surrender to any vice and the slippery slope would whisk you to your doom. The virtues of charity, mercy, forgiveness, redemption, are rarely present in this or most fiction of that period. That is especially true of western fiction. At Western Writers conventions, a friend, Dick House, would usually recite Service poems, which he knew entirely, in post-Spur banquet parties.

    1. Service's Scots background shows through in the excessive moralism. Physical and spiritual strength are perceived as virtually one and the same.

  3. I have the Complete Poems of Robert Service and have read and reread sections of it many times. I took it to Alaska with me several years ago to reread parts yet again in Denali Park, Fairbanks and other stops.

    1. What a great idea. As a fallback, I guess you could go to the street views in Google Maps and get a similar experience.

  4. This is an interesting coverage, Ron. Like everyone else, I've read a few of Service's poems, but I have not had much of an overview. Your column (or article) encourages a person to go back and read a little more.

    1. Besides the two story poems, the verse in the book was all new to me--and unexpected.