1905 R.W. SERVICE: Bard of the Yukon

By Whitehorse Star on September 11, 2008 at 5:36 pm

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Robert W. Service, a young Englishman with a soft Scottish accent, was probably more responsible for making the Yukon known around the world than any other writer. His books of poems, particularly “The Songs of a Sourdough” are still steady sellers across the country and especially in the north.

Who does not know the lines “A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute Saloon” from “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” or “There are strange things done in the midnight sun” from “The Cremation of Sam McGee”? What is not so generally well known is the fact that he wrote these marvelous poems in Whitehorse and was started on his writing career through a chance encounter with the flamboyant editor of the Whitehorse Star: E.J.“Stroller” White.

Service was born in Lancashire England on Jan. 16, 1874.  After spending his childhood in a small Ayrshire town in Scotland where he was trained as a bank clerk and while still a young man, he came to Canada working at first on the west coast.

There followed years of drifting across the States and Canada while he searched for his purpose in life. One day in Vancouver when his luck was at rock bottom he got a job with the Canadian Bank of Commerce which several years later sent him to work in their Whitehorse branch. It was 1905, seven years after the Klondike Gold Rush. He would later write in his autobiography “Ploughman of the Moon” that coming north was like having a new life handed to him.

STAR EDITOR GIVES ENCOURAGEMENT

In the quiet little town of Whitehorse, Service dreamed and listened to the stories of the great gold rush with its centre in Dawson and the Klondike, and took part in the extremely active Whitehorse social life. As was popular at the time he recited at concerts… things like “Casey at the Bat” and “Gunga Din”, but they were getting stale.

In his autobiography he writes that while pondering the problem of what to do at a forthcoming concert he ran into E.J. “Stroller” White, then editor of the Whitehorse Star and a well known writer and humorist in his own right.

“I hear you’re going to do a piece at the church concert”, said White. “Why don’t you write a poem for it? Give us something about our own bit of earth. We sure would appreciate it. There’s a rich paystreak waiting for someone to work. Why don’t you go in and stake it?”

Service thought about it. Then one Saturday night as he returned from a walk, he heard sounds of revelry coming from the various bars along the street and the line “A bunch of the boys were whooping it up” popped into his mind.

He rushed home to the bank and down to his tellers cage where he thought to work in peace and quiet. Another employee of the bank thought he was a burglar and fired a shot at his shadow but missed. With the detonation ringing in his ears the muse came with a vengeance to the striving balladeer.

“For it came so easy to me in my exited state that I was amazed at my facility. It was as if someone was whispering in my ear,” he writes. “As I wrote stanza after stanza, the story seemed to evolve itself. It was a marvelous experience. Before I crawled into my bed at five in the morning, my ballad was in the bag.” That’s the story behind “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”

A month or so later he heard a gold rush yarn from a Dawson mining man about a fellow who cremated his pal. Service realized that the story was a perfect ballad subject.

“I took the woodland trail, my mind seething with excitement and a strange ecstasy,” he wrote. “As I started in: There are strange things done in the midnight sun, verse after verse developed with scarce a check…

For six hours I tramped those silver glades and when I rolled happily into bed, my ballad was cinched. Next day, with scarcely any effort of memory I put it on paper… My moonlight improvisation was secure, and though I did not know it, `McGee’ was to be the keystone of my success.”

MUSING AT MILES CANYON

In the weeks and months that followed, his imagination came alive as he walked the trails of the gold rush near Whitehorse. In the early spring he stood above the heights of Miles Canyon taking in the magnificent panorama, and the line “I have gazed on naked grandeur where there’s nothing else to gaze on” came into his mind and again he hammered out a complete poem, “The Call of the Wild”. It’s inspiration was the spring in his blood and the wild scenery above the White Horse Rapids.

There followed “The Spell of the Yukon”, “The Law of the Yukon” and many others. He put them in a drawer where they lay neglected and forgotten for more than a year. Then one day a friend suggested that he have them published privately for Christmas gifts to his friends. He scraped up the hundred dollars needed and sent them to a Toronto publisher, William Briggs (predecessor to Ryerson Press) and the rest is history.

Service never did pay for his own printing. The poems were a hit almost as soon as the galley proofs were run off in January 1907 and “Songs of a Sourdough” which sold for at dollar at the time, was an all time best seller.

It sold far more than a million copies and the royalties from it, at ten cents a book, would have kept Service in comfort for the rest of his life even if he’d never written another word.

STUNNED BY SUCCESS

He was stunned by the success of his book and kept on working at the Whitehorse bank, meanwhile writing more. He took a leave of absence to see his publisher about his second volume “The Ballads of a Cheechako” then returned to Whitehorse, leaving shortly afterward for Dawson City in 1908. It was his first sight of the Klondike.

He lived it up with the bank staff in Dawson City and wrote about the lusty Yukon as the royalties rolled in.

“At midnight I wandered the streets of the abandoned town… ghosts were all about me, whispering and pleading in the mystic twilight. Thus I absorbed an atmosphere that eluded all others; thus I garnered material for another book. Oh, my Dawson of those days was a rich soil from which I reaped a plentiful harvest!”

Star editor Stroller White’s own wild and colourful newspaper stories also figured in Services poems. “The Ice Worm Cocktail” helped immortalize the editor’s squirming little inventions and indeed the main scoundrel in the poem is named Deacon White. 

With a canny eye on his rising bank balance, Service eventually quit his position at the bank to enable him to write in complete freedom. He moved to a cabin on the hill overlooking Dawson where it still stands today, and he wrote.

WROTE ON WALLPAPER

“I used to write on the coarse rolls of paper used by paper–hangers,” he wrote, “pinning them on the wall and printing my verses in big charcoal letters. Then I would pace back and forth before them, repeating them, trying to make them perfect. I wanted to make them appeal to the eye as well as to the ear. I tried to avoid any literal quality.”

“Verse, not poetry, is what I was after… something the man in the street would take notice of and the sweet old lady would paste in her album; something the schoolboy would spout and the fellow in the pub would quote. Yet I never wrote to please anyone but myself; it just happened. I belonged to the simple folks whom I liked to please.”

He left the Yukon for a time, traveling to New York, New Orleans, Cuba and back, but the lure of the north was too strong and he returned.

This time from Athabaska down the Mackenzie River, over the height of land into the Yukon Territory, down the Porcupine River and finally up the Yukon River to Dawson. He stayed one winter, long enough to write another book, “Rhymes of a Rolling Stone”, then left for good in 1912 to become a war correspondent in the Balkans and eventually to take part in the First World War as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross. He married and lived out his life on the French Riviera.

Service never did re–visit the Yukon. His wife Germaine and daughter Iris came north in 1946 and visited Whitehorse and Dawson City, which by then was becoming a ghost town. Service could not bring himself to go back. He preferred to remember the town as it had been.

Robert W. Service, poet and “Bard of the Yukon” died of a heart attack in Lancieux Brittany, 11 Sept. 1958. His body lies in a grave near “Dream Haven”, the summer home that he loved.