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Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N4 (January 1992)

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Life of Service

Dan Duffy

Ten years ago, when I was twenty-one, I spent some months in the company of disgruntled U.S. Viet Nam war vets at sea and in fishing towns on the Alaska coast. I was never out of the company of someone who could recite a poem of Robert Service, and his complete works in verse were for sale by the cash register in every place where you could buy anything at all. When we were lined up to pay for our liquor once on shore, my friend Stan--sorry, we didn't really use last names--saw the book and started to recite Service poems I had never heard. After we had drunk what we had bought he started on his own work, wonderful stuff about Sioux. He told me it was cowboy poetry, and said it all came from his feelings for his family's history in Wyoming. Stan was a drinker in Viet Nam, too, where he told how he had laid an instant steel runway surface, hijacked a beer truck, and woken up once after a drunk outside his perimeter to see his buddy's head stuck on the horn of a water buffalo. Years later when I started to write biographies for a collection of brief lives of U.S. poets, I didn't know whether Service was an American or not, but I knew for sure that the reader who I wanted to use my book would be looking for him there. Stan, for instance. When I got to the library, Service turned out to be an author with a complicated and interesting relation to war and books, as well as to the frontier. The collection won't be out for years, but here is my report on the Bard of the Frozen North:

Robert William Service (1874-1958), a British subject, was born in England and raised in Scotland. He married in Paris and died in Britanny. But it was the verse from his young manhood as an emigrant to Canada, when he hoboed in California and followed the gold miners to the Yukon, that made his reputation.

Service was born on January 16th, 1974 in Preston, Lancashire to Robert and Emily Service of 4 Christian Road. The poet eventually had six brothers and three sisters. His father, a Scot, worked in a bank until his wife, daughter of an English mill-owner, inherited several thousand pounds. He quit work and moved the family back to his native Glasgow.

Young Robert was sent to live in the household of his grandfather John Service, postmaster in Kilwinning, Ayrshire, and raised there in a house full of aunts. Jeanie, Bella, and Jennie took him to Sabbath services, enrolled him in the parish school, and introduced him to the work of Robert Burns. Burns had lived in the area, and Service later claimed that his great grandfather had been a crony of Scotland's national poet.

After a few years, his parents retrieved the boy to their shabby but respectable address in Glasgow. He attended a bad primary school, Church, and was expelled from a good secondary school, Hillhead, in 1888, for insubordination at sports. Like Samuel Johnson, the adult Service observed that he did the bulk of his reading as a boy, "between ten and twenty." His sources were Miss Bell's Circulating Library and the Public Library. He read the British adventure writers: Robert Louis Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard, James Reid, Manville Fenn and Talbot Baines Reed.

He spent a summer by the sea, then started work in a shipping office. It didn't take, and in 1889 he apprenticed to the Commercial Bank of Scotland. He stayed at the Stobcross branch until 1896. The work allowed leisure. He read Keats, Tennyson and Browning with appreciation, but was struck more deeply by Owen Meredith, Coventry Patmore, Austin Dobson, William Thackeray, and the American Edgar Allen Poe. He published about twenty poems of love in the Glasgow weeklies.

But his reading turned to Eugene Field and Bret Harte, American roughnecks. He took up sports at the age of seventeen, playing a season each of rugby and cricket. Then he started going to music halls, and following vaudeville. He studied elocution and won bit parts on stage, including second watchman in Macbeth.

Still living at home, he attended college briefly on a part-time basis. He read more widely, taking in Henry Thoreau and George Borrow, Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Victor Hugo, Balzac, and the Goncourt brothers. George Moore's Bohemian tale, Confessions of a Young Man, and Morley Robert's hobo travelogue, Western Avernus, introduced Service to his own great subject, life on the loose.

Taken with the idea of freedom, he read all he could about Canada in the pamphlets of the Emigration Office. A promotion in 1895 allowed Service to save enough money to quit the bank a year later. He sailed steerage in a steamer to Saskatchewan, immediately taking a train for colonists across the continent to Vancouver Island. On the way across, he sold his bags, his suit, his gun and his camera for ready cash, and arrived with only pocket money. One of his few remaining belongings was a copy of Stevenson's An Amateur Emigrant.

Service got work on a farm north of Victoria. He gave over the job to winter in the cabin of a country layabout, where there was a large back stock of Harper's magazines. In the spring of 1897, he found a place at another ranch, working to save enough wages over the summer to go traveling. In December he steamed from Seattle to San Francisco, where he passed up an offer of steady work as a servant. He wanted to stay free, and started his hard times.

A short, hellish job tunneling in San Gabriel Canyon yielded one small paycheck. He discounted it at 50% and took a train south into Los Angeles on Christmas Day. He slept at a church mission and read the days away at the Public Library. After the New Year he roused himself and did day labor. He carried an advertising banner in the city, then picked citrus just outside of town.

He advertised for work for an educated man. He got a position in a genteel whorehouse near San Diego, doing odd jobs. When their old handyman came back, the ladies sent Service away with a gift, a guitar in a traveling case. Service could play music on any instrument, so he hit the road as wandering minstrel. Work in this line was scarce. He drifted down through Mexico, and back up to Los Angeles. He headed out again through Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona, where he lost his guitar off a railroad trestle in the Tehachapi Mountains.

He struck north. He tried a job in a sawmill. But the hard industrial work drove him off, back to a ranch on Victoria. Working with cows at least let him think, and the summertime chores were light. In winter a bull cracked his ribs. While he lay mending, a job opened up at the local store. Service became a clerk again, reading in the office, larking at sports and theater in his leisure time. He kept at it four years.

He left the store in 1903 to get a degree for teaching school. Despite a summer's study, he failed the entrance examination in two subjects, French and math. He dropped the idea of teaching. He took his letter of recommendation from the Commercial Bank of Scotland--carried all those years--to the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Victoria.

It was banking, which Service fled in Scotland, that let him make his name as the poet of the North American roughneck. They took him on in Victoria, watched him, gave him a raise, and sent him to Kamloops in the middle of British Columbia. In Victoria he lived over the bank with a hired piano, and dressed for dinner. In Kamloops, horse country, he played polo. In the fall of 1904 the bank sent him to their White Horse branch in the Yukon. With the expense money he bought himself a raccoon coat, just like in the whiskey ad.

Robert Service lived in the Yukon as a dandy, not a prospector. The big gold strike there had been in 1898, when Service headed south from Vancouver. Now the small miners had gone north to the Alaska strike, and their old claims were being dredged by machine. White Horse had 30,000 people in 1901: in 1910 there would be 9,000. In the ruins of the boom town, Service carried on as he had in Kamloops and Victoria, moving strictly in the upper crust. He skated in the winter, and played midnight tennis in the Arctic summer.

He was saving his money. His laundry, his food, and his lodging were paid for by the bank. The plan was to acquire capital, and try the free life again as a small investor instead of a tramp. He aimed for five thousand dollars, to yield twenty dollars a month at five percent. Service achieved his goal in a grander manner than he planned, through poetry.

He had been writing from time to time. "The Old Log Cabin" appeared in the White Horse Star on May 2, 1902, while Service was still a store clerk in Victoria. "Apart and Together," a poem of love in his Glasgow manner, appeared in Munsey's Magazine in December 1903. His collected verse includes at least one poem, "Song of the Wage Slave" written at the mission in Los Angeles.

It was the work of a few months at the end of 1906 that made Service a famous poet and a free man. The editor of the White Horse Star had asked him to write a bit of local color to give at a church concert. The poet had been reciting in public, entertaining his set with chestnuts like Ernest Lawrence Thayer's "Casey at the Bat" and Rudyard Kipling's "Gunga Din." Asked for "something about our own bit of earth," he stayed up all night in the bank to write "The Shooting of Dan McGrew." The barroom classic was not performed at the church concert, but a month later Service was up all night again, writing "The Cremation of Sam McGee." He heard a prosperous miner tell the shaggy dog story at a party, and went straight to his desk.

In the weeks to follow he wrote "The Call of the Wild," "The Spell of the Yukon" and "The Law of the Yukon." He bundled the five together with what else was in his desk, and sent Songs of a Sourdough (Toronto: William Briggs, 1907) south to Toronto to be privately printed. He mailed it to his father, who had emigrated there with the family, with his Christmas bonus. The idea was to have a hundred copies to give to friends.

But an enterprising salesman sold 1700 copies in advance orders from galley proofs before the publisher offered Service a regular contract, ten percent royalty on a dollar book, and sold fifteen impressions in 1907. That same year there was an edition in New York, Philadelphia, and London. The London publisher, T. Fisher Unwin, struck a twenty-third printing in 1910, and thirteen more by 1917.

He stayed on at the bank in White Horse for another year, then moved to Dawson as teller. He reached Dawson by sleigh from White Horse, in April, 1908. The first year he wrote Ballads of a Cheechako (Toronto: William Briggs, 1909) on a deliberate schedule. He used the issue of excluding an especially coarse poem, "The Tenderloin," to bargain for a 5% increase in royalty from his Toronto publisher. In November of 1909 he refused promotion to manager and left the bank. He had more than $5000 saved. Publisher's checks never stopped arriving his whole life long. He walked. He read old files of the Dawson News in the Carnegie library. He negotiated a royalty of fifteen percent for his first novel. In the spring of 1910 he personally delivered the manuscript of The Trail of Ninety-Eight, A Northland Romance (Toronto: William Briggs, 1909) to his publishers in Toronto and New York. The novel was still in print in 1928, when Clarence Brown directed the movie version, with the same name, for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Robert Service spent the remainder of his long life doing as he pleased. After delivering his manuscript, he toured the continent by train, boat, stagecoach, foot and canoe, visiting New Orleans and Havana on his way to his mother's farm in Alberta. He arrived back in Dawson in 1911, after a difficult wilderness trip up the Mackenzie River from Edmonton, more than 2,000 miles by treacherous water in a light canoe. Like Stephen Crane, who became a combat correspondent after writing his Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, Service the ex-bank clerk went to play at the life he had made his name writing about.

He wintered in Dawson, writing Rhymes of Rolling Stone (Toronto: William Briggs, 1912). The manuscript was large rolls of paper, hung from the walls of his cabin. In the spring he left the North forever, as Balkan war correspondent for the Toronto Star. He joined the Red Cross as a volunteer worker in order to get closer to the front. The Turkish police took an interest in him before he got very far, and he left the Balkans. Still sending dispatches, he took trains west across Europe. He arrived in Paris in 1913, to stay for 15 years.

He settled in the Latin Quarter, in an attic room of the Quai Voltaire. He mingled with the bohemians of the quarter, taking painting lessons and passing as a poseur. He conducted loud, half-informed arguments about art in the cafes, then went home and wrote his novel, The Pretender, A Story of the Latin Quarter (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1914).

While pretending to be a fake artist, in June of 1913, Service married a Parisian, Germaine Bourgoin. She was the daughter of a distillery owner. They met while jostled together in a crowd watching a parade. Madame Service first learned her husband was a rich man one year after marriage, on a bicycle trip to the Brittany, when the poet led her into his cottage, "Dream Haven," at Lancieux. Service had cheated the town's rich peasant out of the house on a previous visit, by pretending to be a poor fool who would lose his deposit, his life savings, by failing to pay the balance of a bargain price on time.

A varicose vein made him unfit for service in the Great War. He covered the war for the Toronto Star, with dispatches appearing on Saturdays from December 11, 1915 through January 29th, 1916. He was arrested and nearly executed in an outbreak of spy hysteria in Dunkirk. He worked as a stretcher bearer and ambulance driver with the Ambulance Corps of the American Red Cross, until his health broke. He retired to Paris and Brittany for an eight-month bout of boils. When his strength returned, he wrote Rhymes of a Red Cross Man (Toronto: William Briggs, 1912). It is dedicated "to the memory of my Brother, Lieutenant Albert Service, Canadian Infantry, Killed in Action, France, August, 1916."

He returned to the war with a chauffeured Cadillac and an officer guide, to write about the Canadian Expeditionary Force for their government. In the course of his work he accidentally liberated the town of Lille. He wrote another book, with the manuscript title War Winners, a file of prose reports on the support operations working to keep the Allied forces in the field. He wrote it furiously to promote the war effort, and tore it up on Armistice Day, in disgust with everything about the whole conflict.

He settled down to being a rich man in Paris. He put the family in a two-floor apartment on the Place de Pantheon. During the day he would promenade in the best suits, with a monocle. At night he went out in old clothes with the company of his doorman, a retired policeman, to visit the lowest dives of the city. In retreat at Lancieux, he wrote Ballads of Bohemian (Toronto: G.J. McLeod, 1921). The poems are given in the persona of an American poet in Paris who serves as an ambulance driver and an infantryman in the war. The verses are separated by diary entries over a period of four years. The last entry is dated January 1919, about the same time Service finished the book, though he neglected to publish it until some time later.

Excited by the sale of film rights to one of his works, Service wintered in Hollywood with his family in 1921. They lunched with stars and directors, went to movies. His mother joined them from Alberta, and urged dime detective novels on her son. He took a side trip to Tahiti on his own, then returned with his family to Lancieux, where he started writing thrillers. The Poisoned Paradise, A Romance of Monte Carlo (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1922), set in the gambling world of Europe, appeared as a movie in 1924, just after the film versions of the "Shooting of Dan McGrew," and of his South Sea thriller The Roughneck. A Tale of Tahiti (New York: Barse and Hopkins, 1923).

Heart trouble interrupted his novel writing, but led to a health book, published eventually. Why Not Grow Young? Or, Living for Longevity (London: Ernest Benn, 1928). He returned to thrillers with The Master of the Microbe. A Fantastic Romance (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1926), about a novelist who visits the underworld of Paris for material. His last novel, The House of Fear. A Novel (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1927), dripping with murder in the French countryside, is dedicated to his mother.

Service became increasingly interested in the Marxist movement through the thirties. He himself had acquired capital by writing about labor. He would dress down and stand at the edge of leftist demonstrations in Paris. In 1937 he took a government tour of the Soviet Union, and went again in 1938. The second trip was interrupted by news of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Service fled across Poland, Latvia, Estonia and the Baltic to Stockholm. He wintered in Nice with his family, then fled France for Canada. The Germany Army arrived at his home in Lancieux not far behind him, looking specifically for the poet who had mocked Hitler in newspaper verse.

After greeting friends and family across Canada, Service settled the family in Hollywood in December, 1940. The Collected Vers of Robert Service (London: Ernest Benn, 1930) had already appeared, and The Complete Poems of Robert Service (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1933). Though he would write and publish verse until his death, he was in a period of retrospection. Twenty Bath-Tub Ballads (London: Francis, Day and Hunter, 1939) and Bar-Room Ballads (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1940) are miscellanies of stray verse, not the reasoned collections he had written since Ballads of a Cheechako.

He made personal and radio appearances, and even appeared as "The Poet" in a Klondike movie, The Spoilers (Universal Pictures, 1940. Produced by Frank Lloyd, directed by Ray Enright, screenplay by Lawrence Hazard and Tom Reed from the novel by Rex Beach). He was thrilled to play a scene with Marlene Dietrich. But his energies went into his memoir, Ploughman of the Moon. An Adventure into Memory. (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1945). The book deals only with his youth, the forty years up to the time he left Dawson.

The Services hurried back to France four months after the victory in Europe, on an empty troop ship returning for more soldiers. They found their Paris apartment safe, but the house at Lancieux was demolished. They rebuilt. Service summered there, and wintered at his villa in Monte Carlo, until he died of a heart attack at Lancieux on April 11, 1958. He was buried nearby.

The poet's last years were full of writing. He published a second memoir, Harper of Heaven. A Record of Radiant Living (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1948), that ends with the return to his shattered home. Then came a series of poetry collections: Songs of a Sun-Lover. A Book of Light Verse (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1949.) Rhymes of Roughneck. A Book of Verse (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1950), Lyrics of a Lowbrow. A Book of Verse (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1951.), Rhymes of a Rebel. A Book of Verse (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1952), Songs for my Supper (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1953), Carols of an Old Codger (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1955), Rhymes for My Rags (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1956). These are gathered in More Collected Verse (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1955) and Later Collected Verse (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1960).

The poems for which Robert William Service is now remembered are all contained in his first book, Songs of a Sourdough, available within the Collected Poems of Robert Service. His life story is best told in his own two memoirs, Ploughman of the Moon and Harper of Heaven. Inaccuracies and gaps in these accounts are dealt with in Carl F. Klinck's Robert Service: A Biography (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1976.) Klinck, an historian of Canadian literature, also offers a bibliography that sorts out Service's first editions in Canada, England, and the United States.

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Updated Thursday, January 28, 1999

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