Free Biography On Robert Service A Research Paper

Published: 2021-06-22 00:30:03
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The Canadian poet Robert Service remains a paradox. He is the best selling poet of the twentieth century and yet his work has been reviled and criticized by literary critics. His biographer, Mallory, claims that “his poetry has touched the lives of millions of North Americans” (xv).
Because of his enormous success, Service’s life was a real rag-to-riches story. Born on January 16th, 1874 to Scottish parents (his father worked in a bank), he followed his father’s footsteps when he first left school, joining a bank in Glasgow, the family having moved back to Scotland where Service joined them at the age of 9. In 1895, for reasons that remain unclear, Service left for North America. There followed nine years of drifting. According to Mallory and his own admission, Service worked in Mexico, California and Vancouver Island, before finally settling down to steadier employment in 1903 when he was hired by the Canadian Bank of Commerce. In 1904 the more that was to change his life occurred. The bank deployed him in their branch in the Yukon- in the frontier town of Whitehorse to be precise.
It is clear that Service had written verse all his life: there is evidence that he completed his first rhyme at the age of six. Before the move to Whitehorse he had published poems in Canadian newspapers and journals (his series if poems on the Boer War had appeared in The Colonist in June 1900. Nonetheless, the move to Whitehorse was crucial in Service finding a subject matter that was entirely appropriate to his technical capabilities as a poet. Life in Whitehorse was primitive even by the standards of the early twentieth century, Service was fascinated by the old-timers whose yarns about incidents from the height of the Gold Rush delighted him, and he used their stories as the basis for his poems. Indeed, his two most celebrated poems “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee” were directly inspired by anecdotes related to him by veterans of the Gold Rush.
His first book – Songs of a Sourdough (1907) – was an immediate popular success, selling in prodigious quantities all over the English-speaking world: in London alone a twenty third print run had to be produced in 1910 to satisfy demand. His employer, the bank, Moved him to Dawson in 1908, where he came into contact with more former gold prospectors whose anecdotes formed the basis of his second book of poems – Ballads of Cheechako (1908). There followed a novel, The Trail of ‘’98 (1909) and a third book of poetry – Ballads of a Rolling Stone (1912). Both were instant best-sellers and both mined the rich vein of Canadian frontier life and its outrageous yarns and tall stories.
At this point Service life changed direction. His writing had made him rich beyond his wildest dreams and he took up residence in Paris in 1913 and resided in the city for 15 years. Unfit for military service he worked as an ambulance driver and stretcher bearer during the First World War, and his experiences resulted in a volume of poems about the war which many believe was his finest work. After the war he lived the peripatetic life of the very rich man that he was, travelling widely, but returning to Canada from time to time.
In a way if his poetry was a paradox – enormously popular, but critically despised – then his life was too. His best-selling poems were based on the harsh frontier conditions of the Yukon, but his success lead him to lead the privileged life of the super-rich. Nonetheless, he continued writing and published six volumes of verse between 1949 and 1955, as well as two volumes of autobiography before his death in France in 1958.
Service’s poetry was highly successful and made him a very rich man. In this sense he made a unique contribution to Canadian life, since he remains the best-selling poet of the twentieth century. However, academics and literary critics despised his work. The critic Northrop Frye asserted that Service’s work was not “serious poetry" but should be termed “popular poetry” claiming that the “idioms of popular and serious poetry remain inexorably distinct” (122). For Frye popular poems “preserve surface of explicit statement” and he picks out famous poets who wrote “popular poetry” – Kipling, Burns, Longfellow, James Whitcomb Riley and Robert Service (127). To be fair to Service he always claimed that what he wrote was “verse, not poetry” – “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” (Mallory 49). Lockhart confirms this: “It was always Service’s claim that he wrote verse for those who wouldn’t be seen dead reading poetry” (136). It is certainly true that Service’s poems do not use symbolism or complex metaphors or esoteric allusions and images – they use the traditional elements of rhyme and rhythm to tell simple stories about simple people and that may explain their enormous popularity, no matter what the professional critics might think. In fact, Service himself claimed that when writing “I tried to avoid any literary quality.” Service’s great achievement, in cultural terms, was to give expression to the ordinary men and woman of the Canadian gold rushes in the Yukon and and the Klondike. In this sense he might be said to have performed for Canadian literature what Mark Twain had performed for American literature in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – he had taken the ordinary vernacular, the ordinary speech of the humblest in society and given then a voice. Yet Service’s achievements continue to be despised by the literary establishment who consider his work coarse and vulgar and lacking in poetic merit: MacMechan compares Service unfavourably to Kipling:
In manner he is frankly imitative of Kipling’s barrack-room balladry; and imitation is an admission of inferiority. ‘Sourdough’ is a Yukon term for the provident old-timer It is a convenient term for this wilfully violent kind of verse without the ability to redeem the squalid themes it treats. The Ballads of a Cheechako is a second instalment of sourdoughs, while his novel The Trail of’’98 is simply sourdough prose (198).
McLeish’s sneering tone here is obvious, but it is important to make two observations: firstly, it may have been the “squalid themes” which made Service’s verse so popular; and, secondly, McLeish may be mistaken – Service’s verse certainly recalls Kipling’s, but his act of imitation may not be an admission of inferiority, but rather an admission that Kipling’s poems, populist and written in the vernacular, represented a way of bringing verse to ordinary people and of giving a voice to the people whom serious poetry ignores. In addition, if we take the comparison with Kipling still further, we might remark that given the dates of publication of Service’s earliest poems he was more than a Canadian poet; he was a poet of the British Empire reporting back from the furthest outposts of the Dominion of Canada – just as many of Kipling’s most celebrated poems were written about the British Army in India. Through his stories of the Yukon Service helped forge a national identity by writing about specifically Canadian locations and experiences and in language that was rooted in the vernacular. In our age of almost instantaneous communication, it is hard to imagine the slowness of communications one hundred years ago; the public were less well-informed about the world, and so Service’s poems with their distinctively Canadian flavor and all the mystery of the Yukon, would have appealed to an audience across the English-speaking British Empire who were simply curious about distant places that they had heard about but knew nothing about. There is another perspective worth considering too. Service himself was always lukewarm in public about Kipling. Heath (48) suggests that this may have been to do with Kipling’s image as the poet of Empire, combined with the fact that Service held fairly strong socialist beliefs – a fact confirmed by Mallory (67). Thus, we might argue that Service’s unabashed populism stemmed from a belief in egalitarianism and a desire to reach the masses with his poetry. Incidentally, Service was clearly no fool; he was the first Canadian writer to visit the Soviet Union, but quickly saw how repressive the regime ther was. According to the British historian Robert Service (no relation!), “For Service, it was all oppression, fraud and arbitrary rule in the USSR” (211).
But what of the poetry itself? Here is the opening stanza of “Sunshine”:
Flat as a drum head stretch the haggard snows;
The mighty skies are palisades of light;
Herein the stars are blurred; the silence grows and grows;
Vaster and vaster vaults the icy night
Here in my sleeping bag I cower and pray
”Silence and night, have pity! Stoop and slay.”
This is not without merit. Service uses repetition (“grows/grows/vaster/vaster) and sibilance to suggest an atmosphere of menace, and the caesura in line three is adroitly placed. This may not be profound poetry, but it is not incompetent at all. There are moments too when his adoption of the vernacular voice creates real pathos. Consider these lines from “Fighting Mac” written in response to the Boer War:
We’re the men of Magersfontein,
We’re the men of Spion Kop,
Colenso –we’re the men who had to pay.
We’re the men who paid the blood-price.
Shall the grave be all our gain?
You owe us. Long and heavy is the score.
This attains a gravity and solemnity and foreshadows by several years the anti-war poetry of the First World War.
His legacy lives on. There are impressive statues commemorating his life and achievements in Caned and in his native Scotland. Tourist to the Yukon can watch a show every afternoon during the tourist season at which Service’s most celebrated poems are recited and performed, and the wood cabin that he lived in has been preserved as a memorial to his life and work. Some might see this as a gimmick for tourists, but I think Service would have approved: he always maintained that he wanted his verse to be enjoyed by ordinary people, and, before his Sourdough poems were published, he recited them at bars in Dawson – to high acclaim.
Despite the sneering tone of literary critics, Service made a substantial contribution to Canadian culture. Firstly, he established Canada as a fit location for poetry and one which would appeal to readers outside Canada; secondly, he gave a voice to ordinary Canadians and preserved their down to earth sentiment and vernacular language; and, thirdly, his legacy live son and continues to contribute to Canadian tourism, given the number of summer visitors to his cabin. There are literally tens of monuments and memorials to him: there is a creek named after him – the Robert Service Creel (Colombo 288) and Whitfield points out that even though Service only passed through Alaska on a train he has been “wholly adopted by the Alaskan tourist machine” (189). Whatever view of Service’s poetry that we take, it is hard not to agree with Jepson’s guarded view that Service’s poems have “a certain charm and they capture the essence of the gold-rush period” (1090) or even Heath’s more ambitious claim that Service’s poems have “done more to ingrain an image of Canada’s subarctic nature and its effects on human character than any other Canadian poems! (47).
Works Cited
Colombo, John Robert. Canadian Literary Landmarks. 1984. Toronto: Dundern Press Ltd. Print.
Frye, Northrop. The Bush Garden. 1971. Toronto: Anansi Press. Print.
Heath, Jeffrey M. Profiles in Canadian Literature, Volume 7. 1991. Toronto: Dundern Press Ltd. Print.
Jepson, Tim et al. The Rough Guide to Canada. 2004. New York: Rough Guides. Print.
Lockhart, G. Wallace. On the Trail of Robert Service. 1991. Toronto: Dundern Press Ltd. Print.
MacMechan, Archibald. Headwaters of Canadian Literature. 1974. Toronto: New Canadian Library. Print.
Mallory, Enid. Robert Service: Under the Spell of the Yukon. 2006. Victoria, BG: Heritage House Publishing. Print.
Service, Robert. Comrades! A History of World Communism. Cambridge, MASS: Harvard University Pres. Print.
Service, Robert. Special Service: The Best Poems of Robert Service. Kindle Edition.
Whitfield, Paul. A Rough Guide to Alaska. 2004. New York: Rough Guides. Print.

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