Robert W. Service Essay - Critical Essays


The real difficulty in analyzing the poetic output of Robert W. Service is trying to separate the man from his work—if, indeed, such separation is possible or even necessary. No matter what the poem (for so many of them read as carbon copies of one another), there remains, at the end, the vision of the poet. The reader invariably sees the man of adventure and courage, the headstrong seeker of fame and fortune who, as a relatively young man, left Scotland and sailed for the American continent, there to see and to live with the last generation of pioneers, explorers, and true adventurers. Service detested any reference to himself as a “poet”; the word meant something higher than that to which he aspired or believed he could manage intellectually. To the last, he preferred to be known only as a verse writer, as one who had, since childhood, been talking and thinking in rhyme. In fact, he seemed more inclined toward the talking and the thinking than to expressing his observations and experiences on paper.

In many ways, Service’s attitude and actions typified the wandering minstrel of another age, the vagabond strumming on the guitar, singing his own songs, talking about the old times, and telling of countless adventures (actual or imagined). Thus, from the pages of his collected works echo the vigor and the harshness, the tragedy and the ribaldry of the fascinating northern wilderness of Canada. Service virtually immortalized a hundred treks of men and animals through snow and blizzard, privation and suffering, injury and death; yet he also captured in rhyme the sheer glamour and romance of a time when his distant readers equated money with gold dust, love and beauty with a heavily bespangled saloon girl, and art with a whiskey-reeking prospector banging away at an old barroom piano in the corner of a smoke-filled, noisy room. For Service, these were real people in the midst of real experiences—“comrades,” he called them, persons with whom he had “tramped God’s land together.” The triteness and the clichés would come later, from the minds and pens of those who had never seen that about which they were to write and speak.

The “land God forgot” proved, however, to be merely a single stop on Service’s personal poetic trek. France captured his heart and his rhythmic imagination, first during his bohemian days on the Left Bank, then while he served as a Red Cross ambulance driver during World War I. The songs written in the spring of 1914 reflect his bouts with poverty, when he had to write not for his living, but for his life. Nevertheless, the lines of those pieces are quick and happy attempts to shape the mood of one all too willing to spend his last sous not prudently on bread, but prodigally on beer. In “L’Escargot D’or,” Service strolls down the Boul’ Mich’ in a lingering light that has all the exquisite tenderness of violet. The trees bow to him in their first translucent green; beneath, he sees lamps lit with the purest gold, while from the Little Luxembourg emanates a silver tingle of tiny voices. Boldly, he heads for the gay side of the street and enters the café, a place frequented at one time by Oscar Wilde and John Millington Synge, a place where one may “dream and drain,/ And drown despair.” The strength of such poems lies in the reader’s awareness that Service has no illusions about his mind or his art. Throughout the first part of Ballads of a Bohemian, he admits to not being fool enough to think of himself as a poet in the classical sense. Instead, he comes forth as one with a knack for rhyme and an intense love for making verse—or, from another point of view, for “tootling,...

(The entire section is 1497 words.)