Story Time with Aunt Phil: Robert Service
One of the world’s most famous poets, Robert W. Service, died on Sept. 11, 1958, at the age of 85 in Monte Carlo.
And, although Service never lived in Alaska, Alaskans loved the Englishman’s poems as they spoke to the adventurousness of all who came north during the Klondike Gold Rush.
There’s no question that Service discovered what the public wanted. No other works have been so parodied and anthologized as his. He stayed at the head of best-selling poetry lists for decades, and “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee” have become a part of American folklore.
Famous humorist Will Rogers summed up the popularity of Service when he said that Service served the common man “literary steak, well seasoned with plenty of calories and tasty trimmings!”
Although Service’s life in the New World was spent mostly in Canada, arriving there in 1904, Alaskans adopted the poet of the Yukon, too. Historians say that no one before or since has better interpreted the vastness, power, beauty and cruelty of the North.
The sensitive 30-year-old found Whitehorse-- and later Dawson-- thrilling environments and composed rhymes describing the North Country. He wrote not only of nature but of human nature as well-- life in a mining camp, rough miners and dancehall girls. Vice, it seemed to him, was more vital than virtue, more colorful and dramatic.
His first book, titled Songs of a Sourdough printed in 1907, introduced the world to characters like the lady known as Lou and the men that don’t fit in. It was later reprinted as Spell of the Yukon and Other Poems.
As he expressed in “Goodbye, Little Cabin,” perhaps the last Yukon poem he wrote, Service said “he heard the world call” in 1912. Stuffing the manuscript of his latest book into a briefcase, he boarded the steamer for Whitehorse and departed forever from Dawson and those “Arctic trails with their secret tales that would make your blood run cold.” He was 36-years-old.
He spent the next 48 years, until his death on September 11, 1958, far from the Yukon. He had an adventurous life as a war correspondent and a Red Cross ambulance driver in World War I. He finally settled down on the Riviera with his wife and daughter, writing nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He once stated that he had written more than 800 poems and his goal was 1,000, “if the Lord of Scribes will spare me to finish the task.”
He never returned to the Yukon.