Robert W. Service

Robert W. Service

Robert William Service (January 16, 1874 – September 11, 1958) was a poet and writer. He is mostly well known for his writings on the Canadian North, including the poems "The Shooting of Dan McGrew", "The Law of the Yukon", and "The Cremation of Sam McGee".

Early life

Service was born into a Scottish family while they were living in Preston, England. He was schooled in Scotland, attending Hillhead High School in Glasgow. He moved to Canada at the age of 21 when he gave up his job working in a Glasgow bank, and traveled to Vancouver Island, British Columbia with his Buffalo Bill outfit and dreams of becoming a cowboy. Hired by the Canadian Bank of Commerce, he was posted to the bank's branch in Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. Inspired by the vast beauty of the Yukon wilderness, Service began writing poetry about the things he saw.

Writing career

Service became known for his work about the West and the Yukon gold miners. Such works as "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee" made him famous around the world. After having collected enough poems for a book, Service offered a publisher $100 of his own money to publish the work, but the publisher was so sure that the works would be popular (he had already taken 1700 offers for sale off the galley proofs), he returned Service's money and offered him a contract.

The book was published in 1907 in North America as "The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses" and in England as "The Songs of a Sourdough". This made Service wealthy and he became known as the "Canadian Kipling". Within two years he was able to quit his job at the bank, and to travel to Paris, the French Riviera, Hollywood, and beyond. During his time in Paris he was reputedly the wealthiest author living in the city, yet was known to dress as a working man and walk the streets, blending in and observing everything around him. From 1912 to 1913 he was a correspondent for the "Toronto Star" during the Balkan Wars.

Service was not a conscientious objector during World War I; he was a British subject, and worked as an ambulance driver for the Canadian Red Cross, as well as working as a war correspondent for the Canadian government. He wrote a number of poems about the war, many appearing in a new book, The Rhymes of a Red-Cross Man, in 1916. Some of these, along with his earlier "The March of the Dead" about the Boer War, were put to music and compiled into the anti-war album "War, War, War" by "Country" Joe McDonald in 1971. Many of Service's poems celebrated duty to country in war, and although he often pointed out the sacrifice of the common soldier in war, he could not be considered an "anti-war" writer. His brother Lieutenant Albert Service, Canadian Infantry, was killed in action in France in August 1916. [Dedication in first edition of The Rhymes of a Red-Cross Man]

Service is also noted for his use of ethnonyms that would normally be considered offensive "slurs", but with no insult apparently intended. Words used in Service's poetry include "jerries" (Germans), "dago" (Italian), "pickaninny" (in reference to a Mozambican infant), "cheechako" (newcomer to the Yukon and Alaska gold fields, usually from the U.S.), "nigger" (African-American), "squaw" (Aboriginal woman), and "Jap" (Japanese).

Service married Germaine Bougeoin, a Parisian, and they purchased a summer home in the Brittany region of France. At the outbreak of World War II he was in Poland and fled the country, going back to North America. He remained in Hollywood until the war's end, then he returned to his home in Brittany. Throughout all this, he remained a British subject and carried a British passport.

Service wrote two volumes of autobiography - "Ploughman of the Moon" and "Harper of Heaven".

He died in Lancieux, Côtes-d'Armor, in Brittany, and is buried there in the local cemetery.

Robert Service's Cabin, Dawson City

Robert Service lived between 1909 and 1912 in a log cabin on 8th Avenue in Dawson City, Yukon. His relative prosperity allowed him the luxury of a telephone. After he left for Europe, the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (I.O.D.E.) took care of the house until 1971, preserving it. Service eventually decided he could not return to Dawson, as it would not be as he remembered it.

In 1971, the Service cabin was taken over by Parks Canada, which maintains it, including its sod roof, as a tourist attraction. Irish-born actor Tom Byrne created "The Robert Service Show" which was presented in the front yard of the cabin, starting in 1976. This was very popular for summer visitors and set the standard for Robert Service recitations. Ill health caused the elderly Mr. Byrne to discontinue the show at the cabin. The show was moved to a Front Street storefront and since 2004 has been held at the Westmark Hotel in Dawson. A local Dawson entertainer, Johnny Nunan, now recites Service's poetry (including the classic "The Cremation of Sam McGee") from a willow chair while visitors sit on benches on the front lawn. Following the presentation, visitors can view Service's home through the windows and front door. The fragility of the house, and the rarity of the artifacts, precludes any possibility of allowing visitors to walk inside the house itself.


Robert W. Service has been honoured with schools named for him including Service High School in Anchorage, Alaska, Robert Service Middle School in Toronto, Ontario [ [ Robert Service Sr PS] ] and Robert Service School in Dawson City, Yukon. [ [ Yukon Public School Directory] ] He was also honoured on a Canadian postage stamp in 1976. The Robert Service Way, a main road in Whitehorse, is named after him.

The works of Robert W. Service

*"The Song of the Wage Slave" (1915)
*"Ballads of a Bohemian" (1921)
*"Ballads of a Cheechako" (1909)
*"Bar-Room Ballads" {1940)
*"The Rhymes of a Red-cross Man" {1916)
*"Rhymes of a Rolling Stone" (1912)
*"The Songs of a Sourdough" (Published in the U.S. as "The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses") (1907)
*"The House of Fear, A Novel" (1927)
*"The Master of the Microbe" (1926)
*"Ploughman of the Moon, An Adventure Into Memory" (1945)
*"The Poisoned Paradise" (1922)
*"The Pretender. A story of the Latin quarter" (1914)
*"The Roughneck, A Tale of Tahiti" (1923)
*"The Trail of Ninety-Eight, A Northland Romance" (1910)
*"Why Now Grow Young? or Living for Longevity" (1928)
*"The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail"
*"Bob Smart's Dream"
*"The March of the Dead"
*"Carols of an Old Codger"
*"Trail of Ninety-Eight"
*"The call of the wild (poem)" [ [ The Call of the Wild] ]


External links

* [ Robert Service at the University of Calgary]
* [ Robert Service at Electric Scotland]

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