Creator of the Ice-Worm Cocktail
Robert Service (1874-1958)
There are strange things done ’neath
the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold.
The arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold.
The northern lights have seen queer sights
But the queerest they ever did see,
Was that night on the marge of Lake LeBarge
When I cremated Sam McGee.
The “Poet of the Yukon” was born in England, grew up in Scotland, and lived most of his life in France. Robert Service lived in Canada for only seven years. He had been a farm laborer, a cowboy, a sandwich-maker and a dishwasher before getting a steady job in Whitehorse, Yukon, where he fell in love with the landscape and the lore and the life of the wild north.
There where the mighty mountains bare their fangs unto the moon.
There where the sullen sun-dogs glare in the snow-bright bitter noon.
And the glacier-glutted streams sweep down at the clarion call of June.
Never mind that the job he got was as a bank clerk. He was drawn to the roughnecks and the adventurers of the gold rush, and he started to write poems about them.
G.K. Chesterton said that publishers do not deny that they are publishers except when there are poets lurking about. The exception would be Robert Service, who went to a publisher and actually offered to use his own money to go toward the printing of his first volume of poems. But the publisher sent Service’s check back to him. Songs of a Sourdough presold 1,700 copies based on the galley-proofs. The book was a phenomenal bestseller,
especially considering that it was a book of poems. It included two of his most famous ballads, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”
The success of the book made Service financially independent, and he was able to quit his job at the bank and write full time, traveling the world, translating his and other people’s adventures into verse.
When World War I began, the forty-two-year-old Service lied about his age so that he could fight for the Canadian Army in France, but he was rejected. So he worked as an ambulance driver on the front for two years. He met a Frenchwoman, married her and, after the war, settled in France. When the Nazis moved in, he barely escaped with the clothes on his back and eventually made it back to North America. During World War II, he lived in Hollywood
where he appeared in a movie called The Spoilers with John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich. After the war, he returned to France where he lived for the rest of his life.
He continued to write poetry as well as novels, mysteries and two autobiographies. One of his later volumes, Bar-Room Ballads, evoked the Yukon gold rush days that were long behind him, and included the same sort of hilarious poems which had won him fame.
The highlight is “The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail,” an appetizing account of the saloon challenge to down the legendary drink described in the title. (If you don’t know the poem, look it up and enjoy it. I don’t want to give anything away, especially a free drink.)
Late in life Service admitted out loud that he was probably the only living poet who had made over a million dollars writing poems. He was a doting grandfather when he died in 1958 at the age of eighty-four. His French wife survived him by thirty-one years, passing away in 1989 at the age of one hundred and two.
Chesterton said that if we were real enough, we would all speak in rhyme. It is hard to imagine a “realer” man than Robert Service, and it is also hard to imagine him speaking in anything other than rhyme.
His connection to G.K. Chesterton?
Chesterton and Service were born the same year. Both men were journalists. Both made an early impression writing poems about the Boer War. Both catapulted to fame at about the same time. Both lost a brother in World War I. Both lamented that brave soldiers die in
battle, while diplomats die in bed. Both praised the virtues of the common man, especially the poor man. Both knew the value of men smoking and drinking together. Both appreciated laughter as one of the greatest gifts from God. And both knew the value of wit and rhyme.
There is another connection. In one of his last poems, called “Bookshelf,” Service writes about the poets who have maintained an influence on him, whose books beside his bed, he hopes, will mourn for him when he’s gone. “For half my life I’ve loved them well.” There are eleven “minstrels” on his shelf. The list does not include Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley or Keats but rather, Omar Khayyam, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Bret Harte, Eugene Field, W. H. Henley, Rudyard Kipling, John Masefield, A.E. Housman, and—you guessed it—G.K. Chesterton.
Though our current literary establishment continues to lift its collective nose at the poetry of Robert Service, his poems continue to delight new readers and his books continue to fly off the shelf.
I have no doubt at all the Devil grins,
As seas of ink I spatter.
Ye gods, forgive my “literary” sins—
The other kind don’t matter.
From A Miscellany of Men Gilbert Magazine 12.4 January/February 2009. To read more of this inticing issue of Gilbert Magazine, order your copy of this issue here.