Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Group Writing: The Bard of the Yukon

 

Klondikers on Lake LeBarge 1897There are some things that, when they erupt in my life, catapult me instantly back in time, or elsewhere in place or company. Certain smells, and I’m in Granny’s kitchen five or six decades ago. Or, it’s the early 1970s, and I’m cleaning fish on Court Brothers’ wharf in Rustico Harbour, PEI. Or perhaps I’m wandering around Kano Market in 1960, eyes and nose running at the variety of pungent spices and out-of-this-world hot peppers for sale, or just for breathing-in. (I’m thankful it’s only on rare occasions these days, that a redolent something wafts by and reminds me of the camels.) Particular colors, and my sister appears before me, as I think about how well a pair of earrings would suit her, or what use she could make of a gorgeous skein of yarn.

Flowers and landscapes–reminders of childhood, of places I’ve visited, of places I love–reminders of beloved friends, some still here, some, seemingly lost to me forever. All, at one time or another, a part of my life. All, when they happen now, becoming themselves a part of my life today.

There’s a poem that always transports me this way. And it might not be one you expect. It starts like this:

There are strange things done in 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
I cremated Sam McGee.

Suddenly, it’s 1977 and my mates and I are in our early twenties. A small group of us ladies known, I kid you not, as the “Regular Morning Cuties,” meet a few of the faculty every day in the cafeteria for “Coke Time,” an event usually emceed by my dear friend and teacher Bernie. As we sip our (nonalcoholic) drinks, we discourse on the finer, and sometimes the lewder, points of The Canterbury Tales, we opine on whether or not any of us has been able to find a single joke or effulgence of actual humor anywhere in The Faerie Queene, or we howl over the ribald commentary of Shakespeare’s Nurse or the hilarious plots (usually involving drinking, sex, or mistaken identity) of our favorite eighteenth-century comedic playwright.

I’m pretty sure I learned more in those informal morning sessions than I did in any class I ever attended, and that what I learned has stuck with me far longer. (I even ended up marrying one of those professors, but that is another story for another time.)

Bernie loved literature–highbrow or lowbrow, it made no never mind to him. He’d read more, and knew more, than any man I’ve ever met, and he could quote poetry from memory at prodigious length. It was from Bernie that I learned of a uniquely American poem, with a uniquely American line, “there is no joy in Mudville, ” one I deployed most appropriately after watching network coverage of the election returns on the night of November 8, 2016. Unfortunately, having nonchalantly tossed it off, I had to painstakingly explain it to my British family, which rather spoiled the effect.

But perhaps Bernie’s favorite declamatory poem was “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” It wasn’t one that was covered in any of my courses (I avoided the twentieth century whenever possible), and I didn’t think much about it, other than as a bit of doggerel, sort of “Kipling light,” if you will. It wasn’t until several years later, when I was perusing an anthology of poetry at a second-hand bookstore in Wheeling, WV, that I came across it in print. And learned that it was written by one Robert W. Service, perhaps the most commercially successful poet of the first half of that same, spurned, twentieth century.

English by birth, Service was born in Lancashire in 1874, and moved to Scotland to live with his aunts and uncles shortly thereafter. Upon finishing school, he took a job as a bank clerk, as part of which he spent quite a bit of time travelling, falling in love with the American and Canadian West as he did so. When his bank transferred him to the Yukon Territory, and inspired by his heroes like Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling, Service re-engaged with his childhood avocation of poetry-writing, and quickly penned “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” They proved hugely popular, as did his follow-on work, and his successful career as a poet and novelist enabled him to live comfortably for the rest of his life, with a few exciting detours along the way–as a correspondent for the Toronto Star during the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), and as an ambulance driver in France during World War I. He married and lived the rest of his life in France, where he holidayed in Nice with, among others, H.G. Wells, Somerset Maugham, James Joyce and Colette. He died in 1958, and although he is remembered for his prolific output of poetry, novels, and non-fiction, he never achieved much of a reputation as a “serious” poet (some might count that a feature, not a bug).

His first book of poetry, Songs of A Sourdough (retitled for the US market as The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses) earned Service the soubriquet “Bard of the Yukon,” and his two-room cabin where he lived from 1909-1912 is maintained as a historic site.

Of the genesis of The Cremation of Sam McGee, Service wrote,

“I took the woodland trail, my mind seething with excitement and a strange ecstasy…. As I started in: There are strange things done in the midnight sun, verse after verse developed with scarce a check … and when I rolled happily into bed, my ballad was cinched. Next day, with scarcely any effort of memory I put it on paper.”

We should all be so lucky.

Thank you, Robert W. Service, for a good life well-lived, and for the happy memories one of your earliest and best-known poems always conjures up for me.

Are there works of literature, good or bad, that conjure up memories for you? Please share.

Published in Group Writing
This post was promoted to the Main Feed by a Ricochet Editor at the recommendation of Ricochet members. Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Get your first month free.

There are 30 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Arahant Member

    My mother had a book of Service poems. I loved them. Probably why I’m a poet. 😉

    • #1
    • November 8, 2019, at 8:21 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  2. Arahant Member

    Here’s one that was on an album from my youth:

    • #2
    • November 8, 2019, at 8:22 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  3. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    My mother had a book of Service poems. I loved them. Probably why I’m a poet. 😉

    That’s very cool!

    • #3
    • November 8, 2019, at 8:24 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  4. Arahant Member

    She (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    My mother had a book of Service poems. I loved them. Probably why I’m a poet. 😉

    That’s very cool!

    Of course, I’m a formalist.

    • #4
    • November 8, 2019, at 8:25 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  5. James Hageman Moderator

    Wonderful!

    • #5
    • November 8, 2019, at 8:30 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  6. Brian Watt Member
    Brian Watt Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I’ve always thought a one-man stage production about Service with some saloon, cabin, and ice and snow-laden backdrops would quite entertaining. I wonder if Joel and Ethan Coen have ever considered making a film of his work. Seems right in their wheelhouse…up their alley…whatever.

    • #6
    • November 8, 2019, at 8:41 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  7. Tree Rat Member

    I find Service to be the most recitable poet I have ever … recited. His ballads have a real rhythm and he is very good with rhymes, without sacrificing vocabulary.

    But then, what do I know?

    • #7
    • November 8, 2019, at 8:42 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  8. The Reticulator Member

    There was a time in my life when I liked to read anything about the Yukon and Canada’s Northwest Territories, including Robert Service’s poetry. I even got to visit the Yukon once. But I have never wondered until now why my youngest sister used to call me Yukon John, and perhaps still does. I got so used to it that I didn’t think about it. I should ask her where that came from. She’s the one who doesn’t always roll her eyes at my strange and varied avocations, such as winter camping. (That one is from decades past.)

     

    • #8
    • November 8, 2019, at 8:54 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  9. RushBabe49 Thatcher

    When my sister and I divided up the parents’ library, I got the Complete Poems of Robert Service and the Complete Sherlock Holmes. My dad loved Service, and Sam McGee was his favorite.

    • #9
    • November 8, 2019, at 9:15 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  10. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Thanks, She. First you mention Service and I’m off to read “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and “The Shooting of Dan MacGrew” plus some others, then you mention “Casey at the Bat” and of course I had to read “Casey’s Revenge” after that. They were both in some poetry volume I came across when I was a kid.

    The lane is long, some one has said, that never turns again,
    And Fate, though fickle, often gives another chance to men;
    And Casey smiled; his rugged face no longer wore a frown-
    The pitcher who had started all the trouble came to town.

    An evening spent reading poetry instead of … well, instead of something else.

    • #10
    • November 8, 2019, at 9:18 PM PST
    • 8 likes
  11. Al French of Damascus Moderator

    I read and loved “Casey at the Bat”, but I had not seen “Casey’s Revenge”. Thanks.

    • #11
    • November 8, 2019, at 9:39 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  12. Bob W Member

    The high school I attended as a sophomore had a very good voice choir. One assembly they performed “The Cremation of Sam McGee”. It instantly became my favorite. I can still envision that performance (but nothing else they did). Checked out a book of poems by Robert Service the next day. I enjoy his poems, and “The shooting of Dan McGrew” is also a close second.

    • #12
    • November 8, 2019, at 10:08 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  13. Bob W Member

    I just looked on Amzon and found out that the Kindle book “The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses” by Robert Service can be downloaded at no cost. I now have his poems on my Ipad.

    • #13
    • November 8, 2019, at 10:25 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  14. Arahant Member

    Brian Watt (View Comment):

    I’ve always thought a one-man stage production about Service with some saloon, cabin, and ice and snow-laden backdrops would quite entertaining. I wonder if Joel and Ethan Coen have ever considered making a film of his work. Seems right in their wheelhouse…up their alley…whatever.

    There was a play about him/his work that was done at Stratford (Ontario) a few years back.

    • #14
    • November 8, 2019, at 11:07 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  15. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    A great set of memories and a poet I’ve not read…yet! I’m bookmarking this and checking Archive.org, as well as my local libraries digital and physical collections.

    This is part of our November series on the theme: “Service.” Mush on over and sign up for your own post.

    • #15
    • November 9, 2019, at 12:34 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  16. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Those opening lines catapult me in my mind to nighttime, a bonfire on a beach by a mountain lake, flames casting weird shadows across smiling faces and fingers all sticky from roasting marshmallows. I’m about ten years old. Thanks, She.

    If “Casey at the Bat” is something you enjoy, check out Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Casey at the Bat, containing different versions of the poem, such as Mad magazine’s spoof on it. Lovely book.

    • #16
    • November 9, 2019, at 2:23 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  17. Arahant Member

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):
    A great set of memories and a poet I’ve not read…yet! I’m bookmarking this and checking Archive.org, as well as my local libraries digital and physical collections.

    Project Gutenberg has many of his works.

    • #17
    • November 9, 2019, at 4:42 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  18. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    A great set of memories and a poet I’ve not read…yet! I’m bookmarking this and checking Archive.org, as well as my local libraries digital and physical collections.

    This is part of our November series on the theme: “Service.” Mush on over and sign up for your own post.

    The photo at the top of the post is actually of Klondikers on a frozen Lake LeBarge in 1897. They must have been tough old so-and-sos. As must their dogs.

    The caption on the image (from its Wikimedia page), reads:

     “Ice sailing across Lake Le Barge. The lake is a beautiful sheet of water thirty-five miles long. It is about twenty-four miles from the White Horse Rapids and the intervening River is smooth and deep the whole distance. It is no uncommon thing for the boat to be wind bound for several days at a time. When winter has set in and the lake has become a sheet of ice, the delightful sensation of sailing across the frozen surface will not only be enjoyed but will hasten the traveler on his northward journey. It is exhilarating and heathful, and if the wind be favorable it will recompense the gold-seeker for previous delays. The group in the photograph presents the appearance of a pleasure party rather than men who are fighting hardships.”

    • #18
    • November 9, 2019, at 5:45 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  19. EB Thatcher
    EB

    As soon as I saw your title, I knew you were writing about Robert Service. I loved his poems! Unfortunately, I had to find them on my own. His works were never in any of my high school classes.

    • #19
    • November 9, 2019, at 6:32 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  20. The Dowager Jojo Inactive

    One of my Dad’s favorites, also, which he recited with gusto. His very favorite was The Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll.

    Ah, for when manly men were not embarrassed to recite poetry.

    • #20
    • November 9, 2019, at 7:05 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  21. Annefy Member

    When I was young, my sister and I had a friend/neighbor whose step-father would read poetry aloud to us;Robert Service was one of his favorites.

    27 years ago I was pregnant with son #2, my husband and two kids and I were driving to Big Bear on a hot hot summer day waiting for Hugh Hewitt to read the Cremation of Sam McGee on his then weekend radio show.

    A few months later we named son #2 after the poetry reading neighbor . Two years later we named son #3 Sam.

    I love that poem; every memory associated with it is a fine one

    • #21
    • November 9, 2019, at 7:07 AM PST
    • 8 likes
  22. danok1 Member

    I read somewhere that Robert W. Service is Her Canadian Majesty’s favorite poet.

    Loved reading RWS and Jack London when I was younger and in northern Maine.

    • #22
    • November 9, 2019, at 7:58 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  23. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The Dowager Jojo (View Comment):

    One of my Dad’s favorites, also, which he recited with gusto. His very favorite was The Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll.

    Ah, for when manly men were not embarrassed to recite poetry.

    Caloo, calay! Another great poem.

    • #23
    • November 9, 2019, at 10:37 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  24. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):

    Those opening lines catapult me in my mind to nighttime, a bonfire on a beach by a mountain lake, flames casting weird shadows across smiling faces and fingers all sticky from roasting marshmallows. I’m about ten years old. Thanks, She.

    If “Casey at the Bat” is something you enjoy, check out Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Casey at the Bat, containing different versions of the poem, such as Mad magazine’s spoof on it. Lovely book.

    Speaking of bonfires on a beach, your comment sent me to a long-ago party with one and on one, where a bunch of us managed to consume thirty-four dead-fresh (well, they were live-fresh when we started out) lobsters, boiled in seawater and eaten warm, fresh bread, buckets of freshly dug clams, and baked potatoes and roasted corn on the cob. (There may also have been beer . . .)

    Thanks for the book recommendation, will definitely take a look

    • #24
    • November 9, 2019, at 10:42 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  25. Locke On Member

    My father was a Robert Service fan and I grew up with a volume of his poetry in the house. And I have been to the marge of Lake LaBarge, and have the photo to prove it (though it appears the poet took some liberties with the spelling):

    • #25
    • November 9, 2019, at 7:00 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  26. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    Arahant (View Comment):

    A great set of memories and a poet I’ve not read…yet! I’m bookmarking this and checking Archive.org, as well as my local libraries digital and physical collections.

    Project Gutenberg has many of his works.

    Another excellent source!

     

    • #26
    • November 10, 2019, at 12:01 AM PST
    • 1 like
  27. Quietpi Member

    Memories indeed. There was a dad of a couple of friends in Boy Scouts, and a leader in their troop. They were in another unit, but we were brought together often by Order of the Arrow and Council activities. The dad had it memorized, and he was pretty much required to recite it at appropriate times. I remember especially a canoe trip down the Sacramento River, and one rainy night, camped beneath a bridge. 

    “There are strange things done in the midnight sun…” and I’m right there. And there, and there . . .

    Come to think of it now, the same dad also knew “Casey At The Bat.”

    Now, wait a minute! Where’s my Service book? My bookshelf goes straight from Scott to Shakespeare. Something’s amiss!

    • #27
    • November 10, 2019, at 7:19 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  28. Quietpi Member

    Brian Watt (View Comment):

    I’ve always thought a one-man stage production about Service with some saloon, cabin, and ice and snow-laden backdrops would quite entertaining. I wonder if Joel and Ethan Coen have ever considered making a film of his work. Seems right in their wheelhouse…up their alley…whatever.

    Forget the stage. Give me a campfire. And a tent in a snowstorm. Or under a bridge in a rain storm. That’s where I want to hear Service!

    • #28
    • November 10, 2019, at 7:37 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  29. Locke On Member

    When we visited in 1991, we saw a reenactor perform at Service’s cabin. Don’t know if it was Byrne, but I’d assume so from the timing. (Somewhere I have a DVD with the dubbed off videotape of that trip, wonder where it went…)

    • #29
    • November 11, 2019, at 10:04 AM PST
    • 1 like
  30. Tree Rat Member

    Locke On (View Comment):

    When we visited in 1991, we saw a reenactor perform at Service’s cabin. Don’t know if it was Byrne, but I’d assume so from the timing. (Somewhere I have a DVD with the dubbed off videotape of that trip, wonder where it went…)

    When I was stationed in Alaska, I had the opportunity to go to the original Malamute Saloon (or so they claimed) and hear a rendition of Dan McGrew / Sam McGee (Too long ago). I understand it has since burned down.

    • #30
    • November 11, 2019, at 12:58 PM PST
    • 1 like