The Banker Poet
One of the joys of my life is highlighting poets that drive poetry snobs the brink of homicidal mania. They are so cute choking on outrage and condescension. And no poet fits that bill better than the once wildly popular Canadian bard Robert W. Service.
Service was born on January 16, 1874 in Preston, Lancashire, England. He was the oldest son of a Scottish banker and was eventually joined by 10 brothers and sisters. Despite having the honor of being named for his father, the boy was farmed out for one reason or another to the care of his paternal grandfather, the local Postmaster in Kilwinning, Scotland and three maiden aunts.
When he was only six year old he showed off his native aptitude by composing and reciting his first poem—grace at the dinner table. Recorded for posterity it went like this:
God bless the cakes and bless the jam;
Bless the cheese and the cold boiled ham:
Bless the scones Aunt Jeannie makes,
And save us all from bellyaches. Amen
It annoys me no end that this bit of juvenile ephemera is so much better than my first poetic effort not attempted until I was above the ripe old age of 10. The stab at a limerick failed because I couldn’t get it to scan right and was built around rhyming Elvis with pelvis which is lame and pathetic.
Back to Service. When his father got a plumb job at the Bank of Scotland in Glasgow the boy rejoined his family and began studies at age 9 at Hillhead Primary School, a prestigious day school attended by children of the faculty of the near-by University of Glasgow, civil servants, and the managerial staff—the aspiring middle class. In addition to pursuing the established curriculum young Robert widely read the English Romantic. He was soon peddling occasional verse to local newspapers for a few pennies of spending money.
In the new Hillhead High School, Robert excelled in his studies but also enjoyed adventure yarns, especially stories about pioneers and cowboys in the American West. After graduating from school and saving his money from a Commercial Bank of Scotland minor clerkship, Service was able to immigrate to Vancouver Island, British Columbia arriving on the scene to some ridicule bedecked in a costume modeled on Buffalo Bill Cody.
Service took up the life of a sort of gentleman hobo ranging down the Pacific Coast as far as Mexico and back working an odd assortment of catch-as-catch-can jobs, sponging off sympathetic fellow Scotts when he could find them, and having various adventures including a suitably tragic doomed romance.
In 1899 he found himself a clerking in a Cowichan Bay, British Columbia store. An offhand comment to a customer that he wrote verse resulted in an invitation to submit pieces to the Victoria Daily Colonist, which published six pieces on the Boer War in the summer of 1900 under the initials R.S. For inspiration Service drew on letters of his younger brother Alex who was in Boer prisoner of war camp with a young cavalryman named Winston Churchill. One of the poems, The March of the Dead, attracted a lot of attention and was picked up by papers across Canada. The poem would end up in Service’s first collection.
The Colonist continued to print Service’s verse through 1902 and he discovered that he was getting something of a literary reputation. But he failed at love and at a fling at brand new Victoria College, a two year off-shoot of McGill University.
So in 1904 he used his Bank of Scotland letter of recommendation to get a job with the Canadian Bank of Commerce branch in Victoria. He proved his worth and was soon advancing. In 1905 Service got his dream post, to a bank branch in Whitehorse, a rough and tumble frontier town and the hoping off point for the Yukon gold fields. Service had been dreaming of this adventure for some times and had already composed some gold field ballads before ever arriving on the scene.
Service passed his idle time in the saloons frequented by sourdough veterans and naïve city kids caught up in the flush of gold fever. He played the piano and kept his ear open for good yarns. Using popular verses like Casey at the Bat and especially Rudyard Kipling’s Barracks Ballads as his model, he began to turn some of those yarns in poetry.
Services's phenominally succesful first collection made him rich and famous.
The Shooting of Dan McGrew was dashed off at the suggestion of a local newspaper editor for recitation at a Sunday afternoon Church entertainment. That was so well received the he quickly finished another The Cremation of Sam McGee. The poems made him famous almost overnight and he continued to collect more yarns and set them down in rhyme and meter. He seldom ventured far from Whitehorse himself and he did not make it to Dawson in the Klondike until 1908, ten years past the frenzied peak of the Gold Rush.
Service sent sheaves of his poems to his father, by then living in Toronto, who arranged them and found a publisher. Service had planned to pay for the run himself and peddle his books back around Dawson and Whitehorse. But the editors and typesetters were so taken by the rhymes that they legendarily began reciting them as they worked. Friends shared them informally in galley proofs. Based on word of mouth, more than 1,700 were sold in advance before the book could be bound. Songs of a Sourdough went through seven printings even before its official release date. Editions printed in New York, Philadelphia, and London was just as successful.
Service was suddenly a rich man, making more than $100,000 pre-inflation dollars on his first book alone.
But he was still working for the bank. After finishing three years in Dawson Service was given a three month leave which he used to go back to Vancouver Island and to look up the pretty girl who had once spurned him because of his poverty and slim prospects. This time Constance MacLean agreed to an engagement.
Service was assigned by the bank back to Whitehorse, where he used his spare time to collect more yarns from old timers. A second book, Ballads of a Cheechako, was as big a success as the first. He now felt comfortable to turn down a promotion to manager of the Whitehorse Branch and quit banking for good in 1909.
A scene from the 1915 silent version of The Shooting of Dan McGrew. Service was on set for the 1924 MGM remake.
He returned to Dawson where he rented a small cabin and set to writing a novel. The Trail of ’98, written in five intense month of work, was yet another best seller. Service used his new wealth to travel to Europe and to Hollywood where some of his best known poems were being made into silent films. But somewhere in those travels and adventures he lost his lady love.
Service came back to Dawson one last time in 1912 to collect stories for another book of poems, Ballad of a Rolling Stone. After that it was off to Europe as a foreign correspondent covering the Balkan Wars for before settling in France to live off of his considerable wealth.
In 1913 he settled in Paris with a summer home in Lancieux, Côtes-d'Armor, in Brittany. In Paris, despite his wealth, Service chose to live as an artist on the Left Bank. He married Parisienne Germaine Bourgoin, thirteen years his junior, a happy union that produced children and lasted the rest of the poet’s life.
Service as an Ambulance Corps driver on the Western Front.
When the war broke out Service was turned down for active service with the British because of varicose veins. Instead the 41 year old poet became a war correspondent again. After nearly being shot as a spy by panicked English troops near Dunkirk, Service enlisted in the American Volunteer Ambulance Corps, the same outfit in which other writers like Ernest Hemingway and e.e. cummings served. His book of wartime poetry, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, in 1916 was dedicated to his brother LT. Albert Service, Canadian Infantry, killed in action that August. Most critics agree that the verses represented his best work ever. They were written in Paris after his health broke under the strain of combat.
In post-war Paris, Service reveled in the life of the city. By day he could be a gay boulevardier bedecked in finery, carrying a gold-headed cane and wearing a monocle. At night he caroused with the doorman of his pension in the lowest dives and bistros in the city. He was reputably the wealthiest expatriate writer in Paris and sometimes a soft touch for down and out artists and writers. He chronicled those days in a new collection of poetry, Ballads of a Bohemian in which the verses are interspersed with journal passages.
Through the ‘20’s Service concentrated on writing popular thriller novels, some of which were adapted to Hollywood.
The rise of tyrants of the Left and Right caught his attention after a visit to the Soviet Union in 1930 which inspired the savage sarcasm of a new long poem Lenin’s Tomb. Hitler fared no better in poems printed in the popular press. When news of the Hitler-Stalin Pact broke in 1939 Service and his family were in once again visiting. With the secret police of both nations looking for him, the family had to go on the lam across the continent.
Service playing himself with Marlene Dietrich on the set of The Spoilers,
After a brief return to Canada, Service and his family settled into California during World War II. He lent his talents to the war effort by entertaining the troops with recitations of his most popular work. He found that many of the GIs could recite with him, word for word. At the request of Marlene Dietrich he was cast as himself in The Spoilers with John Wayne and Randolph Scott.
After the war, Service and his family returned to France. They found their summer home in Brittany destroyed. They rebuilt the chateau and Service lived there the rest of his life between travels. In semi-retirement he continued to write novels, occasional satiric verse. He completed two volumes of memoirs, Ploughman of the Moon and Harper of Heave in addition to six more books of verse. If his poems seemed old fashion, if the critics sneered—and they always sneered—if the new volumes failed to sell faster than they could be printed, Service was unconcerned
He never claimed to be a poet, he said, just a simple versifier who could catch the imagination of common people much like himself. He never won an award or prize. His status in Canada became more of one of National buffoon instead of the national bard despite selling more poetry than anyone before or since.
Scoffed at by critics Service's poems remain popular with ordinary folk and was celebrated by the Canada Post.
Service died on September 11, 1958 at age 84 in Lancieux, Côtes-d’Armor, and was buried there. His wife Germaine lived on 31 years following his death, dying at age 102 in 1989.
Critics may continue to scoff. But when I was a Cub Scout long ago, we voluntarily memorized The Cremation of Sam McGee so that we could recite it around a winter campfire. No greater tribute could there be.
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.