Robert W. Service, Red Cross, 1915 - Mary Helen Spooner on the poems of Robert Service
Service served as a Red Cross ambulance driver in France during the First World War. Reproduced by courtesy of Anne Longepe, Robert W. Service Estate

Gone Fishing

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My father departed this world via Lake Michigan, during a salmon fishing jamboree sponsored by his camping club. He and my mother had pulled an Airstream travel trailer from their home in St Louis, and shortly after arrival met a man carrying an impressive catch. The fellow camper pointed out the pier where he had been fishing, and my father immediately grabbed his gear and headed to the site.

Witnesses said he either slipped or was knocked into the water by a wave. But there was no sign of him for a full week, and during this period my sisters and I imagined our father, who always carried a pocket knife, drifting to another shore, disoriented and perhaps living in the woods as a bearded wild man. Or floating out of Lake Michigan through the canals and other Great Lakes to the St Lawrence Seaway and the Atlantic, which seemed a fitting end for a man afflicted with a bad case of wanderlust. His body was eventually discovered on the lake shore some distance from the campsite, blessed by a priest, cremated and his ashes sent back to St Louis.

A few months before his death I gave my father a copy of the Collected Poems of Robert Service, a British-Canadian poet whose long ballads he had discovered in his younger, single days while working on building sites in Alaska and Canada. He spoke often of his favourite, ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’, about a gold miner in the Yukon who honours his dying fellow prospector’s request for cremation rather than interment in a frozen grave. Hauling Sam McGee’s body for days on a dog sled, the narrator eventually finds a wrecked boat along a lake shore and uses it as a makeshift crematorium.

My father had never owned a copy of the book but remembered the story and could recall lines from the poem, recited to him by other construction workers he met in those northern territories. The narrator opens the cabin of the boat to check on the cremation’s progress, only to discover Sam basking in the heat, ‘an

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My father departed this world via Lake Michigan, during a salmon fishing jamboree sponsored by his camping club. He and my mother had pulled an Airstream travel trailer from their home in St Louis, and shortly after arrival met a man carrying an impressive catch. The fellow camper pointed out the pier where he had been fishing, and my father immediately grabbed his gear and headed to the site.

Witnesses said he either slipped or was knocked into the water by a wave. But there was no sign of him for a full week, and during this period my sisters and I imagined our father, who always carried a pocket knife, drifting to another shore, disoriented and perhaps living in the woods as a bearded wild man. Or floating out of Lake Michigan through the canals and other Great Lakes to the St Lawrence Seaway and the Atlantic, which seemed a fitting end for a man afflicted with a bad case of wanderlust. His body was eventually discovered on the lake shore some distance from the campsite, blessed by a priest, cremated and his ashes sent back to St Louis.

A few months before his death I gave my father a copy of the Collected Poems of Robert Service, a British-Canadian poet whose long ballads he had discovered in his younger, single days while working on building sites in Alaska and Canada. He spoke often of his favourite, ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’, about a gold miner in the Yukon who honours his dying fellow prospector’s request for cremation rather than interment in a frozen grave. Hauling Sam McGee’s body for days on a dog sled, the narrator eventually finds a wrecked boat along a lake shore and uses it as a makeshift crematorium.

My father had never owned a copy of the book but remembered the story and could recall lines from the poem, recited to him by other construction workers he met in those northern territories. The narrator opens the cabin of the boat to check on the cremation’s progress, only to discover Sam basking in the heat, ‘and he wore a smile you could see a mile and he said, please shut that door’.

Robert Service was born in Preston, Lancashire, on 16 January 1874, one of ten children of a Scottish postal worker and his wife. He was educated in Glasgow, then worked as a bank clerk and managed to complete one term at the University of Glasgow. He found publishers for his early verses in the Glasgow Herald and local magazines. But he longed for adventure and began saving as much as he could for a passage to western Canada, where he planned to become a cowboy. He travelled by ship to Montreal and by train to British Columbia, where he spent over a year working on farms and ranches. Still restless, he caught a boat from Vancouver Island to Seattle, then wandered down to California and Mexico and spent two more years working at a series of odd jobs and exploring the western United States. He would later recall a youthful ambition to be an American hobo, but he only indulged in spells of vagrancy, and even in his leanest moments he kept ‘ten cents between myself and the wolf ’.

Service returned to Victoria and found work at the Canadian Bank of Commerce, which later transferred him to the town of Whitehorse, in Yukon territory. The local minister was famous for having cooked and eaten his sealskin boots to avoid starvation when lost on a trail to Fort McPherson, and he hosted Saturday night gatherings in the church hall, where guests were invited to make their own entertainment. Service would recite Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Gunga Din’ and other works of narrative verse, and he had some of his own published in the local newspaper, the White Horse Star. He had been trying to compose something with a local theme, then, during an evening walk, he heard raucous sounds coming from the local bars. Service, who rarely drank alcohol, said that the opening line of one of his best-known poems, ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’, immediately popped into his mind: ‘A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon’.

He did not go home that night but went to his desk at the bank and wrote out his first long ballad, about a mysterious stranger and a local card player who kill each other over a woman. It was deemed inappropriate for a church social entertainment, but nearly a century later ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’ would be recited at Buckingham Palace by Ronald Reagan and the Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at a post-summit dinner, when they learned that the Queen and the Queen Mother were also Robert Service fans.

‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ soon followed, when a prospector told him an improbable tale of a miner who had cremated his friend in the wild. Service was enthralled by the story, and later said he composed the poem in his mind while walking local trails in the moonlight. The creative floodgates had opened, and when he felt he had enough verses for a book he sent them to his father (who had also emigrated) in Toronto, along with a cheque, and asked him to have them printed. He imagined that Songs of a Sourdough would be a kind of vanity undertaking, and that the printed copies would make Christmas gifts for his friends.

Service’s father took the poems to the Methodist Book and Publishing House, where they were a big hit with the staff. Word of mouth generated 1,700 pre-orders, and the publisher posted Service’s cheque back to him, along with a royalty contract for the book. Any misgivings the Methodist publisher may have had over Service’s earthy ballads were overridden by the fact that Songs of a Sourdough (1907) had already become a bestseller. Within the year there were editions printed in New York and London, and the book was subsequently reprinted many times.

In 1908 the bank transferred Service to Dawson City, a Yukon town that had been the centre of the Klondike Gold Rush. By then he had become a Yukon celebrity, but according to one biographer, ‘he slid into town one day without any great fanfare, and was soon to be seen weighing out gold dust in the tellers’ cage of the Canadian Bank of Commerce on Front Street’. Visitors wanting to catch a glimpse of him were surprised to see ‘a shy and nondescript man in his mid-thirties, with a fresh complexion, clear blue eyes and a boyish figure that made him look younger’. His speech was described as having ‘an English inflection, and an American drawl and Scottish overtones’.

The gold boom had ended a decade earlier, but there were plenty of miners still in the area with tales to tell, and Service quickly produced another collection of verses, Ballads of a Cheechako (1909), which included works with such titles as ‘The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill’ and ‘Claw-fingered Kitty’. ‘Cheechako’ was the local term for a newcomer to Alaska or the Yukon territory.
Service then resigned from his bank job, moved to a rustic cabin on a hill and devoted himself to writing novels. In 1912 he accepted a job with the Toronto Star as a correspondent in Europe, later basing himself in Paris and then in Brittany. He spent part of the Second World War in Hollywood, where he was given a one-line part in a film with John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich and where his first novel, The Trail of Ninety-Eight (1909), was made into a film. After the war he returned to France, where he continued to write until his death in 1958.

Service’s verse is often dismissed as doggerel, and derivative of some of Kipling’s works, but his popularity endures. The late US Senator John McCain spoke of learning ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ from a fellow captive when he was a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam. And a recording Johnny Cash made of the poem was discovered in a cache of unreleased tapes shortly after his death, which were then compiled into a two-disc set, Personal File. A reviewer for US National Public Radio described Cash’s interpretation of the poem as the ‘standout moment’ in the collection, with the country singer lending the work the gravitas it needed.

When I gave my father Service’s Collected Poems, he immediately began memorizing ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’, hoping to recite it at parties. He would bring the book out after a meal, a family friend later told me, and say, ‘Let’s have a poem!’ I badly wanted to read it at his funeral, but my mother would not hear of it, sending me and another sister to confer with her priest about suitable biblical quotations. But I put Collected Poems of Robert Service into my shoulder bag and at the reception after mass I spoke to the funeral director. He thought it a wonderful idea and announced to the guests that I had something to share.

‘I am going to read you something my father was learning,’ I told them, ‘something you likely would have heard had he been with us here.’ I began reading, and my 7-year-old nephew ran over to me, exclaiming that he remembered the poem. I put my arm round his shoulders, and we read it aloud together:

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.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 65 © Mary Helen Spooner 2020


About the contributor

Mary Helen Spooner, who has inherited her father’s wanderlust, worked as a journalist in Latin America for many years.
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Comments & Reviews

  1. RuthAnn Dueker says:

    Loved it – great article.

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