A Geography of Robert W. Service

Today marks the 138th birthday of the author of the most commercially successful body of poetry of the entire 20thcentury.  Robert W. Service was hardly innovative; he was far from academically renowned like other early 20th century English-language poets such as William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings, or William Carlos Williams; nor did he achieve the local hero status of another Ayrshire poet from a century prior, Robert Burns.  Service wrote rather populist verse (many would simply say ‘doggerel’) in the same way Norman Rockwell made populist paintings; light fare meant to be consumed rather than analysed.  While his work remains little known in his Scottish homeland, Service’s tales of frontier adventure (quite similar to, if not derivative of, Rudyard Kipling and, if anything, a precursor to the modern-day cowboy poetry movement) are extremely well-known in North America (especially Canada), and Service’s name is nearly synonymous with the Yukon.  Service had a rather intimate relationship with geography that not only kept him globetrotting around the world for the entirety of his adult life, but reflected itself in his verse.

From his birth in 1874, Robert William Service was a traveller: Scottish by ethnicity, he was actually born in Preston, Lancashire, where his banker father had been transferred.  At five, Service was sent to live with relatives in the family’s hometown of Kilwinning, North Ayrshire.  Later, he rejoined his father, now in Glasgow, where he took up the family trade and joined the Commercial Bank of Scotland (today’s Royal Bank of Scotland) at 15.


The plaque in Preston, Lancashire commemorating Service’s birthplace.  Source: Beejaypii, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:RobertWService-plaque-Preston.jpg.


This memorial to Service lies along the A737 in Kilwinning, North Ayrshire. Source: R. Griffith, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Robert_Service%27s_memorial,_Kilwinning.JPG.

Bored of the work of banking, he grew listless and moved abroad to North America in 1896 with aspirations of being a cowboy or ranch hand.  After drifting along the west coast for a couple of years working all sorts of odd jobs, he ended up in Cowichan Bay, British Columbia.  It was here where he first began actively submitting the verses he had been writing as a hobby to be published (in this case by the Victoria Daily Colonist); his first published tome being ‘The March of the Dead’ about the ongoing Boer War and mentioning places such as Colenso, Magersfontein, and Spion Kop.

The Battle of Spion Kop near Ladysmith on 23-24 January 1900 resulted in nearly 600 deaths between the British and South African troops.

In need of money, Service returned to the banking game with the Canadian Imperial Bank (today’s CIBC).  After a couple transfers around British Columbia, the adventurous Service secured a transfer to Whitehorse, Yukon in 1904, where he would begin writing and selling his most famous poems and become a local hero in the process.  His love of the frontier lifestyle meant that he immediately became enraptured with tales of the Klondike Gold Rush that had just ended earlier that decade to the north in and around Dawson City.  In Whitehorse, Service began reciting other authors’ works in public, and also began publishing poems of his own in the Whitehorse Star, many of which had been written before his arrival in the Yukon). When the editor asked for more local-flavoured content, Service responded with the first of his classic poems, ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’, about a shootout in a Yukon saloon.  Soon came Service’s most famous poem, ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’, the tale of a miner from Tennessee who freezes to death in the Yukon cold and is cremated by an acquaintance along the shore of Lake Leberge, a widening of the Yukon River just to the north of Whitehorse.  The name ‘Sam McGee’ was an actual person Service dealt with at the Canadian Imperial Bank in Whitehorse, but lived a long life into the 1940s.


‘It was out on the marge of Lake Lebarge [sic] I cremated Sam McGee’.  Source: P. Jerry, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lake_LeBarge_with_ice.jpg.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

After collecting a book’s worth of poems, he sent a manuscript to his father, now in Toronto, with the intention of having copies printed up to give to friends.  Instead, the publishing house his father went to with the book saw its moneymaking potential, and signed Service to a royalty contract.  Songs of a Sourdough  was an instant sensation in 1907 (the era of ‘manly men’ such as Teddy Roosevelt’s and his rough riders), and in a rather short amount of time Service went from barely scraping by to being extremely wealthy.  In 1908, Service finally made it to Dawson City after another bank transfer.  In 1898 at the height of the gold rush, Dawson had been a bustling gold city of 40 000 residents; by 1899, it was down to 8 000; by the time of Service’s arrival, it was well under 5 000.  While the glitz may have left the city, Service was still able to pick the brains of many a prospector who had been there during the rush, and used these stories as the basis for a series of Yukon-based poems (and two novels) that would come one right after the other, all bestsellers: Ballads of a Cheechako, Rhymes of a Rolling Stone, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man.

Robert W. Service circa 1905.

The itch to travel (and having the means to pay for it; by this point he was a already millionaire, which was quite an accomplishment for 1912) meant Service left both banking and the Yukon behind for good in 1912.  He was a war correspondent for the Toronto Star during the Balkan Wars before settling in Paris’ Latin Quarter in 1913.  While quite possibly the wealthiest author in the entire city (and considering the Parisian literary scene of the time, think about what that entails), Service was just as likely to roam the streets in disguise looking for literary inspiration from the city’s everymen as he was to appear at high-end functions.  His thirst for adventure still unquenched, he signed up for the British army at the beginning of World War I but was turned down due to his varicose veins.  Instead, he briefly returned to his war correspondent position before becoming an ambulance driver for the American Red Cross.  All of these experiences were adapted into his 1921 collection Ballads Of A Bohemian, another book filled with geographic references inn poems such as ‘The Man From Athabaska’ (a reference to his own epic 1912 overland journey from central Alberta back to Dawson) and ‘Tipperary Days’ in addition to the plethora of WWI battlefields mentioned throughout.  Around this time, he also began writing thriller novels with strong geographic connections such as A Romance of Monte Carlo(1922) and The Roughneck: A Tale of Tahiti (1923).

Once the 1930s came around, Service increased his globetrotting and slowed down his writing pace; later collections were of odds and ends not published in other books.  A growing interest in Marxism led to 1937 and 1938 visits to the Soviet Union (and also resulted in the satirical ‘Ballad of Lenin’s Tomb’, for which he was essentially blacklisted in the USSR; others works Service wrote deriding Hitler led to the German army attempting to track him down at his Breton summer home).  Trapped in the Soviet Union when Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the USSR and Germany was signed paving the way for World War II, he escaped to France via Sweden and then relocated his family to California, where his celebrity status made him a sought-after entertainer for US troops eager to listen to him recite his poems in his light Scottish brogue.  He hobnobbed with celebrities and even made a cameo in a John Wayne/Marlene Dietrich movie.  After the war and another stint in Vancouver, Service lived out the rest of his life moving between Brittany and Monaco, passing away in 1958.  His wife and daughter had actually visited his beloved Yukon back in 1946, but Service himself refused to go along, preferring to remember Whitehorse and Dawson the way they were.

Today, there are a number of locations which carry Service’s name, mostly in Canada.  The main thoroughfare leading to downtown Whitehorse was named Robert Service Way in 1997, and a residential street in Winnipeg and a housing development in his hometown of Kilwinning also carry his name.  Schools have been named after him not only in Dawson but in Anchorage, Alaska and Toronto, Ontario.  Mount Robert Service lies 70 km (44 mi) to the northeast of Dawson along the remote Dempster Highway.  The cabin in which Robert Service lived during his time in Dawson City between 1909 and 1912 has been preserved by Parks Canada as part of the Dawson Historical Complex National Historic Site, and daily interpretative tours of the cabin are held each afternoon (among other notable writers who lived in Dawson, both Jack London’s cabin down the block and Pierre Berton’s childhood home across the street are preserved by Parks Canada as an interpretative centre and the Klondike Visitors Association as a writer’s retreat, respectively).

The Robert Service Cabin in Dawson City.

Further Reading

(n.a.) (2011).  RobertWService.com.  Available at http://www.robertwservice.com/.  Accessed 15 January 2012.

Electric Scotland (2011).  Poetry: Robert W. Service.  Available at http://www.electricscotland.com/poetry/robert_service.htm.  Accessed 15 January 2012.

Smulders, S. (2005).  “A Man in a World of Men”:
The Rough, the Tough, and the Tender in Robert W. Service’s Songs of a Sourdough.  Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en littérature canadienne30(1): 34-57.  Available at http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/SCL/article/viewArticle/15270/16348.  Accessed 15 January 2012.

Whitehorse Star (2008).  1905 R.W. Service: Bard of the Yukon.  11 September 2008.  Available at http://whitehorsestar.com/archive/print/25045/.  Accessed 15 January 2012.

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