Remembering the people’s poet

Charles Lindbergh carried a copy of Robert Service’s poems during his record-setting non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927.
Lindbergh was prepared for the monotony of the trip and the drone of his monoplane, “The Spirit of St. Louis.” Even Lindbergh knew that Robert Service’s poetry, which Robert preferred to be called verse rather than poetry, was “clear, clean, and power-packed” and didn’t allow for nodding off at the controls of an aircraft.
All Canadians should be on a first-name basis with Robert Service, “the people’s poet.” Calling him Service seems too distant and journalistic, and Mr. Service too formal. He is, after all, beloved for his poetry and prose.
I would call him Bob but that seems a bit too chummy. So Robert it is.
Robert Service’s cabin is just across Eighth Avenue from where I sit in Berton House in Dawson City. The tiny, two-room cabin is a mere 20 steps away from me.
Dawson City residents feel a deep connection to Robert’s cabin, as do all the tourists who journey here to capture the essence of the “rough and tough” society that drew Robert to Canada’s far north (“the tougher, the better,” claimed Robert, the “Bard of the Yukon”).
Robert was a Scottish banker, one of 10 children, who ditched his life and came to Canada. He hired on with the CIBC and was sent to Whitehorse in 1904 from Victoria. He was transferred to Dawson City in 1908, where he promptly quit his bank job, found residence in the rented two-room cabin, and went to work on his writing.
In five months, he had produced his first novel, “The Trail of 98” (Robert was known to wander deep into the night creating his “verse” in his head, only to return to his cabin to write the words down from memory).
His poetry tells the story of life during the Klondike gold rush, although he came to the Yukon after it had settled to a whisper.
Many of us memorized in school “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” both lengthy poems of almost 900 words, complete with a wild story.
Those who live in Dawson City, and those who travel here, often gather in the summer in a small theatre at the corner of the property where sits Robert’s cabin and listen to the poetry that captured the essence of Yukon life.
I picture him even now coming out of his cabin to stand on the little porch that looks down on me and on the rest of Dawson City, rubbing his morning whiskers to loosen the stories in his head. And I find myself wondering, is this why I have come–to draw from the creative force that thrives here in the north; that is fed by the dance of the northern lights?
Robert left Dawson for good in 1913, but his love for the north carried on. He was living in France during Hitler’s rise to power but he had to flee back to Canada when the Nazis invaded France “looking specifically for Service,” I read in his biography (Robert having mocked Hitler in verse).
By the time of his death in 1958 at 84 years of age, Robert’s first book of poetry had sold three million copies. He wrote in “The Ballad of The Northern Lights”:
“And the Northern Lights in the crystal nights came forth with a mystic gleam.
They danced and they danced the devil-dance over the naked snow;
And soft they rolled like a tide upshoaled with a ceaseless ebb and flow.
They rippled green with a wondrous sheen, they fluttered out like a fan;
They spread with a blaze of rose-pink rays never yet seen of man.”
wendistewart@live.ca

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