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Robert Service, Bard Of The Yukon

September 11, 2012 by  

Robert Service, Bard Of The Yukon, Robert William Service (January 16, 1874 – September 11, 1958) was a poet and writer who has often been called “the Bard of the Yukon”.

Service is best known for his poems “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee”, from his first book, Songs of a Sourdough (1907; also published as The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses). “These humorous tales in verse were considered doggerel by the literary set, yet remain extremely popular to this day.”

Robert W. Service was born in Preston, Lancashire, England, the first of ten children. His father, also Robert Service, was a banker from Kilwinning, Scotland, who had been transferred to England.

At five years old Robert W. Service went to live in Kilwinning with his three maiden aunts and his paternal grandfather, who was the town’s postmaster. There he is said to have composed his first verse, a grace, on his sixth birthday:

At nine Service rejoined his parents who had moved to Glasgow. He attended Glasgow’s Hillhead High School.

After leaving school Service joined the Commercial Bank of Scotland which would later become the Royal Bank of Scotland. He was writing at this time and reportedly already “selling his verses”. He was also reading poetry: Browning, Keats, Tennyson, and Thackeray.

Service moved to Canada at the age of 21 and travelled to Vancouver Island, British Columbia with his Buffalo Bill outfit and dreams of becoming a cowboy. He drifted around western North America, “wandering from California to British Columbia,” taking and quitting a series of jobs: “Starving in Mexico, residing in a California bordello, farming on Vancouver Island and pursuing unrequited love in Vancouver.” This sometimes required him to leech off his parent’s Scottish neighbors and friends who had previously immigrated to Canada.

In 1899 Service was a store clerk in Cowichan Bay, British Columbia. He mentioned to a customer (Charles H. Gibbons, editor of the Victoria Daily Colonist) that he wrote verses, with the result that six poems by “R.S.” on the Boer Wars had appeared in the Colonist by July 1900 – including “The March of the Dead” that would later appear in his first book. (Service’s brother Alick was a prisoner of the Boers at the time, having been captured on November 15, 1899, alongside Winston Churchill.)

The Colonist also published Service’s “Music in the Bush” on September 18, 1901, and “The Little Old Log Cabin” on March 16, 1902.

In her 2006 biography, Under the Spell of the Yukon, Enid Mallory revealed that Service had fallen in love during this period. He was working as a “farm labourer and store clerk when he first met Constance MacLean at a dance in Duncan B.C, where she was visiting her uncle.” MacLean lived in Vancouver, on the mainland, so he courted her by mail. Though he was smitten, “MacLean was looking for a man of education and means to support her” so was not that interested. To please her, he took courses at McGill University’s Victoria College, but failed.

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