Robert W. Service

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Robert W. Service
Robert W. Service.jpg
Robert W. Service, c. 1905
Born (1874-01-16)January 16, 1874
Preston, Lancashire, England
Died September 11, 1958(1958-09-11) (aged 84)
Lancieux, Côtes-d'Armor, France
Resting place Lancieux, Côtes-d'Armor, France
Occupation writer, poet
Alma mater Hillhead High School in Glasgow, University of Glasgow and McGill University
Notable works Songs of a Sourdough, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man
Spouse Germaine Bourgoin
Children Iris Service
Relatives Charlotte Service-Longépé

Robert William Service (January 16, 1874 – September 11, 1958) was a British-Canadian poet and writer who has often been called "the Bard of the Yukon".[1][2] He 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). His vivid descriptions of the Yukon and its people made it seem that he was a veteran of the Klondike gold rush, instead of the late-arriving bank clerk he actually was. "These humorous tales in verse were considered doggerel by the literary set, yet remain extremely popular to this day."[3]


Early life[edit]

Service was born in Preston, Lancashire, England,[4] the first of ten children. His father, also Robert Service, was a banker from Kilwinning, Scotland, who had been transferred to England.[5]

When he was five, Service was sent to live in Kilwinning with his three maiden aunts and his paternal grandfather, the town's postmaster.[2] There he is said to have composed his first verse, a grace, on his sixth birthday:[6]

After leaving school,[4] Service joined the Commercial Bank of Scotland which would later become the Royal Bank of Scotland.[5] He was writing at this time and reportedly already "selling his verses".[citation needed] He was also reading poetry: Browning, Keats, Tennyson, and Thackeray.[7]

When he was 21, Service 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,"[4] 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."[8] This sometimes required him to leech off his parents' Scottish neighbors and friends who had previously emigrated to Canada.[9]

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[10] – 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. He had been captured on November 15, 1899, alongside Winston Churchill.)[10]

The Colonist also published Service's "Music in the Bush" on September 18, 1901, and "The Little Old Log Cabin" on March 16, 1902.[10]

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.[11]

In 1903, down on his luck, Service was hired by a Canadian Bank of Commerce branch in Victoria, British Columbia, using his Commercial Bank letter of reference.[12] The bank "watched him, gave him a raise, and sent him to Kamloops in the middle of British Columbia. In Victoria he lived over the bank with a hired piano, and dressed for dinner. In Kamloops, horse country, he played polo. In the fall of 1904, the bank sent him to their Whitehorse branch in the Yukon. With the expense money he bought himself a raccoon coat."[13]

Throughout this period, Service continued writing and saving his verses: "more than a third of the poems in his first volume had been written before he moved north in 1904."[14]

Later life[edit]

Service left Dawson City for good in 1912.[12] From 1912 to 1913 he was a correspondent for the Toronto Star during the Balkan Wars.[15]

In 1913, Service moved to Paris, remaining there for the next 15 years. He settled in the Latin Quarter, posing as a painter. In June 1913, he married Parisienne Germaine Bourgoin, daughter of a distillery owner, and they purchased a summer home at Lancieux, Côtes-d'Armor, in the Brittany region of France.[16] Thirteen years younger than her husband, Germaine Service survived him by 31 years, dying aged 102 in 1989.[citation needed]

Service was 41 when World War I broke out; he attempted to enlist, but was turned down "due to varicose veins."[5] He briefly covered the war for the Toronto Star (from December 11, 1915, through January 29, 1916), but "was arrested and nearly executed in an outbreak of spy hysteria in Dunkirk." He then "worked as a stretcher bearer and ambulance driver with the Ambulance Corps of the American Red Cross, until his health broke." Convalescing in Paris, he wrote a new book of mainly war poetry, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, in 1916. The book was dedicated to the memory of Service's "brother, Lieutenant Albert Service, Canadian Infantry, Killed in Action, France, August 1916."[16] Robert W. Service has been honoured by three medals for his war engagement: 1914–15 Star, British War Medal and the Victory Medal.[17]

With the end of the war, Service "settled down to being a rich man in Paris.... During the day he would promenade in the best suits, with a monocle. At night he went out in old clothes with the company of his doorman, a retired policeman, to visit the lowest dives of the city".[16] During his time in Paris he was reputedly the wealthiest author living in the city, yet was known to dress as a working man and walk the streets, blending in and observing everything around him. Those experiences would be used in his next book of poetry, Ballads of a Bohemian (1921): "The poems are given in the persona of an American poet in Paris who serves as an ambulance driver and an infantryman in the war. The verses are separated by diary entries over a period of four years."[16]

In the 1920s, Service began writing thriller novels. The Poisoned Paradise, A Romance of Monte Carlo (New York, 1922) and The Roughneck. A Tale of Tahiti (New York, 1923) were both later made into silent movies.[16] During the winter season, Service used to live in Nice with his family where he met British writers including H.G. Wells, A.K. Bruce, Somerset Maugham, Rex Ingram, Franck Scully, James Joyce, Franck Harris, Frieda Laurence who all spent their winter in the French Riviera and he wrote to have been lucky to have lunch with Colette.[18]

Robert Service Memorial, Kilwinning, Ayrshire.

In 1930, Service returned to Kilwinning, to erect a memorial to his family in the town cemetery.[5] He also visited the USSR in the 1930s and later wrote a satirical "Ballad of Lenin's Tomb".[19] For this reason his poetry was never translated into Russian in the USSR and he was never mentioned in Soviet encyclopedias.[20]

Service's second trip to the Soviet Union "was interrupted by news of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Service fled across Poland, Latvia, Estonia and the Baltic to Stockholm. He wintered in Nice with his family, then fled France for Canada." Not long after, the Nazis invaded France, and "arrived at his home in Lancieux ... looking specifically for the poet who had mocked Hitler in newspaper verse."[21]

During World War II, Service lived in California, "and Hollywood had him join with other celebrities in helping the morale of troops – visiting US Army camps to recite his poems. He was also asked to play himself in the movie The Spoilers (1942), working alongside Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne and Randolph Scott.[22] "He was thrilled to play a scene with Marlene Dietrich."[21] After the war, Service and his wife returned to his home in Brittany, to find it destroyed. They rebuilt, and he lived there until his death in 1958, though he wintered in Monte Carlo on the French Riviera.[21] Service's wife and daughter, Iris, travelled to the Yukon in 1946 "and visited Whitehorse and Dawson City, which by then was becoming a ghost town. Service could not bring himself to go back. He preferred to remember the town as it had been."[1]

Service wrote prolifically during his last years, publishing six books of verse from 1949 to 1955. One that he wrote the following year was published posthumously.[23] It was at Service's flat in Monte Carlo that Canadian broadcaster Pierre Berton recorded, over a period of three days, many hours of autobiographical television interview, for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, in the spring of 1958, not long before Service died. At this occasion, Robert Service recited The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee[24][citation needed]

Service lived in Monaco from 1947 to 1958.[25] He wrote two volumes of autobiographyPloughman of the Moon and Harper of Heaven. He died in Lancieux and is buried in the local cemetery.[26]


Robert Service wrote the most commercially successful poetry of the century.[according to whom?] Yet his most popular works "were considered doggerel by the literary set."[3] During his lifetime, he was nicknamed "the Canadian Kipling."[4] – yet that may have been a double-edged compliment. As T. S. Eliot has said, "we have to defend Kipling against the charge of excessive lucidity," "the charge of being a 'journalist' appealing only to the commonest collective emotion," and "the charge of writing jingles."[27] All those charges, and more, could be levelled against Service's best known and best loved works.

Certainly Service's verse was derivative of Kipling's. In "The Cremation of Sam McGee", for instance, he uses the form of Kipling's "The Ballad of East and West".

In his E. J. Pratt lecture "Silence In the Sea," critic Northrop Frye argued that Service's verse was not "serious poetry," but something else he called "popular poetry": "the idioms of popular and serious poetry remain inexorably distinct." Popular poems, he thought, "preserve a surface of explicit statement" – either being "proverbial, like Kipling's 'If' or Longfellow's 'Song of Life' or Burns's 'For A' That'," or dealing in "conventionally poetic themes, like the pastoral themes of James Whitcomb Riley, or the adventurous themes of Robert Service."[28]

Service himself did not call his work poetry. "Verse, not poetry, is what I was after ... something the man in the street would take notice of and the sweet old lady would paste in her album; something the schoolboy would spout and the fellow in the pub would quote. Yet I never wrote to please anyone but myself; it just happened. I belonged to the simple folks whom I liked to please."[1]

In his autobiography, Service described his method of writing at his Dawson City cabin. "I used to write on the coarse rolls of paper used by paper-hangers, pinning them on the wall and printing my verses in big charcoal letters. Then I would pace back and forth before them, repeating them, trying to make them perfect. I wanted to make them appeal to the eye as well as to the ear. I tried to avoid any literal quality."[1]

One remarkable thing about both of Service's best-known ballads is how easily he wrote them. When writing about composing "The Shooting of Dan McGrew", 'easy' was exactly the word he used: "For it came so easy to me in my excited state that I was amazed at my facility. It was as if someone was whispering in my ear."[1] And this was just after someone had tried to shoot him. He continued: "As I wrote stanza after stanza, the story seemed to evolve itself. It was a marvelous experience. Before I crawled into my bed at five in the morning, my ballad was in the bag."[1]

Similarly, when he wrote "The Cremation of Sam McGee", the verses just flowed: ""I took the woodland trail, my mind seething with excitement and a strange ecstasy.... As I started in: There are strange things done in the midnight sun, verse after verse developed with scarce a check ... and when I rolled happily into bed, my ballad was cinched. Next day, with scarcely any effort of memory I put it on paper."[1]

In 1926, Archibald MacMechan, Professor of English at Canada's Dalhousie University, pronounced on Service's Yukon books in his Headwaters of Canadian Literature:

The sordid, the gross, the bestial, may sometimes be redeemed by the touch of genius; but that Promethean touch is not in Mr. Service. In manner he is frankly imitative of Kipling's barrack-room balladry; and imitation is an admission of inferiority. 'Sourdough' is Yukon slang for the provident old-timer ... It is a convenient term for this wilfully violent kind of verse without the power to redeem the squalid themes it treats. The Ballads of a Cheechako is a second installment of sourdoughs, while his novel The Trail of '98 is simply sourdough prose.[29]

MacMechan did give grudging respect to Service's World War I poetry, conceding that his style went well with that subject, and that "his Rhymes of a Red Cross Man are an advance on his previous volumes. He has come into touch with the grimmest of realities; and while his radical faults have not been cured, his rude lines drive home the truth that he has seen."[29]

Reviewing Service's Rhymes of a Rebel in 1952, Frye remarked that the book "interests me chiefly because ... I have noticed so much verse in exactly the same idiom, and I wonder how far Mr. Service's books may have influenced it. There was a time, fifty years ago," he added," when Robert W.Service represented, with some accuracy, the general level of poetic experience in Canada, as far as the popular reader was concerned.... there has been a prodigious, and, I should think, a permanent, change in public taste."[30]

Service has also been noted for his use of ethnonyms that would normally be considered offensive "slurs", but with no insult apparently intended. Words used in Service's poetry include jerries (Germans), dago (Italian), pickaninny (in reference to a Mozambican infant), cheechako (newcomer to the Yukon and Alaska gold fields, usually from the U.S.), nigger (black person), squaw (Aboriginal woman), and Jap (Japanese).


A bust of Service in Whitehorse.

Robert W. Service has been honoured with schools named for him including Service High School in Anchorage, Alaska, Robert Service Senior Public School (Middle/ Jr. High) in Toronto, Ontario[31] and Robert Service School in Dawson City.[32]

He was also honoured on a Canadian postage stamp in 1976. The Robert Service Way, a main road in Whitehorse, is named after him.[citation needed]

Additionally, the Bard & Banker public house in Victoria is dedicated to him, the building having at one time been a Canadian Bank of Commerce branch where Service was employed while residing in the city. In 2010 Phillips Brewery in Victoria released the Service 1904 Scottish Stone Fired Ale, available only on tap in three Victoria locations: The Bard & Banker, Irish Times, and Penny Farthing public houses.[33]

Service's first novel, The Trail of '98, was made into a movie by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, directed by Clarence Brown.[16] "Trail of '98 starring Dolores del Río, Ralph Forbes and Karl Dane in 1929 ... was the first talking picture dealing with the Klondike gold rush and was acclaimed at the time by critics for depicting the Klondike as it really was."[34]

Folksinger Country Joe McDonald set some of Service's World War I poetry (plus "The March of the Dead" from his first book), to music for his 1971 studio album, War War War.[citation needed]

The Canadian whiskey Yukon Jack incorporated various excerpts of his writings in their ads in the 1970s, one of which was the first four lines of his poem "The Men Who Don't Fit In".[citation needed]

The town of Lancieux, where he used to come every summer, organized several recognitions to the memory of Robert W. Service. One of the street of Lancieux has been called Robert Service street. On July 13, 1990, a commemorative tablet has been unveiled at the Lancieux Office du Tourism by the daughter of the poet: Iris Davies-Service. An evening of celebration was organized after with a dinner. A few years later, on May 18, 2002 the school of Lancieux in Brittany took the name of "Ecole Robert W. Service". The granddaughter and great granddaughter of the poet attended the dedication ceremony.[35]

Dawson City cabin[edit]

Robert Service lived from 1909 to 1912 in a small two-room cabin on 8th Avenue which he rented from Edna Clarke in Dawson City.[34] His prosperity allowed him the luxury of a telephone.[citation needed] Service eventually decided he could not return to Dawson, as it would not be as he remembered it. He wrote in his autobiography:

"Only yesterday an air-line offered to fly me up there in two days, and I refused. It would have saddened me to see dust and rust where once hummed a rousing town; hundreds where were thousands; tumbledown cabins, mouldering warehouses."[34]

After Service left for Europe, the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (I.O.D.E.) took care of the cabin until 1971, preserving it. In 1971 it was taken over by Parks Canada, which maintains it, including its sod roof, as a tourist attraction.[36]

Irish-born actor Tom Byrne created The Robert Service Show which was presented in the front yard of the cabin, starting in 1976. This was very popular for summer visitors and set the standard for Robert Service recitations. A resurgence in sales of Service's works followed the institution of these performances.[citation needed] Byrne discontinued the show at the cabin in 1995, moving it to a Front Street storefront. Since 2004 the show has been held at the Westmark Hotel in Dawson City at 3:00 p.m. every day during the summer months. Byrne collects Robert Service first editions, and corresponded with Service's widow for years.[citation needed]

At the Service Cabin, local Dawson entertainers dressed in period costumes and employed by Parks Canada offer biographical information and recite Service's poetry for visitors sitting on benches on the front lawn. Johnny Nunan performed this role through 2006. Following the presentation, visitors can view Service's home through the windows and front door. The fragility of the house, and the rarity of the artifacts, precludes any possibility of allowing visitors to enter the house itself.[citation needed]



  • "Carry On!" (Date Missing) [37]
  • Songs of a Sourdough (Toronto: William Briggs, 1907)[13]
    • [U.S. as The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses (New York: Barse & Hopkins, 1907)].[38]
  • Ballads of a Cheechako (Toronto: William Briggs, 1909)[13]
  • Rhymes of a Rolling Stone (Toronto: William Briggs, 1912)[16]
  • Songs of the Yukon (Toronto: William Briggs, 1913) – miniature book, reprinting two poems from Songs of a Sourdough
  • Rhymes of a Red Cross Man (Toronto: William Briggs, 1916)
  • Ballads of a Bohemian (Toronto: G.J. McLeod, 1921)
  • Twenty Bath-Tub Ballads (London: Francis, Day and Hunter, 1939)[21]
  • Bar-Room Ballads (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1940)[21]
  • Songs of a Sun-Lover. A Book of Light Verse (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1949.)[21]
  • Rhymes of a Roughneck. A Book of Verse (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1950).[21]
  • Lyrics of a Lowbrow. A Book of Verse (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1951.).[21]
  • Rhymes of a Rebel. A Book of Verse (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1952).[21]
  • Songs for my Supper (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1953).[21]
  • Carols of an Old Codger (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1955).[21]
  • Rhymes for My Rags (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1956).[21]


  • The Collected Verse of Robert W. Service (London : E. Benn, 1930, 43, 48, 51, 53, 60, 73)
  • The Complete Poems of Robert W. Service (New York : Dodd Mead, 1933)
  • Rhyme and Romance: a Robert Service anthology (London : E. Benn, 1949)
  • Later Collected Verse (New York : Dodd Mead, 1954, 55, 65)
  • More Collected Verse (New York : Dodd Mead, 1955)
  • Songs of the High North (London : E. Benn, 1958)
  • The Song of the Campfire, illustrated by Richard Galaburr (New York : Dodd Mead, 1912, 39, 78)
  • The Shooting of Dan McGrew and Other Favorite Poems, jacket drawing by Eric Watts ( Dodd Mead, 1980)
  • Servicewise and Otherwise: a selection of extracts in prose and verse from the works of Robert W. Service, which may serve as an introduction to the virile writings of that celebrated author ; collected and arranged by Arthur H. Stewart




See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "1905 R. W. Service: Bard of the Yukon", Whitehorse Star online archive, September 11, 2008.
  2. ^ a b "The Bard of the Yukon," Kilwinning,, Web, Apr. 2011
  3. ^ a b "Robert W. Service," Who2 Profiles,, Web, Apr. 4, 2011.
  4. ^ a b c d David Evans, "Service, Robert William," Canadian Encyclopedia (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1988), 1981–1982.
  5. ^ a b c d "Poetry – Robert W. Service,", Web, Apr. 22, 2011.
  6. ^ "Extended Biography,", July 21, 2003, 1. Web, Apr. 4, 2011
  7. ^ Cite error: The named reference extended1 was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  8. ^ "Robert Service: Under the Spell of the Yukon" by Enid Mallory,, Web, Apr. 4, 2011
  9. ^ My Grandma, "Nanny Stiles"
  10. ^ a b c Peter J. Mitham, Introduction to "Mossback Minstrelsy: The British Columbia Verse of Robert W. Service," Canadian Poetry, No. 39, UWO, Web, Apr. 5, 2011.
  11. ^ Michael Gates, "Robert Service's Secret Love Life," Dawson City History,, Web, Apr. 5, 2011
  12. ^ a b Sam Holloway, "Robert Service and Destiny," The Yukoner Magazine. Web, Accessed 2008.11.19.
  13. ^ a b c d "Extended [Biography],", July 21, 2003, 2. Web, Apr. 4, 2011
  14. ^ Sharon Smulders, "'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, 30:1 (2005),, Web, Apr. 5, 2011.
  15. ^ "Robert W. Service," Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon, Web, Apr. 4, 2011
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Extended [Biography],", July 21, 2003, 3. Web, Apr. 4, 2011
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^ R.Service "The History of World Communism"
  20. ^ Роберт Уильям Сервис
  21. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q "Extended [Biography],", July 21, 2003, 4. Web, Apr. 4, 2011
  22. ^
  23. ^ See Selected Works – Poetry
  24. ^
  25. ^ Brun, Raphael (September 30, 2015). "« C’était un poète aventurier »". L'Observateur de Monaco. 
  26. ^
  27. ^ T.S. Eliot, Introduction to A Choice of Kipling's Verse (London: Faber, 1941), 6.
  28. ^ Northrop Frye, "Silence in the Sea," The Bush Garden (Toronto, Anansi, 1971, 189.
  29. ^ a b Archibald MacMechan, Headwaters of Canadian Literature (Toronto: New Canadian Library, 1974), 219–221.
  30. ^ Northrop Frye, "Letters from Canada – 1952," The Bush Garden (Toronto, Anansi, 1971, 189.
  31. ^ Robert Service Sr PS
  32. ^ Yukon Public School Directory
  33. ^
  34. ^ a b c Dee Newman, "Robert Service's Little Cabin," The Eighth Dimension (blog), Mar. 3, 2011. Web, Apr. 4, 2011
  35. ^
  36. ^ "Parks Canada, Robert Service Cabin, Classified Federal Heritage Building Dawson, Yukon Territory". Parks Canada. 2012-03-15. Retrieved 2015-10-17. 
  37. ^ Robert W. Service, ""
  38. ^ Robert W. Service, "The Song of the Wage-Slave [notes]," Representative Poetry Online, Web, Apr. 4, 2011.
  39. ^

Further reading[edit]

  • Charlotte Service-Longepe: Robert W. Service: La Piste de l'imaginaire Biographie, Les Éditions JCL, July 2015. ISBN 978-2-89431-503-3
  • Barbara S. Giehmann: Writing the Northland. Jack London's and Robert W. Service's Imaginary Geography. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann. 2010. ISBN 978-3-8260-4459-5
  • Elle Andra-Warner Robert Service a great Canadian Poets romance with the North, Amazing Stories.
  • Peter J. Mitham Robert W. Service, a biography, Oak Knoll Press.
  • G.W. Lockart On the Trail of Robert Service, Luath Press Ltd, 1991.
  • James Mackay Robert Service a biography, Vagabond of verse, Mainstream Publishing, 1995.
  • Carl F. Klinck: Robert Service, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd, 1976.

External links[edit]