Called Into Service

The view of the Robert Service cabin from Berton House.

When I write, I frequently stop and stare away from the keyboard, preferably out a window. It’s become such a part of my creative process over the years that I’m barely conscious of doing it anymore. Here at Berton House, I am doubly blessed by having two windows I can look out. If I turn my head to the right, I gaze out at Dawson City and the hills rising up on the west side across the Yukon River. But when I turn to my left, the window overlooks Robert Service’s cabin, which is right across 8thAvenue from me. It’s a small and rustic little hut, but even though I’ve been staring at it daily for six weeks now, I never tire of the sight. Service departed from his cabin a hundred years ago, but as far as I’m concerned he’s my neighbour.

So, on Saturday night, I attended the Double Bob Celebration in Dawson City. It is an annual event put on by locals, of Scottish descent and otherwise, with help from the Dawson City Community Library. It commemorates two poetic sons of Scotland, Robbie Burns and Robert Service, who both have birthdays in January. The celebration took place at the town’s Legion Hall on 3rd Ave.

Chris Collin parades the haggis at the Double Bob Celebration in Dawson City.

Chris Collin parades the haggis at the Double Bob Celebration in Dawson City.

Given that it was partially a celebration for my neighbour, and also that I hold the lofty title of Writer-In-Residence, I was happy to participate. There was also another good reason to go — it was a potluck event, and I’ve quickly learned that’s how you get to taste the yummiest dishes of Dawson, and I was not disappointed. Being partially a Burns Dinner, the program included the traditional parading and approbation of the haggis, which begins “Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!” The haggis was delicious, by the way. We then spent the rest of the evening taking turns reciting (or singing, in one case) a poem by either of the two bards. Not surprisingly, however, Service poems dominated the evening’s recitals.

Now, I will confess that I was only moderately familiar with Robert W. Service when I came up here. Oh, I’ve heard The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee recited a gazillion times since boyhood, but didn’t really know the poet’s history or fully appreciate his body of work. So, while here, I’ve taken the time to find out more about both the man and his writing, and have been blown away by both. (I have even been moved to dabble with a Service-style ballad of my own, but that will not likely ever see print).

Service was only in Dawson City for about eight of his 84 years, but he is venerated as the Bard of the Yukon, and he loved the place back. The Robert Service cabin is a local historic site and a leading tourist attraction during the summer months. Inside the small and simple log structure, they display historical artifacts from his era, including several of his personal items. There are also performances with people dressed in traditional Klondike Gold Rush attire, including actors doing recitations in the Robert Service role.

Robert Service in front of his Dawson City cabin circa 1910

Robert Service in front of his Dawson City cabin circa 1910

Service came to Dawson City to write full-time after quitting his day job as a Whitehorse banker, and penned several volumes in that small log cabin. He, along with Jack London, who is also revered locally, captured the true spirit of the Klondike Gold Rush. (By the way, Jack London’s original backwoods cabin was re-discovered in 1936, and has been moved to Dawson City, just down 8th Ave. from us, to serve as the Jack London Cabin and Interpretive Centre.)

Although many literary purists turn up their noses at Service’s poetry, and he even referred to himself as just a “versifier,” his writings were wildly successful, and made him a wealthy man. Service went on to briefly serve as a war correspondent for the Toronto Star, drove an ambulance in WW I, and eventually settled in France. He lived in Paris at the time when the city was a Bohemian mecca for writers like Samuel Beckett, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Henry Miller, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein, and he is reputed to have been the richest of the lot, although he remained unpretentious and preferred rubbing elbows with the down-to-earth folk — a trait perfected in the Yukon, I have no doubt.

If you read through Service’s rather extensive body of work, consisting of hundreds of poems, some of which he continued writing into his eighties, much of it is indeed tongue-in-cheek folklore and kitschy rhymes. But it would be a serious mistake to dismiss it all as pulpy genre poetry. Service was a humanist, a nature lover, and an egalitarian, witty, irreverent, and not afraid of speaking his mind. If nothing else, most of his poems are a joy to read, especially aloud, but you’ll find among them many profound and stirring nuggets.

Therefore, I’ll end this blog post with a quote from one. Now, technically, since Service didn’t die until 1958, this poem is still under copyright. But I’m going to go ahead and use it here anyway. I don’t think my neighbour will mind lending me a cup of poetry.

Then let us mock with ancient mirth this comic, cosmic plan;
The stars are laughing at the earth; God’s greatest joke is man.
For laughter is a buckler bright, and scorn a shining spear;
So let us laugh with all our might at folly, fraud and fear.
Yet on our sorry selves be spent our most sardonic glee.
Oh don’t pay life a compliment to take it seriously.
For he who can himself despise, be surgeon to the bone,
May win to worth in others’ eyes, to wisdom in his own.

From Laughter by Robert Service


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