Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Happy birthday, poet Robert W. Service

Robert W. Service
It is the birthday of poet Robert W. Service (1874), whose verses about prospecting life during the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890s earned him the sobriquet the Bard of the Yukon.

Service, who was born in England, was a young banking employee in Canada when he was sent to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory in 1904. For years, Service had been writing verses for his own amusement. Social life in the town consisted of concerts in which people recited poems from memory. Such works as Rudyard Kipling's Gunga Din and Ernest Thayer's Casey at the Bat were popular.

One day the local newspaper editor suggested to Service that he write something for one of the evenings. Service had heard a miner from Dawson tell a gold rush tale about a prospector who cremated his friend. Service composed The Cremation of Sam McGee as he walked in the woods one evening and wrote it down from memory the next day. His friends loved it.

Later, after he had written enough poems for a book, he sent them to his father in Toronto to get them self-published. His father took the manuscript to a publisher, who produced a book and sent Service's printing money back, instead offering him a royalty. Songs of a Sourdough (1907) was an instant success.

Later is was published in the United States under the title The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses (1907). Sixteen volumes of Service's poetry were published during his lifetime. He also wrote six novels and two autobiographies. Here is a recording of Service reading The Cremation of Sam McGee. 

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