Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email:

Robert W. Service, Poet of Canada’s North

Robert Service earned international fame with his book “Songs of a Sourdough” and two lively ballads, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee”.

Robert Service, circa 1905 - Bibliotheque et Archives Canada

Robert William Service was not born Canadian, but became known as one of Canada’s best poets. Born in Lancashire, England on January 16, 1874, Service spent his young years in Kilwinning, Scotland. His young interests were reading and poetry, his first recorded poem was at age six, according to Leaving school at age 14, he found work as an apprentice with the Commercial Bank of Scotland, earning £20 a year in wages.

In 1896, Service left his secure bank job to set out for Canada and the plan to become a rancher. Instead, he made his way to Victoria, British Columbia where he worked as a farm labourer. He didn’t stay long, venturing to Duncan, BC then on to Seattle, Washington, San Francisco and on to the southwest states, all the while tackling manual labour jobs. Wandering for several years, Service returned to Vancouver in 1903, broke and without employment. He took up banking again, taking a job with the Bank of Commerce.

Robert Service moved to the Yukon, became a poet

Service was posted to the Whitehorse branch of the Bank of Commerce in 1905. He enjoyed the solitude, the magnificent wooded landscape. A quiet man, he also enjoyed being part of the social life of the north. “I could sing a song and vamp an accompaniment, but mainly I was a prize specimen of that ingenuous ass, the amateur reciter,” he told Pierre Berton in Prisoners of the North. Needing more poems to perform, he wrote The Shooting of Dan McGrew, a theatrical ballad about northerners “whooping it up” at the “Malamute Saloon”. Service then wrote the ballad The Cremation of Sam McGee.

Next, Service took on the challenge of writing a book of verse about the Klondike Gold Rush, though he had never been a gold miner himself. He sent his typed poems, Songs of a Sourdough, and a cheque to a publisher in Toronto. Instead, he received a letter from the publisher. He did not open it right away, but eventually read the message. The publisher had returned his cheque and offered him a contract.

First royalty payment for Songs of a Sourdough

Songs of a Sourdough was a huge hit. Service received his first royalty payment with amazement and wondered how long his good fortune would last. In 1908, the Bank transferred Service to Dawson, centre of the Klondike Gold Rush. “I was keen to get on the job,” he told Pierre Berton, “I wanted to write the story of the Yukon…of all my life the eight years I spent there are the ones I would most like to live over.”

Wanderlust caught up with Service. He left the Bank and the Yukon in 1909 to tour North America. Service returned briefly to the Yukon, moving to Europe in 1912. There, at age 39, he met and married Germaine Bourgoin. The poet was now a wealthy writer, but he was not recognized. A story-teller, he told his new bride, “I’m only a poet and, as you know, poets don’t make money but I guess we can manage to rub along.” Germaine believed him until several months later when he surprised her with a home in Lancieux, France. The Services had twin daughters, Doris and Iris, in 1917. Sadly, Doris died of scarlet fever at 13 months old.

During WWI, Service was offered a position by the government of Canada to tour the European front and report back on the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

The Service family fled to Canada during WWII

Years later when WWII began, the Service family fled, leaving all possessions behind in France. They arrived in Canada in 1940. In December, the Services moved to California for five years, then returned to France when the war was over in 1945. Though he was busy writing mystery novels, songs and other prose, Service took a nineteen year hiatus in writing poems. Bar-Room Ballads was published in 1940.

And how long did Service’s good fortune last with poetry? Songs of a Sourdough is still in print under the A&C Black label. It is estimated that he earned well over a million dollars in his lifetime from this one book of wonderful writing alone.

Robert Service was renowned world-wide as Canada’s Bard of the North. While having written well over 2,000 pieces and an estimated 1,000 works published, he was still best-known for his first ballads, The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew. He did not consider himself a poet – “he refused to call himself anything more than a rhymester.”

Robert Service, the Bard of the North, died on September 11, 1958 in Brittany, France at age 84.

Prisoners of the North by Pierre Berton, published by Doubleday Canada 2004. © Pierre Berton Enterprises Ltd. Pp 241 – 317.

Read a selection of Robert Service poems here.

This article was first published on  Copyright Susanna McLeod

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