Despite claims of memoirists galore, who say they walked the Chilkoot Pass with Robert Service, the man now known as the bard of the Yukon arrived in Whitehorse via the White Pass and Yukon Route train in 1904. The shine was well off the Gold Rush at this time.
Born in Preston, Lancashire, England, Service would later play up his Scottish heritage. He believed he was related to Robert “Rabbie” Burns, who lived a century-and-a-half earlier. Service’s verses –- at least the ones for which he is most famous — don’t seem to owe much to the influence of the bard of Scotland.
He was trained as a banker, but he found the job boring. Service immigrated to North America with dreams of becoming a cowboy. In Under the Spell of the Yukon, Enid Mallory writes that he lived a hobo’s life: “Starving in Mexico, residing in a California bordello, farming on Vancouver Island and pursuing unrequited love in Vancouver.”
Down on his luck and a bit desperate, he got a job with the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Victoria, and thereafter a series of transfers took him to Kamloops (where he played polo), Whitehorse, and eventually to Dawson.
He started writing verses (he called his poetry that) while in Victoria, and continued in the Yukon. Stroller White at the Whitehorse Star pushed him in the direction of using Yukon and Gold Rush themes. Popular party pieces like Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”, Rudyard Kipling’s “Gunga Din” and John Henry Titus’ “The Face on the Bar Room Floor” gave him the rhyme and plot patterns he tended to follow.
Kipling’s poetry was especially influential, as a quick comparison of “The Law of the Jungle” and “The Spell of the Yukon” will demonstrate.
Service’s two best known poems, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee” were actually written in Whitehorse, but his fame came after he moved to Dawson, discovered he was earning more in book royalties than he was at the bank. When he was threatened with a promotion to the Whitehorse branch, he quit to spent more time on his writing, both poetry and prose. He made Dawson his base of operations from 1908 until 1912. Once he left he never returned, though some members of his family have visited.
Robbie Burns nights have a long history in the Yukon, but Dawson naturally leans towards Service. Since Service and Burns both were born in January, the Dawson Community Library decided more than two decades ago to combine the celebrations.
This year, as it has been for some years now, the dinner (complete with haggis) will be held in the Legion Hall on January 17. It’s not a large affair, topping off at about 20 people. It features good food, some poetry games and readings of works by both men. You can bring along your own favourites.
If you’ve a mind to, you can even recite something you penned yourself.