I started reading this nearly two and a half years ago, just after my dad passed away, because The Cremation of Sam McGee was a poem he used to recite in his youth at his Masonic meetings. I really enjoyed that one, but then put it on my shelf after only reading half the poems in the book, forgetting about it entirely. It wasn’t until recently when I happened to notice the bookmark in it that I remembered never having actually finished it.
Robert Service was born in England to a Scottish father, and at the age of five moved back to his father’s hometown of Kilwinning. When he was twenty-one, he moved to southern Vancouver Island with dreams of becoming a cowboy. After travelling over much of western North America, he eventually took a job in Victoria at the Canadian Bank of Commerce. A year later, he was transferred to Kamloops, my hometown, for six months before heading to the Yukon. It actually makes me wonder now if my dad knew Service’s history and if that came to his mind while deciding to emigrate from Scotland to western Canada.
Service seemed to love the gold rush. I don’t know if all of his poetry centered on that, or if it was just this collection, but I think every poem in this had to do with the people of the gold rush and the northern landscape. There are many snow-capped peaks to be had in this little book. Some of this just felt like the sort of poetry you might find embroidered and hung on a kitchen wall. To be fair, though, I’m not sure I gave it a fair chance, as my natural reaction to encountering anything bordering on Canadiana is to immediately lose consciousness.
Some of these I did actually genuinely enjoy, and flipping through now I feel like I might have enjoyed more than I originally thought. The two-year break I took in the middle of this, combined with a few of the poems that really bored me, is probably tainting my memory of the collection as a whole. The Cremation of Sam McGee, The Man From Eldorado, and The Men That Don’t Fit In are a few that stick out as being quite good. I start to drift when he begins to go on too much about snow, but he also writes about killers and the desperate and lost.
I’d like to find a copy of his autobiography, Ploughman of the Moon, An Adventure Into Memory. He lived an exciting life full of travel, and that would be fun to read about. I think I might revisit these poems soon as well. Just reading through a bit while writing this has piqued my interest again on a couple of the poems.