“A Man in a World of Men”:Sharon Smulders
The Rough, the Tough, and the Tender in Robert W. Service’s Songs of a Sourdough
Mount Royal College, Calgary
1 AT THE END OF THE FIRST VOLUME of his autobiography, Plough man of the Moon: An Adventure into Memory (1945), Robert W. Service describes its composition “as an experiment in Escape,” allowing him “to forget the Present” while “remembering the Past” (472). His very selectivity in recollecting the past demonstrates, however, that it too required escape. Conveniently forgetting much related to the women who figured most prominently in his life, he says little in Ploughman of the Moon and Harper of Heaven (1948) about his mother, Emily Parker Service, or about his French wife, Germaine Bourgoin Service, whom he never once names. Moreover, he entirely expunges from the autobiography the existence of his grandmother, Agnes Niven Service, who presided over his early years in Kilwinning, as well as of his Canadian fiancée, Constance Mary MacLean, whose initials (“C.M.”) appear in the dedication to Songs of a Sourdough (1907).1 A similar suppression of feminine influence characterizes his Yukon ballads. In fact, the absence of middle-class women from Songs of a Sourdough prompted “the church,” in the person of the chief deacon of the Whitehorse Episcopal congregation, to complain sourly on behalf of “the ladies of the sewing-circle” who regretted that the poet “should have written so much about the bad women of the town and said nothing about the good ones” (Ploughman 332).2 Currently relegated to the status of children’s literature, Songs of a Sourdough nevertheless represents a conscious effort not only to escape the feminine piety that “the ladies of the sewing-circle” embody but also to inscribe an alternative realm that instead gives expression to the “virile,” which Service, in a 1941 interview, located in the company of “rough and tough” men (qtd. in Mackay 351).3 In other words, Songs of a Sourdough does not propound “the Myth of the North” nor yet the “Myth of Man in the North” so much as it mythologizes the condition of manhood itself (Klinck 58).4 In so doing, it celebrates the release of fin-desiècle masculinity from the constraints of bourgeois civility as incarnate in the ideal of Christian domesticity. Enshrining the myth of masculine individualism within the folklore of the Yukon, Service’s best-known work thus commands attention for its mediation of the cultural anxieties that beleaguer late Victorian constructions of manliness. In the process, his verse not only negotiates contemporary challenges to male power and privilege but also affirms the heterosexual imperatives that it seeks to evade.
2 At the height of the nineteenth century, Anglo-American men had defined themselves through success as independent entrepreneurs and middle-class professionals; but a number of factors, including industrial corporatization, urban migration, and cultural feminization, eroded the doctrine of achievement that had underwritten the ideal of self-made manhood (Kimmel 78-87; Rotundo, American Manhood 248-55). Leaving the Commercial Bank of Scotland, where he had worked since 1888, for North American ranch life in 1896, the twenty-two year old Service found himself entrammeled in the ensuing crisis of gender identity. Seeking to prove himself as a “man in a world of men” (Ploughman 148; Collected Poems 26), he found a life that offered physical and (the illusion of) social mobility but that failed to provide financial stability or personal satisfaction. By turns a ranch hand, farm labourer, tunnel-digger, dishwasher, fruit-picker, caretaker, guitar-player, mill worker, cowman, and storekeeper, Service travelled from British Columbia to Mexico and back, drifting aimlessly from job to job up and down the Pacific coast for two years, a vagrant not unlike those later memorialized in “The Tramps,” “The Rhyme of the Restless Ones,” “The Song of the Wage-Slave,” and “The Men That Don’t Fit In.” As “The Tramps” suggests, this vagabond life initially promised autonomy, for despite “hunger, want, and weariness,” “no man was [his] master” (Collected Poems 71). As an unskilled labourer, however, Service had little control over his working life.5 Finally, in 1903, after a failed attempt to take a university degree and “mount to a profession” (Ploughman 284), he applied to the Canadian Bank of Commerce, Vancouver, for a job similar to the one he had fled seven years before. Belonging to a profession under siege at the turn of the century, he was, as a junior bank clerk, not “an apprentice for business leadership” but “a service worker” (Rotundo, American Manhood 249) — in effect, a white-collar “wage-slave.”6 Indeed, even with the generous allowances granted to clerical staff in the Yukon, Service made little more than half of the $2100 annual salary that Laura Thompson, later Berton, earned as kindergarten teacher in Dawson City (Laura Berton 13).7
3 According to Anthony Rotundo, threats to manhood such as those posed by the movement of middle-class women like Thompson into the professional arena necessitated “new forms of reassurance” — that is, “new ideas about manliness” — grounded in “strenuous recreation, spectator sports, adventure novels, and a growing cult of the wilderness” (American 250-51). In other words, the old ideal of self-made manhood had given place to renovated notions of “passionate manhood” or “masculine primitivism.”8 Best exemplified in the careers of rough-rider Theodore Roosevelt, body-builder Eugen Sandow, and scout-master Robert Baden-Powell, these new concepts of manliness galvanized Service to write Songs of a Sourdough, which appeared under the title of The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses in the United States. The poems in this collection not only allowed him to retreat, as he later did in the autobiography, from an unsatisfactory present into a reassuringly revised past but also to dodge the spectre of “a first-class failure” that not only had clung to his father, another erstwhile bank clerk, but also haunted Service himself as one of the “race of men [who] don’t fit in” (Ploughman 66; Collected Poems 42). For Service, as for many fin-de-siècle men, this prospect of failure rested less in a lack of ambition than in “a want of achievement where achievement measured manhood” (Rotundo, American Manhood 179). In Songs of a Sourdough, therefore, he celebrates those Anglo-American men who, in “The Rhyme of the Restless Ones,” “couldn’t sit and study for the law” or stand “The stagnation of a bank” (Collected Poems 62); and who, in “The Rhyme of the Remittance Man,” chose to live in the wilderness rather than become businessmen, “Gilded galley-slaves of Mammon” (Collected Poems 46). But although he argued that his poetry, particularly his second volume, Ballads of a Cheechako (1909), “was steeped in the spirit of the Klondike” since “it was written on the spot and reeking with reality” (Ploughman 350), none of his early work actually came from direct personal experience of the world that he sought to recreate: the Yukon of the late 1890s. Indeed, more than a third of the poems in his first volume had been written before he moved north in 1904 to assume his post at the Whitehorse branch of the Canadian Bank of Commerce.9
4 When Service arrived for the first time in Dawson in 1908, a year after the publication of Songs of a Sourdough, the rush was long over: the city had shrunk from the 40,000 residents of its heyday as the largest Canadian city west of Winnipeg to some 4,000, and the last of the dance-halls — the Floradora — which had flourished ten years earlier was on the verge of closure.10 Moreover, placer mining, known contemporaneously as “‘poor man’s’ mining” because it required “few tools and little capital” to extract “the gold found ‘free’ in the gravel beds” (Harris 375-76), had given way to highly capitalized, large-scale industrial engineering. Thus, the Canadian Annual Review for 1908 lamented that “the glamour of the Yukon has passed, the days of the individual miner and the romance of great fortunes picked up in a week, have altogether gone …. Dredge-working, hydraulicking, and the efforts of applied science in quartz mining [have] replaced the placer diggers” (qtd in Morrison 87). Nonetheless, in Songs of a Sourdough, so compellingly did Service adapt Klondike history to the mythology of individual achievement and the romance of masculine adventure that stampeders like W.H.T. Olive, manager of the Bennett Lake and Klondyke Navigation Company, remembered the poet, though then wandering the American southwest, as coming over the White Pass during the spring of 1898 (88).
5 Writing himself into Yukon legendry, Service aspired as a poet of the north to be not only “its interpreter” but also “its lover, its living voice” (Ploughman 339, 457). As such, he had to devolve a new masculine poetic, one both passionate and primitive, and so to dissociate his work from the apparent effeminacy of nineteenth-century lyricism.11 The frequency with which Service’s critics have subsequently cited his reputation as the Kipling of the north, simultaneously noting the “virile” or “manly” qualities of his verse, suggests that he achieved his aim if only in part.12 Specializing in “the coarse and the concrete” (Ploughman 221), Service had a talent for what biographer Carl Klinck calls “unconventional non-aristocratic, non-bourgeois rhyming” (57). Always suspicious of “word-spinning,” he had of course come early not only “to prefer blunt Saxon speech” to “flowery language, words musically arranged and coloured like a garden,” but also to question “the subject matter of verse” as too endued with “ideals and abstractions” (Ploughman 102, 88). Yet, even as he reviled “poetry,” he continued to write “verse,” for, as he said, “Though I turned from nectar I still liked beer” (Ploughman 88). Service’s preference for “verse” over “poetry,” repeated throughout the autobiography, not only bespeaks a kind of proletarian identification with working folk but also partakes of the anti-intellectualism that came to distinguish manliness — especially frontier manliness — in the popular mind.13 The speaker of “The Song of the Wage-Slave,” “A brute with brute strength to labor,” thus embraces all work but “headwork” because he has “no more brains than a kid” (Collected Poems 25). At the same time, while Service’s youthful experience as “an entertainer” who had been “in demand for church-halls and beer-halls” shaped the recitative quality of his work, his verse also owed something to “the tempo of the old-fashioned music-hall” as well as “its rich vulgarity” (Ploughman 99, 96). When he finally found his subject matter in “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” the first of the poems written in the Yukon, he discovered a world that already pulsed with the rhythms of the dance-hall.
6 Rather than identify himself with bar room entertainers like the “rag-time kid” of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” (Collected Poems 30), Service projected his poetic persona onto the role of gold-seeking gamblers such as McGrew himself; for the image of the card-playing prospector was one that was unambiguously suggestive of manly adventure and its risks. Just as earlier Victorian poets such as Robert Browning and D.G. Rossetti used the figure of the celibate monk to explore “varied views about self-discipline, the management of male sexuality, and the function of repression” in art (Sussman 3), Service similarly chose an identity that allowed him to fulfil a fantasy of masculine creativity released from bourgeois constraint. In his autobiography, for example, he uses metaphors drawn from gambling and mining to recount how, of all the bank’s employees, “a little junior, humped over a big ledger, was about the only one to win a sizeable stake” (Ploughman 303). The “little junior” was, as biographer James Mackay alleges, most certainly Service himself (149). Indeed, as “the most successful poet of the twentieth century in material terms,” Service eventually earned in excess of $100,000 for Songs of a Sourdough alone (Mackay 14, 408n19). Having thus mined “the romance of the gold rush,” he was “a roughneck writer” whose work was analogous to that performed by “the rough miners” celebrated in Songs of a Sourdough (Ploughman 303, 371, 326). In this narrative of poetic and financial success, the “story of the Yukon” emerges as a “vein of rich ore” that becomes, with the publication of Songs of a Sourdough, a veritable “gold mine” (Ploughman 338, 330).
7 Not surprisingly, the pose of the “roughneck writer” also enters into Service’s recollections of how he wrote the poems later included in Songs of a Sourdough. Of the composition of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” for instance, the poet remembers Stroller White, editor of the Whitehorse Star, facetiously encouraging him not only to “write a pome” [sic] for recitation at an up-coming church concert but also to take as his subject “something about our own bit of earth”: “There’s a rich paystreak waiting for some one to work. Why don’t you go in and stake it?” (Ploughman 323). Returning from a late-night walk with a first line for the resultant “pome,” Service recalled,I did not want to disturb the sleeping house; but I was on fire to get started, so I crawled softly down to the dark office. I would work in my teller’s cage. But I had not reckoned with the ledger-keeper in the guard room. He woke from a dream in which he had been playing single-handed against two tennis champions, and licking them. Suddenly he heard a noise near the safe. Burglars! Looking through the trap-door he saw a furtive shadow. He gripped his revolver, and closing his eyes, he pointed it at the skulking shade…. Fortunately he was a poor shot or the Shooting of Dan McGrew might never have been written. (Ploughman 324)
8 Although “apocryphal” (Mackay 164), this tale serves several purposes in elaborating the myth of the “roughneck writer.” First, in its description of poetic inspiration, it allows Service to emphasize the raw, spontaneous quality of his work even though, as Peter Mitham points out in “Publication of Songs of a Sourdough,” the poet actually spent considerable time polishing and revising his verse. Second, in its description of the material circumstances of composition, the tale puts Service’s poetic practice into terms that are overtly active and concretely physical. Third, in its description of the poet who dodges bullets in the teller’s cage and thereby casts off the identity of bank clerk that imprisons him during daylight hours, it positions the writer as a heroic actor within the (melo)drama of composition. Indeed, the teller’s cage not merely exists as an emblem of an emasculated wage-slavery but also, in this retelling, reveals the liberating power of the manly fictions that Service created for himself as a writer. In his version of the masculine creative self, the epithet “dangerous” applies as appropriately to the poet as his subject, Dan McGrew.
9 Settling on the rather conventional theme of revenge in “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” Service offers “a new twist” on “the old triangle, the faithless wife, the betrayed husband,” by setting the story in the Klondike, focusing on the dangerous aspects of manly endeavour, and adapting the narrative to “musical suggestion” (Ploughman 323-24). Dense in colloquial allusion to alcohol, sex, and cards, the poem testifies to a turn-of-the-century elision of juvenility and masculinity, for Service treats the Klondike as a world of homosocial play where “boys” have fun, a “kid” performs on the piano, and even grown men can amuse themselves with a “game”:A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o’-love, the lady that’s known as
Lou. (Collected Poems 29)
10 Situated at a distance from genteel convention, the Klondike liberates masculinity from the constraints of bourgeois domesticity by ascribing to adult men the physicality, the hedonism, and the savagery of boys. But although the nomination of men as “boys” works differently within the white milieu of the north than it does within the racially mixed south, Service yet uses the syncopated rhythms of American Negro music to conjure the raucous juvenility of Dawson’s entertainment district in the late 1890s. The consequent reliance on slang speech, alliterative phrases, and long heptameter lines, lengthened further by anapestic measure, clearly distinguishes “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” from, for example, the work of Alfred Tennyson and Christina Rossetti which, in its melodious rapture, Virginia Woolf typified as the best of Victorian verse (16).
11 A complement to the “rag-time” musicianship of the kid, the impassioned piano-playing of the stranger who stumbles into this setting also allows Service to overcome the problem of inarticulacy and anonymity characterizing those whom he describes in “The Call of the Wild” as “the silent men who do things” (Collected Poems 18). The resultant tension between inward emotion and its outward expression leads to the eroticization of physical action and bodily strength over verbal accomplishment or mental acuity. Using a language evocative of the prize fights that, as “intense performances of manliness” (Kasson 40), were popular northern entertainments, Songs of a Sourdough locates an essentialized masculinity in the stark physicality of those like the old-timer who, in “The Heart of the Sourdough,” has “clinched and closed with the naked North” (Collected Poems 7); the energetic work of those like the “bronzed and stalwart fellow” who, in “The Younger Son,” “is fighting might and main / To clinch the rivets of an Empire down” (Collected Poems 52-53); and the quiet reserve of men like “the primitive toiler, half naked and grimed to the eyes,” who, in “The Song of the Wage-Slave,” is “Resolute, dumb, uncomplaining, a man in a world of men” (Collected Poems 26). Such a taciturn and elemental manhood — literally embodied in the muscular male nude — obviously demands special techniques to overcome the tension between emotion and expression, especially in the absence of stable identity.14 Indeed, as Neville Newman shows, all of the “characters, with the exception of McGrew, resist identification” in “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” (158). Yet, while the lack of names signals the characters’ lack of status and their level of estrangement, it also threatens to make them virtually unknowable. As a result, the stranger — “a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear” — first appears to be more beast than man (Collected Poems 29); but the music that reveals the tender feelings hidden behind the tough exterior humanizes him. Understanding that his improvised performance encrypts “a silence you most could hear,” the narrator has, like the stranger, been “out in the Great Alone” and so has “a hunch what the music meant … hunger and night and the stars. / And hunger not of the belly kind, that’s banished with bacon and beans, / But the gnawing hunger of lonely men for a home and all that it means” (Collected Poems 30-31). Converting primitive emotion into the concrete, material terms of Dawson City during the starvation winters of 1897 and 1898, Service charts the movements of masculine subjectivity and asserts the primacy of instinctive sympathy based on men’s common experience of the north.15
12 The musical suggestiveness of the poem is only one aspect of the metaphors of play and performance that Service actuates in Songs of a Sourdough to explore masculine interiority. Another, of course, belongs to the imagery of gaming. As popular historian Pierre Berton notes, “the entire stampede … had been an enormous and continual gamble” (370). Similarly, Charlene Porsild, citing “sociologist John Findlay’s argument that miners and gamblers in many ways share a single profession,” observes that those drawn to the gold rush “were all ‘people of chance’” (78). The idea that “mining is … a gamble” likewise permeates Service’s view of Klondike life (Collected Poems 14). So just as the stranger plays a piano solo, Dan McGrew plays “a solo game,” a form of whist popular at the end of the nineteenth century. Punning on “solo,” Service suggests not only a particular kind of card game but also Dan’s solitary status, at least at first, in vying for the affections of “his light-o’-love, the lady that’s known as Lou” as well as the one-sidedness of this relationship. Moreover, inasmuch as Service probably had in mind heart solo, which, according to Hoyle’s Games (1907), was a “solo for 3 players” (qtd. in OED), the game foreshadows the relationship among the three players caught in the love triangle: Dan, Lou, and the dissolute stranger. The game winds to a finale when, just before the stranger bets his poke of gold dust “That one of you is a hound of hell … and that one is Dan McGrew,” his opponent announces that he will “make it a spread misere” and the music “seem[s] to say, ‘Repay, repay’” (Collected Poems 32, 31). French for “misery,” misère describes a call that a card player, usually one with a very bad hand, makes to win by deliberately losing each (or sometimes just the final) trick. The poem, however, features a very different kind of spread misère in its final tableau: the gunfight that leaves Lou’s two lovers dead.
13 Although some sourdoughs, like Klondike Mike Mahoney, later inserted themselves into the events recounted in “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and thereby insisted on their historicity, Service had fabricated the story from some of the most lurid and least factual aspects of Yukon life.16 In his practical guide to Alaska and the Klondike Gold Fields (1897), for example, A.C. Harris reassured contemporary fortune-seekers by quoting a miner who averred “with absolute truth that Dawson City [was] one of the most moral towns of its kind in the world” (454). To be sure, the North West Mounted Police tolerated illegal gambling, blatant prostitution, and an unlicensed liquor trade, but the force did so both with the connivance of the territorial government and in an effort to promote good order.17 Sidearms, as a consequence, were strictly prohibited.18 Indeed, “so many revolvers were confiscated in Dawson in 1898 that they were auctioned off by the police for as little as a dollar and purchased as souvenirs to keep on the mantelpiece” (Pierre Berton 307). Thus, the fatal gunfight that forms the climax of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” owes much more to the legendary American west than the historic Canadian north.
14 Similarly, the depiction of Lou, whose rouge signifies her status as a scarlet woman, draws on frontier folklore; for “contrary to popular myth, prostitution was not the primary occupation for Klondike women. The majority of women reported their occupation as ‘wife’” (Porsild 19). Interestingly, Service uses precisely this character — the character of Lou as (faithless) wife — to call into question bourgeois notions of “home and all that it means”: “a fireside far from the cares that are, four walls and a roof above; / … so cramful of cosy joy, and crowned with a woman’s love — / A woman dearer than all the world” (Collected Poems 31). The ambiguity that characterizes Lou as both wife and prostitute crystallizes in her name, for, as Judith Butler notes, “the name, which installs gender and kinship, works as a politically invested and investing performative” (72). While Lou’s lack of a patronymic or family name thus obscures her relationship to the stranger who is her husband, the curtailment of her first name obfuscates her gender. As a result, her name signals her freedom from the dictates of bourgeois femininity. No longer sanctioned by marriage, Lou’s love is now far “dearer” than even the narrator wishes to acknowledge since it is, as Service writes in “The Harpy,” “for hire” (Collected Poems 68). Commodified, it costs two men their lives and, in the end, attaches to the “poke” that the stranger bets against Dan’s amour-propre. The wry humour of the final line of the poem, which aligns the kiss Lou gives to the gold she takes, tempers the sentimentality that characterizes Service’s idealization of feminine domesticity, however claustrophobic, and underlines the exchange of love for money that distinguishes the life of both wife and prostitute. Lou, though she loses two lovers, takes the final trick.
15 Like “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” “The Cremation of Sam McGee” mythologizes masculine risk-taking in the north; but in its movement from the environs of Dawson into the wilderness, it tests the absolute limits of masculine individualism and homosocial attachment. Rivalled only by “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” in its continuing popularity, the poem grew out of a tall tale that a Dawson miner, a “big … man” both physically and socially, told at a Whitehorse party that Service crashed one evening when he decided to “call on a girl friend.” Reflecting sulkily on his own littleness and lack of importance, Service did not join in the laughter that marked the climax of the story, “for I had,” he said, “a feeling that here was a decisive moment of destiny” (Ploughman 325).19 A strenuous six-hour walk home in the moonlit woods purportedly allowed him to rework the lineaments of the tale for verse. Ironically, whereas Service’s account of the poem’s inspiration hints uneasily
at both creative and romantic competition between himself and the unidentified miner, the monologue itself privileges homosocial cooperation over masculine individualism in the subarctic. Furthermore, while the poem’s provenance is grounded in Yukon hospitality and conviviality, the famous opening stanza underscores the loneliness of the north, for it personifies the land as secret witness to the actions of men:There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge [sic]
I cremated Sam McGee. (Collected Poems 33)
Repeated at the end of the poem, this eight-line stanza looks different from the rest of the piece because of the use of italics and the pattern of lines; but aurally there is no difference, for each pair of tetrameter-trimeter lines features the same number of feet and the same internal rhyme scheme as the heptameters that follow. As a result, the opening and closing stanzas function visually as well as conceptually as a frame for the action.
16 Modifying the action of the poem as “strange” and “queer,” the frame underlines the transgressive nature of the events that unfold at the limits of human experience — that is, “on the marge of Lake Lebarge.” Predicating his structuralist analysis of Service’s ballads on their status as monologues intended for oral performance, Edward Hirsch contends that the frame situates the tensions explored in the poem — hot versus cold, life versus death, south versus north, heaven versus hell — as supernatural and, hence, “exceptional in terms of … intensity,” though not “impulse” (139). By contrast, Ian Marshall argues that the frame device represents only one of several “strategies of enclosure” that Service enables “to create a feeling of comfort and safety” so as “to minimize fears of the wild and to make possible aesthetic appreciation of it” (100). In the frame, the Marlovian narrator, later revealed as Cap, naturalizes the supposed strangeness of men’s actions by suggesting an affinity to the strangeness of the north as reified in such phenomena as the midnight sun and the northern lights. By so prefacing the action, Cap contains the disturbing elements of the tale which he offers not merely as a personal experience but as one typical of the Yukon both in substance and in effect. Set in the subarctic, the story should “make your blood run cold.” To allay the chilling impact on a listener, however, Cap discloses the climax of his tale even before beginning its strange recitation. Given this unusual disclosure, the poem is not so much about the peculiarity of men’s deeds as it is about the strangeness of their desires. But while the poem belongs to the tradition of the “northern gothic” (Atherton 69), it is not a “ghost story” (Marshall 96). Instead, the horror of the wilderness within rather than without becomes the focus of concern.
17 In “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” as in “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” Service must again overcome the problem of passionate inarticulacy as he explores the terrain of masculine individualism. In order to do so, the poem, at least as much Cap’s story as it is Sam’s, witnesses a partial collapse of identities. Unable to speak of his own inner life, the narrator subjects his companion’s experience to scrutiny:Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ‘round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.” (Collected Poems 33)
Reluctant to attribute motive to action, Cap refuses, of course, to admit that Sam — his alter ego — has come to the Yukon to satisfy a desire for wealth. In this respect, Service’s Klondike resembles Joseph Conrad’s Congo, for both serve as a locus for masculine desire. Indeed, just as Conrad uses skeletal imagery to suggest the deathly allure of the ivory trade in Heart of Darkness (1902), Service relies on monetary language to indicate the men’s fatal obsession with gold in “The Cremation of Sam McGee”: to die is, for example, to “cash in” and to make a promise is to incur a “debt” (Collected Poems 34). But while Service frequently alludes to money in poems as different as “The Reckoning,” “The Rhyme of the Remittance Man,” “The Low-Down White,” and “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” he does not necessarily seek in Songs of a Sourdough to disparage it as a measure of turn-of-the-century manhood. For example, even though “The freshness, the freedom, the farness” of the north prove more enthralling than the gold for which he had “scrabbled and mucked like a slave,” the speaker of “The Spell of the Yukon” bluntly acknowledges and approves of capitalist objectives: “You come to get rich (damned good reason)” (Collected Poems 4, 3). In this light, Cap’s inability to admit to the ambition that motivates Sam no less than himself becomes rather more comprehensible insofar as the search for gold stands in place of other desires that are unspeakable. That Sam and Cap embark on a journey that reiterates their initial northward flight from Christian community and civility on Christmas day, a holiday of social and spiritual significance, only underscores their rejection of the heterosexual conventions of home.
18 Externalizing the power of individual desire in the “spell” that the Yukon has supposedly cast, Cap not only fails to accept avarice as a rationale for masculine endeavour but also wilfully ignores the fact that “the land of gold” is also “the land of death” (Collected Poems 34). Rhyming with “gold,” the “cold” that ultimately kills Sam (and quite literally turns desire to ashes) is so central a feature of northern experience that even the usually taciturn Cap acknowledges its bitter intensity: “Talk of your cold! Through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail. / If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see” (Collected Poems 33). Even as his metaphoric comparisons of the cold to a knife-wielding assassin and a nail-driving hammer communicate the ruthless power of the subarctic winter, Cap derogates Sam’s complaints as unmanly since he is “the only one to whimper” (Collected Poems 33). In a word, Sam lacks toughness. Indeed, in “Grin,” Service counsels that the only appropriate response to life, no matter how much of a “bruiser” or “bally battle,” is to smile, for “There’s nothing gained by whining” and “there is no philosophy like bluff” (Collected Poems 27-28). The loquacious Sam, however, is all bluster and no bluff. In fact, in the heightened homosocial intimacy of the moment when the two men, “packed tight in [their] robes beneath the snow,” sleep together for warmth, he confesses his “awful dread of the icy grave” and so exacts from his companion a promise to “cremate [his] last remains” (Collected Poems 33-34). Traditionally associated with pagan ritual and biblical punishment, cremation emerged as an alternative to burial in Europe and North America in the late 1870s and, despite the best efforts of public health officials, remained unpopular because, for many Christians, the practice jeopardized the resurrection of the body. Unmoved by St Paul’s distinction between the “natural body” that “is sown corruptible” and the “spiritual body” that “is raised incorruptible” (1 Cor. 15.42-44), these believers viewed cremation as a profanity. Yet, in “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” the rule of northern fraternity binds Cap to honour Sam’s wish to be cremated, even if sacrilegious, for not only is “A pal’s last need a thing to heed” but also “a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code” (Collected Poems 34).20
19 Making the dogsled journey a metaphor for masculine action, Service not only allows Sam’s death to enact a foreclosure of homoerotic possibility but also uses Cap’s promise to expose the obstacles to stable identity that turn-of-the-century men negotiated in attempting to achieve the increasingly unachievable goal of self-made manhood. Thus, the poet refigures Cap’s independence as lonely isolation; his mobility as anxious restlessness; his strength as emotional deficiency; his self-control as desperate paranoia; and his accomplishment as lunatic endeavour. As his nickname suggests, Cap is accustomed to command; but haunted by both his dead companion and his sworn pledge, he concedes that he is “horror-driven” (Collected Poems 34). In fact, Service brilliantly conveys the breathlessness caused by Cap’s fear (as well as his physical exertion in mushing the trail) in various alliterative phrases that feature the strongly aspirated h: “I hurried, horror-driven, / With a corpse half hid”; “in my heart how I cursed that load”; “the huskies … / Howled out their woes to the homeless snows”; “that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow”; “the hateful thing … hearkened with a grin” (Collected Poems 34-35; emphasis added). This fear is stretched out over a journey that seems endless, particularly “In the long, long night, by the lone firelight” (Collected Poems 35). Indeed, the doubly repeated “long,” related aurally to the word “lone,” verbally extends a night already lengthened by the lack of both society and sunlight, for with fewer than five hours separating daybreak from nightfall in much of the Yukon, December is obviously not the time of “the midnight sun.”
20 Benighted both physically and spiritually, Cap admits to fear, but he is incapable of confiding the depth of his grief and his loneliness. As a result, he suffers from what Butler calls “heterosexual melancholy, the melancholy by which a masculine gender is formed from the refusal to grieve the masculine as a possibility of love” (235). Displaced momentarily on the woeful huskies, this unacknowledged grief accounts for the occasional blasphemous expletive (“God!”) and the grotesque description of Sam as a corpse, as a “thing” now “loathed” rather than a treasured friend (Collected Poems 35). Objectified as “it,” the supposedly “quiet clay” speaks to Cap, reminding him of his word: “You may tax your brawn and brains, / But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains” (Collected Poems 34). Situated as a “threat” to Cap’s masculinity and “an inadvertent site of eroticization,” Sam emerges quite literally as a “spectral figure of abject homosexuality” (Butler 97). So while Cap engages in a parody of courtship, serenading “the hateful thing” and imagining its death rictus as a reciprocating smile, he repudiates as horrific the homoerotic properties of their relationship. Clearly no longer in command of himself, he is more than “half mad” (Collected Poems 35); but instead of the madness brought on, as in “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” or “The Parson’s Son,” by “hooch,” “The Cremation of Sam McGee” focuses on the insanity inherent in the prerogatives to masculine individualism and heterosexual subjectivity. Ironically, Cap’s tragedy is too painful to treat except comically.
21 Relying on a humour heightened by colloquial language and facile rhyme, Service seeks, at once, to temper the horror that attaches to the achievement of self-made manhood and to enhance the performative aspects of the poem. This humour reaches a comic crescendo when Cap, casting an eye at his “frozen chum,” announces his discovery of a “cre-mator-eum” in the Alice May (Collected Poems 35). On the one hand, Service draws on local facts (in, for example, Lake Laberge’s status in the aftermath of the rush as a marine cemetery) to establish the authenticity of Cap’s account. On the other, he tests the credulity of the audience through techniques such as verbal exaggeration, ironic juxtaposition, and comic inversion. For instance, he undercuts the polysyllabic formality of crematorium not only by hyphenating and misspelling the word, thereby elongating it and emphasizing its pronunciation, but also by rhyming it with the slang term “chum,” which, like the word “pal” used earlier, casually diminishes (even as it signals) the closeness between the two men. Likewise, the indecorous description of how Cap “stuffed” Sam into the furnace before going on “a hike” to avoid “hear[ing] him sizzle so” skilfully uses low diction and onomatopoeia to detract from the solemnity of the occasion (Collected Poems 35-36; emphasis added).
22 While such wordplay on Service’s part acts as a diversion, Cap’s inability to admit his grief nonetheless testifies to the tragic limits of masculine toughness. An affect of those “hyperbolic identifications by which mundane heterosexual masculinity and femininity confirm themselves,” this toughness attends “a preemption of grief performed by the absence of cultural conventions for avowing the loss of homosexual love” (Butler 236). Walking in the snow, Cap notes, “It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why” (Collected Poems 36). This avowed ignorance notwithstanding, the reason is grief. Tears, not sweat, account for the moisture on his face. Furthermore, the bathos that attaches to the “bravely said” words prefacing his final vision undercuts Cap’s admission of “grisly fear” and “dread”: “I’ll just take a peep inside. / I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked” (Collected Poems 36). Lastly, in the hallucinatory description of “Sam, looking cool and calm” (Collected Poems 36), Service rather irreverently renovates Christian images related to death, resurrection, and the afterlife. At the same time, the clever pun on “cool,” which, given the heat of the fire, obviously suggests nonchalance rather than frigidity, and the forced rhyme of “Sam” and “calm” demonstrate his gifts as a comic poet. Reinscribing the killing cold of the north in terms of hellish heat, the poem ends happily with Sam warm for the first time since he left Tennessee — and sadly with Cap utterly delirious.
23 The deaths of Sam McGee and Dan McGrew are, of course, only two of the tragedies that Service chronicles in Songs of a Sourdough. Returning time and again to the perils of (as well as the possibilities for) masculine achievement in the north, he not only traces a dialectic between freedom and enslavement, success and failure, but also depicts the Klondike as a realm of Darwinian struggle in which, as he writes in “The Law of the Yukon,” “only the Strong shall thrive; / … and only the Fit survive” (Collected Poems 13). As such, the north allows Service to investigate gender ideals in crisis at the turn of the century; for, as Martin Bucco observes, this environment, in its indulgence of that mythic “need to regain a lost power,” serves as “an ideal place for dislocating ‘standard’ values, for finding the self, and for establishing a new relationship between that self and the universe” (19). Not surprisingly, Service’s verse therefore focuses almost without exception on Anglo-American men who, despite a privilege based on gender, race, and class, are marginalized and estranged because of an inability to control either themselves or their circumstances. They have, in other words, lost their power.
24 In addition to negotiating apprehensions about masculine privilege and bourgeois propriety, Songs of a Sourdough also establishes the formula that Service followed in subsequent volumes, especially Ballads of a Cheechako (1909), Rhymes of a Rolling Stone (1912), and, to a lesser degree, Bar-Room Ballads (1940); for he chose in these works to capitalize on his success by catering to a public taste for the rough and the tough that he had helped to stimulate. So when Laura Berton told Service that she was unimpressed with “The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill,” one of the poems in his second volume, because it was “a near duplicate of the Sam McGee story,” he replied: “Exactly.… That’s what I tried for. That’s the stuff the public wants. That’s what they pay for. And I mean to give it to them” (70). More coherent as collections and more consciously crafted to stress the extremity of subarctic life, Ballads of a Cheechako and Rhymes of a Rolling Stone also feature with greater regularity strongly individuated characters after the manner of Dan McGrew and Sam McGee. In Ballads of a Cheechako, this tendency is readily evident in the titles of such works as “The Ballad of Pious Pete,” “The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill,” “The Ballad of One-Eyed Mike,” “The Ballad of Hard-Luck Henry,” “The Ballad of Gum-Boot Ben,” and “Clancy of the Mounted Police.” Arguably, Service used this technique to depict “the almost comic dependence on nicknames” in Dawson which, according to historian Douglas Fetherling, represented “a reaction against the rising level of education among the stampeders and against the general pressures of civilized behaviour” (186-87). Yet, even though Service still venerates, as in “To the Man of the High North,” “nameless men who nameless rivers travel” in these later books (Collected Poems 77), his identification of characters as well as places by name sometimes confounds individuality with eccentricity.
25 While his later work continues to centre on Anglo-American manhood, Service also comes to capture, if only problematically and fractionally, the multicultural, international, polyglot nature of the Klondike rush in the vignettes of Native and Métis women in “Little Moccasins” and “The Squaw Man,” published in Rhymes of a Rolling Stone, and of European men in “The Ballad of Hank the Finn” and “The Ballad of Touch-the-Button Nell,” included in Bar-Room Ballads. Moreover, as the ballads featuring characters such as Touch-the-Button Nell and Montreal Maree published during and after World War II suggest, new standards of poetic candour also allowed him to treat more fully the existence of the demimonde in Dawson in his later career. Increasingly nostalgic for a world that never existed, Service romanticizes the Yukon sex trade, especially in the heavily accented, kind-hearted dance-hall queen, Montreal Maree, who makes an appearance in all but three of his final volumes of verse: “Montreal Maree,” Songs of a Sun Lover (1949); “Mc’Clusky’s Nell,” Rhymes of a Roughneck (1950); “Dance-Hall Girls,” Lyrics of a Lowbrow (1951); “Death of a Croaker,” Rhymes of a Rebel (1952); “The Twins of Lucky Strike,” Carols of an Old Codger (1954). Mostly comic portraits, these poems feature Maree as the heroic saviour of both big men and little children. By contrast, the real Montreal Marie Lambert lived far less glamorously as a prostitute and sometime companion to two civil servants: Yukon councillor and Registrar of Lands J.E. Girouard, whose partially clothed flight from her home during the 1904 federal election later served as ammunition for Rev. John Pringle in his campaign against vice (Morrison 120n14; Porsild 134); and customs official H.D. Stammers, who, after acquiring a new bride on a trip to Australia that Lambert had financed, abandoned her and their two young daughters to Lousetown where the sex trade persisted beyond 1907 (Laura Berton 66-67). As the Montreal Maree poems suggest, however, Service was more interested in testing the possibilities inherent in the whore as a sentimental heroine — albeit one who curses in patois (“Jeezecrize”) — rather than as a tragic figure of exploitation (More Collected Verse 2:17). As a result, the emphasis in this later work seems to have shifted altogether from authenticating masculine subjectivity to offering titillating sketches of life beyond the margins of social propriety. Inasmuch as Service had thereby subordinated his art to commercial concerns, it is perhaps not surprising that he spoke, in the “Prelude” to Bar-Room Ballads, of his “strumpet Muse” (Collected Poems 601).
26 Despite a prolific and extraordinarily prosperous literary career, Service never entirely relinquished the fears and fantasies that motivated him to write Songs of a Sourdough. When he moved to Dawson in 1908, its citizens imagined him to be “a rip-roaring roisterer,” not unlike the characters immortalized in Songs of a Sourdough, but they “found a shy and nondescript man in his mid-thirties, with a fresh complexion, clear blue eyes and a boyish figure that made him look much younger” (Laura Berton 68). Apparently as disappointed as the citizens of Dawson with this persona, the clean-shaven, soft-spoken Service, then a virtual teeto-taller, sought to reinvent himself once more. Thus, when he returned to the Yukon in 1911 after a hiatus of more than a year, he chose to follow the Edmonton trail, perhaps the toughest of all routes to Dawson. Finally leaving the Yukon in 1912, he travelled to the Balkans as a foreign correspondent and, when World War I broke out in 1914, tried to enlist even though he was too old. These hypermasculine performances became, however, increasingly difficult for the middle-aged writer to sustain. The gulf between the idea and the reality opened when Service, at age forty-one, failed his army physical because of varicose veins and widened when, at age fifty, he damaged his heart body-building. By this time, the world too had changed, and although Service’s Yukon poems remained popular, the cataclysmic violence of war had given rise to modernist redefinitions of both masculinity and poetry. But just as the verse experiments of e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, and E.J. Pratt offer apt expression to a legion of “sleeping selves,” “hollow men,” and “sailors un-lifejacketed” (Cummings 520; Eliot 79; Pratt 170), Service’s reliance on more predictable forms complement his efforts to ennoble the gambler, the remittance man, the younger son, the tramp, the wage-slave, the placer miner, the whiskey soak, and the squaw man — all “The Men That Don’t Fit In.” Ending in death and insanity, the struggles of these characters to establish dominion over the north, a world geographically if not psychologically remote from the one that defines masculinity in terms of entrepreneurial and professional achievement, are struggles to reclaim their virility — that is, to reappropriate a privilege situated in antithesis to the values of feminine domesticity and Christian gentility. In his negotiation of gender aspirations and anxieties prevalent early in the twentieth century, Robert W. Service therefore retreats from the present into the past in order to establish action — not accomplishment — as the ultimate arbiter of manliness in Songs of a Sourdough.
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