Robert Service, Sam McGee and Hannah McGrew

One of my favorite poets of all time is the incomparable Robert Service. He was always popular but his work was regarded by most of his literary contemporaries as too silly or comical to be taken seriously. Service himself once described his work as “Verse, not poetry,” adding that “I never wrote to please anyone but myself.”

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Service was dubbed ‘The Bard of the Yukon’, as most of his poems were set in the wild, adventurous country of Canada. If you’ve never read his classic The Cremation of Sam McGee, do yourself a favor and read it now.

I find his poems have a magical quality about them. It’s so easy to get caught up in the rhymes as they flow so flawlessly from line to line (they play out almost like old folk songs or campfire tales), but I find there’s something special hidden in each poem that goes a little deeper, that will twist your heart or hit home in wholly unexpected ways.

I’d suggest you read all of Service’s work right now, right this second, but the next poem I would recommend along with Sam McGee would be “It Is Later Than You Think“.  The final stanza is lovely:

“Lastly, you who read; aye, you

Who this very line may scan:

Think of all you planned to do…

Have you done the best you can?

See! the tavern lights are low;

Black’s the night, and how you shrink!

God! and is it time to go?

Ah! the clock is always slow;

It is later than you think;

Sadly later than you think;

Far, far later than you think.”

If that doesn’t get you at least a little bit you’re probably a robot.

Another favorite is ‘Song of the Campfire. The formatting here doesn’t really do the poem justice, but the rhymes and the imagery are just breath-taking.

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“In the vast and vaulted pine-gloom where the pillared forests frown,

By the sullen, bestial rivers running where God only knows,

On the starlit coral beaches when the combers thunder down,

In the death-spell of the barrens, in the shudder of the snows”

It’s so easy to get lost in the imagery, you have to read it at least twice; once, just to experience the the words and the pictures they conjure in your head. And second, to pick out the actual meaning of the poem, and the story it tells of the fire as it grows and burns and dies.

But definitely my favorite of his works is a short poem called Young Mother. It’s about a mother with a new baby, whom she loves dearly. The baby gets tired and the mother is excited for a chance to rest, but upon seeing it still for so long she becomes so nervous and afraid that, despite her exhaustion, she shakes the baby awake in panic to make sure she’s still alive. It’s such a little slice-of-life moment, and it says so many things about motherhood and relationships and regrets and human nature in three short stanzas. I’m sure an actual mother, who’s likely experienced something like this, is able to connect with this little story even more strongly.

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Anyways, I was inspired by Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew to write my own Service-style, campfire tale poem. The setting, a Southern bayou, is also partly inspired by Jim Stafford’s Black Water Hattie and too many marathon viewings of True Blood. Although in the end I think I should’ve gone with longer lines to fit more imagery, I’m still all right with the way it turned out. ^_^

The Song of Miss Hannah McGrew

In the hot bayou,
in the muck and goo,
in the heat of the Southern air,
slither brown swamp snakes
in the muddy green lakes,
river rats, jungle cats and black bears.
There lived Hannah McGrew
in the mossy bayou,
far beyond where the others dared roam.
She was friend to the bats
and birds and the cats
because she called this wretched place home.
Right lovely was she,
with eyes like the sea,
and the smarts of a keen-tempered shrew.
Had fair damask skin,
berry cheeks, pointed chin,
did the beautiful Hannah McGrew.
She walked through the vines
and she knew all the kinds
of the plants that could fix up a hurt.
Like a ghost in white dress
she traversed the swampness,
ankle-deep in the moss and the dirt.
Came a man there one day,
smelling of sweat and hay,
strong from toiling for years in the sun.
With his skin black as night
and a mean-looking bite
in his side for he was on the run.
Well face-down in the goo,
when he saw Miss McGrew,
figured her for an angel from God.
And she dragged the man back
to her little swamp-shack,
and went wading for plants in the bog.
She brought moss for the wound,
cat’s claw, buckbean she’d pruned,
for each plant and each purpose she knew.
He spun tales of great feeling
and so as he lay healing
stole the heart of Miss Hannah McGrew.
Well a romance was churning
and as he had no yearning
to return to his life of old
he stayed with young Hannah
for he loved her manner
and she loved the stories he told.
Now it wasn’t long
till the swamp-couple saw
they must find themselves properly wed.
With a skein of rat stew,
and some water too,
he set out for the nearest homestead.
He was traveling in search
of a proper white church
where to proclaim their marriage vows
so he trekked through the sawgrass,
sinking into the morass,
through the mangroves and low-hanging boughs.
He at last reached a town
Pal Adekwa, it’s known,
with a church and a priest to preside.
But the men there deplored,
and to detach they swore,
the man and his porcelain-skinned bride.
Now it might be the way
that the sun fell that day,
or the sway of the mannagrass,
But Hannah McGrew
knew before day was through
that her lover was not coming back.
The tears she might cry
welled up in her blue eyes
but froze ‘fore they could stream down her face.
Her heart hardened cement
she had one clear intent
as she strode through the sedge and reedmace.
It was mentioned that Hannah
down in South Louisiana
knew the ways of the weeds and the shrubs.
‘Twas oft-whispered in panic
that Hannah knew magic,
the black arts of the swamp and the mud.
Now there’s no one to say
in Pal Adekwa that day
how the fire began, I’ll confide.
And the reason there’s none
to explain what was done
is that none in Adekwa survived.
But I seen and attest,
when I passed what was left
and the chalk-white bones lay in plain view,
and the houses were dashed,
who I saw dancing in the ash
was a smiling Miss Hannah McGrew.