Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Spell of the Yukon, and Other Adventures

By Beth Green

In poetry, as well as novels, I look for verse that takes me to another place; for a lyrical transportation to another time.

It’s no wonder then, that one of the poets whose writing has echoed in my thoughts the most is Canadian Robert W. Service.

Robert W. Service
A contemporary of American novelist Jack London (White Fang, The Call of the Wild―also great adventure tales), Service wrote the poems that made him famous about the Gold Rush of the late 1800s. Originally Scottish, Service was an adventurer from a young age. He traveled and worked at various jobs in North America, eventually landing work as a banker in the wild north. His poetry―he actually preferred to call it “verse”―is often compared to (or dismissed as) similar to Rudyard Kipling’s in tone, audience and meter.

But the thing that captures me most about Service’s many poems about the Yukon is his sense of adventure. Consider the opening to “A Rolling Stone,” published in 1912.

There's sunshine in the heart of me,
My blood sings in the breeze; 
The mountains are a part of me,
I'm fellow to the trees.
My golden youth I'm squandering, 
Sun-libertine am I; 
A-wandering, a-wandering
Until the day I die.

Service’s poems also brought the world a cast of characters―sometimes desperate―who acted out the dance of life in sub-zero conditions. One of his first famous poems, “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” (1907) tells the story of the death of a gold miner:

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".

Southeast Alaska. Photo by Beth Green

Having lived in Alaska, I feel that his poetry also illustrates the beauty of North America―particularly Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon―better than any other writer I’ve read. My favorite example of this is his epic “The Spell of the Yukon,” published in 1907.

The Spell of the Yukon

I wanted the gold, and I sought it;
   I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy―I fought it;
   I hurled my youth into a grave.
I wanted the gold, and I got it―
   Came out with a fortune last fall,― 
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
   And somehow the gold isn’t all.
A glacier. Photo by Beth Green
No! There’s the land. (Have you seen it?)
   It’s the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
   To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it;
   Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it
   For no land on earth―and I’m one.

You come to get rich (damned good reason);
   You feel like an exile at first;
You hate it like hell for a season,
   And then you are worse than the worst.
It grips you like some kinds of sinning;
   It twists you from foe to a friend;
It seems it’s been since the beginning;
   It seems it will be to the end.
I’ve stood in some mighty-mouthed hollow
   That’s plumb-full of hush to the brim;
I’ve watched the big, husky sun wallow
   In crimson and gold, and grow dim,
Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming,
   And the stars tumbled out, neck and crop;
And I’ve thought that I surely was dreaming,
   With the peace o’ the world piled on top.
The summer―no sweeter was ever;
   The sunshiny woods all athrill;
The grayling aleap in the river,
   The bighorn asleep on the hill.
The strong life that never knows harness;
   The wilds where the caribou call;
The freshness, the freedom, the farness―
   O God! how I’m stuck on it all.
The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
   The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
   The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
   The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
   I’ve bade ’em good-by―but I can’t.

Mountains above Juneau, AK.
There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
   And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
   And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
   There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land―oh, it beckons and beckons,
   And I want to go back―and I will.

They’re making my money diminish;
   I’m sick of the taste of champagne.
Thank God! when I’m skinned to a finish
   I’ll pike to the Yukon again.
I’ll fight―and you bet it’s no sham-fight;
   It’s hell!―but I’ve been there before;
And it’s better than this by a damsite―
   So me for the Yukon once more.
There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
   It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
   So much as just finding the gold.
It’s the great, big, broad land ’way up yonder,
   It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
   It’s the stillness that fills me with peace. 

Southeast Alaska

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