Thursday, March 3, 2011

Robert Service's Little Cabin

Robert Service's Little Cabin, Dawson City, Yukon

Robert Service, the “Bard of the Yukon,” wrote some of his most famous poems while working as a bank clerk in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. In the spring of 1908 the Bank of Commerce transferred him to Dawson City. He soon discovered that his poems were earning him more money than the bank was paying him. After quitting his job, he rented a small two-room cabin on Eighth Avenue in Dawson City from Mrs. Edna Clarke and began his career as a full-time author.

Though he never owned the cabin, it was his pride and joy, inspiring some of his most famous poems and his one and only novel – "Trail of '98" – which became a Hollywood motion picture by the same name, starring Dolores Del Rio, Ralph Forbes and Karl Dante in 1929.

“The Trail of '98" was the first talking picture dealing with the Klondike gold rush and was acclaimed at the time by critics for depicting the Klondike as it really was.

Service left Dawson for the last time in June of 1912. Knowing that he might never return, he wrote the following:

"Good-bye Little Cabin"

O dear little cabin, I've loved you so long,
And now I must bid you good-bye!
I've filled you with laughter, I've thrilled you with song,
And sometimes I've wished I could cry.
Your walls they have witnessed a weariful fight,
And rung to a won Waterloo:
But oh, in my triumph I'm dreary to-night --
Good-bye, little cabin, to you!

Your roof is bewhiskered, your floor is a-slant,
Your walls seem to sag and to swing;
I'm trying to find just your faults, but I can't --
You poor, tired, heart-broken old thing!
I've seen when you've been the best friend that I had,
Your light like a gem on the snow;
You're sort of a part of me -- Gee! but I'm sad;
I hate, little cabin, to go.

Below your cracked window red raspberries climb;
A hornet's nest hangs from a beam;
Your rafters are scribbled with adage and rhyme,
And dimmed with tobacco and dream.
"Each day has its laugh", and "Don't worry, just work".
Such mottoes reproachfully shine.
Old calendars dangle -- what memories lurk
About you, dear cabin of mine!

I hear the world-call and the clang of the fight;
I hear the hoarse cry of my kind;
Yet well do I know, as I quit you to-night,
It's Youth that I'm leaving behind.
And often I'll think of you, empty and black,
Moose antlers nailed over your door:
Oh, if I should perish my ghost will come back
To dwell in you, cabin, once more!

How cold, still and lonely, how weary you seem!
A last wistful look and I'll go.
Oh, will you remember the lad with his dream!
The lad that you comforted so.
The shadows enfold you, it's drawing to-night;
The evening star needles the sky:
And huh! but it's stinging and stabbing my sight --
God bless you, old cabin, good-bye!

Thirty years later in his autobiography, "Ploughman of the Moon" he gave us some insight into his feelings at that time:
"I finished my book in the late spring but still I lingered. Dawson had meant much to me and I had been happy there. I was loath to go, for I felt I would be leaving behind me part of myself. So I remained until the last boat. As I wrote some verses bidding good-bye to my cabin I knew they meant farewell to so much that was familiar and dear.

My plan was to go to the south Seas. I imagined I had the gift of golden indolence and suspected that as an adventurer I was a bit of baloney. I dreamed of palms, starry-eyed sirens, strumming ukuleles on coral strands. I could realize all that. I was young, free and I had no more need to work. I had done my share of roving. Let me rest in colourful security.

So I thought, but at the same moment an editor was saying: "Here's a guy that loves excitement and action. He is dedicated to adventure and doesn't mind taking any old chance. Now he's at a loose end. Let's send this bold boy to the blood bath of the Balkans. Give him a chance to show his guts." Thus I got a letter proposing to make a war correspondent out of me, and with curses in my heart I cabled acceptance. Then with my book of verse in my valise, superb as to health but uncouth through long living near to nature, I departed for sophisticated Europe.

As the steamer passed the mouth of the Klondike I was as blue as burning brimstone. There was the grey face of the Slide, the green summit of the Dome, the brown town clinging to the river bank. It was not beautiful but it was very dear to me. I knew every nook and corner, so that it seemed to be a Self I was leaving behind. Poor old Town, so wistful, so weary. "Your leaving me too," it seemed to say. "like so many you are abandoning me. I have sheltered you, nourished you, brought you cheer, and now you disregard me and turn to others more fair.." And I answered: "I swear I will come back. I will live with you again and renew the joy and comfort I have known. You have been more to me than any other of my resting places. I am grateful and will never forget. Yes, I will come back.

But I never did. Only yesterday an air-line offered to fly me up there in two days, and I refused. It would have saddened me to see dust and rust where once hummed a rousing town; hundreds where were thousands; tumbledown cabins, mouldering warehouses . . .

And as I looked my last, my eyes rested on my cabin high on the hill. The door seemed to open and I saw a solitary figure waving his pip in farewell - the ghost of my dead youth. No, I do not want to meet that reproachful wraith again. He might say: "You promised to do so much; you have done so little."

And I had a further thought that saddened me even more. I felt I was not only quitting Dawson but the North itself. Nine years of my life I had given it and it was in my blood. It had inspired and sustained me, brought me fortune and a meed of fame. I thought I knew it better than most men and could express its secret spirit. Maybe I should have remained there and devoted my life to singing and writing of it. . . . "I will come back," I said again. "I will be true to the North." But over thirty years have passed and I have not returned. Now I know I never will."


mythopolis said...

Wow! What an interesting post. I've been through Whitehorse, and Dawson, just passing through. But it made me think of lots of things about those territories, and the life he must have lived. Thanks!

Owen said...

Hi Dee... now there is a post I can relate to !

The man sure had a way with words. It amazes me how poorly known he is today.

Thanks so much for assembling this info about his cabin. How many of us have said goodbye to a place like that, where we spent the days of our youth ?

They place where he spent his old age is another kettle of fish entirely. Right on the coast in Brittany, beautiful views from the windows. Not a bad way to finish with life...

Stickup Artist said...

I sometimes think upon the broken dreams and hard departures when I see abandoned dwellings in the desert or old mining towns. Then I shake it off, study the light, and compose my pictures. This writing really fleshes out those fleeting feelings. I don't think I'll ever look at one of those places without remembering the sentiments expressed here.