Stuck at home last Thursday, felled by one of the many ailments that seem to be going around, I was feeling too weak to read so instead I settled down to watch Discovery channel’s “Klondike” miniseries, which I’d recorded when it aired earlier in the week. Set during the Klondike gold rush at the end of the 19th Century, it’s not a particularly memorable program, unless you enjoy spending six hours admiring Richard Madden’s hair (I certainly do), but it did serve to remind me of all the very bleak history books and historical novels I read during my preteens about life in the North during this period. In this cheerful frame of mind, I picked up one of the most enduring books about (at least in part) the Klondike gold rush: The Spell of the Yukon, and Other Verses by Robert Service.
Published in 1907, The Spell of the Yukon contains Service’s two best known poems: “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”. Their Kipling-esque rhymes have made them favourites for generations of school children forced to learn something to recite in class and no matter how verse-averse you are, I’ve yet to meet any Canadian who doesn’t at least know the first haunting lines of “The Cremation of Sam McGee”:
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
I cremated Sam McGee.
Though other verses may be more well-known these days, my favourite piece in the book has always been The Spell of the Yukon, the lament of a miner who struck it rich and then went south to enjoy his wealth, only to find himself yearning to return to the place where he made his fortune:
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.
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 kind 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.
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 fills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.
This is not sophisticated poetry but it is captivating, exciting stuff with a very strong sense of place. This collection deals with wanderlust in general but the bulk of the poems are based on Service’s time in the Yukon. He captures the excitement and energy of the place but also the dangers, both physical and spiritual, that await: “No spot on the map in so short a space/ has hustled more souls to hell.”