Saturday, January 27, 2018

Out in the Great Alone

Robert W. Service
16 January 1874 - 11 September 1958
Skip mentioned this chap in the comments t'other day. The name rang a bell, a distant, way back in the attic bell. So I looked him up. Yup, I had read some of his poetry a long, long time ago. The poem of  his that I liked best, and certainly one of his most popular, was this one -

The Shooting of Dan McGrew

Robert W. Service

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. 

When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and the glare, 
There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear. 
He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength of a louse, 
Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks for the house. 
There was none could place the stranger's face, though we searched ourselves for a clue; 
But we drank his health, and the last to drink was Dangerous Dan McGrew. 

There's men that somehow just grip your eyes, and hold them hard like a spell; 
And such was he, and he looked to me like a man who had lived in hell; 
With a face most hair, and the dreary stare of a dog whose day is done, 
As he watered the green stuff in his glass, and the drops fell one by one. 
Then I got to figgering who he was, and wondering what he'd do, 
And I turned my head — and there watching him was the lady that's known as Lou. 

His eyes went rubbering round the room, and he seemed in a kind of daze, 
Till at last that old piano fell in the way of his wandering gaze. 
The rag-time kid was having a drink; there was no one else on the stool, 
So the stranger stumbles across the room, and flops down there like a fool. 
In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway; 
Then he clutched the keys with his talon hands — my God! but that man could play. 

Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear, 
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear; 
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold, 
A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold; 
While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept in bars? — 
Then you've 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; 
For a fireside far from the cares that are, four walls and a roof above; 
But oh! so cramful of cosy joy, and crowned with a woman's love — 
A woman dearer than all the world, and true as Heaven is true — 
(God! how ghastly she looks through her rouge, — the lady that's known as Lou.) 

Then on a sudden the music changed, so soft that you scarce could hear; 
But you felt that your life had been looted clean of all that it once held dear; 
That someone had stolen the woman you loved; that her love was a devil's lie; 
That your guts were gone, and the best for you was to crawl away and die. 
'Twas the crowning cry of a heart's despair, and it thrilled you through and through — 
"I guess I'll make it a spread misere", said Dangerous Dan McGrew. 

The music almost died away ... then it burst like a pent-up flood; 
And it seemed to say, "Repay, repay," and my eyes were blind with blood. 
The thought came back of an ancient wrong, and it stung like a frozen lash, 
And the lust awoke to kill, to kill ... then the music stopped with a crash, 
And the stranger turned, and his eyes they burned in a most peculiar way; 
In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway; 
Then his lips went in in a kind of grin, and he spoke, and his voice was calm, 
And "Boys," says he, "you don't know me, and none of you care a damn; 
But I want to state, and my words are straight, and I'll bet my poke they're true, 
That one of you is a hound of hell. . .and that one is Dan McGrew." 

Then I ducked my head, and the lights went out, and two guns blazed in the dark, 
And a woman screamed, and the lights went up, and two men lay stiff and stark. 
Pitched on his head, and pumped full of lead, was Dangerous Dan McGrew, 
While the man from the creeks lay clutched to the breast of the lady that's known as Lou. 

These are the simple facts of the case, and I guess I ought to know. 
They say that the stranger was crazed with "hooch," and I'm not denying it's so. 
I'm not so wise as the lawyer guys, but strictly between us two — 
The woman that kissed him and — pinched his poke — was the lady that's known as Lou. 

The lines which always grabbed me were -

Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear, 
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear; 

Why yes, yes I was. While there were no timber wolves in the distance, there was a skein of geese which crossed the moon on a frozen night under a full moon. The creak of their wings was the only thing which broke that silence.

So yeah, those lines sang to me.

Mr. Service was quite a fellow. Novelist, poet, aspirations to being a cowboy, volunteered for service in the First World War only to be turned away. Later became an ambulance driver.
Service was 41 when World War I broke out; he attempted to enlist, but was turned down "due to varicose veins." He briefly covered the war for the Toronto Star (from December 11, 1915, through January 29, 1916), but "was arrested and nearly executed in an outbreak of spy hysteria in Dunkirk." He then "worked as a stretcher bearer and ambulance driver with the Ambulance Corps of the American Red Cross, until his health broke." Convalescing in Paris, he wrote a new book of mainly war poetry, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, in 1916. The book was dedicated to the memory of Service's "brother, Lieutenant Albert Service, Canadian Infantry, Killed in Action, France, August 1916." Robert Service received three medals for his war service: 1914–15 Star, British War Medal and the Victory Medal. (Source)
Though he was born in England, his father was from Scotland and he attended school in Glasgow. So yeah, another Scotsman.

No, I'm not trying to turn The Chant into a poetry corner or something, but a little culture has never harmed anyone has it? So I'm doing my bit for culture. Which is my story and I'm sticking to it.

Read more about Mr. Service here, quite a fellow.

Speaking of snow, we're supposed to get some next Tuesday.

I think when I hit 85 I might share his attitude towards the white stuff. Of course, compared to the Yukon, Little Rhody is damned near tropical!

Tip o' the hat to Skip for inspiring this post.


  1. Culture? CULTURE?! Harumph....harumpphh..... That's what I like about this blog, much ground gets covered. Oh FYI, got 12 inches of the white stuff dumped courtesy of Mother Nature this past Monday evening. My 20 year old Ariens did yeoman service that night. And on Thursday it hit 47 above and there's talk of below zero for the Superbowl.

    1. Weather has been on a roller coaster here as well. 50s this weekend, down into the 20s again next week.


  2. I finished up college in east Texas, LeTourneau College (University). They had the budget busting habit of selling old library books every few months. I got a little book of poetry called "Just Folks". Edgar Guest... I alternately laughed and cried through that book. He had his finger on my heart.

    I thought about this one when my son was in the sandbox.... a lot. I never wanted to live in a way that would shade the sacrifices of our men in uniform, more so since my son has served....

    1. I had not read him before, wow...

      We've raised a flagpole on the farm
      And flung Old Glory to the sky;
      We're far removed from war's alarm,
      But courage here is running high.
      We're doing things we never dreamed
      We'd ever find the time to do;
      Deeds that impossible once seemed
      Each morning now we hurry through.
      The flag now waves above our toil
      And sheds its glory on the soil,
      And boy and man looks up to it
      As if to say: 'I'll do my bit!'

  3. I LOVE Robert Service!! I have a bunch of his stuff read by Hank Snow in .mp3 format...anyone want copies?

  4. I'm a big fan of Robert Service as well. I just read "Barbwire Bill". His work was high art.

    1. I don't have Barbwire Bill, but here is a list of what I do have:

      Tales of the Yukon
      All read by Hank Snow

      Ballad of Blasphemous Bill
      Ballad of Hard Luck Henry
      Balad of One Eyed Mike
      Dangerous Dan McGrew
      Face on the Barroom Floor
      My Friends
      The Cremation of Sam McGee
      The Spell of the Yukon 1968

    2. LL - I just read that, wow.

      Thus was Love conqueror of death, and life for life was given;
      And though no saint on earth, d'ye think -- Bill's squared hisself with Heaven?

    3. BC - Some of those are also available on YouTube. Spell of the Yukon had some great photos from back in the day in the Great White Up.

    4. Okay, Now I can place the excellent Mr. Service once Barbar Cat tossed out "The Cremation of Sam McGee." One of the few poems from a particularly bad 'Engrish' class in Junior High.

      Loved reading that poem, along with all the Poe poems in that class. Everyone else seemed to like the jerk who couldn't use capitalization or punctuation.

      Great, now another poet I need to look up. OldAFSarge's Univerity of Osmosis at it again.

    5. Hahaha!

      I'm here for you Andrew! 😁

  5. A high school class requirement was memorizing a poem and delivering it in front of the class. My choice was, "The Cremation of Sam McGee". The teacher was not amused.

    1. Ah WSF, ever the rebel I see. I think you made an excellent choice. More men would enjoy poetry if we had more Kipling, Service, and Guest.

    2. Hey, WSF, maybe we had the same teacher. I got the similar reaction, actually I got a combination of 'Old Prune Face' and bad 'Queen E II' with a chunk of Boston Brahmin tossed in there to top off the disdain pool.

      But the other boys liked it.

  6. You can post all the Robert W. Service and all the Kipling you want. Just leave Elizabeth Barrett Browning out of it.

    1. Heh, not a fan of the lady I take it?

    2. KIPLING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      If you're taking votes, that is.

    3. Hhmm, don't think I've ever posted any Kipling here.

      I need to fix that.

    4. That class I referenced above, well, everyone loved reading from "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" but I, being ever different, recited "A Young British Soldier."

      I think the teacher almost fainted when I got to the last lines....

      Hah, serves her right for not being familiar with the works she 'allowed' in class.

  7. I had Alaskan Malamutes for nearly 20 years, got my first one in 1975. I love them all, but the Robert Service poem that never fails to bring a tear is "Big Wicked Bill".
    STxAR : I have the same little Edgar Guest book. I was my mom's. It has a signature (not the author's) and the date 1921. You said it right with "his finger on my heart"!

    1. It just got dusty in here, real dusty...

      If you've never owned a big malamute perhaps you can't understand
      That old longing I get especially at night just to feel his big head in my hands
      So at times in the hush of an evening when the winds have grown tired and are stilled
      I sit here just waiting for memory to call just hoping she'll bring Big Wicked Bill

  8. Everyone can use a bit of culture every now and again.

    Thanks for the post.
    Paul L. Quandt

  9. I would venture that Robert W. Service has had some influence on my lack of appreciation for snow.
    It was another Scot, my sixth grade teacher, who instilled my appreciation for Robert W. Service.

    1. And I thank you for pointing me in that direction!

  10. Chant du Depart, a poetry corner? Well that would surely rankle. But that reminds me, how the heck is, your formerly swollen ankle?

    1. I try to "do it all" here at The Chant, all things to all people and all that dontcha know. 😉

      The ankle still rankles but it's on the mend. Hardly swollen at all in the morning, kinda sore and swollen by the end of the day. Better'n it was, better it could be. But I'm getting there.

    2. Oh, come on, that was some excellent poetry I vomited above. It deserves at least a groan of acknowledgement! hahahah


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