God bless the cakes and bless the jam
Bless the cheese and cold boiled ham
Bless the scones Aunt Jenny makes
And save us all from belly aches. Ahmen.
You'd hardly think that bit of doggerel would come from one of the world's greatest poets. But then, at five years of age, the youngster had no idea that poetry would earn him fame and fortune.
Robert Service was living with his maiden aunts in Glasgow when he wrote those lines. The five year old, who was born in Preston, England on January 16th, 1874, had been sent to Glasgow by his parents who were having trouble enough raising eight other kids.
As he grew up, Service wanted to be a bank clerk because, as he later said...the banks have lots of money. Service liked money but never had much, at least not until he arrived in the Yukon.
Young Robert Service emigrated to Canada in 1894, worked odd jobs throughout the Canadian and American west, and eventually ended up a hob...riding the rails. He didn't like this. Down and out in Victoria, he met an old friend who encouraged him to apply for a job in the Bank of Commerce. He got it.
This set the stage for his transfer to Whitehorse in 1904. Here his talents, as a spinner of tall tales and yarns, began to bloom. He was a loner, but he'd often seek out oldtimers to hear their tales of the far north.
On a cold winter evening in Whitehorse, though he wasn't a drinker, Service visited a local saloon. There he heard someone tell a tall tale with what he called a strange twist. He raced home and wrote through the night. By morning's light, the job was done. The legendary Sam McGee, his cremation on the marge of Lake Laberge, and his return to the land of the living inside the boiler of the steamer Alice May, set Robert Service on the road to riches.
Service went on to write his most important poems during that long cold winter in Whitehorse. Then in 1907, he was transferred by the Bank to Dawson City. There he sent his typed manuscripts to a publisher in New York. To his amazement, the publisher sent him a contract and his first royalty cheque.
As the cheques kept coming, he discovered he was making more money from his poetry that the bank was paying him. He quit and took up writing full time. In 1911, Robert Service left the Yukon, never to return, but he left behind a legacy of Yukon poetic drama, which to this day defines those rollicking days of the great Klondike gold rush.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
A Yukon video by Les McLaughlin