Sunday, February 1, 2009

Robert William Service Home & Tomb

Robert Service (January 16, 1874 to September 11, 1958) was arguably one of the greatest poets ever to ply the English language and plum the depths of human experience to produce pure gems of densely woven verse. And I consider it criminal that his work was not taught in any of the schools I ever attended, or at least in none of the classes I participated in. I had to wait until I was in my early 20's to discover him entirely by chance by hearing one of his poems set to music by Country Joe McDonald, who became famous, among other accomplishments, for his "Fish Cheer" at Woodstock which started with, "Gimmee an F !" His album "War, War, War" was composed of several Service poems set to music, among the most haunting of which were "The Man From Athabaska" and "The March of the Dead". I soon found a 1916 edition of a collection of Robert Service poems titled "Rhymes of a Red Cross Man", containing poems about his experiences in France in the First World War close to the front lines, working as an ambulance driver and war correspondant. I soon found other books by Service ; "Rhymes of a Rolling Stone", "The Spell of the Yukon", and "Ballads of a Cheechako", all full of the most marvelous poetry imaginable, rich in images of pure wonder.
He married a French woman and spent the last years of his life living in a house in Lancieux, Brittany, France, pictured here. I made the pilgrimage to his home, and his tomb, pictured below, in the late 1990's, taking these pictures, in case you may not be able to get to Lancieux anytime soon, and wanted to see where Service will spend eternity... and have included one of his poems below... in tribute and respectfully...

And under this marble tomb,
He has returned to Earth's sweet womb...

The Mourners by Robert William Service
I look into the aching womb of night;
I look across the mist that masks the dead;
The moon is tired and gives but little light,
The stars have gone to bed.
The earth is sick and seems to breathe with pain;
A lost wind whimpers in a mangled tree;
I do not see the foul, corpse-cluttered plain,
The dead I do not see.
The slain I would not see . . . and so I lift
My eyes from out the shambles where they lie;
When lo! a million woman-faces drift
Like pale leaves through the sky.
The cheeks of some are channelled deep with tears;
But some are tearless, with wild eyes that stare
Into the shadow of the coming years
Of fathomless despair.
And some are young, and some are very old;
And some are rich, some poor beyond belief;
Yet all are strangely like, set in the mould
Of everlasting grief.
They fill the vast of Heaven, face on face;
And then I see one weeping with the rest,
Whose eyes beseech me for a moment's space. . . .
Oh eyes I love the best!Nay, I but dream.
The sky is all forlorn,
And there's the plain of battle writhing red:
God pity them, the women-folk who mourn!
How happy are the dead!

1 comment:

Lydia said...

Beautiful, passionate post. I am touched beyond belief. Your collection of poetry by Service is wonderful and precious. Thanks for working hard to bring his work into the 21st Century (which it almost seems he glimpsed from where he lived).