Friday, January 9, 2009

Robert William Service

I first came across Robert William Service while still a student over 25 years ago when I found that several of his poems had been set to music on a solo album produced in 1971 by Country Joe McDonald (of Country Joe and the Fish who played at Woodstock) called "War, War, War". Finding that album inpired me to pick up a copy of the book by Service titled "Rhymes of a Red Cross Man" containing poems based on his experiences during World War One when he was an ambulance driver in France. The book is dedicated to his brother Albert Service who was killed in France in 1916. He is also famous for his poems about life during the gold rush years in western Canada, contained in "The Spell of the Yukon". His poems make for spellbinding reading, if you haven't discovered Robert Service yet... don't wait any longer. He is buried in the small village of Lancieux in Brittany, France, well worth the pilgrimage trip if you are out that way.
Years later in a stack of old vinyl record albums in a used music shop near Philadelphia I found what must be a relatively rare piece which is a record of Robert Service reading some of his later poems. This image is scanned from the cover of that album, I don't know who did the photo so I can't give credit where credit is due. Hearing Service reciting his poetry is exquisite, for me this disc is worth its weight in gold. My favorite piece on it is called "The Three Bares", and for your pleasure it is re-produced below... with all possible respect for Robert Service and his descendants, I honestly don't know if any copyrights are still in effect or whether his poems have entered the public domain...

The Three Bares Robert William Service
Ma tried to wash her garden slacks but couldn't get 'em clean
And so she thought she'd soak 'em in a bucket o' benzine.
It worked all right. She wrung 'em out then wondered what she'd do
With all that bucket load of high explosive residue.
She knew that it was dangerous to scatter it around,
For Grandpa liked to throw his lighted matches on the ground.
Somehow she didn't dare to pour it down the kitchen sink,
And what the heck to do with it, poor Ma jest couldn't think.
Then Nature seemed to give the clue, as down the garden lot
She spied the edifice that graced a solitary spot,
Their Palace of Necessity, the family joy and pride,
Enshrined in morning-glory vine, with graded seats inside;
Jest like that cabin Goldylocks found occupied by three,
But in this case B-E-A-R was spelt B-A-R-E----
A tiny seat for Baby Bare, a medium for Ma,
A full-sized section sacred to the Bare of Grandpapa.
Well, Ma was mighty glad to get that worry off her mind,
And hefting up the bucket so combustibly inclined,
She hurried down the garden to that refuge so discreet,
And dumped the liquid menace safely through the centre seat.
Next morning old Grandpa arose; he made a hearty meal,
And sniffed the air and said: 'By Gosh! how full of beans I feel.
Darned if I ain't as fresh as paint; my joy will be complete
With jest a quiet session on the usual morning seat;
To smoke me pipe an' meditate, an' maybe write a pome,
For that's the time when bits o' rhyme gits jiggin' in me dome.'
He sat down on that special seat slicked shiny by his age,
And looking like Walt Whitman, jest a silver-whiskered sage,
He filled his corn-cob to the brim and tapped it snugly down,
And chuckled: 'Of a perfect day I reckon this the crown.'
He lit the weed, it soothed his need, it was so soft and sweet:
And then he dropped the lighted match clean through the middle seat.
His little grand-child Rosyleen cried from the kichen door:
'Oh, Ma, come quick; there's sompin wrong; I heared a dreffel roar;
Oh, Ma, I see a sheet of flame; it's rising high and higher...
Oh, Mummy dear, I sadly fear our comfort-cot's caught fire.'
Poor Ma was thrilled with horror at them words o' Rosyleen.
She thought of Grandpa's matches and that bucket of benzine;
So down the garden geared on high, she ran with all her power,
For regular was Grandpa, and she knew it was his hour.
Then graspin' gaspin' Rosyleen she peered into the fire,
A roarin' soarin' furnace now, perchance old Grandpa's pyre....
But as them twain expressed their pain they heard a hearty cheer----
Behold the old rapscallion squattinn' in the duck pond near,
His silver whiskers singed away, a gosh-almighty wreck,
Wi' half a yard o' toilet seat entwined about his neck....
He cried: 'Say, folks, oh, did ye hear the big blow-out I made?
It scared me stiff - I hope you-uns was not too much afraid?
But now I best be crawlin' out o' this dog-gasted wet....
For what I aim to figger out is----WHAT THE HECK I ET?'


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the reminder of Service's whimsical humor.

Remember the evening in the hospital when we were reading Service aloud to cheer Mom up? There was a poem about a goat that ate a bright red petticoat that I remember with great fondness....

Lydia said...

You wrote this post on my birthday and I love it so much that I'm considering it a belated gift in May!

Lydia said...

I returned just to check back after having left comments at your posts about Robert Service (which I so enjoyed). There may be something wrong going on for me and this comment form. Under choose an identity the bubble with my name is filled in and next to that in hyperlink is "Sign Out." The words "Sign Out" don't appear at any other blogs where I leave comments, in text or as hyperlink...
Therefore, I am going to try to send this under the "Name/URL" category instead of "Name/Blogger"...

Shoot. My earlier comments were detailed and gushing with praise!