Our Poets of Today by Howard Willard Cook
Chapter IX: Robert Service, John McCrae, Edgar Middleton

While the writer has never seen the royalty statements of Robert W. Service, it is probable that they would present a showing of figures that would be proof positive of just how financially successful poetry writing can be when the popular note is struck.

Service has been called “The American Kipling”–perhaps by the virtue that he is quoted almost as often as his older English contemporary across the sea.

While “The Songs of a Sourdough” and “The Ballads of a Cheechako” established his name and fame as a popular poet, he has done the best of his writings so far in “The Rhymes of a Red Cross Man.”

An adventurer in the far North, lured by the promises of a gold fortune in the Yukon, like Balboa of old, he found a greater thing than that for which he sought. For here came the inspiration which resulted in such famous lines as these first two stanzas from “The Spell of the Yukon”:

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 valley 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.

In his “Ballads of a Cheechako” he again is spokesman for the prosecutor and presents his song of the gold hunt in those vigorous lines of “The Trail of ’98,” which begin:

Gold! We leapt from our benches. Gold! We sprang from our stools.
Gold! We wheeled in the furrow, fired with the faith of fools.
Fearless, unfound, unfitted, far from the night and cold,
Heard we the clarion summons, followed the master-lure–Gold!

Men from the sands of the Sunland; men from the woods of the West;
Men from the farms and the cities, into the Northland we pressed.
Graybeards and striplings and women, good men and bad men and bold,
Leaving our homes and our loved ones, crying exultantly–“Gold!”

The story qualities of these poems is demonstrated by the fact that beginning with the well-known “Shooting of Dan McGrew” they have been adapted one by one into successful plays for the motion picture screen.

Within Service there was a desire that could not be quelled to express the various scenes and adventures through which he was living and so he gave us his poems of real men, “red blood men” they have been called, men who talk in a vigorous tongue, men whose primal instincts and passions spur them to labour, to dream, to achieve, to bow down before defeat in fact, human men. These are the men of “The Spell of the Yukon.”

Service, an ardent motor enthusiast, enlisted as an ambulance driver early in the war. Stories of the bravery of his exploits cannot be given here, but he has faced the shell-stormed road with his loads of wounded, he has lived the things he writes, and just as he has analyzed the Yukon man, so has he interpreted the struggles of the soldier of to-day.

The war stories that Robert Service tells in “Rhymes of a Red Cross Man” are among the most picturesque things that poetry has produced as a result of the World War. The same vivid stroke that splashed the pages of his Yukon poems with life and adventure is again evidenced with even a stronger amount of feeling than in his earlier work.

Among these poems is the dramatic tale of “Jean Desprez.” Here Mr. Service pictures a peasant boy of France, who gives a crucified Zouave a cup of cold water during a German invasion in his home village. The effect of this upon the Hun invaders produces

A roar of rage! They seize the boy; they tear him fast away.
The Prussian Major swings around ; no longer is he gay.
His teeth are wolfishly agleam; his face all dark with spite;
“Go, shoot the brat,” he snarls, “that dare defy our Prussian might.
Yet stay! I have another thought. I’ll kindly be, and spare;
Quick! give the lad a rifle charged, and set him squarely there,
And bid him shoot, and shoot to kill. Haste! Make him understand
The dying dog he fain would save shall perish by his hand.”

But the French peasant lad, in spite of the pleas of the Zouave to shoot him, turns the gun upon the Prussian Major instead, and shoots him dead.

And then there is that little story of “Cocotte,” the French girl, whose lover has been called in the war, and who has left her “the rose-wreathed villa at Viroflay,” where they lived together before the war. In Saint Lazare, Cocotte sees two wounded Poilus, one, “a bit of a boy, was blind,” and its effect upon her is told by Service as follows:

“How he stirred me, this blind boy, clinging
Just like a child to his crippled chum.
But I did not cry. Oh no; a singing
Came to my heart for a year so dumb,
Then I knew that at three-and-twenty,
There is wonderful work to be done,
Comfort and kindness and joy in plenty,
Peace and light and love to be won.

Oh, thought I, could mine eyes be given
To one who will live in the dark alway!
To love and to serve ’twould make life Heaven
Here in my villa at Viroflay.
So I left my Poilus: and now you wonder
Why today I am so elate….
Look! In the glory of sunshine yonder
They’re bringing my blind boy in at the gate.”

In the concluding stanza of “Young Fellow My Lad,” Service presents in his own best style the spiritual side of those words “carry on”–

“So you’ll live, you’ll live, Young Fellow My Lad,
In the gleam of the evening star,
In the wood-note wild and the laugh of the child,
In all sweet things that are.
And you’ll never die, my wonderful boy,
While life is noble and true;
For all our beauty and hope and joy
We will owe to our lads like you.”

Robert Service was born in Preston, England, on January 16, 1874, the son of Robert Service, manager of Preston Bank, and Emily Parker of Preston. He was educated at Hillhead Public School, Glasgow, and afterwards served an apprenticeship with the Commercial Bank of Scotland in the same city.

Service emigrated to Canada and settled on Vancouver Island where he engaged in farming but gave this up for his explorer’s life, traveling up and down the Pacific Coast, experiencing many hardships.

Tiring of this he finally joined the staff of the Canadian Bank of Commerce, in Victoria, B. C., in 1905 and was transferred to White House, Yukon Territory, and then to Dawson.

Eight years in the Yukon have resulted in his metamorphosis from a bank employee to one of our most important poets of to-day.

His books include “Songs of a Sourdough”; “Ballads of a Cheechako”; “Trail of ’98”; “Rhymes of a Rolling Stone”; “The Pretender”; and “Rhymes of a Red Cross Man.”

John McCraeEdit

If one should be asked, "What Canadian poets are contributing to contemporary American poetry?" the answer would be "Robert Service" and there the aver age reader in the United States would stop.

The Canadian regiments have played one of the most courageous, spectacular and effective parts in the World War and it is natural that from their ranks should come poets. And John McCrae is entitled to a place among our contemporary American poets although the man himself has paid "the last full measure of devotion."

Spontaneous and extensive recognition greeted the inspired lines, "In Flanders' Fields" for here was a depth of feeling and experience of tragedy that placed it in the fore of war poems.

While the following from "In Flanders' Fields" is perhaps the best example of this lieutenant-colonel's work, he has left behind a number of other poems equally as beautiful and which have just been published by Putnams. "In Flanders' Fields" is now known to half the English speaking world, and has been translated into a score of languages.


In Flanders' fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place ; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved ; and now we lie
In Flanders' fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you, from failing hands, we throw
The torch. Be yours to lift it high !
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies blow
In Flanders' fields.

John McCrae was born in Guelph, Ontario, the son of Colonel and Mrs. David McCrae. In civilian life he held the position of lecturer in pathology and medi cine at the Medical School, McGill University. Early in 1914, McCrae who had just arrived in London cabled to Canada, offering his services. He was ap pointed surgeon to the First Brigade of Canadian Ar tillery. He was with the guns along the Ypres sector for a continuous period of fourteen months and here found inspiration for his poems. His health was undermined by the strain of constant duty and he died in France from pneumonia, complicated by meningitis, on January 28, 1918.

Jesse Edgar MiddletonEdit

Jesse Edgar Middleton, with his "Sea Dogs and Men at Arms," properly designated a Canadian book of songs, has given us a breezy volume of the sea and sailor men in war times.

His poems fairly bristle with terms of the sea, when he describes a leviathan of the sea in "Missing at Lloyd's," as follows:

Arch and gusset and sturdy truss

Riveted strong and true. Plates as firm as the hoary rocks

Dipping beneath the blue. Spinning turbine and shining shaft,

Piston and dynamo! With a laugh at the snoring blast

Into the seas we go.

Phosphor's light on the raving sea

Giving us ghostly cheer! Reeling, staggering, nor'-nor'-west

Into the gale we steer. Arch and rivet and truss give way,

Turbine and piston cease. Slanting decks and a rocket light !

Death and the hills of peace.

Mr. Middleton can write as well in other forms, to witness, "The Finale," in a section in "Sea Dogs and Men at Arms," which he chooses to call "Moods."



Now with my comrades,

Rank on serried rank,

I march, with soldier laugh

And rough-hewn jest,

Past the fair daisy bank,

Then take my evening rest

In bosky shades,

While through the inky glades

The nightingale

Hymns his alluring note.

Above the bivouac

The moon sails high,

The cruel five-franc moon,

Glaring on such as I,

Doomed, doomed to die,

On the red sod to lie,

With fixed blue-purple stare

Away from love,

Away from care.

Mr. Middleton's contrasting study of peace and war is forcibly pictured in his poem of that name :


A pleasant river, clear and blue,

Went singing to the sea.
The sunbeam joined them hand in hand

To dance the melody.
The courtly rushes bowed their heads

As nobles to the Queen,
And saw, reflected in the wave,
Their coats of Lincoln green.

God made such horrors? Count that word a lie.
God made the pleasant river, clear and blue,
Peace is His handiwork, and love, and joy,
While man makes sewers and artillery,
Grim bayonets, and howitzers and shell,
The battle-squadron surging through the tides,
Ten thousand hecatombs of reeking red
And all the vile magnificence of War.

Jesse E. Middleton is the only son of the Rev. E, Middleton of the Canadian Methodist Church, and was born in Wellington County, Ontario, Canada, on November 3, 1872. His father is of English birth, but his mother, Margaret Agar, is a native Canadian. His home education, which was very thorough, was supplemented by High School training.

After four years as a school teacher, Mr. Middleton joined the publishing firm of Burrows Brothers of Cleveland, Ohio, and spent several years there working on the Jesuit Relations.

He entered journalism in 1899 as political reporter of The Montreal Herald in Quebec City, the provincial capital. Later he was associated with The Quebec Chronicle.

In 1903, Mr. Middleton came to Toronto as music-critic of The Mail and Empire and after a year of serv ice took up similar work on The Toronto Daily News. He retired from critical work to write a daily column of paragraphs and light verse under the heading "On the Side." This "feature" has awakened a good deal of favourable comment. Mr. Middleton is well-known and highly regarded in Canada. Some of his work is not unknown to the readers of the American magazines.

He was married in 1899 to Miss Bessie Alberta Jackson of London, Ontario.