The Age of Brass: Drummond, Service, and Canadian 'Local Colour'

by Jay Johnson


If the last three decades of the nineteenth century to some extent deserved the popular epithet of "the golden age" of Canadian literature, the first two decades of the twentieth were without doubt the age of brass.

Desmond Pacey, Creative Writing in Canada1

To Desmond Pacey, and perhaps to most students of Canadian literature, the first quarter of this century — from the death of Archibald Lampman in 1899 until the arrival on the scene of E.J. Pratt and the McGill group in the 1920s — seems a barren or fallow period, a trough between two literary peaks of vastly greater significance.  It is not that books were not written and read during this period — indeed, as Pacey says, "It was an era of best sellers"2 — but rather that little or nothing of lasting importance was produced.  But is the writing of this period, in fact, of so little value that such a sweeping dismissive gesture is justified?  This body of work certainly differs both from that which came before and from that which followed, but if it lacks the sophistication and subtlety of those other eras, it must be pointed out that the qualities for which these writers were striving were very different.  In contrast to the subjective, meditative, intellectually intense poetry on either side, this work was "oral, rhythmic, performance-oriented, and vivid."3

     The writing produced in Canada during the first years of this century was unabashedly regional and popular, and within the terms of its own conventions it was very effective.   The present study will not, however, attempt to prove that the brass is really gold (there is little gold to be found); its job is to dust off the conventions of the brazen world in order to understand them and to see how well or ill they are employed.  This is done in the belief that the writing of a period forms an important part of the fabric of its time which can reveal interesting facets of life not otherwise visible.   Though Pacey includes both the fiction and the poetry of this period in his bill of indictment, this paper will restrict itself to poetry, and, further, will focus on the work of the two writers of the era who were, in Pacey's view, the most brazen of all, William Henry Drummond and Robert Service, with the purpose of understanding how and of what their work was made, what its sources were, and why it was so popular.

     During the first decade of this century, a kind of poetry emerged in Canada which was "popular" in both senses of the term; it was constructed out of traditional, conventional, easily accessible materials, and it was bought, read, and recited by large numbers of people, many of whom had no other literary interest.  Both Drummond and Service found a large and enthusiastic audience waiting to be pleased by their highly selective and romanticized versions of Canada.  Both writers took specific geographic fragments of the young nation of Canada, still at that time largely unpossessed by hand or mind, and made them their special preserves; over time each became identified, in the popular mind, as the spokesman and ideal interpreter of his fragment.  The specific regions of the Canadian landscape that these writers claimed as their imaginative territories — the pastoral habitant world and the boisterous Klondike — were two of the most colourful fragments that the Canadian mosaic had to offer.  The popularity of these imaginative landscapes reflects, on the one hand, an urge towards the primitive, natural, peripheral world, and away from the complexities of life in a society undergoing extensive economic and social dislocation.  On the other hand, these locales with their unique inhabitants did exist in reality, and the strong desire of so many people to experience something of that uniqueness seems also to be a reflection of the general mood of national optimism that characterized the Laurier period.   However, if the new mass audience that made these poets popular wanted to learn about other regions of the new Dominion, it is evident that they did not want the truth unvarnished.  What the public seemingly wanted, and got, were poems with images exotic enough to be romantic and exciting, but familiar enough to be unthreatening.

     One of the most interesting aspects of this body of popular poetry is its attempt to mythologize, to imaginatively recreate, specific regions of the country, thus making them, for the first time, accessible to all Canadians.  This regional tendency in Canadian poetry was part of a literary movement that, several decades earlier, changed the course of American literature, the "local colour" movement.  Local colour, one of the most significant developments in American literature between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century, reflected the rapid settlement of the western territories and the general unfolding of national energy in the post-war period.  As the Republic began to assume its final continental shape, the American reading public was found to have an insatiable curiosity concerning the land and people of different sections of the United States.  Although local colour is often considered to have had its start in Bret Harte's stories of the California gold-fields, and though many of its prominent proponents concentrated on the middle or far west, this literary movement was not strictly a western phenomenon:

Within ten years after Bret Harte's original success in 1869 the reading public was familiar with a long list of specialists, each of whom had identified himself with a given locality, from New Orleans to the Maine coast.  By the end of the eighties no literate American can have failed to become acquainted with a score of formerly isolated and self-contained regions.4

The work of Drummond and Service is most accurately viewed in relation to the local colour movement, but there are important differences between these writers.  They represent, in fact, contrasting phases of local colour, and they derive from very different models and influences.  Drummond reflects a conservative and centripetal phase of local colour which emphasizes sentimentality and nostalgia for the past, and the writer whom he most resembles is the Hoosier poet, James Whitcomb Riley.  Service, in contrast, reflects an outward bound, centrifugal phase which points toward the frontier and celebrates the tribe of misfits who inhabit the far outposts.  His main influences were Rudyard Kipling and Bret Harte.


The central feature of Drummond's poetic programme was the recreation of the half-French, half-English patois used by the habitant when communicating with a unilingual English-speaker.  The use of dialect in poetry is a more complex matter than might first appear.  When a poet attempts to dramatize the speaking voice of his poem, he moves towards dialect which is, as Margaret Atwood points out, "surely only the vernacular taken to extremes."5   Where, though, is the difference between Drummond's dialect and that found in some of the poems of Al Purdy or Andrew Suknaski?  When Purdy or Suknaski write a poem in non-standard English, their aim is to reflect the uniqueness of a character, and the idiom is just one facet of the process of individuation and particularization.  The effect of Drummond's dialect is the opposite: it works to subsume the character within the group, to remove his individuality, and to make him a representative of the community.  Over the decade of his poetic life, Drummond developed the habitant dialect into a conventional, highly formalized poetic medium which he could manipulate with great skill, a ready form waiting to be filled with content.  This is not to suggest that Drummond's verse became abstract or literary; dialect verse always maintains a peculiar reference to reality, and Drummond's supporters contended that he consistently "reproduced the language to the very life."6

     The term 'dialect,' when used with regard to poetry, refers to several distinct though related phenomena.  There is, for example, the kind of dialect found in the poetry of Robert Burns, the Ayrshire Scots dialect which is not a corrupt form of English but rather represents, like the Middle English of Chaucer, a distinct phase of the language.  A more common understanding of dialect refers to a form of the language which departs from the standard according to certain identifiable regional characteristics of pronunciation and diction.  Examples of the literary use of this type of dialect are common and include the Yankee dialect of Thomas Chandler Haliburton's Sam Slick, the seven kinds of southern dialect used by Mark Twain in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the Cockney dialect of Kipling's "Fuzzy Wuzzy."  A third type of dialect occurs at the interface between two languages.  When people speaking different languages must communicate, those in the subordinate group will speak the other language haltingly, carrying over many of the patterns of their native language.  The broken, halting attempts of certain language groups to speak English have long been part of popular humour; the stage Dutchman, Italian, and Frenchman, speaking a conventionalized broken-English, have been traditional comic staples since the Elizabethan period.

     It is within this third category of dialect that the work of Drummond falls, though the tone of his verse does not resemble the vulgar, slapstick approach that characterizes most, if not all, of what may be called "immigrant dialect."7  Drummond, in fact, appears to be unique in his attempt to recreate with gentle sympathy the deformities and irregularities of the version of English spoken by a non-native group.  Notwithstanding Drummond's obvious affection for his poetic subjects, his rejection of anything that could be considered disrespectful, and the support he received from French intellectuals such as Louis Frechette, it is not surprising that his verse, so similar in form to the vulgar racism of burlesque immigrant dialect, should have been rejected by the great majority of French-speaking Canadians, and should now have lost all of the great popularity it once enjoyed among English-speaking Canadians.

     Many of the dialect poets of this period sought to give their work an aura of seriousness by attempting to present it within a context of scientific linguistics.  Arthur Stringer provides a good example of this tendency in the "Foreword" to Irish Poems (1911):

Still another practice is the lowering, the "de-dentalizing," of the sibillant, readily recognized in the "smile" which becomes "shmile" and the "street" which must be recorded as "shtreet," though here again the inserted "h" is a somewhat awkward instrument to denote that tenuous rustle of breath with which Erin wafts out its hissing consonant.8

Drummond, in contrast to this, was never moved to theorize about his dialect.  It is possible, however, to analyse the components of his poetic language.  The features which make the speech of Drummond's characters distinct and recognizable can be summarized in three categories: words that are mispronounced because of changes in sounds; syntactic structures that are fractured, often in ways that echo French syntax; and French words and phrases that are used in place of English ones.  All three aspects of Drummond's dialect can be seen in the opening stanzas of "De Notaire Publique":

M'sieu Paul Joulin, de Notaire Publique
       Is come I s'pose seexty year hees life
An' de mos' riche man on Sainte Angelique
W'en he feel very sorry he got no wife
So he's paint heem hees buggy, lak new, by Gor!
       Put flower on hees coat, mak' hese'f more gay
Arrange on hees head fine chapeau castor
       An' drive on de house of de Boulanger.

For de Boulanger's got heem une jolie fille
       Mos' bes' lookin' girl on paroisse dey say
An' all de young feller is lak Julie
       An' plaintee is ax her for mak' mariée,
But Julie she's love only jus' wan man,
       Hees nam' it is Jérémie Dandurand
An' he's work for her sak' all de hard he can'
       'Way off on de wood, up de Mattawa.

Some of the sound changes causing regular mispronunciation include: 'th' becoming 'd' as in "de" and "dey," 'i' becoming 'e' as in "seexty" and "heem," and 'i' becoming 'a' as in "lak."  As well, sounds are often dropped, usually in the final position, as in "mos' bes' lookin'," but also in the middle position as in "s'pose" and "w'en."  Both the use of French words and of French syntactic structures are represented in the phrase, "ax her for mak' mariée."  Although Drummond regularized this dialect and developed its potential most fully, he did not originate it; similar language, though in prose, can be found in E.W. Thompson's Old Man Savarin Stories, and as far back as John Richardson's Wacousta.

     The human and poetic challenge that confronted Drummond was described very clearly by Louis Frechette in the "Introduction" to the first volume of dialect poems, written at Drummond's request:

     N'est-elle pas, en effet, d'une originalité peu commune, l'idée de prendre un pauvre illettré, de le présenter comme un type national à part, de lui mettre aux lèvres une langue qui n'est pas la sienne et qu'il ne connaît qu'à demi . . . .  Comment, sans tomber dans la charge ou la bouffonnerie, faire parler systématiquement à ses personnages une langue étrangère, forcément incorrecte dans la bouche de quelqu'un qui l'a apprise par oreille, sans savoir lire même dans sa propre langue?10

In Frechette's opinion this challenge had been met with dignity and honour for all concerned: "C'est là un tour de force comme il ne s'en fait pas souvent, et c'est avec enthousiasme que je tends la main à M. Drummond pour le féliciter de l'avoir accompli,"11 and he passed on to Drummond the title given him by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: "The pathfinder of a new land of song."

     Drummond's first book, The Habitant; and other French-Canadian Poems, was published in 1897, and before his death in 1907 three further volumes appeared.  A fifth volume was released the year after his death, and in 1912 the Poetical Works was issued.  All of these books were very popular both in Canada and America; the first book, for example, was reprinted more than twenty times during the poet's lifetime.  All of Drummond's work was published first in New York by G.P. Putnam's Sons where, obviously, little expense or effort was spared.  Besides the quality printing and the embossed leather bindings, there are the copious illustrations by F.S. Coburn that capture so well the sense of dignified yet spirited innocence aimed at in the verse.

     Why would a large New York publishing house be ready and eager, not only to publish the verse of an unknown Canadian doctor dealing with a small and distinctly non-mainstream group of people, but to do it in such a loving and lavish way?  The answer has to do with contemporary popular taste.  During the final decade of the nineteenth century, the most popular poet in America after Longfellow, calculated on royalties from book sales, was James Whitcomb Riley.12  Riley, the Hoosier poet, was a central figure in the local colour movement and provides a useful point of reference for a discussion of Drummond.  Born in 1849, Riley grew up in small-town Indiana during the period of post-war settlement in the mid-west, and over his long writing career, he attempted to give imaginative form to the unique aspects of life and speech of the Hoosiers, the early Indiana settlers.  His great popularity was a result of the sentimental but powerful vision of a pastoral childhood that he gave America.  With no little skill Riley, "the supremely unalienated poet," was able to provide "the repetition of given facts and the reaffirmation of traditional values"13 that were needed during a period of rapid change, and in so doing he became the friend of Presidents and a national personality.14

     The main difference between the Hoosier dialect of Riley and Drummond's habitant dialect lies in the fact that Riley's speech is a regional idiom rather than an "immigrant dialect," and thus it has none of the embarrassing, semi-racist connotations that have become associated with the habitant verse.  If the surface particularities of the two dialects are disregarded, however, it is apparent that Drummond and Riley resemble each other closely on the technical level.  Both writers work consciously within the tradition of popular poetry using simple, conventional structures with regular, emphatic rhythms and rhymes; and because both wish to create the impression that they are imitating real speech patterns, they abjure completely the use of stylistic flourishes such as poetic diction and syntactic inversion.  These features, together with sentimental and humourous subject matter emphasizing action and character, made the work of both poets very popular for stage recitation.

     A number of thematic patterns are common to both writers.  One common theme is the sentimental, nostalgic look back across time to a period of pastoral simplicity and harmony from the point of view of an old man.  Riley's "Up and Down Old Brandywine" and "The Old Swimmin' Hole" are archetypal examples of this mode, and they are matched by poems such as "Le Vieux Temps" and "Ole Tam on Bord-a Plouffe."  In the work of both writers can also be found a number of idealized portraits of individuals in the isolated community whose self-sacrifice and dedication have made them heroes to their neighbours though unknown to the world.  A third common pattern is the comic narrative in which a complicated social situation is resolved in an unexpected manner, often facilitating the marriage of the hero and heroine.   Some of the liveliest and most interesting pieces by both poets are found in this group including, by Riley, "What Chris'mus Fetched the Wigginses" and, by Drummond, "The Corduroy Road," "Pride," and "De Stove-Pipe Hole."  In these poems the emphasis is on the rapidly developing comic action rather than on character.

     Although the relationship between French and English speakers is an unstated theme of all of Drummond's dialect verse, its treatment, when put in the foreground, is the least satisfactory of all Drummond's themes.  In all of these poems, the implied dramatic context is always that of the habitants telling "their own stories in their own way, as they would relate them to English-speaking auditors not conversant with the French tongue."15  This fictional context always provides a speaker genuinely eager to relate his story in a forthright, sympathetic manner, with never a sense of irony rising out of the narrative ambiguity.  One of the few poems that focus on the relationship between French and English is "The Habitant's Jubilee Ode" which gives a highly softened and sentimentalized version of Canadian history to account for the loyalty felt by the habitant for Queen Victoria:

If de moder come dead w'en you're small garçon
               leavin' you dere alone,
Wit' nobody watchin' for fear you fall, an hurt
              youse'f on de stone,
An' 'noder good woman she tak' your han' de
              sam' your own moder do,
Is it right you don't call her moder, is it right
you don't love her too?

Bâ non, an' dat was de way we feel, w'en de
               ole Regime's no more,
An' de new wan come, but don't change
              moche, w'y it's jus' lak' it be before.
Spikin' Français lak' we always do, an' de Eng-

               lish dey mak no fuss,
An' our law de sam', wall, I don't know me,
              t' was better mebbe for us. 

Drummond is least successful when, as here, he makes his narrator the porte-parole for a particular point of view.  His more common practice is to embed the poem in the experience of the habitant.  This can be seen in a final group of poems that embodies a tendency not found in Riley, the use of material from traditional and folkloric sources.  In a number of poems, Drummond shows a keen awareness of the rich legend and folk-tale tradition of Quebec and an ability to use this material effectively.  "Bruno the Hunter," for example, creates a gothic effect with its evocation of a spirit of the wilderness that, in a demonic form, avenges itself annually.  "The Windigo" also centres on the image of an avenging spirit of nature; here it lures a tyrannous shanty-boss out into the blizzard as payment for his inhuman treatment of a young Indian boy.  The tone of this poem is serious and unironic; the undramatized narrator recounts the experience and cautions his listeners to have respect for what they do not understand:

Go easy wit' de paddle, an' steady wit' de oar
Geev rudder to de bes' man you got among de crew,
Let ev'ry wan be quiet, don't let dem sing no more
W'en you see de islan' risin' out of Grande Lac Manitou

In contrast to the tone of awe in "TheWindigo" is the lighter, more playful atmosphere of "Phil-o-rum Juneau: The Story of the Chasse Gallerie." This story of the demonic flying canoe that brings back for a night the souls of voyageurs and coureurs de bois who have lost their lives in the wilderness, told by old Phil-o-rum, one of Drummond's most fully developed characters, takes the form of the comic tall-tale.

     The most widely known of Drummond's poems, "The Wreck of the 'Julie Plante' — a Legend of Lac St. Pierre," also has a connection with folk tradition, but it is the reverse of that of the preceding narratives.  This ballad was not constructed from traditional materials, but over the years since its composition it has been "taken over by the folk."16 Edith Fowke suggests that this is one of the few literary ballads that has made the transition to become a true folk-piece and part of the folk tradition.  The simplicity and ease with which this poem achieves its effect are deceptive; it is, in fact, very similar to the technique of the traditional, anonymous ballad.  The simple, straightforward narrative, uncoloured by supernatural forces, is told in a terse and somewhat ironic manner by an undramatized narrator.  The story describes the floundering of a boat during a storm when "de win' she blow lak' hurricane" (8), and although it is St. Peter's Lake, no one is able to walk on water or calm the waves.  There are echoes in the poem of heroic sea tragedies, but these are undercut by the fact that the boat is a "scow" as well as by the unheroic behaviour of the crew who "Got scar't an' run below."  The main characters are the Captain and Rosie, the cook from Montreal, and their experience shows the futility of heroic action in the face of the inexorable power of nature.  They achieve a kind of tragic pathos which, because of the brisk pace and economical development of the piece, does not devolve into the sentimentality which undermines much of Drummond's work.  The results of the storm are reported with no extraneous detail or sentiment:

Nex' morning very early
       'Bout ha'f-pas' two — t'ree four
De captinne
— scow — an'de poor Rosie
  Was corpses on de shore. (8)

The "Moral" of the poem, a device used only this once by Drummond, advises all sailors to become farmers in order to avoid similar deaths; it lightens the tone of the poem by refocusing our attention on the world of the living and restating the traditional habitant agrarian vision.


Like Drummond, Service was an immigrant to Canada who found a particular geographical region and a sociological phenomenon which were congenial to his temperament and allowed him to release his substantial imaginative energy.  Although Service became aware very early of his facility for versifying and entertained literary fantasies from his youth, he was, like Drummond, taken by surprise by a huge audience hungry for tales of strange people and places.  A portion of Service's success, as with Drummond, derived from his ability to create a vigorous and unique poetic language which gave a semblance of real speech and which lent itself well to oral recitation.  There is a degree of dialect in Service's work, but it is neither as pervasive nor as programmatic as in Drummond.  The traces of dialect, along with the use of slang and colloquialism, all help to create a romantic, anti-elitist perspective.  In contrast to Drummond's relatively short career, Service lived a long life and produced a very large body of work; during the half-century between 1907 and 1956, Service published over twenty volumes, a number of which remain in print today, but we will focus on his first three books, written while he was resident in the Yukon and containing almost all of his work on the North: Songs of a Sourdough (1907), Ballads of a Cheechako (1909), and Rhymes of a Rolling Stone (1912).

     The unique appeal of Service's Klondike verse was a result, in large part, of the effective assimilation of two nearly contemporary, popular literary modes in zenith at the turn of the century, the English popular balladic tradition, as it had been reinvigorated by Kipling, and the American tall-tale tradition of Mark Twain and Bret Harte.  These were not contradictory influences but, indeed, very complementary ones; both the English ballad and the American tall-tale were popular literary forms which linked together elements of romance and realism.  The resulting amalgam of these two models in the work of Service differs from the constituent elements, but both are present in the final product, in a few direct echoes but most clearly in Service's outward bound, anti-aristocratic spirit.

     The influence of Kipling on Service came early and penetrated deep. Introduced to Kipling's work during his teens, in the last decade of the century, Service's immediate reaction, as with every new poet that he met, was to try to imitate and parody it.17  All of Kipling's work, both verse and prose, had great appeal for Service, but one part in particular had a profound effect on his literary style.  The Barrack-Room Ballads, first published in 1892 and expanded throughout the decade, introduced into English poetry, it has been suggested, a new genre,18 one containing a number of formal and thematic features that Service must have found compelling.

     There is, first of all, the external form of the work.  The central feature of Kipling's form was his authentic recreation and effective modulation of popular rhythmic patterns — what T.S. Eliot has called "the ballad motive"19 — which manifested itself in two main directions.  When Kipling's theme was sonorous and didactic, the popular rhythmic pattern in which it was embodied was derived from the tradition of popular hymnology as represented in Hymns Ancient and Modern, one of the most widely read books of verse in nineteenth-century England.  Less dignified themes found their rhythmical inspiration in the vulgar music-hall songs and ditties, forms as strongly traditional as the hymns.20  The Barrack-Room Ballads have their source in this second stream, and, in fact, they can be seen as ''essentially songs for the 'Halls' in which 'patter' dominates the musical settings."21  The inspiration of the music-halls is shown in these poems by the regular, emphatic, martial beat, the expressively colloquial language, the decorative biblical phraseology, and the "implied singability and chantability . . . especially in the lengthy choruses or burdens."22

     Many of these elements of popular verse are as pronounced in the work of Service as they are in Kipling, but if they were focused and reinforced by Kipling's example they also came, to a large extent, from the same place that Kipling found them.  During his adolescence, Service, like Kipling, was attracted to the music-halls, and in that milieu he must have heard and internalized the same rhythms that Kipling had found:

I fancy I owe something to my early education in vaudeville.  Its rum-tum, tumtittytum inspired some of my verses, and when I played at song-composing, it was in the tempo of the old-fashioned music-hall.23

In general, the range of Service's exploration of popular forms is narrower than Kipling's; the Klondike poems do not show the variety and modulation of form that one finds in the Barrack-Room Ballads.  Virtually all of the stanzaic patterns used in Service's northern volumes can be found in the Barrack-Room Ballads, but there are many more used by Kipling that Service never attempts.

     The most obvious formal difference between these two poets lies in Service's complete avoidance of the use of the refrain.  Not once in the Klondike poems does Service employ the chorus or refrain which is such a fundamental part of popular, oral verse forms, and which is used so effectively by Kipling.  The basic reason for this difference rests in the fact that Service is primarily concerned with action, while Kipling gives us, not "a narrative of events," but "a mental reaction to a situation."24  Poems like "Danny Deever" and "Ford o' Kabul River" show very clearly how the refrain can be used to create a reflexive, almost ritualistic, intensity.  Service, on the other hand, shows the influence of the American tall-tale tradition when he puts his emphasis on an action-filled story with a sharp turn at the end.  In work of this kind, a refrain, or anything else that might encourage the reader to slow down and reflect, is to be avoided.

     Service's debt to Kipling on the level of theme was also substantial.  One of Kipling's favourite themes throughout his career, both in verse and in prose, was the story of manly adventure on the frontiers of the world.  During the Barrack-Room Ballads period, the task he set for himself was the depiction of the British Army from the inside, from the point of view of the individual soldier, "Private Tommy Atkins," who had to face the test and do his duty on the edges of the Empire.  Without sentimentalizing or idealizing them, Kipling allowed these men to tell their own stories in their own characters and with their own words.  The "voice of the Hooligan" is even allowed its say in brutish pieces such as "Loot," but if every one of these individuals is not heroic, the whole, which is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts, certainly is.

     There was much in this theme to attract Service who, in his own travels through the west and north of North America, embodied one aspect of the Kipling myth.  In the Klondike verse, Service, like Kipling, celebrated an army, but his army was a romantic brotherhood of misfits and exiles who had abandoned civilization to confront the primal facts of Nature and to satisfy their lust for gold:

Never was seen such an army, pitiful, futile, unfit;
Never was seen such a spirit, manifold courage and grit
Never has been such a cohort under one banner unrolled
As surged to the ragged-edge Arctic, urged by the arch-

The essential difference between these two armies is not difficult to discern.  Kipling's purpose in the Barrack-Room Ballads, even when the voice of the riff-raff is heard, was the very serious one of waking the British people to their Imperial responsibilities and making them aware of the reality of the "thin red line" that stood guard while they slept.  In Service's version of the theme, there is similar imagery and rhetoric; Kipling's serious intent, however, is undercut and even trivialized by Service's glib, sensationalistic tone.

     Just as Kipling took the military camps and border areas of India as setting for the Barrack-Room Ballads, so Service in his first three volumes claimed the Northland as his particular poetic preserve.  Service's North is a place where Nature manifests its full power, where men are offered easy wealth and easy death at the same time; it is, however, only one of a number of places beyond the pale of civilization that have the collective name of "the wild" and can be located by following "The Lone Trail":

And sometimes it leads to the mountains, to the light
       of the lone camp fire,
And you gnaw your belt in the anguish of hunger-goaded
And sometimes it leads to the Southland, to the swamp
       where the orchid glows,
And you rave to the grave with the fever, and they rob
       the corpse for its clothes.
And sometimes it leads to the Northland and scurvy
       softens your bones. 

Service's imagery in this poem is much more sensational and grotesque than Kipling's, but the debt to Kipling's outward-bound vision in The Long Trail" is still quite apparent:

It's North you may run to the rime-ringed sun
       Or South to the blind Horn's hate;
Or East all the way into Mississippi Bay,
Or West to the Golden Gate
Where the blindest bluffs hold good, dear lass,
And the wildest tales are true,
And the men bulk big on the old trail, our own trail, the
       out trail,
And life runs large on the Long Trail
— the trail that is
       always new.26

     In his first volume, Service included a number of pieces closely modeled on Kipling that are set in frontier areas of the British Empire other than the Yukon.  These include "The Younger Son," set in Australia, as well as "The March of the Dead" and "Fighting Mac," which have to do with British military exploits in India and South Africa.  These poems manifest the same general commitment to the Imperial ideal that suffuses Kipling, and the same ponderous underscoring of the price in blood demanded by that ideal, but an examination of a piece like "March of the Dead" reveals once again that Service is at least as interested in the possibility of grotesque imagery as he is in the spiritual and political message:

The folks were white and stricken, and each tongue
   seemed weighed with lead;
      Each heart was clutched in the hollow hand of ice;
And every eye was staring at the horror of the dead,
      The pity of the men who paid the price.
They were come, were come to mock us, in the first flush
  of our peace;
      Through writhing lips their teeth were all agleam;
They were coming in their thousands —
oh, would they never cease! (55)

Poems of this type are not among Service's most successful because the melodramatic and celebratory aspects work at cross-purposes to create a jarring effect.  These poems, the part of Service's work that most closely resembles Kipling, are marked by a superficial quality not apparent in other poems that move toward the tall-tale mode where the emotional and intellectual demands are much different.  The fact that Service's next two books are less concerned with this generalized expression of Imperialism suggests that he became quickly aware that his particular strength and unique appeal lay in the "local colour" pictures of the Yukon.

     Over the course of Service's three books set in the North, we can see the continuing influence of Kipling on the form of the work but a shift from Kipling to Bret Harte as the dominant influence on the themes and imagery.  Harte, who is usually considered to be the originator of "local colour," began his career in the 1860s and enjoyed wide-spread popularity in America and England for several decades.  In both verse and prose, but especially in the short story, Harte told the tales of the "modern Argonauts" who surged to the California goldfields after the discoveries of 1849.  The innovative aspect of Harte's mining-camp tales was his treatment of character.  These are stories of the "low life" of the camps, set in the world of prostitutes, gamblers, and crooked speculators.  Harte's tales were seen in their own time as examples of a raw and meaty realism, but only a few are now able to overcome their sentimentality and formulaic structure.

     Although Harte's stories focus on character, his interest was not in psychological interplay but in vigorous external action, often with an ironic twist at the end.  Harte's achievement can be seen as the formalization of a contemporary version of the tall-tale, a popular mode whose roots go far back in the American native tradition.   Harte's version of the tall-tale, as a concession to realism, abjured the use of motifs of superhuman powers and giantism which had previously been staples of the tall-tale, but it retained a large amount of coincidence and exaggeration.  With few exceptions these stories have either a melodramatic point, as in Harte's best-known story "The Luck of Roaring Camp," or a comic point, as in Harte's "The Iliad of Sandy Bar" or Twain's justly famous "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." The most effective of the comic tall-tales are those in which, as Mark Twain himself advised, improbable matter is spun out at great length with an utterly straight face.27

     Service discovered the work of Harte at about the same time he was introduced to Kipling, and in both, but more strongly perhaps in the American, he found confirmation for his own non-aristocratic, non-idealistic, primitivist views of art:

Why should poetry concern itself with beauty and not with ugliness, which is just as fascinating?  Why should it deal with virtue when vice is more interesting?  Why did poets write about flowers and love and the stars? Why not about eating and drinking, and lusts and common people?28

During his vagabond travels through California and other parts of North America, Service was very conscious of the example of Harte as a writer in the right place at the right time, able to take advantage of the material that Fate put at his disposalWhen a confluence of circumstances led Service to the Yukon in 1904, the similarity of his situation with Harte's forty years earlier was obvious to him:

I wanted to write the story of the Yukon from the inside, and the essential story of the Yukon was that of the Klondike.  In prose or in verse no one had done it.  Perhaps I would be the one to work out that vein of rich ore.  Maybe I would be the Bret Harte of the Northland.29

The inside story of the Yukon that Service wanted to write was in no sense an objective, documentary account of life in the North; it involved, in fact, nothing but a fresh set of local colour images and details that could be exploited on the model of Harte.

     Service's first volume, Songs of a Sourdough, contains two poems that stand out from the rest of the book, "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee."  These poems, which represent the first fruits of his mature poetic efforts, show us Service at his instinctive and unselfconscious best.  Both are classic tall-tales that use the resources of the form fully and generate a special degree of imaginative extravagance.  Though they develop in ways that resemble Harte's work, they are not essentially derivative.  Their rapid pace, naive luridness, and sharpness of outline make them, in fact, more successful examples of the genre than anything by Harte.

     "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee" are the two poems that, as Service himself recognized, formed the "key stone" of his success.30  They can be seen as paradigms of the two main thematic patterns of the tall-tale, the melodramatic and the comic.  The saloon setting of the first poem, dimly lit, filthy, boisterous, and the characters of Dangerous Dan and "the lady that's known as Lou" are immediately reminiscent of many saloons and low-life characters in Harte's work, but here they take on an ominous quality that is not found in the other.  The basic love triangle plot and its resolution are as melodramatic as anything in Harte, but Service gives the convention an effective twist by means of the music metaphor.  Instead of presenting us with all of the details of the romantic conflict between the principals, Service has "the stranger" convey the archetypal pattern of his passion through his wild, possessed piano playing:

The music almost died away — then it burst like a pent-up
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.  (31)

The conclusion, in which McGrew and the stranger shoot each other while Lou escapes with the "poke," maintains the lurid and relatively unsentimental atmosphere of the piece.

     The second of these two pieces also shows Service's control over pace and tone, the most important elements of the tall-tale.  The macabre story unfolds rapidly as the narrator describes his frantic search across the Barrens for a place to fulfill his promise to cremate the body of his partner.  The search ends "on the marge of Lake Labarge," on board the derelict "Alice May"; the body is placed in the furnace, and eventually it appears that the promise has been successfully carried out: "It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why; / And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky" (36).  In classic tall-tale fashion, the extravagantly macabre atmosphere of bodies burning with "greasy smoke," which has been built up over the poem, is undercut at a stroke by the sudden comic turn of the resolution; when the narrator finally checks on the progress of the cremation he, of course, finds Sam alive sitting in the furnace comfortable and warm for the first time since leaving Tennessee.  Though this casual disregard for the laws of Nature, in that Sam is brought back from the dead to bask in the warmth of the furnace, is completely within the tall-tale tradition, Service, like Harte, usually avoids imagery of this kind.  There is a great deal of exaggeration in Service's work, but it is generally kept within the bounds of nature.  Strange events and weird phenomena are ascribed, in the interests of a primitive kind of realism, to dreams, intoxication, or isolation-induced hallucinations.

     "McGrew" and "McGee" are the only poems in Service's first book that show the influence of Harte.  The richness of the tall-tale vein, however, must have been obvious to the author because his next two volumes contained a much higher percentage of poems cast in this mold.  The second book, Ballads of a Cheechako, is a kind of "rogues gallery" based loosely, Service tells us, on some of the old-timers he met in Dawson.  More than half of the pieces in this volume can be considered tall-tales, and in this group of approximately a dozen poems, the melodramatic outnumber the comic by two to one.  The melodramatic pieces are uneven, but the four comic tall-tales are consistently effective in maintaining the balance between morbidity and humour that he discovered in "Sam McGee."  Traces of Kipling's influence on the thematic level can be found in this volume only in two or three pieces, and these are not among the best; one of this group, "The Song of the Mouth-Organ," is a direct, and acknowledged, take-off of Kipling's "The Song of the Banjo."  Service's third volume, Rhymes of a Rolling Stone, also contains about a dozen pieces that can be classified as tall-tales; all show a noticeable decrease in the extravagantly morbid imagery that characterized the earlier work, and this movement brings him more into line with the typical practice of Harte.

     Over the course of Service's Klondike period, a decrease in the influ ence of Kipling is apparent, together with a corresponding increase in the influence of Harte.  The common area between these two influences lies in a similar anti-idealistic emphasis on realism; the difference between them, for Service, has to do with concreteness and abstraction.  Despite the blood stained concreteness of Kipling's army ballads, it was an abstract quality that Service took from him, a tendency to generalize about groups of people in a heightened, celebratory tone, as in "The Trail of Ninety-Eight," or to see individuals as representatives or types, as in "The Low-down White" and "The Younger Son."  There are some relatively successful examples of this abstract mode, such as "The Trail of Ninety-Eight" and "The Song of the Camp-Fire," but more often these poems remain flat and overly rhetori cal.  Service could imitate Kipling's form with ease, but he lacked the deeply felt social imperative that brought the Barrack-Room Ballads to life.  When Service focused on individuals, he was not able, like Kipling, to give us a rather common mind that unfolded itself and in the process revealed some complex truths about the world; rather, like Harte, he was adept at creating bizarre characters who could serve as effective vehicles for improbable and highly coloured stories.  This aspect of Service's writing became dominant in the second and third volumes of Yukon verse and resulted in a number of pieces that still retain a strong sense of vigorous life.


Service and Drummond are only two of a number of very proficient writers of popular literature who found success during this period by focusing on specific regions or fragments of the young Dominion.  Lucy Maud Montgomery, Ralph Connor, Robert Stead, Norman Duncan, and Pauline Johnson are some of the others that might be included within the group, though some of these writers, like Montgomery and one or two others, transcend local colour to become regionalists whose work is often as universal as it is local.  These writers appeared at a time when, because of a confluence of social and cultural circumstances, the public imagination seemed to have a specific and discernable tilt, when everyone seemed to be leaning, imaginatively, in the same direction.  Whether the appearance of this consensus of taste within the reading public drew these writers forth, or whether the presence of these authors helped to forge the consensus makes little difference; there can, however, be no mistaking the close connection between this work and the popular taste and assumptions of its historical period.  This body of popular literature from the first years of the present century can never regain the phenomenal popularity it once enjoyed because it remains inextricably fixed to the historical moment when circumstances swept it into prominence.

     It is often assumed that popular literature is "easier" to write than other kinds of literature because of its formulaic nature, and that it is, therefore, a less noble or worthwhile form: the mass audience reveals what it likes, and the popular author repeats again and again the pattern which has found success.  But if it were so easy to plumb the depths of popular taste and produce material that satisfies its longings and fulfills its fantasies, everyone would do it.  Popular literature (like all kinds of literature to varying degrees) is constructed out of conventions, and these conventions are capable of being employed well or poorly in order to achieve the desired literary effects.  It is not necessary to believe that this body of work that we have been examining is less or more intrinsically valuable than the work of the Confederation poets or the early modern poets in order to recognize Service and Drummond as the masters of the popular mode that they were.  Though their work was not intended for all time, their achievement, such as it was, should not be scorned, and they should be afforded an honourable niche in Canadian literary history.


  1. Desmond Pacey, Creative Writing in Canada (Toronto: Ryerson, 1964), p. 89.[back]

  2. Pacey, 89. [back]

  3. Margaret Atwood, Introduction to The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. xxxiv. [back]

  4. R.E. Spiller and W. Thorpe, eds., Literary History of the United States, 3d ed. rev. (New York: Macmillan, 1966), p. 651. [back]

  5. Atwood, xxxvi. [back]

  6. J.F. Macdonald, William Henry Drummond (Toronto: Ryerson, 1923), p. 95. [back]

  7. "Immigrant dialect" is not the proper term to describe the fractured language of Drummond's characters who are by no means immigrants.  To the extent, however, that it indicates a non-native speaker's use of a language, it points in the right direction. [back]

  8. Arthur Stringer, Irish Poems (New York: Mitchell Kennerly, 1911), p. 7. [back]

  9. W.H. Drummond, Complete Poems, with an Introduction by Louis Frechette (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1926), p. 39.  All further citations of Drummond's work will be taken from this edition and will be noted in the text by page number. [back]

  10. Louis Frechette, Introduction to Dr. Drummond's Complete Poems (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1926), p. xxi-xxiii. [back]

  11. Frechette, xxiv. [back]

  12. Peter Revell, James Whitcomb Riley (New York: Twayne, 1975), p. 19. [back]

  13. Revell, 146. [back]

  14. The extent of Riley's apotheosization is indicated by the fact that in 1915, the year before his death, all American public schools were directed to celebrate Riley Day. Revell, 15. [back]

  15. Drummond, "Preface," Complete Poems, p. xxvii. [back]

  16. Edith Fowke, "Folktales and Folk Songs," Literary History of Canada, ed.  Carl Klinck (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965), p. 171. [back]

  17. Robert Service, Ploughman of the Moon (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1945), p. 86. [back]

  18. C.E. Carrington, ed. The Complete Barrack-Room Ballads of Rudyard Kipling (London: Methuen, 1974), p. v. [back]

  19. T.S. Eliot, Introduction to A Choice of Kipling's Verse (London: Faber and Faber, 1941), p. 12. [back]

  20. C.E. Carrington, The Life of Rudyard Kipling (Garden City: Doubleday, 1955), p. 273[back]

  21. Carrington, The Life of Rudyard Kipling, 273. [back]

  22. A.B. Friedman, The Ballad Revival (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), p. 338. [back]

  23. Service, Ploughman, 96. [back]

  24. Carrington, ed.  The Complete Barrack-Room Ballads of Rudyard Kipling, 10. [back]

  25. Robert Service, The Complete Poems of Robert Service (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1940), p. 144.  All further citations of Service's work will be taken from this edition and will be noted in the text by page number. [back]

  26. Rudyard Kipling, Kipling's Verse (1885-1932) (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1938), p. 165. [back]

  27. Mark Twain, "How To Tell A Story," American Literature, eds. R. Poirier and W.L. Vance (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970), p. 163. [back]

  28. Service, Ploughman, 88. [back]

  29. Service, Ploughman, 338. [back]

  30. Service, Ploughman, 325. [back]