Monday, January 16, 2012

Happy Birthday, Robert

Robert W. Service was born today in Preston, England, in 1874. At the age of 23 he moved to Canada, which become his home (though he died in France at the age of 84). And, no; I'm not going to give you a bunch of the boys whooping it up in the Malemute Saloon - you can find that anywhere. Instead, here are two things from his Ballads of a Bohemian, written in the lead-up and early days of WWI, in which Service was an ambulance driver, two prose poems interludes between the poems themselves:

Near Albert,
February 1915.

Over the spine of the ridge a horned moon of reddish hue peers through the splintered, hag-like trees. Where the trenches are, rockets are rising, green and red. I hear the coughing of the Maxims, the peevish nagging of the rifles, the boom of a "heavy" and the hollow sound of its exploding shell.

Running the car into the shadow of a ruined house, I try to sleep. But a battery starts to blaze away close by, and the flame lights up my shelter. Near me some soldiers are in deep slumber; one stirs in his sleep as a big rat runs over him, and I know by experience that when one is sleeping a rat feels as heavy as a sheep.

But how ~can~ one possibly sleep? Out there in the dark there is the wild tattoo of a thousand rifles; and hark! that dull roar is the explosion of a mine. There! the purring of the rapid firers. Desperate things are doing. There will be lots of work for me before this night is over.

In Picardy,
January 1915.

The road lies amid a malevolent heath. It seems to lead us right into the clutch of the enemy; for the star-shells, that at first were bursting overhead, gradually encircle us. The fields are strangely sinister; the splintered trees are like giant toothpicks. There is a lisping and a twanging overhead.

As we wait at the door of the dugout that serves as a first-aid dressing station, I gaze up into that mysterious dark, so alive with musical vibrations. Then a small shadow detaches itself from the greater shadow, and a gray-bearded sentry says to me: "You'd better come in out of the bullets."

So I keep under cover, and presently they bring my load. Two men drip with sweat as they carry their comrade. I can see that they all three belong to the Foreign Legion. I think for a moment of Saxon Dane. How strange if some day I should carry him! Half fearfully I look at my passenger, but he is a black man. Such things only happen in fiction.


We have just had one of our men killed, a young sculptor of immense promise.

When one thinks of all the fine work he might have accomplished, it seems a shame. But, after all, to-morrow it may be the turn of any of us. If it should be mine, my chief regret will be for work undone.

Ah! I often think of how I will go back to the Quarter and take up the old life again. How sweet it will all seem. But first I must earn the right. And if ever I do go back, how I will find Bohemia changed! Missing how many a face!

Daventry, the sculptor, is buried in a little graveyard near one of our posts. Just now our section of the line is quiet, so I often go and sit there. Stretching myself on a flat stone, I dream for hours.

Silence and solitude! How good the peace of it all seems! Around me the grasses weave a pattern, and half hide the hundreds of little wooden crosses. Here is one with a single name:

Who was Aubrey I wonder? Then another:

~To Our Beloved Comrade.~

Then one which has attached to it, in the cheapest of little frames, the crude water-color daub of a child, three purple flowers standing in a yellow vase. Below it, painfully printed, I read:

~To My Darling Papa -- Thy Little Odette.~

And beyond the crosses many fresh graves have been dug. With hungry open mouths they wait. Even now I can hear the guns that are going to feed them. Soon there will be more crosses, and more and more. Then they will cease, and wives and mothers will come here to weep.

Ah! Peace so precious must be bought with blood and tears. Let us honor and bless the men who pay, and envy them the manner of their dying; for not all the jeweled orders on the breasts of the living can vie in glory with the little wooden cross the humblest of these has won. . . .

all his works

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