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The Law of the Yukon -- Robert Service

Back from a wonderful vacation - thanks to Thomas for covering in my
absence. And having just returned from that magical land north of the
border, here begins the long-promised Canadian theme...
(Poem #781) The Law of the Yukon
This is the law of the Yukon, and ever she makes it plain:
"Send not your foolish and feeble; send me your strong and your sane --
Strong for the red rage of battle; sane for I harry them sore;
Send me men girt for the combat, men who are grit to the core;
Swift as the panther in triumph, fierce as the bear in defeat,
Sired of a bulldog parent, steeled in the furnace heat.
Send me the best of your breeding, lend me your chosen ones;
Them will I take to my bosom, them will I call my sons;
Them will I gild with my treasure, them will I glut with my meat;
But the others -- the misfits, the failures -- I trample under my feet.
Dissolute, damned and despairful, crippled and palsied and slain,
Ye would send me the spawn of your gutters -- Go! take back your spawn again.

"Wild and wide are my borders, stern as death is my sway;
From my ruthless throne I have ruled alone for a million years and a day;
Hugging my mighty treasure, waiting for man to come,
Till he swept like a turbid torrent, and after him swept -- the scum.
The pallid pimp of the dead-line, the enervate of the pen,
One by one I weeded them out, for all that I sought was -- Men.
One by one I dismayed them, frighting them sore with my glooms;
One by one I betrayed them unto my manifold dooms.
Drowned them like rats in my rivers, starved them like curs on my plains,
Rotted the flesh that was left them, poisoned the blood in their veins;
Burst with my winter upon them, searing forever their sight,
Lashed them with fungus-white faces, whimpering wild in the night;

Staggering blind through the storm-whirl, stumbling mad through the snow,
Frozen stiff in the ice-pack, brittle and bent like a bow;
Featureless, formless, forsaken, scented by wolves in their flight,
Left for the wind to make music through ribs that are glittering white;
Gnawing the black crust of failure, searching the pit of despair,
Crooking the toe in the trigger, trying to patter a prayer;
Going outside with an escort, raving with lips all afoam,
Writing a cheque for a million, driveling feebly of home;
Lost like a louse in the burning. . .or else in the tented town
Seeking a drunkard's solace, sinking and sinking down;
Steeped in the slime at the bottom, dead to a decent world,
Lost 'mid the human flotsam, far on the frontier hurled;
In the camp at the bend of the river, with its dozen saloons aglare,
Its gambling dens ariot, its gramophones all ablare;
Crimped with the crimes of a city, sin-ridden and bridled with lies,
In the hush of my mountained vastness, in the flush of my midnight skies.
Plague-spots, yet tools of my purpose, so natheless I suffer them thrive,
Crushing my Weak in their clutches, that only my Strong may survive.

"But the others, the men of my mettle, the men who would 'stablish my fame
Unto its ultimate issue, winning me honor, not shame;
Searching my uttermost valleys, fighting each step as they go,
Shooting the wrath of my rapids, scaling my ramparts of snow;
Ripping the guts of my mountains, looting the beds of my creeks,
Them will I take to my bosom, and speak as a mother speaks.
I am the land that listens, I am the land that broods;
Steeped in eternal beauty, crystalline waters and woods.
Long have I waited lonely, shunned as a thing accurst,
Monstrous, moody, pathetic, the last of the lands and the first;
Visioning camp-fires at twilight, sad with a longing forlorn,
Feeling my womb o'er-pregnant with the seed of cities unborn.
Wild and wide are my borders, stern as death is my sway,
And I wait for the men who will win me -- and I will not be won in a day;
And I will not be won by weaklings, subtle, suave and mild,
But by men with the hearts of Vikings, and the simple faith of a child;
Desperate, strong and resistless, unthrottled by fear or defeat,
Them will I gild with my treasure, them will I glut with my meat.

"Lofty I stand from each sister land, patient and wearily wise,
With the weight of a world of sadness in my quiet, passionless eyes;
Dreaming alone of a people, dreaming alone of a day,
When men shall not rape my riches, and curse me and go away;
Making a bawd of my bounty, fouling the hand that gave --
Till I rise in my wrath and I sweep on their path and I stamp them into a grave.
Dreaming of men who will bless me, of women esteeming me good,
Of children born in my borders of radiant motherhood,
Of cities leaping to stature, of fame like a flag unfurled,
As I pour the tide of my riches in the eager lap of the world."

This is the Law of the Yukon, that only the Strong shall thrive;
That surely the Weak shall perish, and only the Fit survive.
Dissolute, damned and despairful, crippled and palsied and slain,
This is the Will of the Yukon, -- Lo, how she makes it plain!
-- Robert Service
Today's choice of poet was easy - few Canadian poets are as well-known, or
as well-loved, as is Service. Picking out a poem was far harder - Service
has written a lot, and most of it is uniformly excellent; indeed, I spent a
very enjoyable couple of hours reading through some of his verse and trying
to settle on a single piece. I finally chose 'The Law of the Yukon' not
because it is his best work (I'd hate to have to pick one out), or even my
favourite (see previous parenthetical comment), but because it is nicely
representative of an aspect of his work I wanted to highlight - the way his
poems are permeated by the Yukon, the land that, regardless of subject, is
often the true protagonist of his work. This is, in fact, one of the things
I like most about his poetry, and one of the reasons I prefer poems like
today's to popular favourites like Dan McGrew.

Formwise, the most striking thing about Service's poetry is the almost
effortless mastery of metre and rhyme he displays. His work is not mere
versification, though; the perfect, flowing lines form a natural frame for
the spellbinding ballads and vivid landscapes he weaves.

Comparisons with Kipling are, of course, inevitable, and indeed, Service
himself has named Kipling as one of his influences (see the biogaphy link).
The similarities are obvious - from the emphasis on themes like the Land and
men's relationship to it, highly personal war poems from the common
soldier's point of view, and enthralling narratives, to the almost obtrusive
perfection of the verse form, Service's poems owe a definite debt to
Kipling's.

Again, like Kipling, Service wrote for the masses. This is not to say he was
not a great poet - he was. But he does seem to have eschewed abstract,
self-conscious literary tricks in favour of a more direct style
that would appeal to the common man, and excite pleasure as much as it did
admiration.

The Service Home Page (see links) emphasises the above point by means of an
obituary and the following quote from one of Service's poems:

        Ah yes, I know my brow is low
        And often wished it high.
        So that I might with rapture write
        An epic of the sky;
        A poem cast in contour vast;
        Of fabled gods and fays;
        A classic screed that few would read
        Yet nearly all would praise.

                -- 1st stanza, Prelude from Lyrics of a Low Brow

Furthermore, returning briefly to Kipling, today's poem seems to be paying a
direct tribute to 'The Law of the Jungle', which it echoes faintly while
being by no means derivative of it.

Biography:

  There's an excellent biography of Service at
  http://oh.essortment.com/klondikegoldru_rdax.htm

Links:

  A nice collection of Service's poems, and another biography:
  [broken link] http://www.inch.com/~kdka/public_html/r~service.html

  [broken link] http://www.inch.com/~kdka/public_html/servlex.html has a lexicon of some
  of the unfamiliar terms used in the poem

  [broken link] http://www.ude.net/verse/verse.html has an extensive collection of
  Service's poems, as well as links to discussions and mp3s of recitations.
  Recommended.

  Kipling's 'The Law of the Jungle' is at
  http://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/kipling/law_of_jungle.html

  We've already run Service's best known poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee:
  poem #698

Theme and Acknowledgements:

  Thanks to Shannon West and Maladina for many helpful discussions on
  running a Canadian theme. The theme itself is highly nonspecific; I aim
  merely to cover a few of the more prominent Canadian poets. Suggestions
  and guest poems both welcome, as well as any comments on Canadian poetry
  in general (I'll postpone my own until I've run a few more examples).

-martin

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