(Poem #1866) The Atavist
What are you doing here, Tom Thorne, on the white top-knot o' the world, Where the wind has the cut of a naked knife and the stars are rapier keen? Hugging a smudgy willow fire, deep in a lynx robe curled, You that's a lord's own son, Tom Thorne -- what does your madness mean? Go home, go home to your clubs, Tom Thorne! home to your evening dress! Home to your place of power and pride, and the feast that waits for you! Why do you linger all alone in the splendid emptiness, Scouring the Land of the Little Sticks on the trail of the caribou? Why did you fall off the Earth, Tom Thorne, out of our social ken? What did your deep damnation prove? What was your dark despair? Oh with the width of a world between, and years to the count of ten, If they cut out your heart to-night, Tom Thorne, *her* name would be graven there! And you fled afar for the thing called Peace, and you thought you would find it here, In the purple tundras vastly spread, and the mountains whitely piled; It's a weary quest and a dreary quest, but I think that the end is near; For they say that the Lord has hidden it in the secret heart of the Wild. And you know that heart as few men know, and your eyes are fey and deep, With a "something lost" come welling back from the raw, red dawn of life: With woe and pain have you greatly lain, till out of abysmal sleep The soul of the Stone Age leaps in you, alert for the ancient strife. And if you came to our feast again, with its pomp and glee and glow, I think you would sit stone-still, Tom Thorne, and see in a daze of dream, A mad sun goading to frenzied flame the glittering gems of the snow, And a monster musk-ox bulking black against the blood-red gleam. I think you would see berg-battling shores, and stammer and halt and stare, With a sudden sense of the frozen void, serene and vast and still; And the aching gleam and the hush of dream, and the track of a great white bear, And the primal lust that surged in you as you sprang to make your kill. I think you would hear the bull-moose call, and the glutted river roar; And spy the hosts of the caribou shadow the shining plain; And feel the pulse of the Silences, and stand elate once more On the verge of the yawning vastitudes that call to you in vain. For I think you are one with the stars and the sun, and the wind and the wave and the dew; And the peaks untrod that yearn to God, and the valleys undefiled; Men soar with wings, and they bridle kings, but what is it all to you, Wise in the ways of the wilderness, and strong with the strength of the Wild? You have spent your life, you have waged your strife where never we play a part; You have held the throne of the Great Unknown, you have ruled a kingdom vast: . . . . . But to-night there's a strange, new trail for you, and you go, o weary heart! To the peace and rest of the Great Unguessed ... at last, Tom Thorne, at last.
Today's poem is Service doing what he does best - a searing, highly coloured narrative of a larger-than-life character in a vivider-than-life setting, the images far more evocative than original, and none the worse for that. Sadly, this seems to be a form of poetry that is dying out today - the oversaturated imagery gives it a definite dated feel - and yet, for sheer romance, it is a style that has no substitute. It may not be "literary", it may not unfold with layer upon layer of meaning, but all that counts for nothing as we are caught up in the magnificent sweep and flow of the words and images. Speaking of Service, every time I read his poetry I realise anew just how strongly it is defined and shaped by the Land. Service has (perhaps inevitably) been called the Canadian Kipling, and in an earlier commentary [Poem #781] I expanded a bit upon the similarities between their poetry; on the other hand, if I had to put my finger on the primary difference between them, it would be this geocentricity of Service's. Kipling's poems, while they shared much of the same style and feel as Service's, were far more human-focused, the foreground was almost always the People, and the Land defined by their relationship to it. In contrast, in today's typically Service poem, Tom Thorne has a nominal lead role, but for much of the poem he serves merely as a device for Service to speak of his beloved Yukon wilderness, and only thereby of the men who love and brave it. martin