Friday, July 7, 2023



Readers will know that I much prefer a good bush ballad or narrative poem to arty or inscrutable works that you either don’t understand or forget about as soon as read.

Today’s offering – The Spell of the Yukon by Robert W Service – is in the format I  like.

Service is the Canadian equivalent of our Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson, and the poem is well worth the read.


Robert W Service, c 1905

About Robert Service:

Robert William Service (1874 – 1958) was a British-Canadian poet and writer, often called "the Bard of the Yukon". Born in Lancashire of Scottish descent, he was a bank clerk by trade, but spent long periods travelling in the west in the United States and Canada, often in poverty. When his bank sent him to the Yukon, he was inspired by tales of the Klondike Gold Rush, and wrote two poems, "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee", which showed remarkable authenticity from an author with no experience of the gold rush or mining, and enjoyed immediate popularity. Encouraged by this, he quickly wrote more poems on the same theme, which were published as Songs of a Sourdough (re-titled The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses in the U.S.), and achieved a massive sale. When his next collection, Ballads of a Cheechako, proved equally successful, Service could afford to travel widely and live a leisurely life, basing himself in Paris and the French Riviera.

Partly because of their popularity, and the speed with which he wrote them, his works were dismissed as doggerel by the critics, who tended to say the same of Rudyard Kipling, with whom Service was often compared. This did not worry Service, who was happy to classify his work as "verse, not poetry".

Robert Service in front of his Yukon cabin

Cabin of Robert Service in Dawson City, Yukon, 2000
Service's two-room cabin in the Yukon, which he lived in from November 1909 until June 1912 while writing his Gold Rush novel The Trail of Ninety-Eight (1911) and his poetry collection Rhymes of a Rolling Stone (1913), is maintained as a historic site for visitors.


Hear the spoken version of the poem by Hank Snow, with accompanying photographs, by clicking on:

The Jim Reeves version is good, hear it and see the accompanying pics by clicking on:


About the poem:

The poem is not so much about gold as in the striving for it and the author's love of the country in which it is found.

From a poem analysis by Andrew Walker at:

The perspective provided in ‘The Spell of the Yukon’ is that of an extremely lucky prospector. When word of the gold discovered in Klondike reached the rest of North America, prospectors moved for the Yukon as quickly as they could get there. An estimated 100,000 total would-be prospectors attempted to reach northern Canada between 1896 and 1899. Of these 100,000, an estimated 30,000 individuals arrived in the Yukon and were able to begin their search. Of these 30,000, an estimated 4,000 discovered gold. And of those 4,000, only several hundred actually achieved the incredible wealth that had been the dream of the 100,000. The first verse of ‘The Spell of the Yukon’ is an accurate description of a typical prospector — especially from those who came from the United States, for the Yukon was very far away, and the journey to reach it could not be considered a safe one. For many of these people, money was actually lost in vast sums as a result of the gold rush; once the creeks and other sites were claimed, they had to be bought, and even those with no proven gold mines could cost enormous amounts of money.

Many of Service’s later verses would reflect the time he spent in the Yukon; he was evidently very comfortable in the landscape and it became a notable source of inspiration for his future works. While he did not remain in the territory beyond 1912, the literary works he created there are more often than not great stories told in a vivid setting, with historic accuracy and the result of first-hand research and experience. And his efforts certainly paid off — the spell of the Yukon is entirely evident through ‘The Spell of the Yukon’ alone.


The poem:

The Spell of the Yukon

    by Robert W Service

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 valleys 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.

You come to get rich (damned good reason);
You feel like an exile at first;
You hate it like hell for a season,
And then you are worse than the worst.
It grips you like some kinds of sinning;
It twists you from foe to a friend;
It seems it’s been since the beginning;
It seems it will be to the end.

I’ve stood in some mighty-mouthed hollow
That’s plumb-full of hush to the brim;
I’ve watched the big, husky sun wallow
In crimson and gold, and grow dim,
Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming,
And the stars tumbled out, neck and crop;
And I’ve thought that I surely was dreaming,
With the peace o’ the world piled on top.

The summer—no sweeter was ever;
The sunshiny woods all athrill;
The grayling aleap in the river,
The bighorn asleep on the hill.
The strong life that never knows harness;
The wilds where the caribou call;
The freshness, the freedom, the farness—
O God! how I’m stuck on it all.

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I’ve bade ’em good-by—but I can’t.

There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land—oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back—and I will.

They’re making my money diminish;
I’m sick of the taste of champagne.
Thank God! when I’m skinned to a finish
I’ll pike to the Yukon again.
I’ll fight—and you bet it’s no sham-fight;
It’s hell!—but I’ve been there before;
And it’s better than this by a damsite—
So me for the Yukon once more.

There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
So much as just finding the gold.
It’s the great, big, broad land ’way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

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