Robert Service: Yukon Pipe Smoker and Poet

Robert Service and the Dawson Cabin

Poets seldom achieve widespread popularity and wealth, but Robert William Service did. His humorous and accessible poetry reaped a worldwide audience and made him famous — so famous that the Yukon cabin he lived in from 1909-1912 is a tourist attraction and historical site, preserved to this day. Movies and animated films have been made from the yarns he wove throughout his poetry and novels. Performers like Hank Snow, Jim Ratts, Country Joe Macdonald, Johnny Cash, and humorist Jean Shepherd have recorded his poetry. A Canadian postage stamp bears his image. Streets and public schools have been named in his honor, and he even played himself in the 1942 film, The Spoilers, with Marlene Dietrich.

Best of all, he was a pipe smoker. His autobiographies and poetry are filled with the mention of pipes, one poem entirely dedicated to the subject of pipe smokers:

"Pipe Smoker"

By Robert Service

Because I love the soothing weed
And am of sober type,
I'd choose me for a friend in need
  A man who smokes a pipe.
A cove who hasn't much to say,
  And spits into the fire,
Puffing like me a pipe of clay,
  Corn-cob or briar.

A chap original of thought,
  With cheery point of view,
Who has of gumption quite a lot,
  And streaks of humour too.
He need not be a whiskered sage,
  With wisdom over-ripe:
Just give me in the old of age
  A pal who smokes a pipe.

A cigarette may make for wit,
  Although I like it not;
A good cigar, I must admit,
  Gives dignity to thought.
But as my glass of grog I sip
  I never, never gripe
If I have for companionship
  A guy who smokes a pipe.

Service has high regard for the character of pipe smokers. Perhaps more important is his delivery: easy and pleasant to read. While considered mere doggerel by the literary elite, Service's poetry tells stories in narrative style with precise rhythm and memorable imagery. Northrop Frye, a prominent literary theorist/critic, said it was not serious poetry but popular poetry. He was certainly accurate on one count: Service was enormously popular. He was called "the Bard of the Yukon" and "the Canadian Kipling." In Ploughman of the Moon (1945), the first of his two autobiographies, Service said, "Thus early I discovered that I would rather win the approval of a barman than the praise of a professor."

Early Service

Robert Service during The Spoilers with Marlene Dietrich

Born in England in 1874, Robert Service wrote his first lines of poetry on his sixth birthday. After high school, he attended college at the University of Glasgow to pursue a degree in English literature, but he lasted only a year. He became quickly disenchanted with higher education, especially after writing a paper calling into question the sexual purity of Ophelia in Hamlet. His interpretation was called "obscene" by his professor. Service immediately challenged that teacher to a fight, but his invitation was declined and he left school shortly afterward, his enthusiasm for education drowned as thoroughly as Ophelia herself.

He became a banker, but he wanted to experience the great outdoors. At age 21, he traveled to Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, to become a cowboy. He drifted through California and the Western states, doing menial jobs as a farm laborer or store clerk and barely surviving, all while meeting colorful characters who would eventually become part of his poetry. He did return to his schooling briefly at Victoria College. His motivation was to impress a young lady who wanted an educated husband with a secure future. Unfortunately, his school enrollment did not fulfill those requirements, the relationship did not advance, and Service quit school again.

He cowboyed around Vancouver Island until, in 1903, he took a job as a bank clerk in Victoria. A year later, the bank sent him to work in their Yukon Whitehorse branch. Whitehorse had been established in 1897 as a campground for prospectors on their way to Dawson City and the Yukon gold rush.

One night as he took his customary walk, he passed a saloon, and the sounds of revelry brought a phrase into his head: "A bunch of the boys were whooping it up." He knew he had something and rushed to the bank to write it down, and such was his hurry that he was mistaken for an intruder by the bank guard and was shot at, though not hit. Unfazed, he wrote through the night, and by morning one of his most famous poems, "The Shooting of Dan McGrew," was complete. Here's the first stanza:

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.

No pipes appear in this poem, though they are integral in many others. It's a narrative about loneliness, love, and betrayal, with just a bit of humor and irony mixed in. Even more humorous is his next poem, "The Cremation of Sam McGee," which begins:

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he'd often say in his homely way that "he'd sooner live in hell."

Sam complains constantly of the cold, and when he becomes ill and obviously about to die, his partner promises to cremate his remains. As serious as the subject may sound, it's handled with humor, and the poem became one of Service's most popular. He composed it quickly while walking around the woods one night, writing it down the next morning.

The Beginnings of Success

Robert Service's Cabin

He continued writing, much of his poetry inspired by the tall tales and stories he heard from the colorful characters living in that wild part of the world. When he had built a large enough collection, he sent a manuscript to his father in Toronto with payment to have it printed into booklets that he could give away as Christmas gifts. His purpose was merely to amuse his neighbors and friends, but his poetry had a life of its own.

In the shop that was printing the booklet, the printers were amused and started reading the poems out loud as they worked. A salesman who enjoyed the poems decided to see if they were worthy of more widespread publication. Using the galley proofs from Service's booklet, he quickly sold 1700 copies in advance.

Service was surprised to receive a check for ten percent of the sales royalties. That book, which he had titled Songs of a Sourdough (1907), went through seven printings before its official release. It was renamed The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses by a U.S. publisher, presumably to take advantage of the popularity of Jack London's gold-rush stories and novels. It was immediately successful, and the printer in Toronto sold 15 printings of Songs of a Sourdough in 1907. By 1917, it had been reprinted 43 times. That book alone would earn Service $100,000 (a little more than $3 million in today's currency).

That's quite a change in fortune for someone who has mostly been challenged just to afford meals. The bank transferred him to Dawson in 1908, where he met and talked with veterans of the Yukon Gold Rush, which had already passed 10 years previously. These miners were full of memories and stories and Service listened. That year he published his second book of verse, Ballads of a Cheechako, and it too was enormously successful.

A Professional Writer

When his employer decided to transfer him back to Whitehorse in 1909, he quit to become a writer fulltime and rented the two-room cabin that would later become an historical landmark. He sometimes walked through the woods all night, he slept days, and he would go for days without leaving his writing den. After five months, he had finished his first novel, The Trail of '98, and sold it to a publisher. Like his two previous publications, it was an immediate best-seller.

His concentration was intense, and he describes his writing process during that time in Ploughman of the Moon:

I used to write on the coarse rolls of paper used by paper-hangers, pinning them on the wall and printing my verses in big charcoal letters. Then I would pace back and forth before them, studying them, repeating them, trying to make them perfect. I wanted them to appeal to the eye as well as to the ear. I tried to avoid any literary quality. Verse, not poetry, is what I was after — something the man in the street would take notice of and the sweet old lady would paste in her album; something the schoolboy would spout and the fellow in a pub would quote.

Rhymes of a Red Cross Man by Robert Service

Service was now unequivocally a rich man. He traveled to Europe, enjoying Paris and the French Riviera, and he moved to Paris in 1913. That year he married Germaine Bourgoin, who was 13 years younger, and they would remain together until his death at age 84. She lived to be 102.

Service tried to enlist at age 40 when WWI started, but his varicose veins caused him to be turned down. He experienced the war as a correspondent for the Toronto Star, and in 1916 he was arrested in Dunkirk, France, near the Belgian border, mistaken as a spy and nearly executed. After that, he worked as an ambulance driver and stretcher bearer, and he turned those experiences into a book of war poetry, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, in 1916. Though a civilian, he received three medals of commendation for his service.

When the war ended, Service continued living in Paris, where he would enjoy the sophisticated wardrobe and habits of a wealthy man during the day, but dress in workman's clothing and hang around the roughest of dive bars in the seediest parts of town at night, socializing with the working class people he was most comfortable with and always listening to their stories.

Through the 1920s, Service wrote mainly thriller novels like The Poisoned Paradise (1922) and The Roughneck (1923). In the 1930s he visited the USSR and wrote a satirical poem about Lenin, "Ballad of Lenin's Tomb," which the Soviets did not appreciate. An excerpt may explain why:

Where Lenin lies the red flag flies, and the rat-grey workers wait
To tread the gloom of Lenin's Tomb, where the Comrade lies in state.
With lagging pace they scan his face, so weary yet so firm;
For years a score they've laboured sore to save him from the worm.
The Kremlin walls are grimly grey, but Lenin's Tomb is red,
And pilgrims from the Sour Lands say: "He sleeps and is not dead."
Before their eyes in peace he lies, a symbol and a sign,
And as they pass that dome of glass they see - a God Divine.
So Doctors plug him full of dope, for if he drops to dust,
So will collapse their faith and hope, the whole combine will bust.

His works were never translated or printed in Russian, and he was omitted from the world literature taught there. In WWII the Nazis also hated him, because he had satirized Hitler in verse as well. He fled France before the invasion, during which German troops arrived at his home to arrest him. Authoritarians don't respect satire, at least not when it's aimed at them.

He and Germaine lived in California during the war, and he would often visit troops and recite his poetry to help boost morale. They returned to France after the war and found their home utterly destroyed, but they rebuilt and lived there for the rest of his life, which was busy. He continued writing at a solid pace, publishing six more books.

Robert Service, Pipe Smoker

Robert W. Service

Two of his books were autobiographies, Ploughman of the Moon (1945) and Harper of Heaven (1948). Harper of Heaven was unavailable for review during research for this article. There may be more about his pipes in that work, but his first, Ploughman of the Moon, contains 33 references to his pipe smoking, though not with details. He often describes lighting and smoking a pipe, but does not mention brands and only once references a shape from the time he gave up poetry to pursue sports before moving to Canada:

[My] chums were stout lads who read nothing but the sporting papers, drank beer and affected an exaggerated manliness. I played up to them, buying a bull-dog pipe and tilting my bowler at a sporting angle. I must say I felt better living physically than mentally. My thoughts went outward instead of inward, dwelling on food and drink and keeping fit.

Further in regard to pipes in that book, his father figures prominently and was an obvious influence:

All evening he [Service's father] would read his paper and smoke. In smoking, too, he carried out his passion for economy. He smoked clay pipes that cost a penny each. He would cut and mix his own tobacco, and when his pipe was smoked he would knock the dottle onto the mantelpiece. When he loaded his pipe again he would carefully place the ashes on top. Then when the pipe got too dirty he would bury it in the fireglow and bake it clean. He always bought the Evening Citizen, which he read from beginning to end. For half an hour he would peruse it; then light his pipe and puff for another half-hour. As he smoked in silence his eyes would seem stern with reverie, though I don't think he had a single thought in his mind. But he surely enjoyed his pipe and his paper.

Service also remembered a great aunt who smoked a pipe:

I remember an old lady, a sister of my grandmother. She had a face as delicate as a cameo, and she was handsome in an aristocratic way. But she wore a mutch, and she used to sit by the fire with a cutty pipe in her mouth, smoking strong tobacco that savoured of the pit.

His own preferred tobaccos remain a mystery. His autobiography mentions tobacco in the time he was saving to move to Canada: "... I had to save money. No more chocolate bars and sweet biscuits. Except for tobacco, laundry and necessary clothing, I did not spend a penny." Also from that time period, he does mention shag tobacco: "I spent my sixpences in music-halls. I loved the unexpectedness of the show, its rich vulgarity. It went with lager beer, pork pies and shag tobacco."

In his book, The Pretender (1915), his characters are loosely based on himself and Germaine: "While Anastasia plies her daily routine, her husband, the writer, takes a walk, pausing at times 'to fill (with reverence) the meerschaum pipe, which is colouring as coyly as a sun-kissed peach.'"

The Poetry of Pipes

In his verse, pipes are often mentioned, but merely as part of the background. For example, "While the Bannock Bakes" opens with a pipe: "Light up your pipe again, old chum, and sit awhile with me." His poem, "The Logger," does likewise: "In the moonless, misty night, with my little pipe alight..." Another poem, "Contentment," inexorably links pipe smoking with that emotion:

An Ancient gaffer once I knew,
Who puffed a pipe and tossed a tankard;
He claimed a hundred years or two,
And for a dozen more he hankered;
So o'er a pint I asked how he
Had kept his timbers tight together;
He grinned and answered: "It maun be
Because I likes all kinds o' weather.

"Fore every morn when I get up
I lights my clay pipe wi' a cinder,
And as me mug o' tea I sup
I looks from out the cottage winder;
And if it's shade or if it's shine
Or wind or snow befit to freeze me,
I always say: 'Well, now that's fine...
It's just the sorto' day to please me.'

"For I have found it wise in life
To take the luck the way it's coming;
A wake, a worry or a wife -
Just carry on and keep a-humming.
And so I lights me pipe o' clay,
And through the morn on blizzard borders,
I chuckle in me guts and say:
'It's just the day the doctor orders.'"

A mighty good philosophy
Thought I, and leads to longer living,
To make the best of things that be,
And take the weather of God's giving;
So though the sky be ashen grey,
And winds be edged and sleet be slanting,
Heap faggots on the fire and say:
"It's just the kind of day I'm wanting."

In "The Ballad of One-Eyed Mike," a pipe is once again a symbol of contentment and the opportunity to think:

This is the tale that was told to me by the man with the crystal eye
As I smoked my pipe in the camp-fire light, and the Glories swept the sky;
As the north lights gleamed and curved and streamed, and the bottle of "hootch" was dry.

His poetry is filled with dozens of references to pipes, always as part of the environment, always essential to peace of mind, always a comfort. Robert Service lived a full and long life, one of activity and adventure, success and triumph. His poetry was the most commercially successful of the century and continues to be appreciated today. Always dedicated to the common man, always scorning the elite, he spoke with a unique voice that resonated with the common threads of living for everyone everywhere, and he did it with a dash of humor, a dollop of disrespect, and an affection for those who toil for day-to-day survival.


Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Famous Pipe Smokers Pipe Culture


    • D. on August 7, 2021
    • This article was a gem and pleasure to read. I find your topics to be educational, entertaining, and transportive. Something I look forward to. Thank you, Chuck.

    • Steve Oster on August 8, 2021
    • One of my 6th grade reading assignment required that we memorize and present a lengthy poem in class. I chose "The Cremation of Sam McGee". Everyone loved the punchline!

    • Mike Davis on August 8, 2021
    • What a wonderful way to enjoy a quiet, cloudy Sunday morning. This biography of Robert Service was an adventure to read, relax and enjoy. Beautiful work, Chuck.

    • Les Nagel on August 8, 2021
    • Great article that really held my interest. Robert Service’s poetry is down to earth but yet profoundly unlimited in its complexity and shear beauty.

    • Bob Kayes on August 8, 2021
    • Thank you for posting this really great and informative article about Robert Service. I didn't know about his life. He is one of my favorite writers, and The Cremation of Sam McGee being my most favorite that I have it committed to memory and often will say it to myself in order to fall asleep. Thanks again, Bob

    • Mark Vigna on August 8, 2021
    • Nice article. Good research. Now, when I read Service I will imagine him pondering over a line with pipe in mouth while a little smoke circles languidly over typewriter and paper.

    • Michael Cherry on August 8, 2021
    • Chuck; Great article. I have been a fan of Robert Service for years. I have one of his books of poetry and enjoy reading it cover to cover every few years. It was a treat to learn more about him. Thank you for a wonderful article.Your Obedient Servant;Mike

    • DAVE SOMMER on August 8, 2021
    • Hey Chuck,Did you ever think about writing as a real author? You and this gentleman have the same wit and style. Please don't ever give up writing!!!!!!!!! Dave

    • David Zembo on August 8, 2021
    • Thanks, Chuck. Inspired writing about an inspirational writer!Regards,Dz

    • North of Bangor on August 8, 2021
    • I have some friends, some honest friends,And honest friends are few;A pipe of briar, my open fire,A book that’s not too new;From “I Have Some Friends”, in “Ballads of a Bohemian”.

    • Joseph Kirkland on August 8, 2021
    • Thank you for another wonderful article. Service is much more readable than Northrup Frye. I enjoy The Educated Imagination over Frye’s more serious work. I imagine many more have read Service than Frye.Thanks for another great article.

    • Phil Wiggins on August 8, 2021
    • Awesome Pipes Beautiful A!!!

    • SO on August 8, 2021
    • Thank you for another great article. And, I enjoyed the video of Mr. Service too. Things were different back then for sure.

    • William G on August 9, 2021
    • Thanks Chuck, for a very well-researched piece. Personally, I think that the "poetry" of Robert Service is pretty awful. "Some of the boys were whooping it up..." Give me a break. Moreover, his stereotyping of the pipe smoker in the eponymous verse, if you think about it, is simplistic and somewhat insulting.

    • Poe on August 9, 2021
    • Smokin' my pipe on a hot sunny day as I sit a spell, I ponder and marvel how some people would complain about ice water in hell.

    • Poe on August 9, 2021
    • Smokin' my pipe on a hot sunny day as I sit a spell, I ponder and marvel how some people would complain about ice water in hell.

    • William G on August 9, 2021
    • Obviously, some people who claim to "ponder and marvel" (sounds intense, but isn't) have no critical sense.

    • William G on August 9, 2021
    • "Smokin" and "sit a spell" sound just as "folksy" and Service himself.

    • Poe on August 9, 2021
    • What in tarnation am I being served ice water for?! It's cold, the glass is frosty, and it's quenching my thirst... take it back, Satan! Bring me some pipin' hot coffee! Black! No cream! No sugar! With some broken glass at the bottom of the mug! And bring me some of your soggy dottle to put in my pipe to smoke! Because I'm a miserable wretched soul and I plan on keeping it that way! Heyyy...*Satan's Dottle" a new pipe tobacco.

    • William G on August 9, 2021
    • I'll let others, if they so wish, figure out what you're trying to express.

    • Poe on August 9, 2021
    • I guess we were whooping it up.🌿

    • Howard H on August 10, 2021
    • Ronald Reagan's first foreign visit as President was to CANADA of all places. There, he and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau quickly bonded ... over their mutual love of the rhymes of Robert Service.

    • Bill on August 10, 2021
    • Interesting. It confirms my impression of Reagan's cultural tastes in general. His favorite music was "California Here I Come". The only painting he personally selected to display in the White House was a portrait of Calvin Coolidge.

    • Ray on August 10, 2021
    • There's more to Canada that meets the eye (secret squirrel), there were U.S. nukes stationed on Canadian soil during the cold war. "They" say that they were sent back home in 1984, but Canada still supports the United States nuclear program.

    • Ray on August 10, 2021
    • *than meets the eye

    • Astrocomical on August 12, 2021
    • I never heard of this guy but his poetry is very good from what I read. But then again you haven't heard of LOTS of people who were famous or very accomplished at something. I know because when I was young I decided to read an entire encyclopedia and was astonished at people famous or very accomplished for their time that you never heard of that I started to make a list that eventually became too great for me. BTW I never made it to "S".

    • Joseph L Lothian on August 12, 2021
    • Enjoyed the article on Robert Service. One of my favourites. With reference to pipe smoking, "The Black Dudeen" really captures the aroma and pleasure of a good pipeful.

    • John Schroeder on August 13, 2021
    • The great Jean Shepherd was a big fan of Robert Service, and mentioned him frequently in his radio broadcasts. Jean himself seems like he would have been a pipe smoker, and I was finally able to locate a photo of him with a pipe, and with cigars.

    • WG on August 13, 2021
    • I'm afraid "the great Jean Shepherd" must have flown under my radar.

    • D. on August 14, 2021
    • The great Jean Shepherd,"Shep", was an American storyteller, humorist, radio and TV personality, writer, and actor. He narrated' A Christmas Story,' giving voice to the adult Ralphie Parker. He wrote the Christmas adventure based on semi-fictional stories from his own childhood in Hammond, Indiana. Thanks for the mention, John, 'A Christmas Story' is a classic.

    • WG on August 14, 2021
    • OK; I know how to access information on Wikipedia.

    • Dr. J. B. Webb on August 21, 2021
    • Chuck: Great article on R.W. Service!! Excellent research & theme progression. I travel/camp a lot in British Columbia & Vancouver Is. ...last trek a group requested that I recite Service's rhymes.... The Canadians just revere him! Thank you for your contributions @ SP. -JBW

    • Dr. J. B. Webb on August 21, 2021
    • see as above please

    • Randall Barr on December 17, 2021
    • Very well done article! I have enjoyed reading Service and Jack London since me younger years. Although fairly familiar with London’s history, this article revealed many facts about Mr. Service that I was not aware of. Very interesting. Thank you.

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