Completed: 2 September 2010
It was not until I read a brief biography of Service in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature that I understood the book’s title. Service was a stretcher- bearer and war correspondent in World War I. Thus, the Red Cross Man is himself. Dedicated to his brother, Albert Service who was killed in the war, I had not realised that Robert Service has been at the front.
I don’t think of Robert Service as a war poet. I generally think of him as a poet of the north. Frozen lands, dog sleds, hard drinking and hard living men are what come to mind. In Rhymes of a Red Cross Man Service speaks to World War I. His over riding theme is that of Duty. The idea of duty seems quaint in today’s post-modern everything world. One of the aftermaths of WWI was the destruction of the idea of Duty to one’s country. World War I was the betrayal of all a generation of young men who marched off to war full of patriotism, heads filled with stirring tales of daring-do and the value of fighting for one’s king and country. Instead they were slaughtered senselessly in the mud and squalor of the trenches while the powers that be sat comfortably behind the lines and moved lines on a map. Service still believed in king and country, even though he had left Canada by then and settled in France. Not a great war poet, still, Service shows some inkling of what the war was doing.
Many of the poems in this book are about an old-style call to duty:
High and low, all must go:
Hark to the shout of War!
Leave to the women the harvest yield;
Gird ye, men, for the sinister field;
A sabre instead of a scythe to wield:
War! Red War!
Or how about:
We’ve bidden good-bye to life in a cage,
we’re finished with pushing a pen;
They’re pumping us full of bellicose rage,
they’re showing us how to be men;
We’re only beginning to find ourselves;
we’re wonders of brawn and thew;
But when we go back to our Cissy jobs,
Oh! What are we going to do?
Poems deal with comradeship, with the strains of fighting but not giving up, with being wounded and trying to get back into battle, the crummy food and lousy officers and home. The enemy, the Boche, is vilified. But Service is not unaware of the other side of the war. He lost his own brother to battle. As a stretcher bearer he must have seen many mangled and wounded men. His poem “Fleurette” tells of a wounded solder and how the girls react to his wounds. It foreshadows Wilfred Owen’s war poem “Disabled”. Fleurette is much more positive as the wounded man ends the poem with a “Can you wonder now I am gay?/God bless her, that little Fleurette!” Owen’s solder “noticed how the women’s eyes/ Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.” Owen did not survive the war.
From “On the Wire” we have:
Hasten, Oh God! Thy night!
Hide from my eyes the sight
Of the body I stare and see
Shattered so hideously.
“The Ballad of Soulful Sam” is more typical Service. Here we have a Service ballad along the lines of Sam McGee or Dan McGrew. Light hearted, slightly comic with a subversive twist at the end. Service’s poems may be somewhat dated but there are still gems within his books.
Robert W. Service is my second Canadian poet and counts as my Yukon poet.