Oh, how bitter I feel as the days go by! It is creeping more and more into my verse. Read this:
I wonder 'oo and wot 'e was, That 'Un I got so slick. I couldn't see 'is face because The night was 'ideous thick. I just made out among the black A blinkin' wedge o' white; Then biff! I guess I got 'im crack— The man I killed last night.
I wonder if account o' me Some wench will go unwed, And 'eaps o' lives will never be, Because 'e's stark and dead? Or if 'is missis damns the war, And by some candle light, Tow-headed kids are prayin' for The Fritz I copped last night.
I wonder, 'struth, I wonder why I 'ad that 'orful dream? I saw up in the giddy sky The gates o' God agleam; I saw the gates o' 'eaven shine Wiv everlastin' light: And then . . . I knew that I'd got mine, As 'e got 'is last night.
Aye, bang beyond the broodin' mists Where spawn the mother stars, I 'ammered wiv me bloody fists Upon them golden bars; I 'ammered till a devil's doubt Fair froze me wiv affright: To fink wot God would say about The bloke I corpsed last night.
I 'ushed; I wilted wiv despair, When, like a rosy flame, I sees a angel standin' there 'Oo calls me by me name. 'E 'ad such soft, such shiny eyes; 'E 'eld 'is 'and and smiled; And through the gates o' Paradise 'E led me like a child.
'E led me by them golden palms Wot 'ems that jeweled street; And seraphs was a-singin' psalms, You've no ideer 'ow sweet; Wiv cheroobs crowdin' closer round Than peas is in a pod, 'E led me to a shiny mound Where beams the throne o' God.
And then I 'ears God's werry voice: "Bill 'agan, 'ave no fear. Stand up and glory and rejoice For 'im 'oo led you 'ere." And in a nip I seemed to see: Aye, like a flash o' light, My angel pal I knew to be The chap I plugged last night.
Now, I don't claim to understand— They calls me Bonehead Bill; They shoves a rifle in me 'and, And show me 'ow to kill. Me job's to risk me life and limb, But . . . be it wrong or right, This cross I'm makin', it's for 'im, The cove I croaked last night.
A Lapse of Time and a Word of Explanation
The American Hospital, Neuilly,
Four years have passed and it is winter again. Much has happened. When I last wrote, on the Somme in 1915, I was sickening with typhoid fever. All that spring I was in hospital.
Nevertheless, I was sufficiently recovered to take part in the Champagne battle in the fall of that year, and to "carry on" during the following winter. It was at Verdun I got my first wound.
In the spring of 1917 I again served with my Corps; but on the entry of the United States into the War I joined the army of my country. In the Argonne I had my left arm shot away.
As far as time and health permitted, I kept a record of these years, and also wrote much verse. All this, however, has disappeared under circumstances into which there is no need to enter here. The loss was a cruel one, almost more so than that of my arm; for I have neither the heart nor the power to rewrite this material.
And now, in default of something better, I have bundled together this manuscript, and have added to it a few more verses, written in hospitals. Let it represent me. If I can find a publisher for it, tant mieux. If not, I will print it at my own cost, and any one who cares for a copy can write to me—
12 bis, Rue des Petits Moineaux,
"There's something in your face, Michael, I've seen it all the day; There's something quare that wasn't there when first ye wint away. . . ."
"It's just the Army life, mother, the drill, the left and right, That puts the stiffinin' in yer spine and locks yer jaw up tight. . . ."
"There's something in your eyes, Michael, an' how they stare and stare— You're lookin' at me now, me boy, as if I wasn't there. . . ."
"It's just the things I've seen, mother, the sights that come and come, A bit o' broken, bloody pulp that used to be a chum. . . ."
"There's something on your heart, Michael, that makes ye wake at night, And often when I hear ye moan, I trimble in me fright. . . ."
"It's just a man I killed, mother, a mother's son like me; It seems he's always hauntin' me, he'll never let me be. . . ."
"But maybe he was bad, Michael, maybe it was right To kill the inimy you hate in fair and honest fight. . . ."
"I did not hate at all, mother; he never did me harm; I think he was a lad like me, who worked upon a farm. . . ."
"And what's it all about, Michael; why did you have to go, A quiet, peaceful lad like you, and we were happy so? . . ."
"It's thim that's up above, mother, it's thim that sits an' rules; We've got to fight the wars they make, it's us as are the fools. . . ."
"And what will be the end, Michael, and what's the use, I say, Of fightin' if whoever wins it's us that's got to pay? . . ."
"Oh, it will be the end, mother, when lads like him and me, That sweat to feed the ones above, decide that we'll be free. . . ."
"And when will that day come, Michael, and when will fightin' cease, And simple folks may till their soil and live and love in peace? . . ."
"It's coming soon and soon, mother, it's nearer every day, When only men who work and sweat will have a word to say; When all who earn their honest bread in every land and soil Will claim the Brotherhood of Man, the Comradeship of Toil; When we, the Workers, all demand: 'What are we fighting for?' . . . Then, then we'll end that stupid crime, that devil's madness—War."
"Tell Annie I'll be home in time To help her with her Christmas-tree." That's what he wrote, and hark! the chime Of Christmas bells, and where is he? And how the house is dark and sad, And Annie's sobbing on my knee!
The page beside the candle-flame With cruel type was overfilled; I read and read until a name Leapt at me and my heart was stilled: My eye crept up the column—up Unto its hateful heading: Killed.
And there was Annie on the stair: "And will he not be long?" she said. Her eyes were bright and in her hair She'd twined a bit of riband red; And every step was daddy's sure, Till tired out she went to bed.
And there alone I sat so still, With staring eyes that did not see; The room was desolate and chill, And desolate the heart of me; Outside I heard the news-boys shrill: "Another Glorious Victory!"
A victory. . . . Ah! what care I? A thousand victories are vain. Here in my ruined home I cry From out my black despair and pain, I'd rather, rather damned defeat, And have my man with me again.
They talk to us of pride and power, Of Empire vast beyond the sea; As here beside my hearth I cower, What mean such words as these to me? Oh, will they lift the clouds that low'r, Or light my load in years to be?
What matters it to us poor folk? Who win or lose, it's we who pay. Oh, I would laugh beneath the yoke If I had him at home to-day; One's home before one's country comes: Aye, so a million women say.
"Hush, Annie dear, don't sorrow so." (How can I tell her?) "See, we'll light With tiny star of purest glow Each little candle pink and white." (They make mistakes. I'll tell myself I did not read that name aright.) Come, dearest one; come, let us pray Beside our gleaming Christmas-tree; Just fold your little hands and say These words so softly after me: "God pity mothers in distress, And little children fatherless."
"God pity mothers in distress, And little children fatherless."
. . . . .
What's that?—a step upon the stair; A shout!—the door thrown open wide! My hero and my man is there, And Annie's leaping by his side. . . . The room reels round, I faint, I fall. . . . "O God! Thy world is glorified."
What d'ye think, lad; what d'ye think, As the roaring crowds go by? As the banners flare and the brasses blare And the great guns rend the sky? As the women laugh like they'd all gone mad, And the champagne glasses clink: Oh, you're grippin' me hand so tightly, lad, I'm a-wonderin': what d'ye think?
D'ye think o' the boys we used to know, And how they'd have topped the fun? Tom and Charlie, and Jack and Joe— Gone now, every one. How they'd have cheered as the joy-bells chime, And they grabbed each girl for a kiss! And now—they're rottin' in Flanders slime, And they gave their lives—for this.
Or else d'ye think of the many a time We wished we too was dead, Up to our knees in the freezin' grime, With the fires of hell overhead; When the youth and the strength of us sapped away, And we cursed in our rage and pain? And yet—we haven't a word to say. . . . We're glad. We'd do it again.
I'm scared that they pity us. Come, old boy, Let's leave them their flags and their fuss. We'd surely be hatin' to spoil their joy With the sight of such wrecks as us. Let's slip away quietly, you and me, And we'll talk of our chums out there: You with your eyes that'll never see, Me that's wheeled in a chair.
Was It You?
"Hullo, young Jones! with your tie so gay And your pen behind your ear; Will you mark my cheque in the usual way? For I'm overdrawn, I fear." Then you look at me in a manner bland, As you turn your ledger's leaves, And you hand it back with a soft white hand, And the air of a man who grieves. . . .
"Was it you, young Jones, was it you I saw (And I think I see you yet) With a live bomb gripped in your grimy paw And your face to the parapet? With your lips asnarl and your eyes gone mad With a fury that thrilled you through. . . . Oh, I look at you now and I think, my lad, Was it you, young Jones, was it you?
"Hullo, young Smith, with your well-fed look And your coat of dapper fit, Will you recommend me a decent book With nothing of War in it?" Then you smile as you polish a finger-nail, And your eyes serenely roam, And you suavely hand me a thrilling tale By a man who stayed at home.
"Was it you, young Smith, was it you I saw In the battle's storm and stench, With a roar of rage and a wound red-raw Leap into the reeking trench? As you stood like a fiend on the firing-shelf And you stabbed and hacked and slew. . . . Oh, I look at you and I ask myself, Was it you, young Smith, was it you?
"Hullo, old Brown, with your ruddy cheek And your tummy's rounded swell, Your garden's looking jolly chic And your kiddies awf'ly well. Then you beam at me in your cheery way As you swing your water-can; And you mop your brow and you blithely say: 'What about golf, old man?'
"Was it you, old Brown, was it you I saw Like a bull-dog stick to your gun, A cursing devil of fang and claw When the rest were on the run? Your eyes aflame with the battle-hate. . . . As you sit in the family pew, And I see you rising to pass the plate, I ask: Old Brown, was it you?
"Was it me and you? Was it you and me? (Is that grammar, or is it not?) Who groveled in filth and misery, Who gloried and groused and fought? Which is the wrong and which is the right? Which is the false and the true? The man of peace or the man of fight? Which is the ME and the YOU?"
Les Grands Mutiles
I saw three wounded of the war: And the first had lost his eyes; And the second went on wheels and had No legs below the thighs; And the face of the third was featureless, And his mouth ran cornerwise. So I made a rhyme about each one, And this is how my fancies run.
The Sightless Man
Out of the night a crash, A roar, a rampart of light; A flame that leaped like a lash, Searing forever my sight; Out of the night a flash, Then, oh, forever the Night!
Here in the dark I sit, I who so loved the sun; Supple and strong and fit, In the dark till my days be done; Aye, that's the hell of it, Stalwart and twenty-one.
Marie is stanch and true, Willing to be my wife; Swears she has eyes for two . . . Aye, but it's long, is Life. What is a lad to do With his heart and his brain at strife?
There now, my pipe is out; No one to give me a light; I grope and I grope about. Well, it is nearly night; Sleep may resolve my doubt, Help me to reason right. . . .
(He sleeps and dreams.)
I heard them whispering there by the bed . . . Oh, but the ears of the blind are quick! Every treacherous word they said Was a stab of pain and my heart turned sick. Then lip met lip and they looked at me, Sitting bent by the fallen fire, And they laughed to think that I couldn't see; But I felt the flame of their hot desire. He's helping Marie to work the farm, A dashing, upstanding chap, they say; And look at me with my flabby arm, And the fat of sloth, and my face of clay— Look at me as I sit and sit, By the side of a fire that's seldom lit, Sagging and weary the livelong day, When every one else is out on the field, Sowing the seed for a golden yield, Or tossing around the new-mown hay. . . .
Oh, the shimmering wheat that frets the sky, Gold of plenty and blue of hope, I'm seeing it all with an inner eye As out of the door I grope and grope. And I hear my wife and her lover there, Whispering, whispering, round the rick, Mocking me and my sightless stare, As I fumble and stumble everywhere, Slapping and tapping with my stick; Old and weary at thirty-one, Heartsick, wishing it all was done. Oh, I'll tap my way around to the byre, And I'll hear the cows as they chew their hay; There at least there is none to tire, There at least I am not in the way. And they'll look at me with their velvet eyes And I'll stroke their flanks with my woman's hand, And they'll answer to me with soft replies, And somehow I fancy they'll understand. And the horses too, they know me well; I'm sure that they pity my wretched lot, And the big fat ram with the jingling bell . . . Oh, the beasts are the only friends I've got. And my old dog, too, he loves me more, I think, than ever he did before. Thank God for the beasts that are all so kind, That know and pity the helpless blind!
Ha! they're coming, the loving pair. My hand's a-shake as my pipe I fill. What if I steal on them unaware With a reaping-hook, to kill, to kill? . . . I'll do it . . . they're there in the mow of hay, I hear them saying: "He's out of the way!" Hark! how they're kissing and whispering. . . . Closer I creep . . . I crouch . . . I spring. . . .
Ugh! What a horrible dream I've had! And it isn't real . . . I'm glad, I'm glad! Marie is good and Marie is true . . . But now I know what it's best to do. I'll sell the farm and I'll seek my kind, I'll live apart with my fellow-blind, And we'll eat and drink, and we'll laugh and joke, And we'll talk of our battles, and smoke and smoke; And brushes of bristle we'll make for sale, While one of us reads a book of Braille. And there will be music and dancing too, And we'll seek to fashion our life anew; And we'll walk the highways hand in hand, The Brotherhood of the Sightless Band; Till the years at last shall bring respite And our night is lost in the Greater Night.
The Legless Man
(The Dark Side)
My mind goes back to Fumin Wood, and how we stuck it out, Eight days of hunger, thirst and cold, mowed down by steel and flame; Waist-deep in mud and mad with woe, with dead men all about, We fought like fiends and waited for relief that never came. Eight days and nights they rolled on us in battle-frenzied mass! "Debout les morts!" We hurled them back. By God! they did not pass.
They pinned two medals on my chest, a yellow and a brown, And lovely ladies made me blush, such pretty words they said. I felt a cheerful man, almost, until my eyes went down, And there I saw the blankets—how they sagged upon my bed. And then again I drank the cup of sorrow to the dregs: Oh, they can keep their medals if they give me back my legs.
I think of how I used to run and leap and kick the ball, And ride and dance and climb the hills and frolic in the sea; And all the thousand things that now I'll never do at all. . . . Mon Dieu! there's nothing left in life, it often seems to me. And as the nurses lift me up and strap me in my chair, If they would chloroform me off I feel I wouldn't care.
Ah yes! we're "heroes all" to-day—they point to us with pride; To-day their hearts go out to us, the tears are in their eyes! But wait a bit; to-morrow they will blindly look aside; No more they'll talk of what they owe, the dues of sacrifice (One hates to be reminded of an everlasting debt). It's all in human nature. Ah! the world will soon forget.
My mind goes back to where I lay wound-rotted on the plain, And ate the muddy mangold roots, and drank the drops of dew, And dragged myself for miles and miles when every move was pain, And over me the carrion-crows were retching as they flew. Oh, ere I closed my eyes and stuck my rifle in the air I wish that those who picked me up had passed and left me there.
(The Bright Side)
Oh, one gets used to everything! I hum a merry song, And up the street and round the square I wheel my chair along; For look you, how my chest is sound And how my arms are strong!
Oh, one gets used to anything! It's awkward at the first, And jolting o'er the cobbles gives A man a grievous thirst; But of all ills that one must bear That's surely not the worst.
For there's the cafe open wide, And there they set me up; And there I smoke my caporal Above my cider cup; And play manille a while before I hurry home to sup.
At home the wife is waiting me With smiles and pigeon-pie; And little Zi-Zi claps her hands With laughter loud and high; And if there's cause to growl, I fail To see the reason why.
And all the evening by the lamp I read some tale of crime, Or play my old accordion With Marie keeping time, Until we hear the hour of ten From out the steeple chime.
Then in the morning bright and soon, No moment do I lose; Within my little cobbler's shop To gain the silver sous (Good luck one has no need of legs To make a pair of shoes).
And every Sunday—oh, it's then I am the happy man; They wheel me to the river-side, And there with rod and can I sit and fish and catch a dish Of goujons for the pan.
Aye, one gets used to everything, And doesn't seem to mind; Maybe I'm happier than most Of my two-legged kind; For look you at the darkest cloud, Lo! how it's silver-lined.
The Faceless Man
I'm dead. Officially I'm dead. Their hope is past. How long I stood as missing! Now, at last I'm dead. Look in my face—no likeness can you see, No tiny trace of him they knew as "me". How terrible the change! Even my eyes are strange. So keyed are they to pain, That if I chanced to meet My mother in the street She'd look at me in vain.
When she got home I think she'd say: "I saw the saddest sight to-day— A poilu with no face at all. Far better in the fight to fall Than go through life like that, I think. Poor fellow! how he made me shrink. No face. Just eyes that seemed to stare At me with anguish and despair. This ghastly war! I'm almost cheered To think my son who disappeared, My boy so handsome and so gay, Might have come home like him to-day."
I'm dead. I think it's better to be dead When little children look at you with dread; And when you know your coming home again Will only give the ones who love you pain. Ah! who can help but shrink? One cannot blame. They see the hideous husk, not, not the flame Of sacrifice and love that burns within; While souls of satyrs, riddled through with sin, Have bodies fair and excellent to see. Mon Dieu! how different we all would be If this our flesh was ordained to express Our spirit's beauty or its ugliness.
(Oh, you who look at me with fear to-day, And shrink despite yourselves, and turn away— It was for you I suffered woe accurst; For you I braved red battle at its worst; For you I fought and bled and maimed and slew; For you, for you! For you I faced hell-fury and despair; The reeking horror of it all I knew: I flung myself into the furnace there; I faced the flame that scorched me with its glare; I drank unto the dregs the devil's brew— Look at me now—for you and you and you. . . .)
. . . . .
I'm thinking of the time we said good-by: We took our dinner in Duval's that night, Just little Jacqueline, Lucette and I; We tried our very utmost to be bright. We laughed. And yet our eyes, they weren't gay. I sought all kinds of cheering things to say. "Don't grieve," I told them. "Soon the time will pass; My next permission will come quickly round; We'll all meet at the Gare du Montparnasse; Three times I've come already, safe and sound." (But oh, I thought, it's harder every time, After a home that seems like Paradise, To go back to the vermin and the slime, The weariness, the want, the sacrifice. "Pray God," I said, "the war may soon be done, But no, oh never, never till we've won!")
Then to the station quietly we walked; I had my rifle and my haversack, My heavy boots, my blankets on my back; And though it hurt us, cheerfully we talked. We chatted bravely at the platform gate. I watched the clock. My train must go at eight. One minute to the hour . . . we kissed good-by, Then, oh, they both broke down, with piteous cry. I went. . . . Their way was barred; they could not pass. I looked back as the train began to start; Once more I ran with anguish at my heart And through the bars I kissed my little lass. . . .
Three years have gone; they've waited day by day. I never came. I did not even write. For when I saw my face was such a sight I thought that I had better . . . stay away. And so I took the name of one who died, A friendless friend who perished by my side. In Prussian prison camps three years of hell I kept my secret; oh, I kept it well! And now I'm free, but none shall ever know; They think I died out there . . . it's better so.
To-day I passed my wife in widow's weeds. I brushed her arm. She did not even look. So white, so pinched her face, my heart still bleeds, And at the touch of her, oh, how I shook! And then last night I passed the window where They sat together; I could see them clear, The lamplight softly gleaming on their hair, And all the room so full of cozy cheer. My wife was sewing, while my daughter read; I even saw my portrait on the wall. I wanted to rush in, to tell them all; And then I cursed myself: "You're dead, you're dead!" God! how I watched them from the darkness there, Clutching the dripping branches of a tree, Peering as close as ever I might dare, And sobbing, sobbing, oh, so bitterly!
But no, it's folly; and I mustn't stay. To-morrow I am going far away. I'll find a ship and sail before the mast; In some wild land I'll bury all the past. I'll live on lonely shores and there forget, Or tell myself that there has never been The gay and tender courage of Lucette, The little loving arms of Jacqueline.
A man lonely upon a lonely isle, Sometimes I'll look towards the North and smile To think they're happy, and they both believe I died for France, and that I lie at rest; And for my glory's sake they've ceased to grieve, And hold my memory sacred. Ah! that's best. And in that thought I'll find my joy and peace As there alone I wait the Last Release.
_We've finished up the filthy war; We've won what we were fighting for . . . (Or have we? I don't know). But anyway I have my wish: I'm back upon the old Boul' Mich', And how my heart's aglow! Though in my coat's an empty sleeve, Ah! do not think I ever grieve (The pension for it, I believe, Will keep me on the go).
So I'll be free to write and write, And give my soul to sheer delight, Till joy is almost pain; To stand aloof and watch the throng, And worship youth and sing my song Of faith and hope again; To seek for beauty everywhere, To make each day a living prayer That life may not be vain.
To sing of things that comfort me, The joy in mother-eyes, the glee Of little ones at play; The blessed gentleness of trees, Of old men dreaming at their ease Soft afternoons away; Of violets and swallows' wings, Of wondrous, ordinary things In words of every day.
To rhyme of rich and rainy nights, When like a legion leap the lights And take the town with gold; Of taverns quaint where poets dream, Of cafes gaudily agleam, And vice that's overbold; Of crystal shimmer, silver sheen, Of soft and soothing nicotine, Of wine that's rich and old,
Of gutters, chimney-tops and stars, Of apple-carts and motor-cars, The sordid and sublime; Of wealth and misery that meet In every great and little street, Of glory and of grime; Of all the living tide that flows— From princes down to puppet shows— I'll make my humble rhyme.
So if you like the sort of thing Of which I also like to sing, Just give my stuff a look; And if you don't, no harm is done—
In writing it I've had my fun; Good luck to you and every one— And so Here ends my book._
While 'Stephen Poore' is a fictional character, he is real enough in some ways. Robert Service was himself in the Ambulance Corps, and his descriptions of 'Bohemia' of this day, and the emergence of war, bear striking similarities to the case of Alan Seeger—and, no doubt, a great many other 'war poets' of the "Great War". It has been said that every section of the trench had its own poet, and many of them, such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves, became famous for their poetry of the war. This book, in its way, presents a striking picture of the effect of the war on Europe—though it stops short of showing just how great the effect was.
I hope you enjoyed Service's references to himself in the text, as "Sourdough Service"—but they should not be taken too seriously.
The names of two great Russian composers, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, were originally spelled Tschaikowsky and Stravinski in "The Philistine and the Bohemian". These composers were contemporaries of the author, and due to the difficulty of transliterating from the Russian (Cyrillic) alphabet to the Roman Alphabet, hampered by different uses of Roman letters in various European languages, it is not until fairly recently that the current spellings have taken hold—and their grip is not yet firm. A couple of other names were given incorrectly in the same poem: Mallarme was spelled with one L, and E. Burne-Jones (a pre-Raphaelite painter and associate of Rossetti) was given as F. B. Jones. These names are corrected in this text, as is Synge, given as Singe in the original ("L'Escargot D'Or").
Alan R. Light, Monroe, North Carolina, June 1997.
This list of books written by Robert Service is probably incomplete, possibly incorrect, but may serve as a starting point for those interested in his works.
Novels: The Trail of '98—A Northland Romance (1910) The Pretender The Poisoned Paradise The Roughneck The Master of the Microbe The House of Fear (1927)
Ploughman of the Moon (1945) A two-volume Harper of Heaven (1948) autobiography.
Miscellaneous: Why Not Grow Young
Verse: * The Spell of the Yukon (1907) a.k.a. Songs of a Sourdough * Ballads of a Cheechako (1909) [Note: A Sourdough is an old-timer, while a Cheechako is a newbie.] * Rhymes of a Rolling Stone (1912) * Rhymes of a Red Cross Man (1916) * Ballads of a Bohemian (1921) Bar-room Ballads (1940) The Complete Poems (The first 6 books) Songs of a Sunlover Rhymes of a Roughneck Lyrics of a Low Brow Rhymes of a Rebel The Collected Poems Songs For My Supper (1953) Rhymes For My Rags (1956)
* Books marked by an asterisk are presently online.
About the Author
Robert William Service was born 16 January 1874 in Preston, England, but also lived in Scotland before emigrating to Canada in 1894. Service went to the Yukon Territory in 1904 as a bank clerk, and became famous for his poems about this region, which are mostly in his first two books of poetry. He wrote quite a bit of prose as well, and worked as a reporter for some time, but those writings are not nearly as well known as his poems. He travelled around the world quite a bit, and narrowly escaped from France at the beginning of the Second World War, during which time he lived in Hollywood, California. He died 11 September 1958 in France.
Incidentally, he played himself in a movie called "The Spoilers", starring John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich.