Robert William Service 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 Western America and Canada, often in some poverty.
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Famous Robert William Service Poems
My Muse is simple,–yet it’s nice
To think you don’t need to think twice
On words I write.
I reckon I’ve a common touch
And if you say I cuss too much
I answer: ‘Quite!’
I envy not the poet’s lot;
He has something I haven’t got,
Alas, I know.
But I have something maybe he
Would envy just a mite in me,–
I’m rather low.
For I am cast of common clay,
And from a ditch I fought my way,
And that is why
The while the poet scans the skies,
My gaze is grimly gutterwise,
Earthy am I.
And yet I have a gift, perhaps
Denied to proud poetic chaps
Who scoff at me;
I know the hearts of humble folk;
I too have bowed beneath the yoke:
So let my verse for them evoke
Of Poetry I’ve been accused,
But much more often I have not;
Oh, I have been so much amused
By those who’ve put me on the spot,
And measured me by rules above
Those I observe with equal love.
An artisan of verse am I,
Of simple sense and humble tone;
My Thesaurus is handy by,
A rhyming lexicon I own;
Without them I am ill at ease –
What bards would use such aids as these?
Bad poets make good verse, they say;
The Great have not distained to woo
The modest muse of every day;
Read Longfellow and Byron through,
The fabric test – much verse you’ll see
Compared with what is poetry.
Small blame; one cannot always soar
To heights of hyaline sublime;
Melodious prose one must deplore,
And fetters of rebellious rhyme:
Keats, Browning – that’s another tale,
But even Giants fail and fail.
I’ve worshipped Ryley, Harte and Field,
And though their minstrelsy I lack,
To them heart-homage here I yield,
And follow with my verseman’s pack:
To them with gratitude I look,
For briefing me to make this book.
I saw the Greatest Man on Earth,
Aye, saw him with my proper eyes.
A loin-cloth spanned his proper girth,
But he was naked otherwise,
Excepting for his grey sombrero;
And when his domelike head he bared,
With reverence I stared and stared,
As mummified as any Pharaoh.
He leaned upon a little cane,
A big cigar was in his mouth;
Through spectacles of yellow stain
He gazed and gazed toward the South;
And then he dived into the sea,
As if to Corsica to swim;
His side stroke was so strong and free
I could not help but envy him.
A fitter man than I, I said,
Although his age is more than mine;
And I was strangely comforted
To see him battle in the brine.
Thought I: We have no cause for sorrow;
For one so dynamic to-day
Will gird him for the future fray
And lead us lion-like to-morrow.
The Greatest Man in all the world
Lay lazing like you or me,
Within a flimsy bathrobe curled
Upon a mattress by the sea:
He reached to pat a tou-tou’s nose,
And scratched his torso now and then,
And scribbled with a fountain pen
What I assumed was jewelled prose.
And then methought he looked at me,
And hailed me with a gesture grand;
His fingers made the letter “V,”
So I, too, went to raise my hand; –
When nigh to me the barman glided
With liquid gold, and then I knew
He merely called for cock-tails two,
And so abjectly I subsided.
Yet I have had my moment’s glory,
A-squatting nigh that Mighty Tory,
Proud Hero of our Island Story.
With peace and rest
And wisdom sage,
Ripeness is best
Of every age.
With hands that fold
In pensive prayer,
For grave-yard mold
From fighting free
With fear forgot,
Let ripeness be,
Before the rot.
With heart of cheer
At eighty odd,
How man grows near
With passion spent
And life nigh run
Let us repent
The ill we’ve done.
And as we bless
With happy heart
The Cat With Wings
You never saw a cat with wings,
I’ll bet a dollar — well, I did;
‘Twas one of those fantastic things
One runs across in old Madrid.
A walloping big tom it was,
(Maybe of the Angora line),
With silken ears and velvet paws,
And silver hair, superbly fine.
It sprawled upon a crimson mat,
Yet though crowds came to gaze on it,
It was a supercilious cat,
And didn’t seem to mind a bit.
It looked at us with dim disdain,
And indolently seemed to sigh:
“There’s not another cat in Spain
One half so marvelous as I.”
Its owner gently stroked its head,
And tickled it with fingers light.
“Ah no, it cannot fly,” he said;
“But see – it has the wings all right.”
Then tenderly from off its back
He raised, despite its feline fears,
Appendages that seemed to lack
Vitality – like rabbit’s ears.
And then the vision that I had
Of Tabbie soaring through the night,
Quick vanished, and I felt so sad
For that poor pussy’s piteous plight.
For though frustration has it stings,
Its mockeries in Hope’s despite,
The hell of hells is to have wings
Yet be denied the bliss of flight
A pote is sure a goofy guy;
He ain’t got guts like you or I
To tell the score;
He ain’t goy gumption ’nuff to know
The game of life’s to get the dough,
Then get some more.
Take Brother Bill, he used to be
The big shot of the family,
The first at school;
But since about a year ago,
Through readin’ Longfeller and Poe,
He’s most a fool.
He mopes around with dimwit stare;
You might as well jest not be there,
The way he looks;
You’d think he shuns the human race,
The how he buries down his face
In highbrow books.
I’ve seen him stand for near an hour,
Jest starin’ at a simple flower –
Sich waste o’ time;
The scribblin’ on an envelope . . .
Why, most of all his silly dope
Don’t even rhyme.
Now Brother’s Jim’s an engineer,
And Brother Tim’s a bank cashier,
While I keep store;
Yet Bill, the brightest of the flock,
Might be a lawyer or a doc,
And then some more.
But no, he moons and loafs about,
As if he tried to figger out
Why skies are blue;
Instead o’ gittin’ down to grips
Wi’ life an’ stackin’ up the chips
Like me an’ you.
Well, since them final lines I wrote,
We’re mournin’ for our Brother Pote:
Bill crossed the sea
And solved his problem with the beat,
For now he lies in peace and rest
He died the bravest of the brave,
And here I’m standin’ by his grave
So far from home;
With just a wooden cross to tell
How in the blaze of battle hell
As gloriously there he fell –
Bill wrote his “pome”.
When I was young I was too proud
To wheel my daughter in her pram.
“It’s infra dig,” I said aloud,–
Bot now I’m old, behold I am
Perambulating up and down
Grand-daughter through the town.
And when I come into the Square,
Beside the fountain I will stop;
And as to rest I linger there,
The dames will say: “How do, Grand-pop!
Lucindy Jane with eyes so blue
Looks more and more like you.”
And sure it’s pleased as Punch I get,
And take Lucindy on my knee;
Aye, at the risk of getting wet,
I blether to the girls a wee:
Then as we have a bottle date
Home we perambulate.
Gosh! That’s the joy of all my day;
And as I play the part of nurse:
“She’s got your nose,” I hear them say.
Thinks I: “Well now, she might have worse.”
And how I dream I’ll live to see
A great-grandchild upon my knee,
Whom folks say looks like me!
My Favourite Fan
Being a writer I receive
Sweet screeds from folk of every land;
Some are so weird you’d scarce believe,
And some quite hard to understand:
But as a conscientious man
I type my thanks to all I can.
So when I got a foreign scrawl
That spider-webbed across the page,
Said I: “This is the worst of all;
No doubt a child of tender age
Has written it, so I’ll be kind,
And send an answer to her mind.
Promptly I typed a nice reply
And thought that it would be the end,
But in due course confused was I
To get a letter signed: Your Friend;
And with it, full of girlish grace,
A snapshot of a winsome face.
“I am afraid,” she wrote to me,
“That you must have bees sure surprised
At my poor penmanship . . . You see,
My arms and legs are paralyzed:
With pen held in a sort of sheath
I do my writing with my teeth.”
Though sadness followed my amaze,
And pity too, I must confess
The look that lit her laughing gaze
Was one of sunny happiness. . . .
Oh spirit of a heroine!
Your smile so tender, so divine,
I pray, may never cease to shine.
O Sacred Muse, my lyre excuse! –
My verse is vagrant singing;
Rhyme I invoke for simple folk
Of penny-wise upbringing:
For Grannies grey to paste away
Within an album cover;
For maids in class to primly pass,
And lads to linger over.
I take the clay of every day
And mould it in my fashion;
I seek to trace the commonplace
With humor and compassion.
Of earth am I, and meekly try
To be supremely human:
To please, I plan, the little man,
And win the little women.
No evil theme shall daunt my dream
Of fellow-love and pity;
I tune my lute to prostitute,
To priest I pipe my ditty.
Through gutter-grime be in my rhyme,
I bow to altars holy. . . .
Lord, humble me, so I may be
A Laureate of the Lowly.
Oh, I was born a lyric babe
(That last word is a bore –
It’s only rhyme is astrolabe,”
Whose meaning I ignore.)
From cradlehood I lisped in numbers,
Made jingles even in my slumbers.
Said Ma: “He’ll be a bard, I know it.”
Said Pa: “let’s hoe he will outgrow it.”
Alas! I never did and so
A dreamer and a drone was I,
Who persevered in want and woe
His misery to versify.
Yea, I was doomed to be a failure
(Old Browning rhymes that last with “pale lure”):
And even starving in the gutter,
My macaronics I would utter.
Then in a poor, cheap book I crammed,
And to the public maw I tossed
My bitter Dirges of the Damned,
My Lyrics of the Lost.
“Let carping critic flay and flout
My Ditties of the Down and Out –
“There now,” said I, “I’ve done with verse,
My love, my weakness and my curse.”
Then lo! (As I would fain believe,
Before they crown, the fates would shame us)
I went to sleep one bitter eve,
And woke to find that I was famous. . . .
And so the sunny sequels were a
Gay villa on the Riviera,
A bank account, a limousine, a
Life patterned dolce e divina.
Oh, yes, my lyric flight is flighty;
My muse is much more mite than mighty:
But poetry has been my friend,
And rhyming’s saved me in the end.
Kings Must Die
Alphonso Rex who died in Rome
Was quite a fistful as a kid;
For when I visited his home,
That gorgeous palace in Madrid,
The grinning guide-chap showed me where
He rode his bronco up the stair.
That stairway grand of marbled might,
The most majestic in the land,
In statured splendour, flight on flight,
He urged his steed with whip in hand.
No lackey could restrain him for
He gained the gilded corridor.
He burst into the Royal suite,
And like a cowboy whooped with glee;
Dodging the charger’s flying feet
The Chamberlain was shocked to see:
Imagine how it must have been a
Grief to Mother Queen Christina!
And so through sheer magnificence
I roamed from stately room to room,
Yet haunted ever by the sense
Of tragical dynastic doom.
The walls were wailing: Kings must die,
Being plain blokes like you and I.
Well, here’s the moral to my rhyme:
When memories more worthy fade
We find that whimsically Time
Conserves some crazy escapade.
So as I left I stood to stare
With humorous enjoyment where
Alphonso crashed the Palace stair.
Dogs have a sense beyond our ken –
At least my little Trixie had:
Tail-wagging when I laughed, and when
I sighed, eyes luminously sad.
And if I planned to go away,
She’d know, oh, days and days before:
Aye, dogs I think are sometimes fey,
They seem to sense our fate in store.
Now take the case of old Tome Low;
With flowers each week he’d call on me.
Dear Trixie used to love him so,
With joyous jump upon his knee.
Yet when he wandered in one day,
Her hair grew sudden stark with dread;
She growled, she howled, she ran away . . .
Well, ten hours later Tom was dead.
Aye, dogs hear sounds we cannot hear,
And dogs see sights we cannot see;
And that is why I took the fear
That one day she would glare at me
As if a Shape cowered on my bead,
And with each hair on end she’d creep
Beneath the couch and whine with dread . . .
And so I’ve had her put to sleep.
Now Trixie’s gone, the only one
Who loved me in my lonely life,
And here I wait, my race nigh run,
My ill too grievous for the knife.
My hand of ice she’ll never lick,
My heedless mask she’ll never see:
No heartbreak – just a needle prick. . . .
Oh, Doctor, do the same for me!
Why am I full of joy although
It drizzles on the links?
Why am I buying Veuve Cliquot,
And setting up the drinks?
Why stand I like a prince amid
My pals and envy none?
Ye gods of golf! Today I did
A Hole in One.
I drove my ball to heaven high,
It over-topped the hill;
I tried to guess how it would lie,
If on the fairway still.
I climbed the rise, so sure I’d hit
It straight towards the green:
I looked and looked,–no trace of it
Was to be seen.
My partner putted to the pin,
Then hoarse I heard him call;
And lo! So snug the hole within
Gleamed up my ball.
Yea, it was mine. Oh what a thrill!
What dandy drive I’d done
By luck,–well, grant a little skill,
I’d holed in one.
Say that my score is eighty odd,
And though I won’t give up,–
Say that as round the course I plod,
I never win a cup.
Say that my handicap’s nineteen,
And of my game make fun,
But holler: ‘On the seventh green
HE HOLED IN ONE.’
“Tuberculosis should not be,”
The old professor said.
“If folks would hearken unto me
‘Twould save a million dead.
Nay, no consumptive needs to die,
–A cure have I.
“From blood of turtle I’ve distilled
An elixir of worth;
Let every sufferer be thrilled
And sing for joy of earth;
Yet every doctor turns his back
And calls me quack.
“Alas! They do not want to cure,
For sickness is their meat;
So persecution I endure,
And die in dark defeat:
Ye lungers, listen to my call!
–I’ll save you all.”
The old Professor now is dead,
And turtles of the sea,
Knowing their blood they need not shed,
Are festive in their glee:
While sanitoriums are crammed
With legions dammed.
Said Jock McBrown to Tam McSmith,
“A little bet I’m game to take on,
That I can scotch this Shakespeare myth
And prove Will just a stoodge for Bacon.”
Said Tam McSmith to Jock McBrown,
“Ye gyke, I canna let ye rave on.
See here, I put a shilling down:
My betting’s on the Bard of Avon.”
Said Jock McBrown to Tam McSmith,
“Come on, ye’ll pay a braw wee dramlet;
Bacon’s my bet – the proof herewith . . .
He called his greatest hero – HAMlet.”
For oh, when the war will be over
We’ll go and we’ll look for our dead;
We’ll go when the bee’s on the clover,
And the plume of the poppy is red:
We’ll go when the year’s at its gayest,
When meadows are laughing with flow’rs;
And there where the crosses are greyest,
We’ll seek for the cross that is ours.
For they cry to us: Friends, we are lonely,
A-weary the night and the day;
But come in the blossom-time only,
Come when our graves will be gay:
When daffodils all are a-blowing,
And larks are a-thrilling the skies,
Oh, come with the hearts of you glowing,
And the joy of the Spring in your eyes.
But never, oh, never come sighing,
For ours was the Splendid Release;
And oh, but ’twas joy in the dying
To know we were winning you Peace!
So come when the valleys are sheening,
And fledged with the promise of grain;
And here where our graves will be greening,
Just smile and be happy again.
And so, when the war will be over,
We’ll seek for the Wonderful One;
And maiden will look for her lover,
And mother will look for her son;
And there will be end to our grieving,
And gladness will gleam over loss,
As — glory beyond all believing!
We point . . . to a name on a cross.