At the beginning of his career, Robert William Service was almost immediately recognized after his first publication drew acclaim for his powerful stories and excellent depictions of life in the Yukon. Although some of his early subject matter could be fairly grim, the works contained in his volume a few years later were based on his World War I experience, and they continued this tradition, often reaching for new levels of dark, vivid, and evocative.
Verse by Verse
I’ve tinkered at my bits of rhymes
In weary, woeful, waiting times;
In doleful hours of battle-din,
Ere yet they brought the wounded in;
Through vigils of the fateful night,
In lousy barns by candle-light;
In dug-outs, sagging and aflood,
On stretchers stiff and bleared with blood;
By ragged grove, by ruined road,
By hearths accurst where Love abode;
By broken altars, blackened shrines
I’ve tinkered at my bits of rhymes.
The narrator of this poem is a self-described poet, suggesting that in this case, the writer of the poem and the narrator are one and the same. The narrator is described as using their spare time during sorrowful, dark hours to write poetry while waiting for wounded men to come to them. All through the night, they say, and in trenches, on stretchers, in destroyed buildings and with destroyed people, they write their rhymes. Writing is how the narrator is able to cope with the atrocities described; the descriptions suggest that this is being written at a time of war, a significant battle, where even churches and barns are targets for attack and destruction. The structure of Foreword is a simple one — each line is eight syllables long, and the rhyme follows an AABB pattern.
I’ve solaced me with scraps of song
The desolated ways along:
Through sickly fields all shrapnel-sown,
And meadows reaped by death alone;
By blazing cross and splintered spire,
By headless Virgin in the mire;
By gardens gashed amid their bloom,
By gutted grave, by shattered tomb;
Beside the dying and the dead,
Where rocket green and rocket red,
In trembling pools of poising light,
With flowers of flame festoon the night.
Ah me! by what dark ways of wrong
I’ve cheered my heart with scraps of song.
In the second verse, the narrator describes the terrors their writings comfort them against; fields, one containing crops, now contain dying plants and shrapnel. The meadows that have survived are reaped only by death, suggesting the farmers are dead or in hiding. No one is safe — “headless Virgins” is a particularly dark description, suggesting that even innocent people are not safe from the soldiers’ march. The capitalization of “Virgins” may also suggest a reference to the Virgin Mary of Christendom. If so, the dual meaning likely indicates that neither innocence nor faith are reasons to be spared by the ongoing war. Amidst all of this, the only solace the narrator holds is their writings, their own way of remaining sane while they are surrounded by this war.
So here’s my sheaf of war-won verse,
And some is bad, and some is worse.
And if at times I curse a bit,
You needn’t read that part of it;
For through it all like horror runs
The red resentment of the guns.
And you yourself would mutter when
You took the things that once were men,
And sped them through that zone of hate
To where the dripping surgeons wait;
And wonder too if in God’s sight
War ever, ever can be right.
The third verse comes as something of a warning — a declaration that because the writings of the speaker are born of war, that some of it will be bad, some of it will be ugly, but all throughout it will be anger, resentment, and utter disdain for the topic. The narrator claims too that they understand if a person would rather not read the uglier writings from the war, but that they also hope the reader will understand that although the subject matter is ugly, the things in the war that inspired them would be enough to turn anyone bitter. If the reader watched, as the narrator watched, as men walked through war zones and became little more than weapons to ultimately be killed or delivered to surgeons, they too would have little choice but to believe that every atrocity is a terrible occurrence that surely could never be tolerated by the highest moral authority — by God. They too would wonder, and so the speaker hopes that they will not be judged for the darkness of their war-songs.
Yet may it not be, crime and war
But effort misdirected are?
And if there’s good in war and crime,
There may be in my bits of rhyme,
My songs from out the slaughter mill:
So take or leave them as you will.
As a final verse, the narrator muses about the morality of war, apparently trying to understand the logic that separates a “war crime” from a “crime.” In their view, if there’s anything “good” to be taken out of the tragedy, it might be that a few good poems were composed in its midst. To finish the poem, we are told that it is all the same to the writer whether the reader wishes to read their work or not — for every single one was created amidst slaughter and pain.
Foreword is the first poem published from Service’s fourth volume Rhymes of a Red Cross Man in 1916. The foreword of the book is this poem, and it is also written in a different font from the rest of the book in its publication — suggesting that Robert Service himself is the narrator of the poem, and his warnings are genuine musings on the contents of the book. The poems in the volume were composed during Service’s years of service in World War One.
During the War, Service was living in Paris, France, and as a British-Canadian citizen he signed up to fight but was turned down. For a year or so, he was a reporter, writing articles for the Toronto Star before his arrest by soldiers in a bought of paranoia that he might be a spy. When he was released, he became an ambulance driver and worked for the American Red Cross, managing stretchers and delivering the wounded to hospitals. These events would have given him significant insight into the terrible atrocities that were World War One — trench warfare, early artillery fire, biological weaponry, and all of the pain that took place throughout the fields. He evidently wrote his verses throughout his experience to keep himself sane, and later published them in the book whose title is a reference to his role on the field.
Rhymes of a Red Cross Man begins not with Foreword, but with a dedication to Robert Service’s brother, Lieutenant Albert Service of the Canadian Infantry, who was killed in action in France, in August, 1916. This event undoubtedly inspired part of Foreword, as one final tragedy to scar the war into Service’s heart, and into Rhymes of a Red Cross Man.