Oftentimes, simplicity is the best approach to take for the expression of ideas. There’s no sense, after all, in explaining something in an overly complex way knowing that not everyone will understand the expression of the concept. And this is an idea that Robert Service understood very while he was writing his verse. Often, he used simplicity to be the overtone for complicated and deeply thought-provoking ideas. Take his work, ‘A Hero’, for instance. Throughout the entire work, there is bit one metaphor, and it makes up the most complex poetic device in use. But his word choice is careful; very deliberate, and can be examined for a deeper theme and an opportunity for deep thought as well.
A Hero Analysis
Three times I had the lust to kill,
To clutch a throat so young and fair,
And yet I know beyond a doubt
He’ll get me yet, he’ll get me yet.
The first of the poem’s three verses is extremely well-laid out in style (‘A Hero’ can be read in full here) — it follows a simple alternating rhyming pattern (ABAB), and each line is exactly eight syllables long. As for the content itself, the story doesn’t require a lot of deciphering — the speaker has, in the past, experienced a deep desire to take life. They’ve fantasized about strangling the life of others on three separate occasions, but have a strong enough conscience that they’ve been able to stop their desires each time. They use the image of a demon to describe how they feel during the time the urge takes form, and even the sweat on their brow feels evil, suggesting that during these moments, there is a physical reaction to the difficult suppression. And knowing this physical reaction, the speaker asserts that eventually, they believe they will succumb to the urge to take life and commit murder in their society.
What is especially striking about these lines is the way the repetitive rhyming pattern gives the verse an almost casual feel it. It is very easy to read, and the rhymes are exact — no forced rhymes are utilized. The juxtaposition gives the reader an interesting perspective on the speaker’s mind. To read off such a dark and disturbing passage in such a song-life manner suggests that the narrator is mentally unstable, and is coping with their condition the best way they can.
I know I’m mad, I ought to tell
The doctors, let them care for me,
Yet dim my demon I can see,
And there is but one thing to do.
It is confirmed in the second verse that the narrator feels the weight of their own insanity, but their thought process makes disturbing sense. They recognize that a desire to kill is unhealthy and dangerous, and know that the right thing to do would be to alert a doctor to their condition and surrender to long-term care. In their mind, this means solitary confinement for the rest of their life. Beneath the simple language of the verse, there is a dark undertone: the speaker is saying, “I am diseased, and there will never be a cure.” So when they utter the phrase “There is but one thing to do” after rejecting their notion of medical care, they are implying ending their life.
It is an intelligent choice to preface this line with one referencing the demon from the first stanza — they can still see the demon, and still feel their insane desire to kill lingering in the back of their mind. This would suggest that the “one thing to do” is not, in the mind of the narrator, to end their own life, but rather to destroy the demon. They are not contemplating suicide because of how their condition has altered their mind for their own sake, but rather in an attempt to save the “young and fair” life they fear they will one day take. With this, the entire atmosphere of ‘A Hero’ shifts — the narrator, despite opening their statement with “Three times I had the lust to kill,” is trying to do the right thing above all.
Three times I beat the foul fiend back;
The fourth, I know he will prevail,
Coming to crush my cursed brain . . .
Oh God, have mercy on my soul!
The strength of this final verse, as is the strength of the verses before it, is its sheer simplicity. There is no metaphor, no imagery, and the only poetic devices are the ones that influence the structure of ‘A Hero’ itself, such as the alliteration seen in “the foul fiend,” “the dark and distant,” and “crush my cursed.” Besides that, the story progression is crystal-clear — the speaker, unwilling to commit to psychiatric care and unable too to silence the demon in their mind, chooses to end their life, and, as mentioned earlier, to kill the demon that is so determined to use him to kill. So he goes down to the railroad and waits, praying in his last moments that God will forgive him, as suicide is considered a grievous sin in Abrahamic tradition.
One of the most interesting choices made by Robert Service with regards to this poem is its title: “A Hero.” The title, without being a part of the text, adds another layer of meaning to the words. Without that context, the poem is the self-written epitaph of a madman (or woman); their explanation for why they have lived the way they do and have died the way they have. By titling the poem “A Hero,” Service suggests that despite the religious and social connotations of suicide, the narrator of the poem did the right thing and saved lives in a heroic way. In some manner, it could be argued that they laid down their lives for others; in another, it could be questioned why the speaker did not trust the doctors of the time to take care of him and help him heal… or perhaps they simply refused to take that risk.
In another sense, this work can be seen as a commentary on distrust in the medicinal system to take care of mentally ill individuals. For the speaker of ‘A Hero’, death was preferable to what they considered a lifetime of imprisonment to abate an incurable condition. Whether or not this is a true or fair assessment is never revealed, neither to the speaker nor the reader. Whether or not the speaker could truly have been helped is a mystery, and this adds a rather sad atmosphere to the work, a hopeless undertone that the reader can truly feel driving the speaker to the impossible depths to which they fall. The casual, sing-song-like structure of the poem is especially important to the atmosphere, which combines dismay, hopelessness, and a tinge of insanity through the subject matter, unspoken beliefs, and the structure of the poem itself — not to mention the mention of the speaker being young and handsome in the second verse, as though it’s a valid reason to avoid psychiatric care.
Ultimately, ‘A Hero’ by Robert Service does an admirable job at expressing complex themes and ideas through simplistic imagery and intelligent language. It is a poem that is easy to read but takes a while to digest, and one that is certainly worth digesting.