There’s something strangely endearing about using the phrase “a song of” in the titles of art. The phrase is an attempt to perfectly capture the essence of an idea that the poet wishes to convey above all in their work. The alliteration in this particular title adds to its allure, the idea of a story of success. Who doesn’t want to know about success? The promise and mystery inform the world in a powerful way, and makes it easy to open this particular piece and be taken away by its rhythm and song and promise to tell the reader all about success. This is Robert Service’s strength, and it shines through particularly well in A Song of Success.
A Song of Success Analysis
“Ho!” is the first word of the poem, which can be read in full here, and it’s a very telling choice. It indicates a very casual tone for the poem, and emits excitement, as though the work is supposed to be read like a sea shanty. This is further exemplified by the fact that there are four exclamation points in a verse with only six sentences. The rhythm of the verse — with each line being exactly ten syllables long and rhyming with every other line (ABAB) — is the final element that indicates that this is supposed to be read with particular emotion and excitement, which is pretty easy to slip into once its read aloud.
The actual content of the poem describes a narrator who is describing, in past tense, the joys of their youth. The language utilized — life as a “challenge” and a “fight,” or “gladly” giving their best — speaks to a person who wants to live life to its fullest as best as they can. Most will be able to relate to the strong language, the joyous atmosphere, and the determination expressed to succeed in everything and anything as the whim arises. Many of the metaphors used further this idea; “Smiling is Love in a foam of spring flowers” invokes a number of pleasant imageries. The ultimate aim of the speaker is “pride” and “triumph,” and they are being depicted as well-equipped to achieve those aims.
The second verse marks a change in tone, and the atmosphere notably shifts. Rather than words like “challenge,” “gladly,” “foam,” and “spring,” this verse uses words such as “crowd,” “grey,” “forsaken,” and the unique (and not usually a verb) “funeralled.” This verse describes a more practical and common aspect of life. While the first verse is heavily idealized, this one depicts the process of becoming bogged down by the many, many cares of life that stand in the way of the euphoria previously described. There are “new fields to conquer,” but there is also a notable absence of time, and the speaker is wondering, as they age, about the more philosophical side of life. “Is it worth the while?” they wonder, and it isn’t specified exactly what they’re asking about. The nature of the question, however, is one that is common while aging. It’s easy for the speaker to skip through life with joy and carefree ambition in their youth, by the older they get, the more they wonder where their life is going.
The use of the word “funeralled” is an interesting choice; in combination with the questions of what is “worth it” and the observation of greying hair, it presents a person who is thinking about death quite a bit. Despite this, the final line of the verse indicates that the speaker persevered through their struggles, and reached “the summit.” Even though their step has “lost its spring,” and they are becoming their own obstacle, the protagonists of this poem have reached the heights they dreamed about in their youth. This is kept abstract, likely a deliberate choice to keep the poem relatable for all readers.
The first two lines of the final verse depict a return to form; “aye,” “triumph,” and “victory” set off the joyous tone of the verse, which quickly changes and the speakers realize that something is wrong. Quickly, the tone changes once more — “flat to the taste,” “too late,” and “laboured” mark a new atmosphere, one of worry and paranoia as the speakers realize that the triumph they’ve sought their entire life is not exactly what they’d expected. They achieve wealth, power, and fame, three general words that indicate “success,” and realize that they’ve spent their entire life working towards something that is not as glorious as they’d hoped. They recall the time when they were young, when the world was always in spring, and love was all-consuming, and they miss it. They realize that what they want, more than anything, is for one last year in their youth. Old, tired, and vain, the narrator finally learns the truth about success — and it defeats them utterly.
Service’s use of metaphor and imagery throughout A Song of Success is extremely useful for keeping the nature of the poem exactly as abstract as it needs to be. When Robert Service describes “Life’s choicest vintage,” there are countless things that he could be referring to, depending on the reader and their opinion of what success would be. How each individual person defines success is not something that can be captured properly in any one “song of success,” which the metaphors throughout this work are used to overcome. Even the final, “true” definition of success is kept vague from the reader, except that is something that, for most people, is not experienced until it is gone forever. Perhaps, then, “success” simply means happiness in the present, in whatever form that may take, be it life’s choicest vintage, or a smile that expresses love in a foam of spring flowers.