For many poets, storytelling is as important an element of the craft as the rhyming, the form, or the abstract ideas. Not all poems have to be thought-provoking, deep, or even heavily meaningful; a great many verses are written in the same way fiction is — to tell a story. Those who are familiar with the work of Robert Service will easily recognize this familiar concept, as Service’s verses, when not dealing with the world around him, often delved into worlds of his own imagining, with meanings and morals so abstract they were hardly existent at all — and yet, he always managed to get out a good story, one that could make the reader smile or shake their heads in amusement. ‘A Sourdough Story’ is one such poem, and although it is a rather light-hearted story, it dealt heavily with the world around the Yukon and the people Service met during his time there.
‘A Sourdough Story’ was initially published in Service’s 1940 volume, Bar-Room Ballads, which was published after Service moved from country to country in Europe before finally arriving in California, in the United States, to settle for the remainder of World War Two. Although ‘A Sourdough Story’ was published several decades after Service left the Yukon for the final time, there is clear reference to his time there, beginning with the title of the poem. “Sourdough,” a kind of bread, was a term that began to be used to describe Alaskan and Yukon prospectors, the most experienced of whom began to carry bread starters to nourish them during the more difficult or distant areas searched through during the gold rush. So, a “sourdough story” is one told about a Klondike prospector, one of the many people Service would have met and befriended during his time in the Yukon.
The biblical references throughout this poem are somewhat more numerous than the sourdough ones, though they are also as easy to follow. Saint Peter appears in this poem; historically, he was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, and after Jesus’ execution, became one of the forefront leaders of Christianity, making himself a significant aspect of the creation of the Christian Church, to a point where he is considered today to be its first Pope. The Christian Bible attributes a number of letters and writings to Peter, though there are many religious scholars who doubt the full extent of his authorship to the New Testament. Another important element of Peter’s connection to Christianity is that he is seen as the “gatekeeper” to Heaven; tradition suggests that souls that pass away will be unable to enter Heaven unless Saint Peter allows them entry. This is based on an account of a conversation between Jesus and Peter recorded in the Book of Matthew in the Christian Bible. Peter’s role in ‘A Sourdough Story’ reflects his position as Heaven’s gatekeeper.
Analysis of A Sourdough Story
Hark to the Sourdough story, told at sixty below,
When the pipes are lit and we smoke and spit
Into the campfire glow.
Rugged are we and hoary, and statin’ a general rule,
A genooine Sourdough story
Ain’t no yarn for the Sunday School.
The first verse, when published in its original form, was written in a different style than the rest of ‘A Sourdough Story, painting it as more of a precursor to the poem itself than a part of the poem itself. The first verse explains that what follows is a story best told around a campfire on a cold evening and that it might not be an exactly appropriate reading for Sunday School — a reference to the upcoming light-hearted religious nature of the poem. As the poem itself also references the sourdough of northwestern America, the “sixty below” reference also suggests that the verse will be most well-appreciated when told in the region it is based in. This verse ultimately suggests that what is to follow will be a good-natured, casual sourdough story, best appreciated away from too religious a mindset.
A Sourdough came to stake his claim in Heav’n one morning early.
Saint Peter cried: “Who waits outside them gates so bright and pearly?”
“I’m recent dead,” the Sourdough said, “and crave to visit Hades,
Where haply pine some pals o’ mine, includin’ certain ladies.”
Said Peter: “Go, you old Sourdough, from life so crooly riven;
And if ye fail to find their trail, we’ll have a snoop round Heaven.”
The first verse of the story takes on a quick-paced, almost song-like quality, as in addition to the AABB rhyming at the end of each line, there is also an AA rhyme that takes over the first half of each line, rhyming off the fourth syllable with the eighth syllable of each. The remainder of each line is seven syllables long, to create contrast from the first half of the line when read aloud. It’s also interesting to notice the intentionally misspelled and shortened words used throughout to alter the flow of ‘A Sourdough Story; in this verse, “crooly,” a misspelling for “cruelly,” and “includin,’” as a shortened “including” serve to add a little character to the story. The story itself begins with a sourdough who has recently passed away, and immediately references the Klondike Gold Rush by saying that the man is “staking a claim” for Heaven, similar to how he might have staked a claim for a piece of land to prospect on in life. He explains that he’s hoping to visit Hell (Hades being the Greek term for the underworld, after the god of death in that mythology) where he believes a number of his friends have wound up. Saint Peter tells him that’s alright, and if he can’t find them where he’s looking, they’ll see if his friends wound up in Heaven instead.
He waved, and lo! that old Sourdough dropped down to Hell’s red spaces;
But though ’twas hot he couldn’t spot them old familiar faces.
The bedrock burned, and so he turned, and climbed with footsteps fleeter,
The stairway straight to Heaven’s gate, and there, of course, was Peter.
“I cannot see my mates,” sez he, “among those damned forever.
I have a hunch some of the bunch in Heaven I’ll discover.”
Said Peter: “True; and this I’ll do (since Sourdoughs are my failing)
You see them guys in Paradise, lined up against the railing –
As bald as coots, in birthday suits, with beards below the middle . . .
Well, I’ll allow you in right now, if you can solve a riddle:
Among that gang of stiffs who hang and dodder round the portals,
Is one whose name is know to Fame – it’s Adam, first of mortals.
For quiet’s sake he makes a break from Eve, which is his Madame. . . .
Well, there’s the gate – To crash it straight, just spy the guy that’s Adam.”
The second verse, much longer than the first, but following the same pattern, explains in the story that the man has his wish granted and is taken to Hell, not as condemnation, but to find any of his friends who may have ended up there — he is unsuccessful, however, and winds up unable to remain there much longer, so he leaves, telling Saint Peter that he believes his friends are in Heaven after all. Peter responds by posing him a riddle — a number of men are lined up against the railing (referencing a Heaven’s “gate”); all naked, all with long beards. Peter claims that one of them is Adam, the first human to walk the Earth, and he’ll allow the Sourdough to enter Heaven if he can only tell Peter which one is Adam. This verse continues to use language such as “coots,” “sez,” and “dodder” to emphasize the far-northern “feel” of the poem, and to remind the reader always that it is, as pointed out in the precursor, a Sourdough story.
The old Sourdough went down the row of greybeards ruminatin’
With optics dim they peered at him, and pressed agin the gratin’.
In every face he sought some trace of our ancestral father;
But though he stared, he soon despaired the faintest clue to gather.
Then suddenly he whooped with glee: “Ha! Ha! an inspiration.”
And to and fro along the row he ran with animation.
To Peter, bold he cried: “Behold, all told there are eleven.
Suppose I fix on Number Six – say Boy! How’s that for Heaven?”
The next verse follows the story as the man attempts to figure out which of the elderly deceased could be Adam; unfortunately, because they’re all related to one another, and more importantly, related to Adam, the similarities are too much to be easily deciphered. We learn that there are eleven men lined up by the gate, as a bolt of inspiration strikes the Sourdough, and he declares the sixth one from Peter, the one in the middle, must be Adam. It’s amusing to note that the word “Boy” is capitalized in this verse; throughout the Bible, the names of God and Jesus are capitalized, and so are all related pronouns — “Him,” for instance. As “Boy” here refers to Saint Peter, it is capitalized as a sign of respect for Peter’s divine authority — despite the condescending nature of the address!
“By gosh! you win,” said Pete. “Step in. But tell me how you chose him.
They’re like as pins; all might be twins. There’s nothing to disclose him.”
The Sourdough said: “‘Twas hard; my head was seething with commotion.
I felt a dunce; then all at once I had a gorgeous notion.
I stooped and peered beneath each beard that drooped like fleece of mutton.
My search was crowned. . . . That bird I found – ain’t got no belly button.”
Surprised, Saint Peter admits that the sixth man of the eleven was Adam, and agrees to let the Sourdough into Heaven. Before he does, however, he asks how the man was able to figure it out; the men look so much alike, he says, with no real way to tell them apart unless you already knew who they were. The Sourdough replies triumphantly that he looked around each man’s beard so he could see their stomach — for Adam, being one of the only two humans in existence to have been created instead of born, wouldn’t have a belly button, since he never would have formed inside a uterus. And with this admission, the Sourdough is allowed into Heaven.
In a number of his earlier poems, particularly those from Songs of a Sourdough (alternatively published a The Spell of the Yukon (And Other Verses)), Service references the general perception from other parts of the world he’d been in that the Yukon was not a very good place to live. In his verse, ‘The Spell of the Yukon‘, service writes: “Some say God was tired when He made it; / Some say it’s a fine land to shun; / Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it / For no land on earth—and I’m one.” In a way, it seems possible that Service created the anonymous Sourdough character as a general individual who lived in the Yukon, and was one such person who lived on a land that wasn’t fully completed, or that was worth shunning, while Saint Peter represents someone from somewhere else who doesn’t view the Yukon people as being especially remarkable, for whatever reason. The Peter character admits that the Sourdough are his “failing,” and is surprised when the Sourdough is able to solve his riddle. In some ways, it seems possible that ‘A Sourdough Story’ is Service’s commentary on the intelligence and wit of an underestimated people.
This assessment does do a little to contradict the initial verse of ‘A Sourdough Story’, however, stating that the story is best told in northern America (“at sixty below”) around a campfire. If it is a commentary on a misattribution, then it would be best read by those who would make incorrect assumptions. That said, the first verse also serves to add a great deal of context and character to the overall story, and this seems to be its primary function, as it is unlikely that Service or his publishers sought to have select poems distributed only to particular communities. In this light, the earlier interpretation of ‘A Sourdough Story’ being simultaneously a light-hearted story as well as a commentary on the people Service knew and was fond of from the Yukon makes sense.
Ultimately, ‘A Sourdough Story’ is an enjoyable kind of story; it is well-written, particularly with the syllable and rhyming structure that holds it together, and it speaks to Service’s Yukon experience, indicating that he viewed it fondly even decades later — and if it involved people like the central Sourdough here, it’s easy enough to see why.