An atoll can be a reef, an island, or a chain of islands formed from coral, that is ring-shaped and formed around a lagoon. These fascinating places are found almost exclusively throughout the Pacific Ocean, and are reasonably uncommon, requiring ideal geologic conditions simply to remain above sea level. This is a reason many tourists explore such parts of the ocean, such as scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Australia. They are seldom lived upon for this reason, and so make up the ideal setting for Robert W. Service’s ‘Atoll’, which tells the story of an inhabitant on one such island, looking back at the vast world beyond. The poem was initially published in 1892 as a part of Service’s sixth full-length volume of poetry, Bar-Room Ballads. The full poem can be read here.
The woes of men beyond my ken
Mean nothing more to me.
A virgin isle none dare defile,
Far-flung, forgotten, lost.
‘Atoll’, predictably, takes place on an atoll, far away from the rest of the world, and largely not lived upon. Service writes about his narrator in a simple enough pattern: an ABAB-ABCB rhyming style with lines alternating typically between eight (A) and six (B) syllables long. The rapid back-and-forth of longer and shorter lines, along with the additional rhymes in A-lines, give the piece a song-like quality to it, typical of Robert Service’s writing style. The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator is about the speaker’s life on a far-distant island, who lives either alone or close enough to alone, and whose cares and concerns do not extend far beyond the borders of the isle. A person’s “ken,” as described in the first line, refers to their own awareness; the inhabitant of the isle essentially declares that if something does not affect them, they are nonchalant about it. Since they live on a forgotten island without any outside contact, this means the entire world, save for that one isle.
Service employs careful word choice to bring the speaker’s experiences into a specific light for the reader to appreciate. His words have a careful connotation to them, but these connotations shift back and forth between being positive and negative. He describes the “woes” of men, the “defilement” of the world, “fending foam,” and “tempestuous” tossing (also strong uses of alliteration for emphasis) to depict the darkness in his scene. Despite this, the island in ‘Atoll’ is described as being an “Eden,” a “jeweled home,” and a “virgin isle.” The distinction is clear and important: the atoll is a paradise, and everything beyond it is dangerous or bad.
And here I dwell, where none may tell
Me tales of mortal strife;
Aloof, alone I hold my throne,
And Majesty is mine.
The second verse confirms for the reader that the speaker is indeed alone on their island, and continues to see Service use alternating positive and negative imagery to emphasize the narrator’s isolation. ‘Atoll’ is largely about a concept similar to “out of sight, out of mind;” in this verse, the speaker reflects on the idea that millions of people could be dying, but that pain and suffering would not influence them in any way. A metaphor is employed here, describing the echo of “evil drums,” which represents the omnipresence in an increasingly communicative world of its flaws and darkness. If bad deeds are like drums, then the sound of every “bad drum” in the world is not loud enough to reach this island.
When the atoll’s inhabitant looks upon the dawn each morning, it is an untainted image that they describe as being like divinity (in another emphasis-heavy alliteration). The description of the sole inhabitant being like royalty is another strong symbol Service employs — they are royalty in the sense of being essentially the ruler of their land since no one else is there, but not in the sense of having the responsibility to govern. This is an extremely idealized image that goes a long way to describe the sense of freedom enjoyed by the island’s sole inhabitant.
Ghost ships pass by, and glad am I
They make no sign to me.
My isle is clean, unsought, unseen,
And innocent with song.
According to the third verse of ‘Atoll’, every once in a while, the speaker does see signs of the outside world and hopes each time that they will attempt to contact the island. They see the island as being innocent (“virgin isle” was the term used earlier) and untouched by the world’s corruption. The plant life of the island is briefly described, and the reader learns that the speaker lives largely on corn and fish, and is content to consider their life paradise. Their description of “ghost ships” could be a hallucination, but it seems more likely that they consider any ships at all to be ghosts, as they belong to another world, another “type” of existing that the speaker has no contact with or context for. The symbol of ghost ships represents how very far away the rest of the world is from this isle, and how returning to it would be like dying and continuing existence in a form that barely exists at all.
Here let me dwell in beauty’s spell,
As tranquil as a tree;
The rich caress of Loveliness,
The plenitude of Peace.
The final verse of ‘Atoll’ largely serves to conclude and confirm the themes that have already been introduced by Robert Service. The narrator of the poem wants nothing more than to remain on their peaceful, innocent island until the end of their life, where they feel free and pure, unaffected by the darkness contained in the rest of the world. Interestingly, although the poem hints at a misanthropic tone, it never explicitly explains what it is that drives the speaker to their atoll in the middle of nowhere, nor how they got there, except that in their solitude, and surrounded by the beauty and stillness of their island, they feel freedom and peace.
Of course, the speaker is choosing to ignore all of the good that happens around the world on a regular basis — for them, goodness is a thing that can be found on a small island in the middle of the ocean that houses green corns and plentiful fish, and, at heart, this is all they truly need. In ‘Atoll’, Service invites his reader to reflect upon what they truly need in life, and where their own happiness, freedom, and peace might lie, anywhere between their own home and a distant island, which lies a vast distance away.