There’s something notably comforting about a poem designed to rhyme and match syllables perfectly. There are so many forms of poetry that utilize unusual conventions to make points or emphasize ideas. Robert Service rarely uses this convention, instead preferring to write poems like ‘Belated Bard’, which are built on a foundation of very traditional poetic associations — right down to the alliterative title. ‘Belated Bard’, interestingly and appropriately, invokes images of another rhyming convention, the idea of a song that usually follows a similar stylistic pattern as Service’s own.
Belated Bard Analysis
The songs I made from joy of earth
In wanton wandering,
Novemberishly dark are they
With mortuary fear.
In the first of four verses of the poem, which can be read in full here, Service introduces a narrator, presumably the titular bard, as they discuss the songs they’ve made. A lot of the story is made more prominent by further use of alliteration, such as with “wanton wandering.” The verse alternates between eight-syllable and six-syllable lines, rhyming lines that match in syllable count with each other. The bard discusses their life, and the songs they write to make their living. They liken their usual songwriting to that of “Maytime mirth,” and use springtime imagery to describe their typical song structure. Choosing words like “ectasy” (a then-common spelling for ecstasy) and “mirth” helps to emphasize the light-hearted nature of the bard’s past.
The second half of the verse describes the bard’s present circumstance, wherein their songs are, in contrast to “May” from earlier, “Novemberishly dark.” Notably, the description of the song structure invokes a different month and doesn’t use alliteration to help invoke the grim opposite of the earlier sentiment. The only alliteration in the second half of the verse is the phrase “takes tediously,” which alliterates the much harsher “t” consonant in further contrast to the more lighthearted first half. Something has happened in the bard’s life to change the tone of their songwriting, something that is carefully reflected in the literary devices that are a part of the verse.
For half a century has gone
Since first I rang a rhyme;
Though four-score years I count to-night
I am unsilent still.
There is an important aspect of the character that Service is building into these verses. After the first verse discusses the change in the bard’s writing style, the second sees the speaker looking back across their life. They discuss that they wrote their first verse around fifty years prior to the present day, and they understand that that’s a long time to hold to one calling. They go out of their way to describe the blue veins on their hand, suggesting that they are prominent in the speaker’s age. And yet, as they point out, their hand still is capable of writing the rhymes they want it to. The events of ‘Belated Bard’ take place on the bard’s eightieth birthday (as a score is equal to twenty years), and they seem to take pride in their “unsilence” as an important part of their life.
That the word “Time” is capitalized in this verse suggests an element of spirituality to the bard’s life, and the use of subtle alliterations persist in this verse to maintain the beat and flow of the piece. Such phrases as “is long to linger on,” and “with which I write” contribute to the light atmosphere of the work that is so reminiscent of a typical “bard-like” style that is so important to the character being portrayed.
“Senile old fool!” I hear you say;
“Beside the dying fire
And though you scorn my singing I
Will thank you with a smile.
The third verse discusses the bard’s relationship with the people around him, and how people react to an eighty-year individual who plays campfire songs. The “tired and tinny lyre,” more alliteration, suggests that his instruments are as old and worn-our and the speaker is, and that common perception paints a “senile old fool,” rather than a person who loves their craft and endures with the thing that is clearly more important than all else to them. The “blue-veined hands” from the previous verse are further described as stiff in this one, furthering the image of frailty the reader can now associate with the speaker.
Despite this, the atmosphere of the verse continues to be light-hearted, and the bard even points out that they respond to such comments by smiling and beseeching patience, in the hopes that the listener will hear something they enjoy regardless of their image of the player. Even the fire is described as being “dying,” but the verse exhibits a spirit of life and an almost youthful love for something as simple as verse and music.
For I such soul-delighting joy
Have found in simple rhyme,
A song of youth and starry mirth . . .
Then close my eyes.
The bard recalls their first rhymes, written as a young boy, an interesting contrast to an earlier observation that he began to play as a bard when they were around thirty years old. The “soul-delighting joy” described serves in strong contrast to the earlier “Novemberishly dark” verses so-described earlier. To find soul-delighting joy in writing verse, even verses concerning “mortuary fear,” is a beautiful thing, especially when described in “simple rhyme” style. The second half of the verse revisits the idea of spirituality in the bard’s life. He thinks of his final moments towards the end of the story, and imagines that he will write his most joyous and youthful song, and will write it honestly and from the heart as the last thing he does before his old age catches up with him. This stands in contrast to the gloomy songs he’s been writing recently, as appropriately described in the poem’s first verse.
The light-hearted, song-like story of the “belated bard” is largely about an enduring love for the art form that encourages a person in life. The depiction of an eighty-year-old man who writes songs about anything he feels, and likens his songs to the months and seasons, indicates how natural verse can feel to those who love the craft. It may well be that Service himself thought of his own works as pieces of his life that he could always rely on for happiness and joy, and indeed, wrote poems about the natural world of the Yukon when he lives there, the horrors of war when he served during the First World War, and about many of his life experiences thereafter.
Regardless of the intended deeper meanings of the story, be they about Service himself, or simply an abstract love for poetry, this serves as one of his lighter poems that uses a great deal of natural imagery and alliteration to create a bard’s metaphor that discusses an artist’s relationship with their craft in a uniquely intimate way that many should be able to relate to even today.