‘My Book’ is a story about a story for Robert Service and seeks to remind its reader not only to avoid unfair judgments but of their own obsessions and of the things that are important to them. The way ‘My Book’ illustrates the overwhelming nature of such an obsession is a fascinating image that the reader can draw any number of unique conclusions.
Ballads of a Bohemian
‘My Book’ was published as a part of Robert Service’s 1921 volume, Ballads of a Bohemian. At the time of writing, Service was living in Paris, and was engaged in a unique lifestyle: by day, the wealth he had accumulated through his skill at writing was clear for all to see. For the evenings, however, he dressed down and, in the company of a retired police officer, sought to engage himself with the working people of the city. His experiences and observations would inform his upcoming work, which was written both as a collection of poetry, and as a story; the narrator was a character based on Robert Service, and between poems, that narrator would comment on his recent experiences that informed the poems around them. ‘My Book’ is predated by the following passage:
Talking about writing books, there is a queer character who shuffles up and down the little streets that neighbor the Place Maubert, and who, they say, has been engaged on one for years. Sometimes I see him cowering in some cheap bouge, and his wild eyes gleam at me through the tangle of his hair. He mumbles to himself, and moves like a man in a dream. His pockets are full of filthy paper on which he writes from time to time. The students laugh at him and make him tipsy; the street boys pelt him with ordure; the better cafés turn him from their doors. But who knows? At least, this is how I see him:
My Book Analysis
First and Second Stanza
Before I drink myself to death,
God, let me finish up my Book!
At night, I fear, I fight for breath,
And wake up whiter than a spook;
And crawl off to a bistro near,
And drink, until my brain is clear,
Rare Absinthe! Oh, it gives me strength
To write and write; and so I spend
Day after day, until at length
With joy and pain I’ll write The End:
Then let this carcass rot; I give
The world my Book – my Book will live.
‘My Book is based on the character described in the passage that precedes it in Service’s novel, beginning with a reference to the would-be author assuming he will drink himself to death. The first two verses of ‘My Book’ are primarily designed to portray the incredible pain and fear the man feels at the thought of his book being unfinished at the time of his death. In the first verse, he is described as sleeping poorly, with specific references to fear, such as waking up short of breath and pale in the face. He is only able to distract himself through drinking, and cares only for the completion of his piece — he describes his own body as being a “carcass,” despite still being alive, and cares only for finishing the book. When he says he will write “The End” with joy and pain, it is implied that he expects to die after the work is completed, as he will have nothing left to live for. There is a clear sense of an almost insane obsession created here, with the would-be author fearing death as a result of his alcoholism — while fighting that fear by drinking alcohol. He clearly cares very little for his own well-being and a great deal for the well-being of his book.
Third and Fourth Stanza
For every line is tense with truth,
There’s hope and joy on every page;
A cheer, a clarion call to Youth,
A hymn, a comforter for Age:
All’s there that I was meant to be,
My part divine, the God in me.
It’s of my life the golden sum;
Ah! Who that reads this Book of mine,
In stormy centuries to come,
Will dream I rooted with the swine?
Behold! I give mankind my best:
What does it matter, all the rest?
The middle verses of The Book take on a vastly different tone than the ones that precede it. In these verses, the man reflects upon the proud nature of his work. Service employs alliterative devices (“tense with truth,” “clarion call,” “stormy centuries”) as well as references to divinity (“clarion,” “hymn,” “divine,” “this Book”) to emphasize the notably more positive image he has for his book than for his own self. He is putting everything he can into the work, and makes an interesting observation towards the end of the fourth verse: that his book will outlive him, and that after the centuries pass, it will not matter what he looked like, how he talked, or how hygienic he was — his book is all he will be remembered by, and the rest is irrelevant. The image of a tired man nearing the end of his life, desperate to “give mankind his best” is a powerful one, with themes of mortality and legacy neatly symbolized within.
Fifth and Sixth Stanza
It’s this that makes sublime my day;
It’s this that makes me struggle on.
Oh, let them mock my mortal clay,
My spirit’s deathless like a dawn;
Oh, let them shudder as they look …
I’ll be immortal in my Book
And so beside the sullen Seine
I fight with dogs for filthy food,
Yet know that from my sin and pain
Will soar serene a Something Good;
Exultantly from shame and wrong
A Right, a Glory and a Song.
‘My Book’ is largely a work about legacy, and about looking past a person’s appearance or habits. The character who narrates the poem is doing so because they want to imagine that there is more to the seemingly homeless man than meets the eye and that the man is ultimately happy with what he is doing, and the choices he has made. The justification offered is one of legacy and the indomitable, immortal spirit that gives this man his will to live on. The fifth verse is entirely about this theme of legacy, where the man declares that he does not care if people mock him or shudder when they look at him, because he known his book means a kind of immortality for all of his best qualities. To him, that kind of immortality is worth any price, and in fact gives him the confidence and the will to continue living life has he does; homeless, begging, unclean, and despised. The closing words of the poem — A Right, a Glory, and a Song — capture his vision for what his story means, and how he will be remembered as soon as it is finished. In this way, he finds happiness in fulfilling his life’s quest, regardless of how anyone else thinks of him.