The struggles associated with being a writer are unfortunately common, and fairly widespread. Inspiration is not something that can just be turned on and off like a faucet, and our imaginations are infinitely more powerful than our physical talents. For novelists and poets alike, writing is tricky, and for the artists who have not yet put their talents to paper, it is even trickier. There are few things as uniquely daunting as having a good idea and being unable, for whatever reason, to take that idea and create something with it. For Robert Service, this is an understandable and relatable feeling, as evidenced in his 1921 piece, My Masterpiece. The masterpieces born into Robert Service’s mind made it into the world, though his transformation from bank clerk into professional poet must have felt like a lucky thing to him, and he appears to remember his old life well — and to be glad that his career began when and where it did.
My Masterpiece Analysis
My Masterpiece is written in a very basic style; each verse is an octet, structured as two repeating quatrains in style, as the rhyming pattern is a rigid ABAB-CDCD style. Each line is also exactly eight syllables long, a decision undoubtedly made for pacing purposes, likely as a means of conveying the excitement of the speaker as they discuss their masterpiece work for the reader of the poem.
It’s slim and trim and bound in blue;
Its leaves are crisp and edged with gold;
Its words are simple, stalwart too;
Its thoughts are tender, wise and bold.
Its pages scintillate with wit;
Its pathos clutches at my throat:
Oh, how I love each line of it!
That Little Book I Never Wrote.
My Masterpiece has a clear message and tone right from its first verse, and wastes no words conveying its message to the reader. Naturally, the masterpiece — the book — in question is the central image of the poem; the first six lines of this verse all describe it in some capacity. From this account, the book is a fine work of art, and is, in regards to physical appearance and content both, a perfect creation. It has a blue cover and its pages are edged with gold, giving it a regal appearance, and it is an extremely good read as well. The speaker describes it as being easy to follow and understand, but also filled with bold wisdom, evoking humour and emotional resonance where appropriate. The metaphors employed in this verse are mostly for the benefit of the book; it is described as having thoughts, and being able to grab the reader’s throat with its pathos. Both of these essentially just add to the already-clear idea that the book is an incredible creation. What is interesting are the final two lines, which indicate that this book only exists in the mind of the speaker. The narrator can clearly envision this creation with great pride, but has never actually taken the time to create it.
In dreams I see it praised and prized
By all, from plowman unto peer;
It’s pencil-marked and memorized
It’s loaned (and not returned, I fear);
It’s worn and torn and travel-tossed,
And even dusky natives quote
That classic that the world has lost,
The Little Book I Never Wrote.
In the middle verse, the pacing of My Masterpiece becomes one of its greatest strengths. The reliability of the rhyming and the even pace for each line helps to convey the happiness of the speaker as they convey strong emotions for this work of art that still does not exist. Service also employs alliterative tools for this task, using phrases such as “plowman unto peer,” “praised and prized,” and “torn and travel-tossed,” knowing that the alliteration is an important benefit to the pace.
In his dreams, the would-be author envisions the book following the typical path of all great books, which to them means that it is loved by all who read it, regardless of societal standing. It also means that most copies of the book are old and well-worn, as if they have been moved around and read a great deal, and that when people lend the book to friends, they tend not to get it back. Perhaps the most interesting idea presented to far appears in the second-to-last line of this verse — “The classic that this world has lost.” A term like “lost classics” would ordinarily be applied to such works as Shakespeare’s Cardenio, or Homer’s Margites, which are both historic works written by prolific authors of which no copies survive today. The speaker here sees his own masterpiece as being such a work, but the reason there are no copies is not a failing of time, but of their own.
Poor ghost! For homes you’ve failed to cheer,
For grieving hearts uncomforted,
Don’t haunt me now…. Alas! I fear
The fire of Inspiration’s dead.
A humdrum way I go to-night,
From all I hoped and dreamed remote:
Too late… a better man must write
The Little Book I Never Wrote.
At the end of My Masterpiece, the poem takes on a darker tone, and the steady pace works well to transform the atmosphere from excitement to dread. This is because the final verse takes place back in reality, in a world where the masterpiece has never existed, and never will. This verse contains a great many references to death: it refers to the book as a ghost, references grieving hearts, a haunting, and a dead fire within its first four lines. This verse makes it clear that the purpose for this poem is not inspiration, but rather to lament, because the speaker is now incapable of creating their masterwork. The many references to death suggest that the “humdrum way I go tonight” is possibly a passing into death, but it could also mean a return into monotonous life, now that it has been so long that there is no more inspiration left with which to write. Whatever the cause of the speaker’s sorrow, the message is clear from the closing lines: that a better man would have written the book when he had the chance, and shared their talent with the world.
There is a slight irony present throughout My Masterpiece, namely that at the time it was written, Robert Service was a rich man living in Paris, and considered to be among the city’s most successful writers. At this point in his life, the author of My Masterpiece was writing poems, novels, and thrillers, and would go on to write a number of books that would be turned into silent movies. It seems very unlikely that Service himself felt he had a masterwork never given to the world, and if he did, he lived on to publish a great many works after this one.
It is possible, based on that, that “The Little Book I Never Wrote” is simply an extended metaphor for the thing that a person truly wants to do with their life. The poem, after all, is called My Masterpiece, and not The Little Book I Never Wrote, which helps to keep the specific meaning vague. For Service, the thing he most wanted to do is probably writing, but for his readers, the masterwork could be a song, or a play, or a thousand other things, and he simply wants to encourage that reader to seize the day, and make their contribution to the world before it is too late to do so.