Old David Smail

Robert Service

‘Old David Smail’ tells the story of a dreamer, a character that is both relatable and strange, and one that most people could learn from.


Robert Service

Nationality: English

Robert Service was a British-Canadian poet born in 1874. He is sometimes referred to as the "Bard of the Yukon.”

He spent some of his life in the Yukon Wilderness.

‘Old David Smail’ tells the story of a dreamer, a character that is both relatable and strange, and one that most people could learn from, regardless of whether they envy or pity the man.

“Dreams are dangerous. They waste the time one should spend in making them come true. Yet when we do make them come true, we find the vision sweeter than the reality. How much of our happiness do we owe to dreams?”

The above lines are spoken in Ballads of a Bohemian, Robert Service’s 1919 publication, by the narrator that Service created for the story and based on his own life. At this point in the story, the character is experiencing a moment of bliss, and begin to imagine the many great things they will do with their newfound freedom, now that they have left Paris for the more rural region of Finistère. He becomes carried away with fantasies of the simple and glorious life he could lead there, and admonishes himself with the above passage, before commenting that the moment reminded him of someone he once knew, which leads into the poem ‘Old David Smail’. The fear of living too deeply in one’s dreams is a common, if usually subconscious worry and Service seems eager to expand on his character’s warnings throughout this poem. Old David Smail by Robert Service


Old David Smail Analysis

First and Second Stanza

He dreamed away his hours in school;

He sat with such an absent air,

The master reckoned him a fool,

And gave him up in dull despair.

When other lads were making hay

You’d find him loafing by the stream;

He’d take a book and slip away,

And just pretend to fish . . . and dream.

Robert Service’s remembrance poem begins when he is a young boy, as the narrator calls to mind scant details that nevertheless convey a great deal about his character. As a schoolboy, David was so given to fits of introspection and dreaming that his teachers thought of him as being empty-headed and stupid. Service uses alliteration in the first verse to illustrate the perception and reality of the young boy — “absent air” uses the open vowel sound in its alliteration to positively portray the distraction, while the master’s “dull despair” is a mild example of cacophony, where the repetitive “d” sound loosely resembles the heavy, weary, despairing feeling others placed upon the boy.

The theme of isolation is made clear early, particularly throughout the second verse, which describes young David’s leisure time, spent away from his classmates. The description of him pretending to fish is an important one, because it establishes the importance of imagination to the child. This is especially sound knowing that he preferred the company of a book to a person. That he “slips away” implies a subtle passing into a dreaming world, away from others, but the phrase “slips away” has a positive connotation to it, as though the child is not unhappy about being alone. That young David prefers to be alone is an important element of ‘Old David Smail’, because isolation on its own is not the whole theme, nor does it tell the complete story of the man’s life.


Third and Fourth Stanza

His brothers passed him in the race;

They climbed the hill and clutched the prize.

He did not seem to heed, his face

Was tranquil as the evening skies.

He lived apart, he spoke with few;

Abstractedly through life he went;

Oh, what he dreamed of no one knew,

And yet he seemed to be content.

In the midsection of ‘Old David Smail’, the happy side of David’s isolation is explored, albeit in an unusual way. Because the narrator for Ballads of a Bohemian is the character based on Robert Service, ‘Old David Smail’ about a dreamer is not written from the perspective of that dreamer. The speaker here admits that they have absolutely no idea what David would dream about, what kept him content while his siblings were growing up, seemingly in the real world, outracing him in one example given in the third verse. In the fourth verse, the speaker describes David as having lived an abstracted life, and notes that he seemed to distance himself from as much of the world as he could, without friends, family, or lovers to keep him company.

Important to remember, however, is that the character being described does not appear to be unhappy in any way. In the third verse, the narrator uses a simile to compare his tranquility to the evening sky, as though the man’s peace both originates from and resembles the natural world. As a child, the observer knows that he would find a peaceful, natural spot, such as a stream, to pass his time and that some of that natural peace become an important part of who he was.


Fifth and Sixth Stanza

I see him now, so old and gray,

His eyes with inward vision dim;

And though he faltered on the way,

Somehow I almost envied him.

At last beside his bed I stood:

“And is Life done so soon?” he sighed;

“It’s been so rich, so full, so good,

I’ve loved it all . . .” — and so he died. 

In the end, David Smail passes away, regretting only that his life was as short as it was, because of how much he enjoyed living it. Even though he was old and blind, and still given to his dreams and fantasies, he found life to be enjoyable and worth living. For Smail, living through a dream was something rich and fulfilling, enough so that in the end, despite his frailty, he regretted his own passing. There is a strong theme of finding peace in dreams, and happiness in one’s own self, independent of other people.

And yet, the foreword to ‘Old David Smail’ tells of the opposite idea, that a person can become lost in their own dreams, and discover that they spend more time dreaming than they do living. Service’s character muses that fulfilling a dream is rarely as satisfying as dreaming of fulfillment, leaving an ambiguous conclusion to lead into a poem that tells the opposite story. Striking the balance between dreaming and living is a difficult and abstract idea, one that’s very difficult in practice, and so it falls to each unique reader to decide how much is too much; which dreams are worth dreaming, and which ones are better off fulfilled. ‘Old David Smail’ is a story about one extreme example, to illustrate that everyone finds their own happiness in different ways.

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Andrew Walker Poetry Expert
Andrew joined the team back in November 2015 and has a passion for poetry. He has an Honours in the Bachelor of Arts, consisting of a Major in Communication, Culture and Information Technology, a Major in Professional Writing and a Minor in Historical Studies.

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