The Call of the Wild by Robert Service

One of the oldest and most common inspirations for artists is the natural world. It seems only natural, as the world moves at an increasing pace towards a future that is more and more technological, that artists might find their inspiration by looking beyond human society, and focusing on the world beyond it, to help their work to stand out from the everyday world their readers continue to live in. While the pace of technology has certainly picked up recently, this basic idea has been present in human society for hundreds of years, as musicians, poets, and painters all have been drawn beyond their walls and called by the wilderness. In the early twentieth century, Robert Service found himself drawn to very much the same idea, when he wrote The Call of the Wild from the most wild place he’d lived in his entire life. The poem takes on Service’s lighthearted, youthful voice that would become his poetic trademark, combined with a clear sense of wonder and inspiration drawn from the natural world around him, and helps the readers to experience that wilderness call for themselves.

The Call of the Wild is written in a repeating form, to an ABAB rhyming pattern. The alternating verses vary notably in length, with every other verse (or “B” verse) is roughly five or six syllables shorter than its preceding counterpart. The poem is written in a lyrical style, with the consistent alternations implying musical accompaniment, and the content being very personal, and with a first-person narrative perspective. The poem is a total of forty lines long, divided into five stanzas containing eight lines each. These eight lines then could have been divided into ten quatrains, but Robert Service instead utilizes these lengthier verses to build up to thematic elements, which create a more cohesive whole, though this is easier to notice from verse to verse. 

 

The Call of the Wild Analysis

First Stanza

Have you gazed on naked grandeur where there’s nothing else to gaze on,

Set pieces and drop-curtain scenes galore,

Big mountains heaved to heaven, which the blinding sunsets blazon,

Black canyons where the rapids rip and roar?

Have you swept the visioned valley with the green stream streaking through it,

Searched the Vastness for a something you have lost?

Have you strung your soul to silence? Then for God’s sake go and do it;

Hear the challenge, learn the lesson, pay the cost.

The Call of the Wild begins in grandiose style, devoting over half of its content to describing the wonders of the world before encouraging the reader to experience the verse content for themselves. Robert Service is very careful with his word choice throughout the verse, and makes heavy use of alliteration to add to the grandeur of his message. He matches words such as “gazed” and “grandeur,” “heaved” and “heaven,” or “rapids,” “rip,” and “roar” together, and continues the pattern throughout the lengthy verse. He also pays great attention to detail — foremost is his use of capitalization on the word “Vastness,” which adds more significance to the word than any amount of description would have. By capitalizing the word, he is placing it on an even level with divinity, as per a common religious tradition that capitalizes any word that is associated with the divine. That the line in question discusses finding a piece of oneself in the wilderness only adds to this effect.

The other notable aspect of the first verse is its use of metaphor alongside vivid natural descriptions. The first metaphor is used in the second line, comparing the “naked grandeur” to a well-rehearsed play by invoking theatrical imagery to conclude the description. When a play is being performed, typically it has been rehearsed and practiced enough to be “perfect” for opening night. In the same way as this, Service can find no fault in the scenes he describes, as though they have been practiced for him alone. In the second-to-last line, another metaphor appears, where the phrase “strung your soul to silence” (another powerful alliteration) appears. To string two things together is to connect them and bind them; to string one’s soul to silence, then, is to make silence an important part of a person’s life, and to appreciate it in the most vivid way possible. He warns that it is a challenge and that there is a cost to the connection, but leaves unspoken the idea that it is worth undertaking.

 

Second Stanza

Have you wandered in the wilderness, the sagebrush desolation,

The bunch-grass levels where the cattle graze?

Have you whistled bits of rag-time at the end of all creation,

And learned to know the desert’s little ways?

Have you camped upon the foothills, have you galloped o’er the ranges,

Have you roamed the arid sun-lands through and through?

Have you chummed up with the mesa? Do you know its moods and changes?

Then listen to the Wild — it’s calling you.

The second verse follows a pattern very similar to the first one, in that it is arranged in the form of questions designed to make the reader contemplate their lives, followed by a call to action that would fulfill those needs. In this case, Service writes about the wilderness as being a detailed and intricate world, and focuses on the smallest aspects of the world, such as the grasses and sands. He describes the desert’s “little” ways, implying a more complex world than one might otherwise associate with the desert, and describes specific plants and states, such as “the sagebrush desolation.” From here, he discusses foothills and ranges, points out that there is a lot to understand about the natural world, and goes on to personify a particular mesa, which is a specific kind of hill with a flat top and steep sides. The reach of this one verse is vast, and its primary purpose seems to be making the reader contemplate how much there is to the world around them, and how much of it they are actually familiar with. Service uses personification to liken geologic features with people, suggesting that a person can get to know the world around them in very much the same way as they can get to know acquaintances and friends.

 

Third Stanza

Have you known the Great White Silence, not a snow-gemmed twig aquiver?

(Eternal truths that shame our soothing lies.)

Have you broken trail on snowshoes? Mushed your huskies up the river,

Dared the unknown, led the way, and clutched the prize?

Have you marked the map’s void spaces, mingled with the mongrel races,

Felt the savage strength of brute in every thew?

And though grim as hell the worst is, can you round it off with curses?

Then hearken to the Wild — it’s wanting you.

Thematically, The Call of the Wild is about the connection between a person and the natural world, and how closely related the ideas of self-reflection and worldly exploration are. In the middle verse of the poem, Service calls the “Great White Silence” one of the “eternal truths that shame our soothing lies,” which is to say that there is more to the world than many people would tell themselves to believe that they are living life to the fullest. The questions that highlight this verse are far less likely to be answered with a “yes” than in the previous ones — most people are not explorers, to venture into the blank fields on their maps, or to require huskies and snowshoes to get around. These are fairly extreme circumstances, but the verse demands that each and every reader should experience them, because the finishing line, repeated with slight modification from the previous verse, assumes that the answer is “no,” and references the call of the wild anyway. Mid-way through the verse, Service describes “the prize” at the end of the unknown, and this too hearkens back to the theme of self-discovery in the wider world; if the wilderness call is a natural phenomenon, then the self-realization that would accompany answering it is a worthy prize, that this poem calls its reader to claim.

 

Fourth Stanza

Have you suffered, starved and triumphed, groveled down, yet grasped at glory,

Grown bigger in the bigness of the whole?

“Done things” just for the doing, letting babblers tell the story,

Seeing through the nice veneer the naked soul?

Have you seen God in His splendors, heard the text that nature renders?

(You’ll never hear it in the family pew.)

The simple things, the true things, the silent men who do things —

Then listen to the Wild — it’s calling you.

The fourth verse of The Call of the Wild is about self-discovery, and about true self-examination from a greater perspective. In it, Service muses on the idea of doing things just for the sake of doing them, doing them for personal growth rather than for admiration or fame, even in the smallest forms. He describes growing “bigger in the bigness of the whole,” which is an interesting way of saying that one discovers something greater than their own self and becomes a better person for appreciating it. This is something of a callback to the previous verse, where Service discusses the prize waiting for those who brave the unknown — here, the prize is happiness, and being content with who you are, rather than what you’ve done and how others see you for it.

In the second half of the verse, he applies this same concept to matters of spirituality. The metaphor uses here likens the Holy Bible to the natural world, which can be “read” in a figurative sense to find a better appreciation of God that simply can’t be found in a church, because the person is experiencing it for themselves. When referencing other people in this verse, the negatively-connotative “babblers” is used, while personal peace is highlighted as being desirable and wonderful. The fourth verse highlights the importance of seeing all aspects of self, including spirituality, in their natural form, and appreciating their splendour in a way that cannot be taught or passed down from person to person. This, more than anything else, is the meaning behind “the call of the wild” as a phrase.

 

Fifth Stanza

They have cradled you in custom, they have primed you with their preaching,

They have soaked you in convention through and through;

They have put you in a showcase; you’re a credit to their teaching —

But can’t you hear the Wild? — it’s calling you.

Let us probe the silent places, let us seek what luck betide us;

Let us journey to a lonely land I know.

There’s a whisper on the night-wind, there’s a star agleam to guide us,

And the Wild is calling, calling . . . let us go.

The concluding verse to the poem is, in many ways, a parallel to its predecessors. It returns to the noticeably alliterative style from the early lines of the work, but stops asking questions about the self, changing tone to statements about others. Essentially, it points out to the reader that they are the products of their own societies, and that they have been essentially cut off from the natural world that is at the start of their history. In the final lines of The Call of the Wild, Service invites the reader to join him (in the form of his anonymous narrator) in travelling towards the wilderness and hiding away, being true to themselves, and discovering who they are without anyone else to tell them.

In essence, The Call of the Wild discusses the debate between nature and nurture, the aspects of societal conditioning and natural dispositions in what makes a person who they are. Service seems to believe that both nature and nurture play an important role in shaping a person, but that each one cancels out the other in profound ways. Only by experiencing the call can a person truly connect with their nature, according to this poem, and it is unsurprising that Service would feel this way, given his own relationship with the topic.

 

Historical Context

Robert William Service was born in England in early 1874, and lived a fairly typical life for the final quarter of the nineteenth century. While he showed signs of early promise in poetry, he chose a career in banking, a line of work which sent him as far away as British Columbia in Canada. In 1904, he was relocated once more to the bank’s branch in Whitehouse, in the Yukon Territory of Northern Canada, where he quickly adjusted to a very different lifestyle than the one he’d grown up with. He became an active member of the town’s social circle, and made a name for himself by reciting poems and stories at social events. In a famous conversation during this time, Service met the editor of the local newspaper, who knew of Service’s talents as a poet, and suggested that he write his own poem to present at the next church event.

From that point on, Service was constantly on the lookout for poetic inspiration. He wrote two of his most famous poems, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, and The Cremation of Sam McGee, during this period, along with approximately two-thirds of the material he would later publish in his first volume of poetry, Songs of a Sourdough, alternatively titled The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses. During this period, Robert Service found himself standing on the Miles Canyon, where he reportedly thought to himself, “I have gazed on naked grandeur where there’s nothing else to gaze on,” which became the basis for The Call of the Wild.

In many ways, The Call of the Wild represents Service’s attempt to take a look at his own life, and at the lives of the people he knew before he left for the Yukon, and to challenge the things he once took for granted in the world. By all accounts, Service’s time in Northern Canada had a profound impact on the rest of his life, and his transformation from banking clerk to worldly author almost certainly began during this time period. In 1909, two years after the publication of his first volume, the bank offered Service a management position. He responded to the offer by resigning, to work full-time as an author. The importance of the call of the wild to Service is easily visible in the thirteen volumes of poetry and nine books he published after leaving Whitehorse, because in each of them the reader can see all the good following that call brought into his life, and the successes and happiness that followed.

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