The Spell of the Yukon by Robert Service

Inspired by the world around him, Robert Service became well-known in Canada during the early twentieth century for his poetry that encompassed that world, as well as for poetry that could convey compelling stories in ways that typical short stories simply couldn’t. The Spell of the Yukon is one of Service’s early works, one of the things that, early on in his literary career, distinguished him greatly and made people take note of his name and skill.

 

The Spell of the Yukon Analysis

Verse by Verse

I wanted the gold, and I sought it;

   I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.

Was it famine or scurvy—I fought it;

   I hurled my youth into a grave.

I wanted the gold, and I got it—

   Came out with a fortune last fall,— 

Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,

   And somehow the gold isn’t all.

The Spell of the Yukon takes on a quick pace, and could almost be sung for its consistency. While the first verse takes on a simple pattern of AB-rhyming, each odd-numbered verse is also nine syllables long, while each even-numbered verse is eight, making it very easy to read; it simply flows off the tongue. This verse introduces our narrator, who appears to be in the Yukon as a part of the Klondike gold rush that lured around 100,000 prospectors to attempt to reach the northern Yukon to collect the gold that had been found there in 1896. This verse describes the journey taken to reach gold veins; the narrator describes “scrabbling” and “mucking,” and fighting diseases that they can’t even identify, and spent the better part of their youth trying to make their way into gold territory and prospect for the ores. Apparently it all paid off, as they say they got the gold and sold it for a fortune, but are still in the Yukon, pondering a few large questions, such as the real value of money in life. The gold rush, then, is entirely in the past at the time this poem takes place.

No! There’s the land. (Have you seen it?)

   It’s the cussedest land that I know,

From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it

   To the deep, deathlike valleys below.

Some say God was tired when He made it;

   Some say it’s a fine land to shun;

Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it

   For no land on earth—and I’m one.

The “No!” that begins the second verse appears to follow the idea on the last verse that “the gold isn’t all;” there’s more than the gold, the narrator is saying, there’s the land. And apparently the Yukon doesn’t have a terrific reputation; being the “cussedest” land means that it is the most aggravating or stubborn land the narrator has ever lived on. It’s apparently very rocky, with large mountains and deep craters, and is reputed as being a poor place to live. The narrator disagrees, stating that there are a number of people who would say that there’s no land on Earth as worth living on as the Yukon, and that they are counted in that group. This verse continues the alternative syllable pattern as the first one, but the number of syllables per verse is not static this time.

You come to get rich (damned good reason);

   You feel like an exile at first;

You hate it like hell for a season,

   And then you are worse than the worst.

It grips you like some kinds of sinning;

   It twists you from foe to a friend;

It seems it’s been since the beginning;

   It seems it will be to the end.

Evidently the narrator isn’t the only individual to find themselves falling in love with the Yukon; they describe the process in this verse. First the potential prospector travels to the area for the sole purpose of getting rich, as so many did during the gold rush. Understandably, they feel like outsiders and exiles; the terrain and weather is undoubtedly vastly different than what they are used to, and for the first season especially the isolation and foreign landscape creates a miserable experience. The process of discovering what appears to be best described as a primal beauty within the landscape occurs suddenly; the narrator appears to especially appreciate, based on the last two lines, the unchanging nature of the harsh landscape, its seeming immunity to the course of time. The abruptness of this process — explained only in one verse — demonstrates how suddenly the change of heart befell the narrator.

I’ve stood in some mighty-mouthed hollow

   That’s plumb-full of hush to the brim;

I’ve watched the big, husky sun wallow

   In crimson and gold, and grow dim,

Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming,

   And the stars tumbled out, neck and crop;

And I’ve thought that I surely was dreaming,

   With the peace o’ the world piled on top.

The beauty of the Yukon is described in this verse, and described well. Service uses adjectives galore in these lines — the mighty-mouthed hollow, the big, husky sun of crimson and gold, the pearly peaks, the tumbling stars. The picture painted is vivid, and it’s easy to see in the easy rhymes and strong colour, what it is that the narrator sees and loves so much in the Yukon. At night, there is the peace of the world, and by day, the world is vivid and beautiful.

The summer—no sweeter was ever;

   The sunshiny woods all athrill;

The grayling aleap in the river,

   The bighorn asleep on the hill.

The strong life that never knows harness;

   The wilds where the caribou call;

The freshness, the freedom, the farness—

   O God! how I’m stuck on it all.

The Yukon love continues to pour out of Service’s lines, describing Yukon summers in even more vivid detail; grayling and bighorn are North American fish and sheep respectively, and each constitutes a part of the Yukon wildlife, but the thing we learn is more alluring to the narrator of the poem is that the Yukon feels fresh to be in; it feels free, and it feels far. The narrator likes being so removed from the rest of the world. In a land where there is so much nature, and where so much of the territory is rural, there must be a sense of significant isolation from everyday life for travellers visiting, but the narrator has found this to be a truly appealing aspect of Yukon life. They are “stuck on it all,” indicating that they feel they couldn’t leave it even if they did decide they wanted to.

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,

   The white land locked tight as a drum,

The cold fear that follows and finds you,

   The silence that bludgeons you dumb.

The snows that are older than history,

   The woods where the weird shadows slant;

The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,

   I’ve bade ’em good-by—but I can’t.

Even winter is alluring to the narrator, though winters in the Yukon are, unsurprisingly, very difficult (and undoubtedly even more so as far north as Klondike). The land becomes locked, a likely metaphor for being utterly covered in snow and ice, so much so that it is inaccessible. It’s scary, we are told, to be so utterly covered by winter, and likely as well that the earlier sense of farness, freshness, and freedom is turned frightening by winter’s grasp. In times of winter, the last two lines tell us, the narrator finds moments of weakness in which leaving the Yukon makes sense — but leaving is still as impossible as in the vivid, beautiful summers.

There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,

   And the rivers all run God knows where;

There are lives that are erring and aimless,

   And deaths that just hang by a hair;

There are hardships that nobody reckons;

   There are valleys unpeopled and still;

There’s a land—oh, it beckons and beckons,

   And I want to go back—and I will.

Contrary to the last few verses, it appears based on this one as though the narrator has left the Yukon. This verse reads as though they are trying to explain what the land was like to someone who has never been there before. “There’s a land,” we are told, and it almost sounds like the start of a story you’d hear from a stranger in a bar, the one who’s been further away than you’ve been and has a thousand stories to tell about it.

They’re making my money diminish;

   I’m sick of the taste of champagne.

Thank God! when I’m skinned to a finish

   I’ll pike to the Yukon again.

I’ll fight—and you bet it’s no sham-fight;

   It’s hell!—but I’ve been there before;

And it’s better than this by a damsite—

   So me for the Yukon once more.

The “they” referenced in this verse seems to relay an opinion on modern society as a whole. “Champagne” is likely a word chosen for its connotations in luxury as a way to express that the speaker is tired of a superficial lifestyle. Away from the Yukon, in the “real world,” so to speak, the narrator is sick and tired of the way things are. To compare the earlier descriptions of the Yukon to the average urban lifestyle, even in the early twentieth century, would be a drastic difference of experiences. And even knowing that the first season in the Yukon, as referenced in an earlier verse, is a hellish experience, the narrator decides that the Yukon is the best place to be regardless, and resolves to set out there once more.

There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;

   It’s luring me on as of old;

Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting

   So much as just finding the gold.

It’s the great, big, broad land ’way up yonder,

   It’s the forests where silence has lease;

It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,

   It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

The conclusion of The Spell of the Yukon repeats a popular motif; that the journey is more important than the destination. Already rich from their first attempt at prospecting in the gold rush, the narrator acknowledges that what is luring them up north again isn’t the same thing that lured them the first time; this time it’s the forests, the beauty, and the stillness; it’s the sense of peace that can be found up north that is more powerful and more important than all the gold, money, and champagne in the world.

 

Historical Analysis

The Spell of the Yukon, first published in 1907 as a part of his volume Songs of a Sourdough (or, alternatively, as The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses). While many of the verses published in this volume were written before Service moved to the Yukon, it does not seem likely that this is one of them.

Despite what much of his published work might suggest, Robert Service did not actually partake in the Klondike Gold Rush, but rather spent a great deal of his time in the Yukon listening to and looking for tales and stories from those who were. Service arrived in Whitehorse, the capital (and only) city of the Yukon Territory, Canada, in 1904, on assignment from the bank he worked for at the time. By this date, he would have missed the gold rush entirely.

The perspective provided in The Spell of the Yukon is that of an extremely lucky prospector. When word of the gold discovered in Klondike reached the rest of North America, prospectors moved for the Yukon as quickly as they could get there. An estimated 100,000 total would-be prospectors attempted to reach northern Canada between 1896 and 1899. Of these 100,000, an estimated 30,000 individuals arrived in the Yukon and were able to begin their search. Of these 30,000, an estimated 4,000 discovered gold. And of those 4,000, only several hundred actually achieved the incredible wealth that had been the dream of the 100,000. The first verse of The Spell of the Yukon is an accurate description of a typical prospector — especially from those who came from the United States, for the Yukon was very far away, and the journey to reach it could not be considered a safe one. For many of these people, money was actually lost in vast sums as a result of the gold rush; once the creeks and other sites were claimed, they had to be bought, and even those with no proven gold mines could cost enormous amounts of money.

Many of Service’s later verses would reflect the time he spent in the Yukon; he was evidently very comfortable in the landscape and it became a notable source of inspiration for his future works. While he did not remain in the territory beyond 1912, the literary works he created there are more often than not great stories told in a vivid setting, with historic accuracy and the result of first-hand research and experience. And his efforts certainly paid off — the spell of the Yukon is entirely evident through this one poem alone.

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