The Man from Athabaska

Oh the wife she tried to tell me that 'twas nothing but the thrumming
Of a wood-pecker a-rapping on the hollow of a tree;
And she thought that I was fooling when I said it was the drumming
Of the mustering of legions, and 'twas calling unto me;
'Twas calling me to pull my freight and hop across the sea.

And a-mending of my fish-nets sure I started up in wonder,
For I heard a savage roaring and 'twas coming from afar;
Oh the wife she tried to tell me that 'twas only summer thunder,
And she laughed a bit sarcastic when I told her it was War;
'Twas the chariots of battle where the mighty armies are.

Then down the lake came Half-breed Tom with russet sail a-flying,
And the word he said was "War" again, so what was I to do?
Oh the dogs they took to howling, and the missis took to crying,
As I flung my silver foxes in the little birch canoe:
Yes, the old girl stood a-blubbing till an island hid the view.

Says the factor: "Mike, you're crazy! They have soldier men a-plenty.
You're as grizzled as a badger, and you're sixty year or so."
"But I haven't missed a scrap," says I, "since I was one and twenty.
And shall I miss the biggest? You can bet your whiskers -- no!"
So I sold my furs and started . . . and that's eighteen months ago.

For I joined the Foreign Legion, and they put me for a starter
In the trenches of the Argonne with the Boche a step away;
And the partner on my right hand was an `apache' from Montmartre;
On my left there was a millionaire from Pittsburg, U. S. A.
(Poor fellow! They collected him in bits the other day.)

But I'm sprier than a chipmunk, save a touch of the lumbago,
And they calls me Old Methoosalah, and `blagues' me all the day.
I'm their exhibition sniper, and they work me like a Dago,
And laugh to see me plug a Boche a half a mile away.
Oh I hold the highest record in the regiment, they say.

And at night they gather round me, and I tell them of my roaming
In the Country of the Crepuscule beside the Frozen Sea,
Where the musk-ox runs unchallenged, and the cariboo goes homing;
And they sit like little children, just as quiet as can be
Men of every crime and colour, how they harken unto me!

And I tell them of the Furland, of the tumpline and the paddle,
Of secret rivers loitering, that no one will explore;
And I tell them of the ranges, of the pack-strap and the saddle,
And they fill their pipes in silence, and their eyes beseech for more;
While above the star-shells fizzle and the high explosives roar.

And I tell of lakes fish-haunted, where the big bull moose are calling,
And forests still as sepulchres with never trail or track;
And valleys packed with purple gloom, and mountain peaks appalling,
And I tell them of my cabin on the shore at Fond du Lac;
And I find myself a-thinking: Sure I wish that I was back.

So I brag of bear and beaver while the batteries are roaring,
And the fellows on the firing steps are blazing at the foe;
And I yarn of fur and feather when the `marmites' are a-soaring,
And they listen to my stories, seven `poilus' in a row,
Seven lean and lousy `poilus' with their cigarettes aglow.

And I tell them when it's over how I'll hike for Athabaska;
And those seven greasy `poilus' they are crazy to go too.
And I'll give the wife the "pickle-tub" I promised, and I'll ask her
The price of mink and marten, and the run of cariboo,
And I'll get my traps in order, and I'll start to work anew.

For I've had my fill of fighting, and I've seen a nation scattered,
And an army swung to slaughter, and a river red with gore,
And a city all a-smoulder, and . . . as if it really mattered,
For the lake is yonder dreaming, and my cabin's on the shore;
And the dogs are leaping madly, and the wife is singing gladly,

And I'll rest in Athabaska, and I'll leave it nevermore.

Robert Service (1874 -1958)


The interesting thing about best-selling books in the United States for the years 1910-1919 depicts American likes to be much as it is now: a mixture of high and low, excellent and appalling, discriminating and popular. For over the first half of the decade poetry was missing from the list, however as the United States entered the war five books of poetry in the Top 10 non-fiction lists appeared between 1917-1919.

The number one non-fiction book of 1917 was Rhymes of a Red Cross Man by non other than Robert Service (who also penned one of my favorite childhood poems The Cremation of Sam McGee). Written and dedicated to Service's brother, Albert, who was killed in action in France, August, 1916, this poem, The Man from Athabaska begins as if it is going to be a Public Relations fluff of jingoism directed at the Canadian war effort. Soon enough though the tone becomes like that of most war poetry after 1916, one of profound weariness.

Copyright has expired and to the best of my knowledge this poem is in public domain.

Sources:

BEST-SELLING US HARDCOVER NONFICTION:
http://home.comcast.net/~netaylor1/bestsellersnonfiction.html

Life of Service, by Dan Duffy:
http://lists.village.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Texts/Narrative/Duffy_Service.html

Public domain text taken from
http://www.worldwideschool.org/library/books/lit/poetry/RhymesofaRedCrossMan/chap6.html


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