Saturday, 14 November 2009

Robert Service: 'Tri-colour'

Robert Service, the 'Bard of the Yukon', is claimed by three countries: born in Preston, England, he grew up in Scotland, and moved to Canada aged 21. He was the laureate of the Klondike gold rush (although he first visited the area a decade later), making his name with poems like 'The Shooting of Dan McGrew' and 'The Cremation of Sam McGee'.

Less well-known are Service's war poems. During the First World War, he worked for the Canadian Red Cross, and his experiences were recorded in The Rhymes of a Red-Cross Man (1916). The book deserves much more attention: it belongs with the best of Canadian war poetry.

'Tri-colour' (click on this link) is probably voiced for a British or French soldier, as signalled by the red, white and blue of the flowers. (The United States did not join the war until 1917.) It was written in the same year as Canadian John McCrae's 'In Flanders Fields'. Both works are dramatic monologues, but whereas McCrae claims to give voice to the dead, Service speaks powerfully for the mad. The Christian consolation at the end is tantalisingly ambiguous. Does the dying soldier hallucinate the vision, or is mercy finally granted?


  1. What an extraordinary poem - so much more evocative and trenchant ("goaded on to the shambles") than one would expect from Service. And very interesting to see the symbolism of poppies and cornflowers already potent in 1916 - the lilies have faded away since then, I suppose because the pre-existing connotations were too strong.

  2. Am I more nuts than usual, or do the first two sections smack of Shakespeare and Macbeth? Anyone hear the echoes? No? Then I must be mad... it's all that blood, haunting me, surrounding me, till I'm steeped in gore... and glory!!

  3. I think that the source is Tennyson's Maud, the clue being the word 'dabbles'. Here's the start of Maud:

    I hate the dreadful hollow behind the little wood;
    Its lips in the field above are dabbled with blood-red heath,
    The red-ribb'd ledges drip with a silent horror of blood,
    And Echo there, whatever is ask'd her, answers "Death."

  4. Hmmm. I didn't mean literal line references (though that Tennyson sounds promising), but rather the spirit, the gestalt, the mad terror, the soliloquy voice--Rob sort of channeling Will and Mac... Oh well, I did say "more nuts than usual."

  5. I believe that anybody in 1916 would identify the "Tricolor" as a direct reference to the French flag. The blue shirt is the clincher: worn by the French, not the British.

    Excellent cite, by the way!

  6. I meant "site," of course.

    Still excellent, though.

  7. I'm appreciate your writing skill.Please keep on working hard.^^

  8. Thank you for the kind words. Jonathan --- that's an excellent point about the blue shirts, or 'dark-blue blouses' as the poem puts it. French, without a doubt.