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Old David Smail

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.

His brothers passed him in the race;
They climbed the hill and clinched 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.

I see him now, so old and grey,
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.

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Robert Service, 1874-1958, Canadian poet (though much of his adventurous life, including its first and last years, was lived in other lands). He is sometimes dubbed the “Bard of the Yukon”, the Yukon providing the setting of his best-known poems. According to literary critic Northrop Frye, Service’s verse was not “serious poetry”; it was, instead, “popular poetry”, and these two modes of poetry must “remain inexorably distinct.” While this may be up for debate, it’s true that Service himself said that he strove to write “verse, not poetry”. Still, I like to think that there is not an absolute delineation between “serious” and “popular” poetry; that in art, as in nature, black and white are generously interlaced with an infinity of shades of grey.

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I had copied this poem into a little notebook I kept years ago, and that’s where I’ve now come across it.  (It didn’t occur to me back then that I ought to note the titles of the books where the verses I copied out appeared!) Nevertheless, the poem is also to be found in the highly readable 1960 Collected Poems of Robert Service (where are included also many of his reflections on his life and poetry) and where we learn that originally it was found in Service’s Ballads of a Bohemian.

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