Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Literary Influences of Robert E. Howard: Robert W. Service by Todd B. Vick

From a very early age Robert E. Howard loved poetry. This was in large part due to his mother and her passion for verse. From the time Robert was born, Hester Howard recited poetry to her son. So naturally, Robert grew to love poetry. And there were a number of poets who influenced him as a reader and a writer. One such poet was Robert W. Service. His work loomed large in its influence of Robert E. Howard.

Robert W. Service
Service was born on January 14, 1874 in a small village named Preston, in Lancashire England just 20 or so miles northeast of the port town Liverpool. Service began writing poetry at an early age, heavily influenced by these Victorian poets: Tennyson, Browning and Keats. Several of these same poets, along with Robert W. Service played an integral part in influencing Howard’s verse. Service eventually moved to Canada, and settled in the Yukon territory. It took Service a bit of time to get his poetry published. Frankly, most poems and/or poets never make a living at their craft. With little success as a writer, to support himself Service took a job as a banker in the Pacific Northeast at the Canadian Bank of Commerce. All the while, he continued to write. Eventually Service managed to secure a publisher in London for his first collection of verse (Songs of Sourdough), published in 1907.

In the United States, Edward Stern and Company of Philadelphia published the same volume under a different title, The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses. This volume gained a large amount of readers in the early twentieth century. Robert E. Howard owned the United States edition of Service’s first collection, and he particularly enjoyed “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” In fact, this poem eventually became one of the most memorized in the United States a few years after its publication. A few years later another collection by Service, Ballads of a Cheechako, garnered almost equal success as The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses, and Service was able to quit his job at the bank, write full-time and travel.

The Spell of the Yukon
and Other Verses
1907 edition
Robert W. Service’s influence can clearly be seen in many of Howard’s own poetry. Their rhyme and meter, heavily influenced by the Victorian poets, was similar. And among Howard's close friends, in particular Tevis Clyde Smith, Service's poetry was highly praised. According to Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, [Tevis Clyde Smith] Clive, considered Robert W. Service the greatest poet of all-time. Steve [Robert E. Howard] declared that Service was second only to Rudyard Kipling. [POSR, 74] Due to its content, Service’s poetry was ripe for the working class. This is likely one of the reasons Howard and Smith liked it. Without much sophistication, Service was able to delineate the common man and their struggles in his verse. Moreover, the content of many of Service’s verse was about frontier life in the Canadian Yukon, gold rushes, and man’s toil to survive. Of course, Howard loved those topics making Service’s verse resonate in his own imagination. Service’s poems were about the simple, ordinary life, and Howard especially liked this. In fact, on one occasion Howard told Lovecraft: “My tastes and habits are simple; I am neither erudite nor sophisticated. I prefer jazz to classical music, musical burlesque to Greek tragedy, A. Conan Doyle to Balzac, and [Robert] Bob Service’s verse to Santayana’s writing, a prize fight to a lecture on art.” [CL 3.66]

After his death, several of Service's books were present in Howard's personal book collection and donated to the Howard Payne College library; titles such as The Pretender, Ballads of a Bohemian, Rhymes of a Red-Cross Man, and The Spell of the Yukon and Others. Some of these books are now displayed in a bookcase at the Howard House and Museum in Cross Plains, Texas.

Works Cited
CL           Collected Letters
POSR      Post Oaks and Sand Roughs (Grant edition)


Lt. Lothar Zogg said...

"I prefer jazz to classical music."

Now there is a topic I have never heard anybody approach; what kind of music did REH listen to? If I had to guess it would have been Wagner or Greig or Sibelius, or maybe honkytonk country music.

If it was jazz, was it Dixieland? He had spent some time in New Orleans.

Todd B. Vick said...


REH would have been quite limited in what he could have listened to. AS far as we know he never bought any records (78s back then), and the Howard's did not own a player. They did, however, own a radio, and REH likely had a personal radio in his own room. So he would have listened to what music he could pick up from local stations. Here is a link to some of the music REH may have heard on the radio:

The quote I included (with the portion you mentioned) would have been quite genuine. Howard had simple tastes when it came to music. I doubt he listen to much classical music, if he listened to it at all.