Wednesday, January 19, 2005


Carry On!

"It isn't the mountain ahead that wears you out; it's the grain of sand in your shoe." - Robert W. Service

My favorite poem by Robert W. Service is Carry On. It's from Rhymes of a Red Cross Man.


It's easy to fight when everything's right,
And you're mad with the thrill and the glory;
It's easy to cheer when victory's near,
And wallow in fields that are gory.
It's a different song when everything's wrong.
When you're feeling infernally mortal;
When it's ten against one, and hope there is none,
Buck up, little soldier, and chortle;
Carry on! Carry on!
There isn't much punch in your blow.
You're glaring and staring and hitting out blind;
You're muddy and bloody, but never you mind.
Carry on! Carry on!
You haven't the ghost of a show.
It's looking like death, but while you've a breath,
Carry on, my son! Carry on!
And so in the strife of the battle of life
It's easy to fight when you're winning;
It's easy to slave, and starve and be brave,
When the dawn of success is beginning.
But the man who can meet despair and defeat
With a cheer, there's the man of God's choosing;
The man who can fight to Heaven's own height
Is the man who can fight when he's losing.
Carry on! Carry on!
Things never were looking so black.
But show that you haven't a cowardly streak,
And though you're unlucky you never are weak.
Carry on! Carry on!
Brace up for another attack.
It's looking like hell, but -- you never can tell:
Carry on, old man! Carry on!
There are some who drift out in the deserts of doubt,
And some who in brutishness wallow;
There are others, I know, who in piety go
Because of a Heaven to follow.
But to labour with zest, and to give of your best,
For the sweetness and joy of the giving;
To help folks along with a hand and a song;
Why, there's the real sunshine of living.
Carry on! Carry on!
Fight the good fight and true;
Believe in your mission, greet life with a cheer;
There's big work to do, and that's why you are here.
Carry on! Carry on!
Let the world be better for you;
And at last when you die, let this be your cry:
Carry on, my soul! Carry on!

mason symbol

A short biography and an *excellent* photo of Robert W. Service can be found here.

This poem, as with almost all poetry, really, should be read out loud. The turns of phrase, the pacing, and the subject matter (courage as grace under fire, the ability to choose to be bigger than our destiny, etc) are so very good.

It's easy to become melodramatic, dark, or maudlin when writing about war, violence, struggle, despair, and our relationship to nature. However, Service handles what it means to be human in his writing with such an unflinching, honest, and artistic eye that when you read his work, there is a feeling of transparency and immediacy that is almost unparalled in poetry.

"infernally mortal"
"You haven't the ghost of a show"
"When the dawn of success is beginning"

The arc from self/soldier, to son, to old man, to soul is good too. I like the way the use of the passage of time reinforces the idea that struggles aren't just limited to a particular battle or even a particular war. Fighting the good fight is a daily choice. Service was not one to glorify war, but he didn't paint warfare or the struggle with/against nature as entirely brutal, either.

Here's a bit from Time Magazine's archives. It's the beginning (free) portion of a book review from 1945.

Rhyming Was His Ruin

Oct. 1, 1945
PLOUGHMAN OF THE MOON — Robert Service— Dodd, Mead ($3.50)."I was always in love with rhyme," confesses Robert Service. "If two lines could be made to clink it seemed to go a long way to justify them. . . . Rhyming has my ruin been. With less deftness I might have produced real poetry." Many a middle-aged American would not trade The Shooting of Dan McGrew or The Cremation of Sam McGee for all the "real poetry" in the language. Robert W. Service rarely shows up in the better anthologies or in college English courses. But in money-talking terms of copies sold, he is a..."

If you are a Time magazine subscriber, or have a few dollars to spend on getting the article, the link is:,10987,776216,00.html

Another Robert W. Service inspired work of art is an album by Country Joe McDonald. Here's a blurb about it and the song list.

Composed by Country Joe McDonald from the poems of Robert W. Service. music copyright by Joe McDonald Music Corp., BMI 1971. Produced by Country Joe McDonald, recorded at Vanguard 23rd Street Studio, New York, engineered by Jeff Zaraya, cover produced by Robin Menken, cover by Thut-Wainwright, San Francisco, California. Note: all songs about WWI except The March Of The Dead which is about The Boer War.

LP Vanguard VSD-79315
Side 1
Part One
1 Forward 4:39
2 The Call 2:35
3 Young Fellow, My Lad 3:47
4 The Man From Aphabaska sic (Athabasca)

Side 2
Part Two
1 The Munition Maker 4:22
2 The Twins 1:53
3 Jean Despres 9:48

Part Three
4 War Widow 2:02
5 The March Of The Dead 6:27"

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