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Song of Winter

Wet and muddy wartime trenches
National Library of Scotland, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
Wet and muddy wartime trenches

Hello HPPR listeners. I’m Andrea Elise in Amarillo, and I am excited to tell you about a poem called “A Song of Winter Weather.”

Isn’t it fun to stumble upon an author who, though widely published, is new to you? That was my experience with poet, author, and jack of all trades and interests, Robert W. Service.

Service was a British-Canadian writer who lived from 1874 to 1958.

He started his career as a banker, but his life was as varied as his written words.

He drifted around mostly North America, taking and quitting a series of jobs. He had barely sustaining work in Mexico; resided in a California bordello; farmed on Vancouver Island; and pursued unrequited love in Vancouver. Those are just a few examples of his itinerant life.

After quitting yet another banking job in 1909, Service rented a cabin and began his career as a full-time author.

He was 40 when World War I broke out. He attempted to enlist but was turned down because he had varicose veins. He briefly covered the war for the Toronto Star but was arrested and nearly executed in an outbreak of spy hysteria in Dunkirk.

Service then worked as a stretcher bearer and ambulance driver with the American Red Cross until his health declined.

The topic of his poem, “A Song of Winter Weather,” briefly summarizes a war environment. It describes some of the many things that can kill an unwary soldier — an enemy combatant, a bullet, disease, etc.

The poem then declares that none of those things are what break a person. “It isn’t the guns / And it isn’t the Huns,” but rather it was the mud, a word that is capitalized and written three times.

In the second verse of the poem, the battles, metals, shells and shrapnel are devastating, but what really hurts the soldiers is the rain, which can be relentless and unavoidable. It chills them, slows them down, and makes them miserable. The word “rain” is also repeated and enlarged three times.

In the third verse, it is the cold that tortures the military personnel, freezing their fingers and hurting their hands. It is COLD, COLD, COLD.

The final verse examines how the soldiers themselves are affected by the weather. At that point, their second worst enemy is Nature itself, bringing down pouring rain, freezing winds, and muddy ground, everything at the same time. In all capital letters are the words RAIN, COLD AND MUD.

I would be remiss if I did not read the final verse of Robert Service’s winter poem. It goes like this:

Oh, the rain, the mud, and the cold,
. . .

With sky that's a-pouring a flood,
Sure the worst of our foes
Are the pains and the woes
Of the RAIN,
the COLD,
and the MUD.

Although nobody wants war, we in the HPPR listening area would give anything for pouring rain or any moisture, and we may not even mind the mud. Mother Nature comes when she will, and for the soldiers in “A Song of Winter Weather,” she was the harshest of all mistresses.

This is Andrea Elise for the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club.

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