Friday, January 1, 2010

the Cremation of Sam Mcgee by Robert Service

It's been hella cold here for days, barely up to 25 below right now as the sun's going down. Everytime I whine about wanting to be warm I think of this poem. Back in the 70s the gold miners used to have a Robert Service poetry night at the Malemute Saloon in Ester (where I later worked and had my wedding in 88). These gruff, usually quiet old men recited every poem by heart, and this one always seemed to be spoken with more passion than the rest of them! When I became a student at UMass, Amherst in the early 80s, I was asked to identify my favorite poet in my Middle English Writers class. I named Service and my professor said no, he wasn't a "real" poet and I had to choose somebody else. My response was to recite Spell of the Yukon and ask the class if it sounded like a poem to them. I only got a B in that class.

Robert Service (1874-1958)

The Cremation of Sam McGee

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he'd often say in his homely way that "he'd sooner live in hell."

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn't see;
It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and "Cap," says he, "I'll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I'm asking that you won't refuse my last request."

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
"It's the cursèd cold, and it's got right hold, till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet 'tain't being dead — it's my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains."

A pal's last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn't a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: "You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it's up to you, to cremate those last remains."

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows — Oh God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I'd often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the "Alice May."
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then "Here," said I, with a sudden cry, "is my cre-ma-tor-eum."

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared — such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: "I'll just take a peep inside.
I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked"; ... then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and said: "Please close that door.
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear, you'll let in the cold and storm —
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

The above poem can be found, for example, in:
  • Service, Robert. The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses. New York:
    Barse & Hopkins Publishers, 1907.
  • Gross, John, ed. The Oxford Book of Comic Verse. New York:
    Oxford University Press, 1995.

    Nordica said...

    hahahaha me and annika got a kick out of this. she says hi. see you shortly, love you

    Anonymous said...

    Now you did it! In 1968, I visited Robert Service's home (it just sat there just like he left it, not locked or anything, I could have robbed everything there!) and camped on Lake LeBarge for a few days. I love Service's poetry esp. 1. The Cremation of Sam McGee 2. The Face On the Barroom Floor 3. The Spell of the Yukon. Ode to A Toilet Lid stands out also. Much of his poetry moves me to tears, but The Men That Don't Fit In describes my life as if I wrote it myself!
    Let's hope that this year shows us a reversal of the inertia of destruction! Happy New Year to you, Nord and Fred!!
    Love from Pete

    Anonymous said...

    That's one of the poems my mother read to us when we were growing up. We loved it. And The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay. When I was a sixth-grader she had me memorize The Highwayman. And she never graduated from high school. Children don't read, much less memorize, poetry any more do they?

    Anonymous said...

    All you taught me was "Two Irishmen"!!


    angry cheese said...

    My dad used to recite
    'I must go down to the sea again..' by John Masefield.
    He spent most of world war 2 and his working life at sea.

    Sean said...

    I agree. Now you've done it. Now'll have to get my robert service poems out of storage.

    My dad had me read quite a bit of them, and read them aloud to me... when I was a teenager. The one that stuck with me was "The Ballad of the Ice Worm Cocktail"

    Men play pranks, just like boys and girls.

    Hope you're fine!

    Walla Walla's like a haunted fun house.


    the tent lady said...

    I never expected to get so many comments to this post! Awesome.

    Pete, The Men who don't fit in is a tough one... it fits me too but always makes me sad to read it. What a COOL thing to visit his cabin. I hope you get your wishes this year. Much love back!

    I love hearing your mother read it to you anonymous, I raised my Nordica and Nolan on shel silverstein... eep. :)

    Brother I taught you a lot more than that! Jerimia Was a Bullfrog leaps to mind. hugs

    did you ever go to sea with him cheese? How romantic it seems to me but how difficult it must have been for your mother. I don't know that poem, I'll look it up tho.

    Sean you're hilarious, the iceworm cocktail was still in play when I came to Alaska in the 70s. Many bars served it. In fact Alaska used to be ALL about the pranks, some bars made a living off it. My sister told me about one bar in old Valdez that was on the dock (before the 64 earthquake demolished the town). Newcomers were treated like kings there and never had to pay for a drink. When they asked where the little boys room was, they were directed to a door.. many a cheechacko opened it and dropped right into the icy waters of Prince William Sound.

    It makes me so happy to know it's okay to post things other than my ACL studies with you all, and to share a love for poetry is a fine way to take a break from the nwo.

    Maybe next time I'll post Madame La Marquise