Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Cremation of Sam McGee

In a comment on yesterday’s post, Dr. John Linna of Neenah, Wisconsin, allowed as how I am the first person he has run into who has read The Cremation of Sam McGee besides himself. That’s pretty hard to believe, but I believe you, Dr. John, because you are a retired Lutheran minister and not given, I would assume, to bearing false witness.

Thanks to the greatest high-school English teacher who ever lived, the one and only Mr. D. P. Morris, our entire ninth-grade English class had to read The Cremation of Sam McGee, but that was way back in 1954 or 1955 and the world has changed a lot since then. And granted, it may not rank as great poetry when compared to the stuff John Keats produced (“When I have fears that I may cease to be before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain...”) or Percy Bysshe Shelley (“Hail to thee, blithe spirit! Bird thou never wert”) or George Gordon, Lord Byron (“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold and his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold...”) or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (“This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks...”) or Alfred, Lord Tennyson (“Cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them, into the valley of death rode the six hundred...”), but Robert W. Service, in his own way, was no slouch either.

So without further ado, Damen und Herren, Mesdames et Messieurs, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Children Of All Ages, I direct your attention to the center ring, where, for your reading pleasure and educational edification, I give you:

The Cremation of Sam McGee
by Robert W. Service

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 cursed cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ‘taint 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 -- O 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;
Then 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 he 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.


  1. our lives intertwine at gowns at the tooele jr high school with the long ramp up to the second floor who hit me with a yard stick after trying to get a girl's attention by spinning his world globe around as fast as i could made the whole class read the cremation of sam magee in 1953 when i was eleven years old and made billy criag read it out loud to the whole class of 15

  2. Putz -

    And you have never been the same since.

    The fact that you and I both read the same poem fifty-some years ago doesn't mean that "our lives intertwine." I'd be willing to bet that a few million others have read the same poem.

  3. Hmm....I wonder why my teachers never assigned this delightful story poem to us. Truly, I've not heard of it before, and if I had, it might have prompted nightmares.

    This frigid weather we're having gives me understanding of Sam McGee's dread, however. He should have stayed in Tennessee.

  4. None of my teachers ever read good poems like this one. I found it in a book at my Aunt's Drug Store. I reqad it out loud to anybody who would listen.

  5. This is such a cool poem. My friend's sister read it to her when she was young, and not that long ago, my friend read it to me, which was the first time I'd heard it. But it's hard to forget! Esp. since I have a son we call Popsicle who would probably have appreciated being put in the furnace as well!

  6. My brother (the one who did Casey at the Bat) has about an hour-long program of Robert W. Service's poems. He's a huge fan.

  7. Oh this is great. My dad used to read this to me when I was around grade school age. I had forgotten it until now. I remember thinking it was so amazing that he came back to life in the fire. Thanks for the fun memory.

  8. It was neat reading everyone's experience with this poem. Somewhere, Robert W. Service must be smiling.