December 12, 2014

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.

        I don’t usually go for the undead sort of fantasy, but here’s a poem that’s just so much fun to hear that I have to include it.  The poem comes from Songs of a Sourdough, but poet Robert Service (1874-1958) was anything but a sourdough, an experienced old-timer of the Yukon.  He came late to the gold rush territory and worked primarily as a bank manager.  What he was, however, was a sociable man with a quick ear for a catchy turn of phrase, and a gift for capturing both the romance of the north and its humor.  That first book of poems became an immediate best-seller in the early twentieth century, and Service remained a wealthy, prolific, celebrity author for the rest of his life.  As for The Cremation of Sam McGee as a fantasy tale, it’s pretty straightforward.  The magic really comes only in the final punch line, but the world creation is also wholly in keeping with fantasy.  Even though the poem claims to be set in a real time and place, Service uses a fantasy aesthetic to evoke a land as strange, mysterious, and magical to most of his audience as Middle Earth or the moon.
        It’s a long poem, so I give you here just excerpts.  Please read the entire poem here.  And try reading it aloud.  It really is meant to be savored by tongue and ear.  Better yet, grab a blanket and a mug of hot chocolate, and recite it while gathered around the fireplace as the snow whirls outside and the frost clings to the windowpanes.


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.

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.

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 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.

[Pictures: Dog Sled Team, linocut by George Kuthan, c. 1950-69 (Image from University of British Columbia library);
They fell down and died as they walked, illustrationt by Ray Brown, from American Merchant Ships and Sailors by Willis J. Abbot, 1902 (Image from Project Gutenberg);
The Moaning of the Tied, wood block print by anonymous artist, from The Great Frozen Sea by Albert Hastings Markham, 1894 (Image from Project Gutenberg).]

No comments:

Post a Comment