Poetry

19 “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service (Ballad)

Portrait of Robert Service.

Biography

Robert Service was born January 16, 1874, in Preston, Lancashire, England. His father was a banker.  For some years in his childhood, he lived with relatives in his father’s small hometown in Scotland before rejoining his parents, who had relocated to Glasgow. He followed in his father’s footsteps, finding work after his schooling with what would become the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Service was a wanderer who rarely settled for long in one place. In 1895, he made his way to British Columbia, worked as a store clerk in Cowichan Bay, and wrote poems, published in the Victoria newspaper the Daily Colonist. He took some courses at what is now the University of Victoria, apparently to impress a woman with whom he had fallen in love, but he did not distinguish himself. By 1903, he was working at a bank in Victoria. Head office sent him off to the new small town of Whitehorse, established in the frenzy of the Klondike Gold Rush and now in need of a bank.

Here, Service wrote his two now iconic comical ballads, “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”  Soon he had enough poems to fill a book, Songs of a Sourdough, which was a huge success and made Service a wealthy man. Another book, Ballads of a Cheechako (1909), was published soon after and was another bestseller. A novel, The Trail of ’98, and another book of poems, Rhymes of a Rolling Stone, were published over the next few years. Service decided to move on, and he left the Yukon.

In 1913, after working for a year as a correspondent for the Toronto Star, which sent him off to cover the Balkan Wars, Service settled in France. He married a Parisian girl, Germaine, and they had a daughter, Iris. He continued to write poetry and novels, some of which were made into silent movies.

Service worked as a stretcher bearer and ambulance driver in the First World War. After the war, he returned to Paris, wintered in Nice, and continued to write, mostly suspense thrillers. He hobnobbed with some of the great writers of his generation: H.G. Wells, Somerset Maugham, Colette, and James Joyce. Ballads of a Bohemian was published in 1921.

He was in his 60s when the Second World War broke out and he moved his family to the safety of California, though he did his part for the war effort, reciting his poetry—he was always a fine dramatic reader—to soldiers in U.S. Army camps. He also appeared—as himself—in a movie, The Spoilers (1942), with Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne.

After the war, Service returned to Paris, though he continued to travel, wintering in Monte Carlo and Monaco, where he lived on and off from 1947 until his death in 1958.

The Cremation of Sam McGee

Published 1907

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil[1] 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[2] of Lake Lebarge[3]
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.[4]
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— 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;
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.

Analysis

Theme

“The Cremation of Sam McGee” is a narrative poem, set during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896–1899. Until the last verse, it tells a grisly, almost Gothic story of two friends mushing their way along the Dawson Trail, moiling for gold. The main—and title—character is sick and, convinced he is dying, asks his friend to cremate him. A native of Tennessee, Sam simply cannot survive in such a harsh and forbidding climate.

He dies, and his friend is determined to honour his last request. An old boat, the Alice May, is shipwrecked on the shore of Lake Lebarge, and here the narrator will build a fire and cremate his friend. He leaves, unable to watch his friend incinerate; he returns an hour or so later.

And here the plot of the poem twists: Gothic is replaced by comedy. The fire has thawed Sam out, and he is alive and happy, warm for the first time since he has been in the Yukon.

“The Cremation of Sam McGee” is a popular ballad, meant to entertain and amuse readers, but a theme about the meaning of friendship and respecting and honouring the wishes—however gruesome—of a friend does emerge from the plot.

Form

“The Cremation of Sam McGee” is a ballad. A ballad is a narrative poem, usually written in quatrains (four-line stanzas) that alternate between iambic/anapestic pentameter and iambic/anapestic trimeter lines and use an abcb rhyme scheme. This rhythm, metre, and rhyme creates the sing-song voice which makes ballads so much fun to read out loud.

Here is the opening verse of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” perhaps the best-known ballad in English literature. Read it out loud and note how the rhythm and the rhyme quicken the pace of the lines:

~  /   ~     /     ~     / ~  /
It is an ancient Mariner,
~      ~       /     ~      /     ~    /
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

Service begins his poem with a refrain—also common in ballads—repeated at the end of the poem and written in the typical tetrameter and trimeter, iambic and anapestic, ballad metre:

~       ~         /          ~          /      ~   ~     /     ~       /
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;

His narrative begins thereafter, in lines of seven beats each—heptameter—in iambic and anapestic.  Service doubles the length of the typical ballad line, while maintaining the 4/3 pattern of the more traditional ballad stanza.

~      /      ~      /    ~       ~       /      ~    /      ~       ~       /    ~      /           ~     /
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.”

Note also the use of internal rhyme—that is, words that rhyme within a single line: McGee/Tennessee; home/roam; cold/gold; say/way. Internal rhyme is often a feature of the ballad stanza.

Ballads also often contain an element of the supernatural. The fire reanimates Sam, dead by the time he is cremated for several days. The refrain hints at supernatural events to come in the poem.

Figurative Language

In the first stanza, the simile “the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell” illustrates the allure of wealth that brought a hundred thousand prospectors to the Yukon in the late 1890s. The simile in the second stanza, which has the cold stabbing into Sam “like a driven nail,” creates an effective image of the bitterest cold and foreshadows Sam’s “death.”

In the third stanza, stars are personified, “dancing heel and toe,” illustrating the natural beauty of the Yukon, despite its bitter cold.

The assonance in stanza seven—“In the long, long night, by the lone firelight”—highlights the narrator’s sense of loneliness, as he looks for a place to cremate his friend. The haunting image in the next line, as the huskies “Howled out their woes to the homeless snows,” has a similar effect.  The personification and imagery of the eleventh stanza—“And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow”—further enhances the poem’s ominous tone. The last line of the same stanza—“And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky”—is a similarly effective metaphor and image.

The hyperbole of the final stanza, wherein the resurrected Sam wears “a smile you could see a mile,” perfectly alters the tone of the poem from ominous to hilarious.

Context

“The Cremation of Sam McGee” is based in part on an experience of one of Service’s close friends, Dr. Leonard Sugden, who had to cremate the body of a miner whom he found on an abandoned steamer, the Olive May—Service makes it the Alice May—because the ground was too frozen to allow for a burial.

William Samuel McGee was a client of Service’s when he worked at the Bank of Commerce in Whitehorse. Service asked and received permission to use McGee’s name.

The poem was published in Service’s 1907 collection, Songs of a Sourdough. A sourdough is a resident of the Yukon.

Activities

The Cremation of Sam McGee

Your school library might have a copy of the book-length edition of “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” illustrated by Ted Harrison, an artist who painted beautifully coloured, whimsical landscapes of the Yukon. There are several readings of the poem on YouTube, including one by Service himself and an excellent one by Johnny Cash, also illustrated with Ted Harrison paintings. Consult these sources and consider how they add to your understanding and enjoyment of this iconic Canadian poem.

Text Attributions

  • “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service is free of known copyright restrictions in Canada.

Media Attributions


  1. Work hard.
  2. The margin; the shore.
  3. Actually Lake Laberge, which Service changes to “Lebarge” to rhyme with “marge.” Lake Laberge is a widening of the Yukon River, north of Whitehorse.
  4. Supply route between Dawson City and Whitehorse.

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Composition and Literature by James Sexton and Derek Soles is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book