The Cremation of Sam McGee

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 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.

Summary of The Cremation of Sam McGee

  • Popularity of the Poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee”: Robert W. Service, a popular British Canadian poet and writer wrote ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ This is a narrative poem based and inspired by the real people. It was published in 1907 in Songs of a Sourdough. The poem speaks about the narrator’s friend who dies at the Lake Lebarge. The narrator describes how he fulfills his friend’s last wish in unfavorable weather conditions. He also sees Sam’s ghosts after his cremation.
  • “The Cremation of Sam McGee” As a Representative of Death: The poem speaks about an ill-fated man who freezes to death. The poem begins with a description of two friends walking along a frozen trail in the Arctic. The narrator’s friend, Sam McGee, hates the intense cold and predicts his death on this trip. Also, he requests his friend to cremate his corpse at the lake if he dies. Surprisingly, Sam’s prediction comes true. The narrator at first leaves Sam’s body and return. However, he recalls that the final wish is similar to a debt unpaid. He finds a ship ‘Alice May’ where Sam’s body was frozen. He puts the body inside and burns the ship. When he returns, Sam’s ghost thanks the narrator for keeping his promise despite the difficult weather and circumstances.
  • Major Themes in “The Cremation of Sam McGee”: Perseverance, loyalty, and death are the major themes of this poem. The poet discusses the difficulties and the problem of the people who survive in the Arctic wildness. The two friends, Sam and Cap travel with the same purpose, but Sam dies. Cap proves his loyalty by cremating him the way Sam wanted. Despite facing challenges and freezing cold, he successfully cremates Sam.

Analysis of Literary Devices Used in “The Cremation of Sam McGee”

Literary devices are tools used by writers to convey their emotions, ideas, and themes to make texts more appealing to the reader. Robert W. Service, too, has used various literary devices to enhance the intended impacts of his poem. Some of the major literary devices have been analyzed below.

  1. Imagery: Imagery is used to make readers perceive things involving their five senses. For example, “There are strange things done in the midnight sun”; “I cremated Sam McGee” and “Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire”.
  2. Assonance: Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in the same line. For example, the sound of /ou/ in “Howled out their woes to the homeless snows— O God! how I loathed the thing” and the sound of /a/ in “A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail”.
  3. Consonance: Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line. For example, the sound of /n/ in “Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm” and the sound of /r/ in “There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven”.
  4. Alliteration: Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line in quick succession. For example, the sound of /c/ in “”It’s the cursèd cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone” and the sound of /f/ in “So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”
  5. Personification: Personification is to give human qualities to inanimate objects. For example, “The Arctic trails have their secret tales”. Arctic trails in the third line are personified as if they can keep secret like humans.
  6. Enjambment: It is defined as a thought or clause that does not come to an end at a line break; rather, it moves over the next line. For example,

“But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.”

Analysis of Poetic Devices Used in “The Cremation of Sam McGee”

Poetic and literary devices are the same, but a few are used only in poetry. Here is the analysis of some of the poetic devices used in this poem.

  1. Stanza: A stanza is a poetic form of some lines. There are fifteen stanzas in this poem.
  2. Quatrain: A quatrain is a four-lined stanza borrowed from Persian poetry. Here, each stanza is quatrain except first and last stanzas.
  3. End Rhyme: End rhyme is used to make a stanza melodious such as in the first and second line in the second stanza the rhyming words are “blows”, “knows”, “spell” and “hell.”
  4. Internal rhyme: The internal rhyme is rhyme within a line such as in the line “The Northern Lights have seen queer sights”. The words “lights” and “sights” rhyme with each other.
  5. Repetition: The poetic, as well as a rhetorical device of repetition, emphasizes a point through repetition.
  6. Refrain: The lines that are repeated at some distance in the poems are called refrain. The first stanza is repeated with the same words, and it has become a refrain as the poem opens and ends with the same stanza.

Quotes to be Used

The lines stated below can be used to tell about the life experiences of explorers, the beauty of Northern Lights, and the mysterious places in the arctic circle.

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.