Robert Service, the poet of ‘Death in the Arctic,’ was well-known during his lifetime for writing powerful, evocative, poetic stories. Some of the primary criticisms leveled at his work during his time were based on the idea that much of his work was of such a grim tone, his stories very dark, and his style sometimes unorthodox. And yet, today, his poems are well-worth reading, in some ways because they can be so different from so many other examples of poetry from the era. As a prime example, ‘Death in the Arctic’ tells a bleak, dark story in such an evocative way that even after the poem finishes, the reader can’t help but wonder for more.
Death in the Arctic Analysis
I took the clock down from the shelf;
“At eight,” said I, “I shoot myself.”
It lacked a minute of the hour,
And as I waited all a-cower,
A skinful of black, boding pain,
Bits of my life came back again. . . .
“Mother, there’s nothing more to eat —
Why don’t you go out on the street?
Always you sit and cry and cry;
Here at my play I wonder why.
Mother, when you dress up at night,
Red are your cheeks, your eyes are bright;
Twining a ribband in your hair,
Kissing good-bye you go down-stair.
Then I’m as lonely as can be.
Oh, how I wish you were with me!
Yet when you go out on the street,
Mother, there’s always lots to eat. . . .”
In Section One of the poem, we are introduced to the narrator of ‘Death in the Arctic,’ and, upon reading the first two lines, it is immediately clear what Service’s critics meant when they suggested perhaps his subject matter was a bit too dark. The narrator of ‘Death in the Arctic’ has decided to time their own suicide; they have a clock before them, and at 8:00, they’re going to end their life. As the speaker makes this decision, he is described as being covered in pain; the “black” may be a reference to the physical symptoms of frostbite, or it may simply be a descriptor of how angry the pain feels to the person who is feeling it.
The pain brings back vivid memories of the narrator’s early life — we learn that as a child, life was not easy for the speaker. The descriptions given suggest that their mother was the only source of income for the family, as food is only plentiful after she goes out for work and that there’s no one left around once she’s left. The nature of the work — dressing out and going on the streets — suggest that she may have been a prostitute, someone desperate to give her son anything she can in any way she can. It is not a happy picture, one that is almost contrasted by the simple, easily flowing rhyme of the piece.
For days the igloo has been dark;
But now the rag wick sends a spark
That glitters in the icy air,
And wakes frost sapphires everywhere;
Bright, bitter flames, that adder-like
Dart here and there, yet fear to strike
The gruesome gloom wherein they lie,
My comrades, oh, so keen to die!
And I, the last — well, here I wait
The clock to strike the hour of eight. . . .
“Boy, it is bitter to be hurled
Nameless and naked on the world;
Frozen by night and starved by day,
Curses and kicks and clouts your pay.
But you must fight! Boy, look on me!
Anarch of all earth-misery;
Beggar and tramp and shameless sot;
Emblem of ill, in rags that rot.
Would you be foul and base as I?
Oh, it is better far to die!
Swear to me now you’ll fight and fight,
Boy, or I’ll kill you here to-night. . . .”
In Section Two of ‘Death in the Arctic,’ the rhyming pattern and structure of the poem are continued; AABB, with eight syllables in each line. The narrator regards their icy prison; they are trapped in a dark igloo, surrounded by their dead partners, suggesting they were on a mission or an adventure of some sort that has gone horribly wrong. He suggests that, like him, his partners were eager to end their suffering, though this may have also meant that they died quickly, unlike the poem’s speaker.
As he waits for 8:00, his memories continue, this time of him being given a harsh lesson by an anonymous character who describes a life of destitution and swears to him that if he ever stops fighting against that terror, he will find himself wishing for death. It is possible that this memory is why the narrator is forcing himself to wait a while longer before giving up; it is also possible that this memory is a torment to him, as he evidently promised to keep fighting and was let go by whomever it was who spoke to him.
Curse this silence soft and black!
Sting, little light, the shadows back!
Dance, little flame, with freakish glee!
Twinkle with brilliant mockery!
Glitter on ice-robed roof and floor!
Jewel the bear-skin of the door!
Gleam in my beard, illume my breath,
Blanch the clock face that times my death!
But do not pierce that murk so deep,
Where in their sleeping-bags they sleep!
But do not linger where they lie,
They who had all the luck to die! . . .
“There is nothing more to say;
Let us part and go our way.
Since it seems we can’t agree,
I will go across the sea.
Proud of heart and strong am I;
Not for woman will I sigh;
Hold my head up gay and glad:
You can find another lad. . . .”
Robert Service does an amazing job of portraying the fraying mental state of the narrator here; the overuse of exclamation points and use of words and phrases such as “freakish glee” to describe a candle show the reader that the narrator is slowly losing their mind. It bothers them that the lights cast on their dead companions, and they express additional envy for those who have already died and no longer need to wait. In his memories, the narrator recalls a breakup, presumably between them and a woman (as “going across the sea” could potentially refer to the trip they are on presently; it could also, of course, be a reference to simply leaving the country), and their decision to embark on their own adventures, rather than remain in one place with one woman. It is also possible that the narrator was the one who was broken up with — but it seems unlikely that someone who wished to stay in one place for their life would be willing to embark on an Arctic expedition at all.
Above the igloo piteous flies
Our frayed flag to the frozen skies.
Oh, would you know how earth can be
A hell — go north of Eighty-three!
Go, scan the snows day after day,
And hope for help, and pray and pray;
Have seal-hide and sea-lice to eat;
Melt water with your body’s heat;
Sleep all the fell, black winter through
Beside the dear, dead men you knew.
(The walrus blubber flares and gleams —
O God! how long a minute seems!) . . .
“Mary, many a day has passed,
Since that morn of hot-head youth.
Come I back at last, at last,
Crushed with knowing of the truth;
How through bitter, barren years
You loved me, and me alone;
Waited, wearied, wept your tears —
Oh, could I atone, atone,
I would pay a million-fold!
Pay you for the love you gave.
Mary, look down as of old —
I am kneeling by your grave.” . . .
Section Four of ‘Death in the Arctic’ provides the reader with a strong sense of what day-to-day life has been like for the narrator. The group of travelers are “north of Eighty-three,” likely a reference to the Eighty-Third Parallel North, which comprises the northernmost landmasses on Earth; Ellesmere Island in Canada and Sverdrup Island in Greenland are the southernmost landmasses beyond the Eighty-Third Parallel North, confirming that the narrator is deep into the Arctic Circle. There is nothing to do, being trapped so far north, except to watch the snows and hope for help. They have not run short of water, being able to melt snow on their bodies and drink it. For food, they have resorted to sea lice. The narrator has nothing to do in the world except to watch his clock and lie with dead men — and time is never quite as slow as when one stares at a clock.
We also learn that the narrator has lost someone important in their life; perhaps the woman from Section III flashback or perhaps someone else. Based on the line, “Came I back, at last,” it makes sense to think that this is the same woman he once left and now regrets it bitterly. Perhaps it is this agony that has convinced him to do something as dangerous as travel to the Arctic Circle, especially considering this is something he is thinking about while he is there.
Olaf, the Blonde, was first to go;
Bitten his eyes were by the snow;
Sightless and sealed his eyes of blue,
So that he died before I knew.
Here in those poor weak arms he died:
“Wolves will not get you, lad,” I lied;
“For I will watch till Spring come round;
Slumber you shall beneath the ground.”
Oh, how I lied! I scarce can wait:
Strike, little clock, the hour of eight! . . .
“Comrade, can you blame me quite?
The horror of the long, long night
Is on me, and I’ve borne with pain
So long, and hoped for help in vain.
So frail am I, and blind and dazed;
With scurvy sick, with silence crazed.
Beneath the Arctic’s heel of hate,
Avid for Death I wait, I wait.
Oh if I falter, fail to fight,
Can you, dear comrade, blame me quite?” . . .
Section Five of ‘Death in the Arctic’ appears to be dedicated to the memory of Olaf, one of the deceased adventurers on the expedition. The narrator recalls his final moments with Olaf in both memory and vivid recall; in the first verse, the reader hears the last words spoken between the two adventurers. He died, we are told, without the knowledge of the narrator, who realized it posthumously upon examining Olaf’s eyes. But we are told through flashback that Olaf — assuming it is Olaf, for it may have been another companion — had, like the narrator, given up on the idea of survival and prepared for death. He spoke of horror, of wasted hope, of being wracked with sickness, and of losing his mind. He insists that his desire for death is understandable, perhaps even trying to justify it to himself, repeating more than once the question of whether he can be blamed for preferring death to torment.
Big Eric gave up months ago.
But seldom do men suffer so.
His feet sloughed off, his fingers died,
His hands shrunk up and mummified.
I had to feed him like a child;
Yet he was valiant, joked and smiled,
Talked of his wife and little one
(Thanks be to God that I have none),
Passed in the night without a moan,
Passed, and I’m here, alone, alone. . . .
“I’ve got to kill you, Dick.
Your life for mine, you know.
Better to do it quick,
A swift and sudden blow.
See! here’s my hand to lick;
A hug before you go —
God! but it makes me sick:
Old dog, I love you so.
Forgive, forgive me, Dick —
A swift and sudden blow. . . .”
In this section of ‘Death in the Arctic,’ we learn more of the dead adventurers residing in the igloo with the narrator. Eric, who passed away some time ago, apparently had suffered the most out of anyone, enduring what sounds to have been a severe case of frostbite that made necessary the amputation of much of his body. Despite this, he was a pillar of strength and goodwill and was also the last man to die before the narrator. We also learn from the flashback that there was a dog on the expedition who needed to be put down. The line “your life for mine” suggests that the dog was a source of food for a while, though the act was sickening to the narrator, who clearly had a great deal of affection for the animal. It’s also interesting that the structure of ‘Death in the Arctic’ changes here — this makes it actually difficult to read, enhancing the emotional state of the memory.
Often I start up in the dark,
Thinking the sound of bells to hear.
Often I wake from sleep: “Oh, hark!
Help . . . it is coming . . . near and near.”
Blindly I reel toward the door;
There the snow billows bleak and bare;
Blindly I seek my den once more,
Silence and darkness and despair.
Oh, it is all a dreadful dream!
Scurvy and cold and death and dearth;
I will awake to warmth and gleam,
Silvery seas and greening earth.
Life is a dream, its wakening,
Death, gentle shadow of God’s wing. . . .
“Tick, little clock, my life away!
Even a second seems a day.
Even a minute seems a year,
Peopled with ghosts, that press and peer
Into my face so charnel white,
Lit by the devilish, dancing light.
Tick, little clock! mete out my fate:
Tortured and tense I wait, I wait. . . .”
The impending insanity of the narrator is made very clear in Section Seven of ‘Death in the Arctic’. We learn that he hears the sounds of help approaching when no one is there and is haunted by ghosts who torture him in his mind. Reacting to the perceived help, he runs for the exit of the igloo, only to be reminded that the way is blocked by endless fields of snow, with no one around, presumably for a great many miles. He dreams of heaven and considers death something to awaken from, hoping that when he passes away, his predicament will feel like nothing more than a nightmare. The only thing keeping him pressed into reality, it seems, is the ticking of the clock that counts down his life.
Oh, I have sworn! the hour is nigh:
When it strikes eight, I die, I die.
Raise up the gun — it stings my brow —
When it strikes eight . . . all ready . . . now —
* * * * * * *
Down from my hand the weapon dropped;
Wildly I stared. . . .
THE CLOCK HAD STOPPED.
Section Eight represents a turning point for ‘Death in the Arctic,’ and this is reflected in the sudden break from structure. Each line remains eight syllables long, and the rhyming continues, but it is much shorter and uses ellipses to change the timing of each line. True to his word, the narrator intends on ending his life come 8:00, and we learn he is armed with a gun with which he can fulfill his desire. He reaffirms his position and prepares himself before a shock comes — only a moment before the clock strikes eight, it breaks, and the hands freeze with only moments to spare.
Phantoms and fears and ghosts have gone.
Peace seems to nestle in my brain.
Lo! the clock stopped, I’m living on;
Heart-sick I was, and less than sane.
Yet do I scorn the thing I planned,
Hearing a voice: “O coward, fight!”
Then the clock stopped . . . whose was the hand?
Maybe ’twas God’s — ah well, all’s right.
Heap on me darkness, fold on fold!
Pain! wrench and rack me! What care I?
Leap on me, hunger, thirst and cold!
I will await my time to die;
Looking to Heaven that shines above;
Looking to God, and love . . . and love.
Section Nine of ‘Death in the Arctic’ marks the first full section — as the short Section Eight might be considered a brief climax — that does not include a flashback or haunting memory from the narrator. Instead, we see that the speaker remains entirely within the present moment, describing his utter shock at what has happened and the resulting epiphany. He is still not entirely returned to sanity — he is still hearing voices in his head — but he continues to live and discovered a sense of peace. He believes that perhaps God intervened with his plan and stopped the clock so the narrator would not commit suicide and has discovered that the fear of the cold and darkness has gone, as has the impatience for the end.
Hark! what is that? Bells, dogs again!
Is it a dream? I sob and cry.
See! the door opens, fur-clad men
Rush to my rescue; frail am I;
Feeble and dying, dazed and glad.
There is the pistol where it dropped.
“Boys, it was hard — but I’m not mad. . . .
Look at the clock — it stopped, it stopped.
Carry me out. The heavens smile.
See! there’s an arch of gold above.
Now, let me rest a little while —
Looking to God and Love . . .and Love . . .”
‘Death in the Arctic’ concludes with the rescue of the narrator, who this time sees actual men entering the igloo on a rescue mission. He begins blabbing, explaining that he is not insane, and tells them that the clock has stopped and that God has smiled upon him. He asks to be carried out and says he needs to rest. He describes a golden arch he can see and closes his eyes, thinking about the love God must feel for him to have saved his life.
Because of the evident insanity of the narrator, it is difficult to say what had actually happened — whether the rescue was real or imagined. It is possible that while the narrator did not end their own life, they died shortly after 8:00 anyways; that the “gold arches” are actually Heaven’s Gate, which might suggest that the fur-clad men who rescued him were an angelic vision. Alternatively, it’s possible that the narrator believed there were angels rescuing him, and his dazed, frazzled, and less-than-sane mind made him believe he was seeing Heaven.
Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that there is some form of peace for the narrator at the end of ‘Death in the Arctic’; whether that would be in a natural death or in rescue, it’s hard to say. But the dark and gloomy story that so vividly drove the narrator to 8:00 is told extremely well by the immense talents of Robert Service. His work remains a fantastic example of storytelling today.