R Robert Service

The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service

‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ is one of the best-known poems of Robert W. Service. The poem presents the cremation of Sam McGee who freezes to death in the prospect of gold.

In this poem, Service presents the story of Sam McGee, an inhabitant of Tennessee, who died in the cold of the north pole. It is a story about one’s lust and how it has a catastrophic effect on life. The craze for gold drove the title character so mad that he forgot about the reality around him. Eventually, he died in the prospect of gold. The speaker of the poem talks about Sam’s story and his last wish to be cremated after his death. He detested a burial under the chilling polar ice. For this reason, he asked the speaker to cremate him.

The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service

 

Summary

‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ by Robert Service talks about a prospector, Sam McGee who froze to death and how his friend cremated his body on the marge of Lake Lebarge.

This poem presents a character named Sam McGee. He lived in Plumtree, near Tennessee. The speaker of the poem and McGee left their southern hometown and went to the chilling north pole in search of gold. After spending a lot of days there, one day McGee realized his dream was a far cry. He sensed his approaching death. Hence he told the speaker to cremate him as soon as he was dead. To keep the promise, the narrator took an arduous journey to the marge of Lake Lebarge. There he found a derelict jammed in the ice, named “Alice May”. He cremated Sam McGee in the boiler fire. At last, he saw the ghost of McGee who told him to shut the door when he tried to look inside the makeshift crematorium.

 

Structure

‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ begins with a prologue. Service uses the same stanza to conclude the poem. It acts as a refrain. Apart from that, there are a total of 15 stanzas in this poem. The body of the poem contains 13 four-lined stanzas. Each stanza contains rhyming lines. The rhyme scheme of the overall poem is AABB. Whereas the prologue and epilogue contain the ABCBDEFE rhyme scheme. There is an evenness in the syllable-count of the lines. Each line contains 16 syllables and the stress falls on the second syllable of each foot. It means each line consists of eight iambs. Hence, the overall poem is composed in iambic octameter. However, there are a few variations in this poem.

 

Literary Devices

There are several literary devices in this poem. To begin with, the prologue to the poem contains personification in the lines, “The Arctic trails have their secret tales” and “The Northern Lights have seen queer sights.” The line, “But the queerest they ever did see,” contains hyperbole. Thereafter, in the first stanza, the phrase, “God only knows” acts as an irony in the second line. The poet also uses alliteration in this poem. As an example, the phrase, “the cotton blooms and blows,” contains an alliteration. There is a simile in the line, “but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell.” Moreover, the remark by McGee, “he’d sooner live in hell” is an example of a paradox.

Thereafter, the third stanza begins with an anaphora. The poet uses a metaphor in the phrase, the “land of death”. It is a reference to the chilling atmosphere of the North Pole that makes the land barren, lifeless, and insufferable to live in. Moreover, there is a palilogy in the phrase, “In the long, long night.” Thereafter, in “quiet clay”, the poet uses synecdoche. Apart from that, Service makes use of onomatopoeia in the line, “for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so.” However, the poem ends on an ironic note.

 

Themes

‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ contains some important themes such as the lust for gold, human-greed, suffering, horror, and vanity of human desire. The most important theme of the poem that leads to the downfall of the titular character Sam McGee is the lust for gold. He left the comforts of his home in search of gold in the North Pole. It led to his death at the end of this verse-tale. Moreover, the themes of greed and suffering are an integral part of the poem. They go hand-in-hand to portray how humanity suffers for this burning desire for wealth. Apart from that, the poem begins with the theme of horror. It sets the mood of the overall poem. Lastly, another important theme of the poem is the vanity of human desire. The catastrophic death of McGee and his cremation depict this theme sufficiently.

 

Detailed Analysis

The Prologue

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.

The prologue to ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’, gives a basic description of the poem. Firstly, the speaker of the poem says there are strange things done in the midnight sun. It’s the first image that portrays an incident that happened in the midnight sun. Here, the poet refers to the time of early dawn. Thereafter, the speaker says the men who moil for gold did those things at that time. After reading the poem, readers can understand why the poet gives such a description at the beginning of the poem.

However, the speaker says the Arctic trails have their secret tales that would make one’s blood run cold. It is a reference to something eerie and mysterious. The Northern Lights have seen queer sights. But the queerest they ever did see, was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge. On that night, the narrator cremated the titular character, Sam McGee. The following stanzas of the poem discuss what happened with McGee while he was in search of gold on the Arctic trails.

 

Stanza One

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.”

The first stanza of the poem describes Sam McGee. He was from Tennessee where people cultivated cotton. The speaker asks why McGee left his home in the South to roam around the North Pole. He is not sure why he did so. Hence he says God only knows the reason for McGee’s departure. However, McGee was a cold person but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell. It was the spell of lust that made McGee restless. According to the speaker, McGee was aware of the fact that he’d sooner live in hell for his greed for gold.

 

Stanza Two

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.

In the second stanza, the speaker says on a Christmas Day they were mushing their way over the Dawson trail. It was extremely cold out there. The chilling air was stabbing them like a driven nail through the parka’s fold. If they would close their eyes, the eyelashes froze till sometimes they could not see anything. The speaker says it was not much fun but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee. It is not clear why McGee whimpered. Whatsoever, it seems that he whimpered as he was aware of where his desire would lead him to.

 

Stanza Three

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.”

In the third stanza of ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’, the speaker says on that very night they laid packed in their robes beneath the snow. They fed their dogs before going to sleep. While laying there, the speaker watched the stars overhead that were dancing heel and toe. Here, the speaker uses a metaphor. The stars seemed to him as dancers who were dancing in the night sky. However, when the speaker was looking at the sky, McGee turned to him. He asked him for his cap and said that he would cash in that trip anyhow. And before going out he asked the speaker not to refuse his last request.

 

Stanza Four

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.”

McGee was so low spirited that the speaker could not say no. Sam told him with a sort of moan that the cursed cold had a firm hold on him. He was feeling as if the chilling air had frozen him through his bone. But the fear of being dead in the cold of the North Pole was not troubling him. Rather he dreaded the thoughts of the icy grave that pained him. So he wanted the speaker to swear that whatever foul or fair occurred, he would cremate his last remains. From this statement, it is clear that he was ready to embrace the cold breast of death anytime. It seems that the lust for gold made him realize that the direction chosen by him was leading him to hell. And he was aware of that.

 

Stanza Five

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.

Thereafter, the speaker says a pal’s last need is a thing to heed. So he swore to McGee that he would not fail him. After that, they started their journey at the streak of dawn. When he looked at McGee he looked ghastly pale in the cold. He crouched on the sleigh but he was not thinking about gold anymore. Rather he raved all day of his home in Tennessee. Unfortunately, “before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.” It seems that after wandering in the North Pole for many days he lost hope in himself. So, at last, he died.

 

Stanza Six

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.”

To fulfill his commitment to McGee, the narrator hurried, horror-driven, with the corpse of his friend. He was out of breath in that “land of death”. McGee’s body was lashed to the sleigh and it seemed to say to the speaker, “You may tax your brawn (muscles) and brains.” Moreover the corpse seemed to say, “But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.” Here, the poet introduces the first element of horror. However, in the following sections, it becomes clear what the “queerest thing” was mentioned in the prologue to the poem.

 

Stanza Seven

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.

In the seventh stanza of ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’, the speaker says a promise made is a debt unpaid. Here, the poet uses a metaphor. He compares a promise to unpaid debt. However, the trail to fulfill that promise was a stern code. In the days to come, the speaker cursed that load off the corpse though his lips were dumb in the cold. In the long night by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring, howled out their woes, he loathed the things that he was about to cremate. This section portrays a mixed emotional state of the speaker’s mind. He was firstly mournful for the death of his friend. At the same time, he detested the dead-body of McGee.

 

Stanza Eight

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.

Moreover, the speaker says that every day that “quiet clay”, a metaphorical reference to McGee’s corpse, seemed heavier than the previous day. But he went on, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low. The trail was bad and he felt half-mad. But he swore he would not give in, no matter what happened with him. While he was in search of a place to cremate his body, he often sang to the “hateful thing”. It seemed to him, the lifeless body of McGee replied to him with a grin.

 

Stanza Nine

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.”

At last, he came to the marge of Lake Lebarge. There he found a derelict that was jammed in the ice. He saw that it was named the “Alice May”. Thereafter, he looked at it and thought a bit. And looked at his “frozen chum”. Without thinking more, he decided that he would cremate his friend there. Here the speaker ironically pronounces the word “crematorium” according to its syllable division. After wandering in the bitter cold, it was a moment of achievement for him. He had found a place to cremate his friend at last.

 

Stanza Ten

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.

He tore some planks from the cabin door of “Alice May” and lit the boiler fire. Thereafter he found some coal that was lying around the boiler. After collecting those coals he heaped the fuel higher. Then he lit the boiler and the flames soared. It seemed to the speaker as if the furnace roared. Here, the poet uses a personification. Moreover, the speaker looked at the furnace and thought such a blaze was uncommon. However, he burrowed a hole in the glowing coal and stuffed Sam McGee inside the fire. The description of the preparation of burning his friend’s body is no doubt horrific and disturbing. It seems the speaker tried to get rid of the decomposing body somehow.

 

Stanza Eleven

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.

In the eleventh stanza of ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’, the speaker says that after stuffing the body in the furnace he made a hike. He did not like to hear the sizzling sound made during the cremation of Sam McGee. Here, the poet depicts the scene as if the ambiance during the cremation was turned mournful. It seems as if nature was mourning the loss of Sam McGee. Whatsoever the speaker says at that time “heavens scowled and the huskies howled.” The wind began to blow swiftly. It was icy cold outside but the hot sweat rolled down the speaker’s cheeks. He did not know why he was feeling that way. Moreover, he saw the greasy smoke rising in the sky like an inky cloak.

 

Stanza Twelve

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.

Thereafter, in the twelfth stanza of the poem, the speaker says he does not know how long he wrestled with grisly fear in the snow. After some moments, the stars came out in the sky. They danced about in the night sky when he ventured near the boiler room. He was sick with dread but he bravely said that he would take a peep inside. Thereafter, he ironically says, “I guess he’s cooked and it’s time I looked.” Here, the poet metaphorically compares cremation to cooking. Such a comparison is undoubtedly disturbing. At last, he opened the door wide to look at whether the cremation was finished or not.

 

Stanza Thirteen

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.”

In the last stanza of the poem, the poet depicts a horrific scene. When the speaker looked inside the room, he saw Sam sitting there. He looked cool and calm like before. Inside the heart of the roaring furnace, the ghost of Sam somehow made the speaker dreadful. Moreover, the ghost wore a smile and requested him to close that door. It was fine there. What the ghost feared were the cold air and chilling storm. At last, the speaker says since he left Plumtree, in Tennessee, it was the first time he had been feeling so warm.

Such a paradoxical emotion might be confusing to the readers. It seems the speaker was feeling satisfied after seeing Sam in his calm and cold appearance. Even though he was staring at the ghost of his friend, he was feeling happy for him. As he was looking calm and warm after his death. The speaker felt warm as his friend looked comfortable in the fire of the furnace.

 

The Epilogue

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.

The epilogue to the poem, ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ is a repetition of the prologue. The last section acts as a refrain. After reading the whole poem, it becomes clear what were the strange things that happened with them who moiled for gold. Readers can understand why the poet writes, “The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,/ But the queerest they ever did see.” Here, the queerest sight was that of the ghost of Sam McGee sitting in the furnace fire. On that night, when the speaker cremated McGee, he saw his ghost who talked with him. It was an incident that the imaginary speaker of the poem can’t ever forget in his life.

 

Historical Context

‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’, one of the famous poems of Robert Service, was published in 1907 in “Songs of a Sourdough”. The poet based the poem on the experience of his roommate, Dr. Leonard S. E. Sugden. Once, he cremated a corpse in the firebox of the steamer named “Olive May”. Although the poem is a fictional tale of Sam McGee, it was based on real people and things that Service saw in the Yukon, Canada. Lake Lebarge or the Lake Laberge is formed by a widening of the Yukon River. Moreover, the “Alice May” was based on the derelict “Olive May” that belonged to the Bennett Lake & Klondike Navigation Company. Dr. Sugden used its firebox to cremate the body of Cornelius Curtin who had died of pneumonia.

In 1904, when Service was working in the Canadian Bank of Commerce branch in Whitehorse, he saw the name of William Samuel McGee on a form and used it in his poem. The name, Sam McGee rhymes with the word, “Tennessee”. For this reason, he chose this name. However, William Samuel McGee was a road builder and indulged in prospecting later. But he died in 1940 of a heart attack.

 

Similar Poetry

Here is a list of a few poems that are similar to Service’s ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’.

You can read about 10 of the Scariest Poems and 10 of the Best Gothic Poems here.

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A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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