A classic ballad of the Klondike gold rush retains its appeal for people who like strong rhymes, a dramatic story and a mordant wit
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
And the Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold …
Oh, what thrills those words gave those of us who first heard them, say, around a campfire! The opening lines of ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee” were among the most popular of the 20th century and may be among the few lines of poetry that many American adults still know by heart. And because the poem is out of copyright in the U.S., you can download it for free at sites that include Poetry Out Loud www.poetryoutloud.org/poems/, a project of the Poetry Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts, which also has Service’s “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”
Why seek out a poem that first appeared a century ago in The Spell of the Yukon (Dodd, Mead, 1907)? Its masculine themes and folksy diction are out of fashion in a liberated age that values detached sophistication. But this frontier ballad still has charms for anyone who likes strong rhymes, a dramatic story and a mordant wit.
Robert Service (1874–1958) found the inspiration for “The Cremation of Sam McGee” after the Canadian Bank of Commerce sent him to the Yukon Territory in the early 1900s. The poem both celebrates and sends up Klondike gold rush. The speaker is a parka-clad dog-musher fighting the cold on Christmas Day with a hapless adventurer who underestimated the perils of his quest:
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.”
Sam believes he that he will perish from the cold but insists that he isn’t afraid of dying – only of an “icy grave” – and begs to be cremated after he dies. When the narrator tries to oblige, Service throws in a twist suggested by the last lines:
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.
Like many of Service’s poems, “The Cremation of Sam McGee” begs to be read aloud. Each line has an internal and end rhyme that create a distinctive rhythm that listeners quickly begin to anticipate. And Service creates a brisk pace through his use of anapestic meter — resembling the gallop of a horse – that also drives “Paul Revere’s Ride.”
The dust jacket of an early edition of The Spell of the Yukon says that Service “has caught the spirit of wanderlust latent in every one of us.” Words like those are often fool’s gold. But the boom in Alaskan cruises and wildness vacations suggests that if the Klondike gold rush is as dead as Dan McGrew, people will always want to know if those Northern Lights “have seen queer sights.”
“The Cremation of Sam McGee” appears in many books, such as Best Tales of the Yukon: Including the Classic “Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee. By Robert W. Service. Running Press, 160 pp. $12.95, paperback.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.