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"The Cremation of Sam McGee" is among the most famous of Robert W. Service's poems. It was published in 1907 in The Songs of a Sourdough (The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses). A success upon its initial publication in 1907, the poem became a staple of traditional campfire storytelling in North America throughout the 20th century. An edition of the poem, published in 1986 and illustrated by Ted Harrison, was read widely in Canadian elementary schools.

PlotEdit

The poem concerns the cremation of a prospector who freezes to death near Lake Laberge,[1] (spelled Lebarge by Service), Yukon, Canada, as told by the man who cremates him.

The night prior to the death of the title character, who hails from the fictional town of "Plumtree, Tennessee", the narrator realizes that "A pal's last need is a thing to heed" and swears to McGee that he will not fail to cremate him. After McGee dies the following day, the narrator winds up hauling the body clear to the "Marge of Lake Lebarge" before he finds a way to perform the promised cremation. Robert Service based the poem on an experience of his roommate, Dr. Sugden, who found a corpse in the cabin of the steamer Olive May.[2]

The poemEdit

The Cremation of Sam McGee

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 cursed 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 numb, 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.

– Robert Service


Template:PD-old-50-1923


The truth behind the fictionEdit

Although the poem was fiction, it was based on people and things that Robert Service actually saw in the Yukon. The "Alice May" was based on the derelict stern-wheeler the "Olive May" that belonged to the "BL&K" company[3] and had originally been named for the wife and daughter of "Albert Sperry Kerry Sr.".[4] Lake Laberge is formed by a widening of the Yukon River just north of Whitehorse and is still in use by kayakers.

"William Samuel McGee"[5][6][7] (b 1868, Lindsay, Ontario - d 1940, Beiseker, Alberta) was primarily a road builder but did indulge in some prospecting. Like others, McGee was in San Francisco, California at the time of the Klondike Gold Rush and in 1898 left for the Klondike.

In 1904, Service, who was working in the Canadian Bank of Commerce (not the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, a frequent error) branch in Whitehorse, saw McGee's name on a form. He talked to McGee about using his name and received permission, which is confirmed by correspondence between McGee and his family. In 1907 the publication of the poem, along with the others contained in The Songs of a Sourdough, made Service famous and McGee the subject of ridicule.

In 1909 McGee traveled south of the Yukon to build roads, including some in Yellowstone National Park. Eventually, McGee and his wife moved to live with their daughter outside of Beiseker, Alberta. However, in 1930 McGee returned to the Yukon to try prospecting along the Liard River, but met with no success. He did however return with an urn that he had purchased in Whitehorse. The urns, said to contain the ashes of Sam McGee, were being sold to visitors.

McGee spent the rest of his life at his daughter's farm where he died in 1940 of a heart attack.

There are at least two stories about McGee and Service that have grown over the years. The first takes place in the Yukon prior to them both leaving. McGee is said to have obtained his revenge on Service by taking him on a dangerous canoe ride down the Yukon River. It is also claimed that at the time of McGee's death, Service, who was in Canada, tried to attend the funeral. Service, it's said, went to the wrong church but turned up at the cemetery just as McGee was being buried.

There is a town named Plumtree in North Carolina, only about twelve kilometres (but twenty-two kilometres by road) from the border of Tennessee.

TodayEdit

The poem was anthologized in the Oxford Book of Narrative Verse (1983).

In the 1993 film Indian Summer, Alan Arkin's character recites the opening portion of the poem during campfire.

In 1999, Les McLaughlin and Friends released a musical interpretation of the poem as part of the collection entitled The Songs of Robert Services.

In 2005, Christine Hanson, who had been inspired by the Ted Harrison illustrations and was given support by a commission from Celtic Connections International Festival in Glasgow, composed a musical suite for nine musicians to accompany a reading of the poem by well known Dundonian musician/songwriter Michael Marra. The premier performance took place, to a backdrop of Ted Harrison illustrations, in January 2005, as an event at that year's Celtic Connections International Festival. Subsequently a studio recording was made and released in January 2006.[8]

In the 1976 film Dead River Rough Cut woodsman Walter Lane recites the poem in its entirety.

Johnny Cash's reading of the poem was National Public Radio's song of the day on May 9, 2006. Cash's "The Cremation of Sam McGee" was released along with a vast collection of personal archive recordings of Johnny Cash on the two-disc album Personal File.[9] Cash misreads the occasional word (such as "toil for gold" instead of "moil for gold") and accidentally transposes a few lines.

In the Boy Meets World episode "She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not," Mr. Feeny reads the first few lines of the poem to his class.

In Season 3, Episode 7 of the HBO series Big Love, Bill's mother recites the end of the poem to his sons.

In Season 6, Episode 14 (1994/1995) of the TV series Northern Exposure, Phil and Holling recite the end of the poem.

ReferencesEdit

  1. "Lake Laberge, Yukon". The Encyclopedia of Earth. http://www.eoearth.org/article/Lake_Laberge,_Yukon_Territory. Retrieved 29 March 2011. "Lake Laberge is best known for the poem written by Robert Service, entitled "The Cremation of Sam McGee"." 
  2. Strange Things Done Under the Midnight Sun. [© 2011, Tourism Yukon "The Cremation of Sam McGee"]. Discover - Fascinating Yukon Trivia. © 2011, Tourism Yukon. Archived from the original on 29 March 2011. © 2011, Tourism Yukon. Retrieved 29 March 2011. 
  3. Explore North - The Stern-wheeler Gleaner
  4. Tiger Mountain & Grand Ridge
  5. Up Here - My Search for Sam McGee by Randy Freeman
  6. The REAL Sam McGee by Nancy Millar
  7. [1] Fascinating Yukon Trivia: Strange Things Done Under The Midnight Sun from travelyukon.com Accessed April 13 2010
  8. "The Cremation of Sam McGee"
  9. Beyond the Grave, a Morbid Tale

External linksEdit

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