Robert W. Service's

"The Cremation of Sam McGee"

A Funeral Pyre
What Sam McGee's Funeral Scene May Have Looked Like

The Alaskan Frontier
A Possible Setting for "The Cremation of Sam McGee"

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The Artic 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 the night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

I cremated Sam McGee

A Gold Prospector
A Gold Prospector

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."

Sled Dogs
How Prospectors Travel

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."

The Northern Lights
What the Prospectors Might Have Seen in the Sky

A Cold Night in a Snowstorm
What Sam's Surroundings Might Have Looked Like

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."

An Illustration from One Version of the Poem
One Representation of the Poem

“The Cremation of Sam McGee” includes a number of literary devices that make it more effective as a piece of poetry. In just the first few stanzas, an audience can find several examples of literary devices. The first thing that we might want to discuss is rhyme scheme. In the first stanza of this poem, the rhyme scheme is not very regular: abcbdefe. In later stanzas, the rhyme scheme becomes more regular: aabb.

The author uses personification several times in the first few stanzas. He says that “Arctic trails have their secret tales” and “the Northern Lights have seen queer sights”.  How do these statements affect our reading of the poem? In a later stanza, he says that “the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe.”  There are also several similes in this poem including “hold him like a spell” and “stabbed like a driven nail.” What do these similes mean?

The author also uses understatement when he says the extreme cold “wasn’t much fun.” How would you describe extremely cold weather? He also uses foreshadowing when Sam says “I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.” Do you think he would speak so cryptically if he were making a simple request? The audience recognizes hyperbole when Sam says that he’s “chilled clean through to the bone.” Does this help you understand how cold it is there? There are also several examples of alliteration in the first few stanzas of the poem including “cursed cold” and “foul or fair.”

Did you find any of these devices as you were reading through the poem? Did you find any devices that I didn’t mention here? Do you think we will see more as we read the rest of the poem?