The Cremation of Sam McGee
by Robert Service
Stanza 1 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
- These two opening lines set the scene. They let us know that we’re in the land of the midnight sun, where men "moil" (that just means to work really hard) in search of gold.
- Now, these lines might not tell you a whole lot, but that’s why you’ve got us, right? The place Service is describing is the Yukon in Canada (right up next to Alaska), which is so far north that the sun shines all day in the summer, even at midnight.
- The time he’s referring to is the Klondike Gold Rush, which happened at the end of the 19th century. During the Gold Rush, thousands of guys went north hoping to get rich.
- One last thing about this line. Notice that reference to "strange things"? That sets the tone, the feeling of the poem, and lets us know that we should expect an odd, offbeat story.
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
- This is basically a follow-up on that comment about "strange things" in line 1. Apparently, the secrets of the Arctic are so scary that they would "make your blood run cold."
- Hehe. Did you catch the joke there? One of the major points of this poem is that it’s really, really cold in the Arctic. So, if the fear doesn’t chill you, the incredible cold could freeze your blood for real.
- In any case, we’re being set up to hear a scary story.
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
- Apparently there have been plenty of "queer" (meaning "odd" or "strange") goings-on under the Northern Lights. Even so, our speaker thinks he’s got the "queerest" story yet.
- The Northern Lights (also called Aurora) are a crazy, natural lights show that happen in the Arctic. (You can read more about the Northern Lights here, or check out some pictures here.)
- Bringing up the Northern Lights is Service’s way of reminding us that he’s talking about an exotic and amazing place, just like he did with the "midnight sun" (line 1).
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
- Think of these first lines like a teaser trailer for a horror movie. They tell us where we are, and they let us know that things will be suspenseful and scary. Then, just to grab our interest, they tell us just a little (but not too much!) about what happens.
- These lines let us know that we’re going to hear about the strange cremation of a guy named Sam McGee.
- Cremation is the name for burning a dead body to ashes, rather than burying it in the ground.
- Apparently this cremation happened on the "marge" (that just means the shore) of a place called Lake Lebarge.
- That’s all we get for now. A hint, but no news about why this story is worth writing a poem about. Did the teaser work? Are you tempted to keep reading? We sure are.