This poem has a really distinctive rhythm to it that makes the lines really fun to read. It kind of ambles along, and even when it gets exciting, it doesn’t speed up that much. Try reading it really fast. See – it doesn’t sound right, does it?
When we read this poem aloud, we hear the slow, clip-clop sound of a lazy old horse. It’ll get where it’s going, but it’ll take its time about it, thank you very much. Read line 21 out loud for a good example:
Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan
Hear that slow lope? Da Da DUM Da DUM Da Da DUM, etc.
The open sound of the vowels helps with that too. Look at the three key words in this sentence: "Low," "no," "moan." They are all broad, open, slow-moving sounds. We hear those sounds everywhere in this poem. When we do, it’s hard for us not to think of that old horse, trotting his slow way down a trail.
This one seems pretty straightforward to us. The title tells us about the main event in the poem and who it happens to. Thanks to that heads-up, we start the poem wondering who this Sam McGee is, and when and where and why he was cremated. That’s the trick to a good title; it tells the reader just enough, but not too much. It leaves us curious, establishes a little bit of suspense. That’s something the whole poem does really well, actually, telling us just a little at a time and winding us up for that big surprise ending.
Service is pretty clear about where this poem is set and what the snowy world of the Yukon looks like. It's December in the Arctic and absolutely frigid. But before you decide that the frozen North is the poem's only setting, think about this. "The Cremation of Sam McGee" is all about storytelling. Think about the beginning of the poem and the refrain. We aren't necessarily in the Yukon at that point.
We can imagine the speaker telling this story around a campfire in the mountains, on a cold night, with a blanket of stars overhead. The setting would really make you feel the effect of the story. You’d look into the fire and think of the burning furnace. You might even hear a coyote howl in the distance and think of those sled dogs. You’d smell the smoke and feel the bite of the cold, and imagine how much colder it would be in the Yukon. You’d see the fire lighting up the storyteller’s face, and you’d imagine, for a minute, that he’d actually been there, mushing over the Dawson trail all those years ago.
Where do you imagine the speaker is when he's recounting the story of Sam McGee? Who do you imagine he's speaking to?
Alright, so we only see this working one way. In our minds, the speaker has to be a bow-legged skinny old guy, with a voice like gravel on a tin roof. He’d need a big white mustache and a cigar chomped between his teeth. He’d have a twangy southern accent and maybe a missing finger on his right hand that he won’t talk about. Some poems could have all kinds of speakers, but for one like this, a ballad of life and death on the frontier, well it just wouldn’t work with anyone but this guy. Try to imagine someone else telling this story: an English aristocrat, a French ballet teacher, a computer programmer? We just don't see it. There has to be some trail dirt left on our speaker’s clothes, and a voice and a face that lets us know he’s lived hard, seen a lot, and survived to tell the tale.
But maybe that's just us. The poem doesn't give us many clues about the speaker. How do you picture him?
There are a few tough words sprinkled into "The Cremation of Sam McGee," but for the most part, this should be a fun, easy climb, which is part of what makes it so great.
Robert Service’s poems have been hugely popular with generations of readers. They love the feeling of adventure in his poems, the sense of being taken on a trip to an exciting place and time (some folks call this "armchair traveling"). The poems, especially from this early part of Service's career, are all about the thrilling world of the Canadian Arctic, and the people who moved there to hunt for gold. He wraps all this exciting material up in a fun package, with a memorable, regular rhythm and catchy rhymes.
Let’s tackle the rhyme first, since it’s a really big part of how this poem fits together. The first thing for us to notice is that all of these lines rhyme in the middle (that’s called internal rhyme) and also at the end of the line. You probably picked this up just by reading it, but why don’t we show you how it works in the second stanza, just to be extra clear. We’ll put the rhyming words in bold:
Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows. (A)
Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows. (A)
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell; (B)
Though he'd often say in his homely way that "he'd sooner live in hell." (B)
Can you see the two kinds of rhyme there? First look at the internal rhyme in the first line: McGee rhymes with Tennessee. Then look at the end of the first line, where we find the word blows, which rhymes with the end of the next line, knows. When a line rhymes with just one line right below it, we call it a rhyming couplet. If you follow it through the poem, you’ll see that all the lines follow this pattern: blows/knows, spell/hell, etc. Sometimes people represent these rhyme patterns with letters, where each letter matches up to the rhyming sound at the end of the line. You can see that we’ve done that up above. In this case it’s pretty simple. The pattern for rhyming couplets goes AABBCC, etc.
Now that we’ve got that down, let’s take a look at the meter, or the rhythm of the poem. We think the most important thing to see here is that every line has seven stressed syllables in it. Even when the lines are a little longer or shorter, you will always find those seven beats, as they’re sometimes called. Again, you can probably hear this already, but we’ll show you exactly how it works. Just like we did with the rhymes, we’ll put the stressed syllables in bold:
Now Sam | McGee | was from Tenn|essee, | where the co|tton blooms | and blows.
Try reading that aloud, putting extra emphasis on the bold syllables. Feel how the rhythm kind of lopes along? When we have a line with seven beats in it, we call that heptameter ("hepta" is Greek for seven, so it literally means seven-meter). It’s good to have names for these things, but we think it’s more important to really get a feel for the rhythm of a poem and to pay close attention to how it sounds.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
In the way, way north, in the summer time, the sun shines almost all day, even at midnight. Because of that, some call it (kind of obviously) the land of the midnight sun. This only gets one mention in the poem, (well, two if you count the refrain) but we think it does a really good job of setting the scene.
If the Yukon represents the cold, dark world of death and pain (sorry, too grim?) then Tennessee stands in for comfort, home, warmth, and the easy life. The only problem is that there isn't any gold in Tennessee. So, Sam hit the trail and headed north.
The cold in this poem is a physical presence, almost like a wild animal or something. It chews away at these poor guys until there’s almost nothing left. It’s pretty clear that the cold robs Sam of his will to live, and then actually takes his life (for a little while, at least).
We’re not exactly sure how to feel about the sled dogs in this poem. Usually dogs are warm and funny and friendly – you know, "man’s best friend" and all that. In most of the places they get mentioned here, though, they seem sort of distant and personality-less. (We bet Jack London, who wrote The Call of the Wild, would take issue with this…). The dogs aren't all that comforting, in other words, especially in a poem where we might be looking for a little comfort.
The stars don’t come up a lot, but we think the couple of mentions add a lot to the poem. They give us a little bit of perspective, and help us see some of the beauty of the North, as well as the cold and the misery. It makes it easier to imagine why people would want to live there.
We spend a little bit of time with Sam McGee while he’s alive, but even more with his frozen corpse. The grinning, frozen body is a creepy, awful companion for the speaker, but he can’t get rid of it, because of the promise that he made to Sam. Finally, Sam gets thawed out, and the corpse comes back to life. Not what you’d expect, but kind of a nice surprise.
No sex here. Not a bit. Sorry about that.