Study Guide

The Cremation of Sam McGee Quotes

  • Mortality

    Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
    I cremated Sam McGee. (lines 7-8)

    Death comes up fast in this poem. We heard about it in the opening lines, and now we’re being reminded that we’re here to listen to a story about a cremation. It’s a pretty strange topic for a poem, especially one that ends up being so funny. We think the focus on death is what gives this poem a lot of its weird, surprising power.

    He turned to me, and "Cap," says he, "I'll cash in this trip, I guess; (line 19)

    Here’s where Sam comes to terms with the fact that he’s dying, and says it out loud. Check out the way he says it, though. There’s no drama. It’s kind of slangy and casual: "I’ll cash in." It adds a little tough-guy flavor to the poem, and it makes him sound like a man who’s spent some time around death and gotten used to it.

    And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee. (line 28)

    This is a pretty big moment in the poem – the moment when Sam goes from being a person to being a corpse. From now on, he’s literally dead weight, a burden on the speaker. In the normal world, this would be the end of things. Once you’re dead, that’s usually it for you. In this poem, though, nothing goes quite according to plan, in life or death.

    And I'd often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin. (line 40)

    This is a really weird, grisly moment, isn’t it? We don’t know about you, but we sort of love the black humor here. Imagine this guy riding along on a sled, singing to his dead buddy, who just grins along the whole time. This poem looks at death in a bunch of different ways. It shows how it’s a sad and moving experience, sure, but also something you kind of have to laugh at, if only to maintain your sanity.

    And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar; (line 57)

    Here’s the twist at the end of the poem. Death turns out to not be a one-way trip. In the final moments, Sam is actually resurrected by the fire. It’s silly and funny, for sure, but a victory over death is a really old and serious theme too. It’s the driving force behind the story of the Phoenix (which rises from the flames like Sam) and pretty much the whole Christian religion. We’re not trying to spoil the joke here, but we’re pretty sure Service is hinting at bigger ideas.

  • Man and the Natural World

    The Northern Lights have seen queer sights (line 5)

    This line almost makes us feel like the Northern Lights are watching what’s going on down below them. In a way, they sound like they could be a character in the poem. They give us a feeling for how exotic and magical this place is. All the way through, the speaker pays attention to what’s going on in the sky. It’s one of the ways that he keeps us focused on the amazing natural setting where his story takes place.

    Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail. (line 14)

    What a great line! Can’t you just feel that cold slicing into you? Worming its way into the holes in your clothes and trying to get right into the heart of you? If you’ve ever been out on a freezing winter day, you’ll know this feeling, the way the cold can seem like a wild animal. We think Service does a great job of capturing that here.

    And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and toe, (line 18)

    This is a sweet, quiet moment. For a second at least, we’re not fighting with nature. In fact, we’re at peace with it. We can imagine happy, full dogs and a beautiful sky completely alive with stars. We like that kind of folksy image of the stars square dancing way up in the sky.

    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. (lines 35-36)

    Now, in this case, the natural world doesn’t sound so great. In fact, it seems completely empty and lonely, with no comfort anywhere. The word "homeless" is a great way to describe the snow, since it makes the snow itself sound lonely. It also emphasizes how far the speaker is from civilization and the comforts of his own home.

    And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow (line 50)

    Even though we don’t learn much about the dogs, they are a pretty steady presence in this poem. They don’t seem so much like man’s best friend in this case, though, more like a weird and lonely part of the natural world. Their lonesome howling seems closer to the storm and the scowling sky than to our poor speaker. Robert Service does a great job of making us feel how vast and scary the natural world can seem when you’re all alone in it.

  • Perseverance

    It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee. (line 16)

    This is just a quick remark by the speaker, but we think it might say something about Sam. You need to be tough as nails to survive in the Arctic winter, and you probably shouldn’t be doing a lot of whimpering. This line makes Sam sound a little weak, frankly. Now, the poor guy’s freezing to death, so it’s hard to blame him, but we think it’s safe to say that he’s lost the grit and determination he needs to get by.

    With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise given; (line 30)

    Our speaker makes it clear from the start that he isn’t going to give up on his mission, even if it’s tough on him. And it is tough. He tells us plenty about the disgusting smiling corpse, and how much he hates lugging it around. We admire him even more for hanging tough even when the job is so gross and thankless.

    Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code. (line 33)

    This little bit about the code of the trail seems important to us. He doesn’t say a lot about it, but we think it shows why he’s so determined. Our speaker is driven by a sense of honor and loyalty. In a place where there’s no one to keep tabs on you, there’s still an unspoken rule about how you’re supposed to act. Maybe this code helps to keep things together, and helps to keep the men sane, too.

    The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in; (line 39)

    This is pretty much his flat-out statement of perseverance. The road’s lousy, he’s going nuts, but the last thing he’s going to do is give up. Our guy is definitely a survivor, and it’s that will to keep going, that focus on the goal, that helps him stay sane and alive on the Arctic trail.

    I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear; (line 53)

    Even a tough guy has some dark moments. He survived the trail, but the actual act, the cremation of Sam McGee, is a little bit tougher for him. He has to really struggle here to get through it, to conquer his "grisly fear." That’s definitely part of the meaning of perseverance in this poem. Not just being able to stand a little cold, but being able to fight your fear and win.

  • Friendship

    A pal's last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail; (line 25)

    This is kind of a sweet moment. OK, he’s dragging his friend’s corpse across the tundra, so maybe it’s little too dark to be "sweet." Still, we think it matters that he calls Sam his "pal." It shows that he’s carrying out this mission at least partly because he genuinely liked the guy. Even among tough-guy gold miners, there’s a real bond of friendship.

    Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan: (line 21)

    Here’s another spot where we see the speaker’s softer side. He really feels for Sam, and does a nice thing that he doesn’t have to do. There’s a lot of stuff in here about toughing it out and keeping your word, but it’s good to remember that it all started with a kind gesture.

    Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code. (line 33)

    Here’s where friendship starts to mix with other feelings, like duty and honor. He started on this mission to do something nice for a friend, but he doesn’t talk so much about that once he’s on his way. In general, our speaker doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would overshare about his feelings.

    And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum; (line 43)

    So, this is sort of about friendship, but we think it takes a pretty dark, ironic look at it. The phrase "frozen chum" is actual kind of funny – he sounds more like a popsicle than a buddy. This poem definitely has something to say about the importance of friendship, but it never gets sappy about it. This biting humor has a lot to do with making the poem fun to read.

  • Suffering

    Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail. (line 14)

    It’s cold in the Arctic, and when you’re outside it hurts. A lot. This is such a great image of how these guys must have suffered during those freezing winters. It’s not just a little nippy, it’s more like having a nail pounded into your body. This sounds a lot more like torture than weather, and it reminds us what a big part suffering plays in this poem.

    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; (lines 26-27)

    We watch Sam McGee die here, and it definitely isn’t pretty. Our speaker describes an agonizing death, full of crazy ranting and a slow, freezing wasting away. It’s not just a question of Sam dying, it’s how he dies, the horrible way that the cold and the fear eat away at him. In some ways, this is kind of a funny, silly poem, but it definitely has a dark side, too.

    In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load (line 35)

    Carrying Sam’s body around is pure suffering, too. There’s something about that body that really torments the speaker, and that makes an already hard situation even worse. Notice how he says his "lips were dumb." That’s dumb as in silent, not stupid, and it shows us that he won’t allow himself to admit how much he’s suffering. Maybe, holding it inside is a way of coping with the pain.

    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; (lines 37-38)

    As things go on, the suffering just gets worse. The body drags on the speaker more and more, and he gets hungrier all the time. Heck, even the dogs are miserable. There’s definitely nothing fun about this expedition. You get the feeling that the misery doesn’t come all at once, either – it just kind of shaves away at you day after day. The poem recreates this feeling by stretching out this part of the trip, and making us suffer along with him a little bit.

    I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear; (line 53)

    In some ways, the actual cremation hurts worse than anything. Our speaker was hungry, cold, and a little crazy before, but now he’s almost taken over by his terror. We think this line does a really good job of bringing that out. The phrase "grisly fear" really makes us feel how ugly, scary, and painful this moment is.