Study Guide

The Cremation of Sam McGee

The Cremation of Sam McGee Summary

The poem is about a freezing-cold winter trip in the Yukon, back in the days of the Klondike Gold Rush. The poem’s speaker tells us a story about his friend, Sam McGee, who freezes to death on the trail.

Sam hates the cold and doesn’t want to be buried in the frozen ground. So, as his dying wish, he asks our speaker to cremate him (which is a fancy way of saying "burn his corpse"). The speaker promises he will, but it’s tough to find a way to do it in the dead of winter. He ends up having a lousy trip, carrying Sam’s frozen corpse until he finds a spot to burn Sam’s body.

He starts to burn Sam, but is pretty grossed out by the whole thing. Then, when he goes to see if Sam is "cooked," he finds his friend alive and well and cozy! Apparently Sam just needed to defrost a little, and the raging fire did the trick.

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-2

    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.

    Lines 3-4

    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.

    Lines 5-6

    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).

    Lines 7-8

    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.
  • Stanza 2

    Line 9

    Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.

    • Now we hear a little more about Sam himself. It seems he was from Tennessee where "the cotton blooms and blows."
    • That’s a pretty soft, calm, warm-sounding image right? Makes Tennessee sound like an easy place to live. That’s exactly the point. Our speaker is setting up a contrast with the bitter, biting, terrible cold of the Yukon.

    Line 10

    Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows.

    • The speaker wonders why Sam left home to come to the frozen North.
    • A lot of young guys from all over the world would have been in his position during the Gold Rush, charging off to a place they new nothing about in hopes of getting rich quick.

    Line 11

    He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;

    • It sounds like Sam has gold fever in the worst way. Even though he’s "always cold," he seems to be under the spell of the "land of gold."
    • All this phrasing helps to make the Yukon sound like a strange and magical place, doesn’t it? Think about it: a land of gold where the sun shines at night. Service is definitely aiming for the armchair traveler here, the type who is happy to hear an exciting story, as long as he or she can stay safe and warm.

    Line 12

    Though he'd often say in his homely way that "he'd sooner live in hell."

    • Sam hates the frozen North, even though he can’t seem to make himself leave. He moans and groans that "he’d sooner live in hell" than hang out here in the Arctic.
    • The speaker calls Sam's manner of speaking "homely," which means simple, natural, and unpretentious. This gives us a clue about what kind of a guy Sam is, and it also sets the speaker a little bit above him.
    • Notice that Service is playing with temperature again, drawing a comparison between the heat of hell (which Sam says he’d prefer) and the freezing cold of the North. Keep this in mind. Later on, you’ll see why that’s important.
  • Stanza 3

    Line 13

    On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.

    • With all of that background info out of the way, we get down to the actual story, which starts with the two men taking a trip.
    • Three important things to notice here: 1) It’s Christmas day, which means its going to be extra cold in northern Canada. 2) They are "mushing" which means riding in sleds pulled by dogs. 3) They are on the "Dawson trail," a Gold Rush road that ran along the Yukon River from the town of Whitehorse up to the mining fields around the town of Dawson. Check it out this map and see how far Whitehorse is from Dawson.

    Line 14

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

    • It’s super, super cold.
    • We think Service’s image is great. He says the cold feels like a nail coming though your coat. Have you ever been in a place so freezing that it felt like the cold was trying to attack you anywhere it could? That’s what he’s talking about here.

    Line 15

    If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn't see;

    • More about the cold.
    • It’s so cold that when the men close their eyes, their eyelashes freeze shut and make it hard to see. Ugh.

    Line 16

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

    • The speaker admits that he isn’t enjoying the cold much, but he says that the only guy on the trip who complains ("whimpers") is Sam. Sounds like he’s in pretty bad shape, and maybe, just maybe, a little bit of a wimp.
  • Stanza 4

    Line 17

    And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,

    • Now, the scene switches to that night.
    • Service does a really good job of making us feel like we’re there, and he includes all kinds of fun details about life in the Yukon. When they go to sleep, they pack in together under the snow, to insulate themselves from the cold. Sound like fun?

    Line 18

    And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and toe,

    • This scene at least sounds kind of peaceful, even with the cold.
    • There’s something relaxing about this camping moment, with the dogs all fed and the stars "dancing overhead." Things seem kind of calm and normal, at least for the moment.

    Lines 19-20

    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."

    • Then, all of a sudden, things take a little bit of a turn. Sam turns to the speaker, and admits that he thinks he’s going to "cash in" on this trip – and he's not talking about finding gold.
    • Basically, Sam knows he’s going to die, and he wants to ask for one last favor before he dies. Jeez, how could you say no to that?
    • Oh, also notice that he calls the speaker "Cap." We don’t know how much we can read into that, but maybe it means that the speaker is a captain, or the leader of the expedition. We also kind of get that feeling from the way the speaker talks, but it’s really just a hunch.
  • Stanza 5

    Lines 21-22

    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.

    • Our speaker is a nice guy, and he can tell Sam is depressed, so he agrees to do what wants.
    • Sam says that he’s freezing to death. Well, we probably figured that out, but he wants us to know just how awful, miserable, and bone-chilling it really is. Service is hammering us over the head here and pointing out, yet again, that cold is a really big theme here.

    Lines 23-24

    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."

    • Turns out, Sam hates the cold so much that it scares him more than the thought of death.
    • What really "pains" him (that means hurts him or bothers him) is the idea of being buried in an icy grave. To solve that problem, he makes our speaker swear to burn his body when he dies. Sam wants him to do it whether it’s easy or hard, whether the weather is "foul or fair."
    • Again, notice the balance between the cold ground and the hot fire of cremation. That comparison is everywhere in this poem.
  • Stanza 6

    Line 25

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

    • The speaker considers Sam his "pal," so he feels like he pretty much has to do the right thing and help him out. He swears he’ll burn Sam's body when he dies.

    Line 26

    And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.

    • They continue with their trip at dawn, but Sam isn’t looking so good; in fact he’s "ghastly pale."
    • We can tell it isn’t going to end well for Sam.

    Lines 27-28

    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.

    • Poor Sam sits in the sleigh all day and "raves" (talks crazily) about Tennessee. It’s kind of a sad image isn’t it? This poor, dying man, freezing to death and thinking about his warm home.
    • In any case, it doesn’t last long, and Sam is dead by nightfall.
  • Stanza 7

    Line 29

    There wasn't a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,

    • All of a sudden, things have really changed. Up until now, we were on what felt like kind of a fun adventure. Now, it feels more like a horror movie.
    • The winter world has turned into a "land of death." It’s completely still and lifeless ("without a breath").
    • Our speaker really gets moving now, feeling "driven" by a feeling of horror.

    Line 30

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

    • What makes our speaker feel so horrified? Well, he’s got the frozen corpse of his friend peeking out ("half-hid") from his sleigh.
    • He can’t bury Sam or leave his body behind, because of that promise he made. He's got to find a way to burn Sam's corpse.

    Line 31-32

    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, things start to get weird. The speaker has Sam’s body "lashed" (tied down) to his sleigh, and he starts to almost imagine that it’s talking to him.
    • The corpse mocks the speaker, reminding him that he can try to work his way out of it with his muscles ("brawn") or his brain, but a promise is a promise. He has to burn the body.
    • Remember that they are in the Arctic. It’s not easy to even start a fire, much less burn a whole body, so we’d say this is a pretty serious inconvenience.
  • Stanza 8

    Line 33

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

    • Our speaker has a lot to say about the importance of promises. It turns out to be a big theme here. He feels like he owes his dead friend a debt.
    • Seems like it has something to do with the "stern code" of the trail. Basically, this means that there’s a system of honor for guys who travel in the wild like this. Think of it as being like the bond between soldiers. You stick together, you help your friends, but most of all, you keep your word.

    Line 34

    In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.

    • Our speaker knows what he has to do, but it's not easy. He won’t let himself say it aloud, but deep down in side, he hates having to drag his friend’s dead body around. Which we think it pretty understandable. We mean, we’ve heard of helping out your buddies, but this takes it pretty far.

    Line 35-36

    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.

    • The speaker paints a pretty miserable picture of the rest of this trip. These lines are especially lonely and grim. He gives us an image of the long, cold nights, surrounded by the sad howls of the sled dogs.
    • We actually like that line a lot: "Howled out their woes to the homeless snows." Can’t you just feel a shiver of sadness and isolation in those lines? It really helps us to see how miserable it would be to carry around Sam’s body, which by now the speaker just calls "the thing."
  • Stanza 9

    Lines 37-38

    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 miserable trip continues. The speaker starts to imagine that the body – which he poetically calls "that quiet clay" – is getting heavier all the time, that it’s dragging the sled down.
    • The dogs are "spent" (completely exhausted) and there isn’t much food left. Things are looking bad for out speaker, but he's still determined to keep his word.

    Lines 39-40

    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.

    • Things just get weirder and tougher. Not only is he hungry and tired, but the road is bad, and he feels nearly crazy. Still, he refuses to give up. We get the impression that he’s a pretty tough dude.
    • To pass the time, he sings to his friend’s corpse, imagining that it is listening to him and grinning.
    • That’s a super-creepy image, isn’t it? Service really wants us to feel the pain and the awfulness of this moment, to sense the little tingle of madness that’s building here.
  • Stanza 10

    Lines 41-42

    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."

    • Now, finally, when it seems like our hero can’t take any more, we all get some relief. He arrives at the "marge" (the shore) of Lake Lebarge (an actual place, outside of the town of Whitehorse, in the Yukon).
    • It’s not clear why this is a good thing yet, but at least it’s a change of scene.
    • The first thing the speaker notices is a "derelict," the wreck of a ship stuck in the ice. He can see right away ("in a trice") that the ship is named the Alice May. That’s actually not so key to the poem, but it rhymes nicely, right? Some folks also think that Service based it on a real Yukon riverboat called the Olive May.

    Lines 43-44

    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."

    • The speaker looks at the boat, and at the corpse, and he suddenly gets an idea. He’ll use this boat to burn his friend’s body.
    • Can you feel how the mood has lightened up a little? A few lines before, the body was a "hateful thing," but now it’s his "frozen chum." Plus, there's the kind of goofy way that last word is stretched out: "cre-ma-tor-eum." (A crematorium, by the way, is a place where a body is cremated.)
    • After the scary, horrible stanzas before it, the poem feels almost silly again.
  • Stanza 11

    Lines 45-46

    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;

    • Now, the speaker tells us just how the cremation went down.
    • He takes some boards and some coal, and he tosses them into the ships boiler, which is the big oven that a riverboat would use to make steam to power it. He builds the fire up extra hot.

    Lines 47-48

    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.

    • The fire gets huge, turning into a roaring blaze. (After all that cold, Service really plays up these images of warmth).
    • Then our speaker makes a hole in the coals and just jams his friend’s body right in there.
  • Stanza 12

    Lines 49-50

    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.

    • That was easy, right? Well, the job’s not quite done yet. Apparently, Sam’s body is making a rather unpleasant sizzling sound, kind of like your Thanksgiving turkey. (We know, super gross.)
    • All of a sudden, the weather get stormy, and the sky scowls, almost as if it were unhappy to see what’s going on. The dogs bark, the wind blows, and we’re back to having not such a great time.

    Line 51

    It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;

    • Even though it’s really cold outside, our speaker is sweating.
    • This is a weird image, and it’s hard to say what it means. Is he nervous? Sick? Scared? Even he doesn’t know where this reaction is coming from.
    • Notice that that this is another spot where Service makes a contrast between hot and cold.

    Line 52

    And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

    • The whole world has turned kind of scary again, and Service really rubs our faces in the grossness of all this.
    • He even describes the "greasy" black smoke that’s coming up from Sam’s body burning in the oven. Major TMI, as far as we’re concerned, but it definitely helps to build a kind of queasy mood.
  • Stanza 13

    Line 53-54

    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;

    • Our speaker was pretty brave out there on the trail, but now he’s seriously freaked out. The process of burning his friend has really upset him, for obvious reasons.
    • He stands there for a long time, wrestling with his fear. It’s dark before he can make himself go back toward the boiler where he stuck his friend.

    Lines 55-56

    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.

    • The speaker is determined not to be a coward, so even though he’s "sick with dread," he tells himself it’s time to see if his friend is "cooked" yet.
    • You know how sometimes when you’re really scared, you make inappropriate jokes to make it seem like you’re OK. That’s what our guy is up to here. Treating his dead friend like a chunk of meat helps him to feel more brave.
    • By the way, he seems to talk to himself a lot here, doesn’t he?
  • Stanza 14

    Line 57

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

    • Surprise! Turns out Sam is just fine. He’s hanging out in the middle of the furnace, warming himself up.
    • We’ve gone from a grisly scene to a whacky joke in a single line. It’s a big shift, and kind of brilliant, if you ask us.
    • This moment is the big twist, which is pretty shocking the first time you read the poem.

    Lines 58-59

    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—

    • Sam is happy as a clam in the boiler. He smiles big and asks his friend to close the door to keep the cold out.
    • Although the moment is totally surreal, Service does a great job of making it seem completely normal, which makes it even funnier.

    Line 60

    Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."

    • Turns out, all Sam wanted was to be as warm as he was in his hometown of Plumtree, Tennessee. This cremation turns out to be the first chance he’s had to warm up!
  • Stanza 15

    Lines 61-68

    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.

    • Service goes out with a refrain, repeating the first eight lines of the poem. It gives the whole thing a nice balance, and lets us leave on a high note.
    • With the joke still sinking in, he wraps up the poem, and now we know that the cremation of Sam McGee really must be the "queerest" thing that ever happened under the Northern Lights.