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About this poet

Robert William Service, the renowned poet of the Yukon, was born in Lancashire, England, on January 16, 1874. The son of a bank cashier, Service was the eldest of four siblings. At the age of five, Service went to Scotland to live with his grandfather and three young aunts, who showered him with attention. A year later, on his sixth birthday, he wrote his first poem.

Service rejoined his family in 1883 when they moved north to Glasgow, Scotland. He attended several of Scotland’s finest schools, where he developed a deep interest in books and poetry, along with a sharp wit and a way with words. A well-rounded teenager, Service also played fullback on his high school’s rugby team.

Service’s innate curiosity and fondness for adventure stories inspired an urge to travel—to go off to sea and to see the world. Although his parents discouraged this adolescent ambition, his desire wasn’t extinguished (and would one day be fulfilled). Service bided his time with assorted jobs—one at a shipping office that soon closed down, then another following his father’s footsteps in a position at a suburban branch of the Commercial Bank of Scotland. Working under light supervision, Service managed to pass the day with reading material he’d snuck in: Robert Browning, Lord Alfred Tennyson, and John Keats.

Service developed into an excellent student of poetry, and attended the University of Glasgow to study English Literature. He was quickly identified as one of the brightest in his class, though he also proved to be a bit audacious. His essay on Ophelia's questionable "purity" in Hamlet was received with disgust by his professor, who called Service’s interpretation of the text obscene. Not content with such a response, Service challenged the professor to a fight outside the classroom; the challenge was declined. After a year, the embittered young poet left the university.

Soon his interests realigned with his aims for adventure. His reading turned to Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson, and their stories of world explorers in search of fortune and, more important, their own identity. In 1895, at the age of twenty-one, with a significant amount of savings, Robert announced his dream of going to Western Canada to become a cowboy. He soon set sail for Montreal with only his suitcase and a letter of reference from the bank in tow.

Upon arrival, Service took a train across Canada to Vancouver Island, where he lived for many years and gathered much of the material for what became his most celebrated poems. Many of his experiences working on cowboy ranches, and the colorful personalities he met during his travels around the West, eventually found their place in his work.

Numerous publications followed, including Songs of a Sourdough, published in 1907, which won wide acclaim. His forty-five verse collections accumulated over one thousand poems, the most famous of which include "The Cremation of Sam McGee," "The Shooting of Dan McGrew," and "The Men That Don’t Fit In." To add to his poetic output, Service wrote two autobiographies, Ploughman of the Moon (1945) and Harper of Heaven (1948), as well as six novels. His poem about Dan McGrew and several of his novels were adapted to film. The poet himself managed even to garner an acting credit, appearing briefly opposite Marlene Dietrich in the 1942 movie The Spoilers.

After World War I, Service married a French woman, Germaine Bougeoin, and the two lived in Europe, mainly in the south of France, until the poet’s death in 1958. By then, his prolific and prosperous career in poetry had earned him the distinction—as stated in an obituary in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph—as "the people’s poet."

 

The Cremation of Sam McGee

Robert W. Service, 1874 - 1958
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

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.

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."

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no;
then he says with a sort of moan,
"It's the cursed cold, and it's got right hold
till I'm chilled clean through to the bone
Yet 'taint 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.

A pal's last need is a thing to heed,
so I swore I would not fail;
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;
And before nightfall a corpse was all
that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn't a breath in that land of death,
and I hurried, horror-driven
With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid,
because of a promise given;
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 these last remains".

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid,
and the trail has its own stern code,
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb
in my heart how I cursed that load!
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight,
while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows--
Oh God, how I loathed the thing!

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 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.

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,
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"!

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;
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.

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,
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled
down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak
went streaking down the sky.

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;
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.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm,
in the heart of the furnace roar;
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--
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee,
it's the first time I've been warm".

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.

This poem is in the public domain.

This poem is in the public domain.

Robert W. Service

Robert W. Service

Robert William Service, the renowned poet of the Yukon, was born in

by this poet

poem

My glass is filled, my pipe is lit,
     My den is all a cosy glow;
And snug before the fire I sit,
     And wait to feel the old year go.
I dedicate to solemn thought
     Amid my too-unthinking days,
This sober moment, sadly fraught
     With much of blame, with little