Our stimulating program was given by Mr. Nat Reed and started by his reciting the entire 770 word poem the Cremation of Sam McGee, then a summarization of the history of Robert Service.
Born in Lancashire, England to a bank cashier and an heiress, poet Robert William Service moved to Scotland at the age of five. He wrote his first poem on his sixth birthday, and was educated at some of the best schools in Scotland, where his interest in poetry grew alongside a desire for travel and adventure.
He worked in a shipping office and a bank, and briefly studied literature at the University of Glasgow. Inspired by Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson, Service sailed to western Canada in 1894 to become a cowboy in the Yukon Wilderness. He worked on a ranch and as a bank teller in Vancouver Island after the Gold Rush, gleaning material that would inform his poetry for years to come and earn him his reputation as “Bard of the Yukon.”
A prolific writer and poet, Service published numerous collections of poetry during his lifetime, including Songs of a Sourdough or Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses (1907), which went into ten printings its first year and Ballads of a Bohemian (1921).
He was a correspondent for the Toronto Star during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, and served in World War I as an ambulance driver in France. After the war, Service married Germaine Bougeoin and they resided mainly in the south of France until his death.
Nat ended his presentation by reciting another of Robert Service poems, inspired by a request to write a poem for a church social resulting in The Shooting of Dan McGrew.
What follows is the entire Cremation of 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 cursèd cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone. 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.”
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 those 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— O 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.”