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Robert Service Poems

The Cremation of Sam McGee

The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill

The Cremation of Sam McGee

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 '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."

     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.
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The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill

I took a contract to bury the body
     Of blasphemous Bill MacKie,
Whenever, wherever or whatsoever
     The manner of death he die --
Whether he die in the light o' day
     Or under the peak-faced moon;
In cabin or dance-hall, camp or dive,
     Mucklucks or patent shoon;
On velvet tundra or virgin peak,
     By glacier, drift or draw;
In muskeg hollow or canyon gloom,
     By avalanche, fang or claw;
By battle, murder or sudden wealth,
     By pestilence, hooch or lead --
I swore on the Book I would follow and look
     Till I found my tombless dead.

For Bill was a dainty kind of cuss,
     And his mind was mighty sot
On a dinky patch with flowers and grass
     In a civilized bone-yard lot.
And where he died or how he died,
     It didn't matter a damn
So long as he had a grave with frills
     And a tombstone "epigram".
So I promised him, and he paid the price
     In good cheechako coin
(Which the same I blowed in that very night
     Down in the Tenderloin).
Then I painted a three-foot slab of pine:
     "Here lies poor Bill MacKie",
And I hung it up on my cabin wall
     And I waited for Bill to die.

Years passed away, and at last one day
     Came a squaw with a story strange,
Of a long-deserted line of traps
     'Way back of the Bighorn range;
Of a little hut by the great divide,
     And a white man stiff and still,
Lying there by his lonesome self,
     And I figured it must be Bill.
So I thought of the contract I'd made with him,
     And I took down from the shelf
The swell black box with the silver plate
     He'd picked out for hisself;
And I packed it full of grub and "hooch",
     And I slung it on the sleigh;
Then I harnessed up my team of dogs
     And was off at dawn of day.

You know what it's like in the Yukon wild
     When it's sixty-nine below;
When the ice-worms wriggle their purple heads
     Through the crust of the pale blue snow;
When the pine-trees crack like little guns
     In the silence of the wood,
And the icicles hang down like tusks
     Under the parka hood;
When the stove-pipe smoke breaks sudden off,
     And the sky is weirdly lit,
And the careless feel of a bit of steel
     Burns like a red-hot spit;
When the mercury is a frozen ball,
     And the frost-fiend stalks to kill --
Well, it was just like that that day when I
     Set out to look for Bill.

Oh, the awful hush that seemed to crush
     Me down on every hand,
As I blundered blind with a trail to find
     Through that blank and bitter land;
Half dazed, half crazed in the winter wild,
     With its grim heart-breaking woes,
And the ruthless strife for a grip on life
     That only the sourdough knows!
North by the compass, North I pressed;
     River and peak and plain
Passed like a dream I slept to lose
     And I waked to dream again.

River and plain and mighty peak --
     And who could stand unawed?
As their summits blazed, he could stand undazed
     At the foot of the throne of God.
North, aye, North, through a land accurst,
     Shunned by the scouring brutes,
And all I heard was my own harsh word
     And the whine of the malamutes,
Till at last I came to a cabin squat,
     Built in the side of a hill,
And I burst in the door, and there on the floor,
     Frozen to death, lay Bill.

Ice, white ice, like a winding-sheet,
     Sheathing each smoke-grimed wall;
Ice on the stove-pipe, ice on the bed,
     Ice gleaming over all;
Sparkling ice on the dead man's chest,
     Glittering ice in his hair,
Ice on his fingers, ice in his heart,
     Ice in his glassy stare;
Hard as a log and trussed like a frog,
     With his arms and legs outspread.
I gazed at the coffin I'd brought for him,
     And I gazed at the gruesome dead,
And at last I spoke: "Bill liked his joke;
     But still, goldarn his eyes,
A man had ought to consider his mates
     In the way he goes and dies."

Have you ever stood in an Arctic hut
     In the shadow of the Pole,
With a little coffin six by three
     And a grief you can't control?
Have you ever sat by a frozen corpse
     That looks at you with a grin,
And that seems to say: "You may try all day,
     But you'll never jam me in"?
I'm not a man of the quitting kind,
     But I never felt so blue
As I sat there gazing at that stiff
     And studying what I'd do.
Then I rose and I kicked off the husky dogs
     That were nosing round about,
And I lit a roaring fire in the stove,
     And I started to thaw Bill out.

Well, I thawed and thawed for thirteen days,
     But it didn't seem no good;
His arms and legs stuck out like pegs,
     As if they was made of wood.
Till at last I said: "It ain't no use --
     He's froze too hard to thaw;
He's obstinate, and he won't lie straight,
     So I guess I got to -- saw."
So I sawed off poor Bill's arms and legs,
     And I laid him snug and straight
In the little coffin he picked hisself,
     With the dinky silver plate;
And I came nigh near to shedding a tear
     As I nailed him safely down;
Then I stowed him away in my Yukon sleigh,
     And I started back to town.

So I buried him as the contract was
     In a narrow grave and deep,
And there he's waiting the Great Clean-up,
     When the Judgment sluice-heads sweep;
And I smoke my pipe and I meditate
     In the light of the Midnight Sun,
And sometimes I wonder if they was,
     The awful things I done.
And as I sit and the parson talks,
     Expounding of the Law,
I often think of poor old Bill --
     And how hard he was to saw.
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