USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘verse’
Customs
Narrative

Family Poetry Tradition

Subject:  Family tradition of Narrative Verse.

Collection:

“Are you ready?

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 groan:

“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, and I swore I would not fail;

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

[at a bird] Oh yeah, there he goes!

He crouched…ah, let’s see…

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.”

 

Ah… I’ll just skip a little…

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 thrice it was called the “Alice May.”

And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;

And “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 huskies howled, and the heavens scowled, 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, it’s time I looked”; … and 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 the door.

It’s warm 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.”

Background Info: B. Taylor is a long-time resident of San Clemente, CA where he raised his two sons and now resides with his wife. He holds undergraduate and pharmacy degrees from the University of Southern California.

Context: This video was taken of my grandfather reciting the poem on the banks of an Alaskan river. He frequently recites it at family gatherings and around the campfire on trips to Mexico, so I have personally heard a live telling of the poem multiple times. He learned the poem from his father who learned it from his father, and my father’s elder brother is the last person to have learned the poem purely through hearing it recited. Before my father’s family had tv or radio, their primary activity in the evenings was sharing narratives and poems. This is my grandfather’s favorite.

Analysis: The integration of the poem into our family’s traditions shows the interaction between the ways a piece of copyright material can be adopted and then modified. While members of the family subconsciously recognize the poem is from a book, it is thought of as now belonging to our family’s history. Furthermore, the slight changes in language and the omissions that have occurred over the years, make it distinct to our family’s oral traditions. In this way, the poem carries the weight, intellect, and history of those who came before me. In our family’s history, the Service poems were learned by the males in my family while women learned the biblical and romantic poetries. In this way, the memorization of the correct genre of verse is a rite of passage (since, once you learn the poem and can bear it, you now have authority in these family gatherings) and an assertion of one’s role within the family structure.

Furthermore, sharing the poem around a campfire is one of the key ways that the family bond is establish and then reinforced. One of the ironies of the poem is the setting in which my family shares it, compared to the content of the poem: a quest to find warmth, ending in a cremation. The poem beautifully captures the struggle of survival and human agency against uncontrollable natural elements (with the added element of the macabre). My family’s retention of the poem is contrary to the rapid spread of technology that has occurred since the book was published, it is a reminder of a time without television or cell phones where people connected to each other and the world around them. Especially today, our performance of the poem acts as resistance to the dominant cultural forces that threaten to eliminate the ways of life that the older members of my family hold dear.

Every telling is different, this wiggle room in the structure of the verse allows for the narrator to alter the poem to suit their dramatic vision. Depending on the teller, different characters have different voices, and certain moments become more poignant. It is through these retellings that the poem comes to life, and my family reconnects through actively displaying our ties to one another.

For Further Reading: The complete text of Robert W. Service’s poem can be found online at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45081/the-cremation-of-sam-mcgee. My grandfather owns an original copy of Service’s book The Spell of the Yukon published in 1907 from which the family first learned the poem.

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