Favourite Poems XXIV

I would be remiss, as a Canadian, if I didn’t at least once include a poem or two by Robert Service in this irregular series of favourite poetry. Unfortunately, much of his poetry smacks of the jingoistic imperialism of the turn of the last century, hackneyed even as he wrote it, when Britain ruled an Empire over which the sun never set, ably assisted by Queen Victoria, stern sahibs in pith helmets, cold water baths, and Unassailable Arrogance: a sort of Kipling without the introspection.

He’s probably best in his comic poetry, and in the odd gem which suddenly appears like the proverbial diamond in the slag heap. Two examples: First, a reflection on creative genius, which I think is virtually unknown, and secondly, a poem which has been recited to generations of Canadian schoolchildren.

Gods in the Gutter

I dreamed I saw three demi-gods who in a cafe sat,
And one was small and crapulous, and one was large and fat;
And one was eaten up with vice and verminous at that.

The first he spoke of secret sins, and gems and perfumes rare;
And velvet cats and courtesans voluptuously fair:
“Who is the Sybarite?” I asked. They answered: “Baudelaire.”

The second talked in tapestries, by fantasy beguiled;
As frail as bubbles, hard as gems, his pageantries he piled;
“This Lord of Language, who is he?” They whispered “Oscar Wilde.”

The third was staring at his glass from out abysmal pain;
With tears his eyes were bitten in beneath his bulbous brain.
“Who is the sodden wretch?” I said. They told me: “Paul Verlaine.”

Oh, Wilde, Verlaine and Baudelaire, their lips were wet with wine;
Oh poseur, pimp and libertine! Oh cynic, sot and swine!
Oh votaries of velvet vice! . . . Oh gods of light divine!

Oh Baudelaire, Verlaine and Wilde, they knew the sinks of shame;
Their sun-aspiring wings they scorched at passion’s altar flame;
Yet lo! enthroned, enskied they stand, Immortal Sons of Fame.

I dreamed I saw three demi-gods who walked with feet of clay,
With cruel crosses on their backs, along a miry way;
Who climbed and climbed the bitter steep to which men turn and pray.

(1921)

The Cremation of Sam McGee

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold,
And 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 the night on the marge of Lake LaBarge
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,
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 I couldn’t say no,
And 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 ‘ta’int 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 that I would not fail.
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
As 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 the 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 often I’d sing to the hateful thing,
And it hearkened with a grin.

‘Till I came to the marge of Lake LaBarge,
And a derelict there lay.
It was jammed in the ice, and I saw in a trice
It was called the “Alice May”.
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 crematorium.”

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor
And lit the boiler fire.
Some coal I found that was lying around
And heaped the fuel higher.
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared,
Such a blaze you seldom see.
Then 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 cheek, 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 gristly 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 peek inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked”,
And the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking calm and cool
In the heart of the furnace roar.
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 Plumbtree 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,
And 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 the night on the marge of Lake LaBarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

(1907)

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