My mom, sister, and I recently had a chance to visit the all-new, totally beautiful Poetry Foundation. The story of the funding for building is actually quite amusing. One Ruth Lilly, aspiring poet, frequently submitted her work to the Poetry magazine. Although she was never published in the magazine, she always got very kind, encouraging rejection letters from the editors. In her estate, she bequeathed a cool $200 million to the Poetry Foundation to enable the further publication, dissemination, and popularization of poetry.
Just goes to show you that if you word your rejection letters carefully, you could be sitting pretty with a gorgeous new building, all of your antique poetry books in one central library (rather than scattered across Chicago-land), and some neat furniture upon which to display your Emmy awards.
Now, about those zombies…
I’ve been reading a fair bit about the true north (indubitably strong and free), The North, le nord, the Arctic, the North Pole, Santa Claus, and so forth, for various reasons that included but are not limited to my doctoral exams and my dissertation.
In a bunch of the analytical writing on yonder Canada-land, I’ve come across mentions of Robert W. Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee” as emblematic of the macabre treatment of the north, etc. The quote people usually provide is the following:
There are strange things done in the midnight sunBy the men who moil for gold;The Arctic trails have their secret talesThat would make your blood run cold;The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,But the queerest they ever did seeWas that night on the marge of Lake LebargeI cremated Sam McGee.
Before you read on, write down (type up?) your impression of the poem so far. What do you think is going to happen? Does it sound macabre? Mysterious? Ominous? Frightening? Sort of forced as far as rhyming couplets are concerned? Don’t judge! He published this in 1907, which was well before the advent of the Internet, so he did a great job considering the resources he had at his disposal. Plus, he was mega-popular. Has your blog sold more than three million copies?
Now that you’ve documented your first impressions and you’re sufficiently distracted, read the rest of the poem, courtesy of the self-same Poetry Foundation mentioned above:
There are strange things done in the midnight sunBy the men who moil for gold;The Arctic trails have their secret talesThat would make your blood run cold;The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,But the queerest they ever did seeWas that night on the marge of Lake LebargeI 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 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.”There are strange things done in the midnight sunBy the men who moil for gold;The Arctic trails have their secret talesThat would make your blood run cold;The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,But the queerest they ever did seeWas that night on the marge of Lake LebargeI cremated Sam McGee.
How does that compare with what you thought it was going to be about? From all this high-falutin’ talk about the poem, I was definitely not expecting a zombie sucker-punch concluding line. But my astonishment made it all the more amusing.