Jackson: ‘Blasphemous Bill’ a chilling poem indeed
Greetings, poetry lovers. And those of you in the “rhymer climber” crowd are no doubt familiar with the versatile verses penned by that icon of the Yukon, Robert Service, whose offerings include “The Cremation of Sam McGee”. In that writing he succeeded in the onerous task of cremating Sam, who — while perched on a pyre in the boiler of a derelict ship — told his accommodating friend that “since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”
In the telling of the cremation sensation was a line stating that “a promise made is a debt unpaid,” which is my excuse for taking this offbeat path as I quote some lines from one of Service’s less well-known poems dealing with a hereafter “undertaking”. It’s titled “The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill”. The premise in that one was a promise to Bill that upon his death that the writer would see to it his friend would receive a proper burial. And, Service wrote, “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 “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.”
Upon his arrival at “a cabin squat,” he “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’? 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 near nigh 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 ol’ Bill — and how hard he was to saw.”