'The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail' by Robert W. Service

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To Dawson Town came Percy Brown from London on the Thames.
A pane of glass was in his eye, and stockings on his sterns.
Upon the shoulder of his coat a leather pad he wore,
To rest his deadly rifle when it wasn't seeking gore;
The which it must have often been, for Major Percy Brown,
According to his story was a hunter of renown,
Who in the Murrumbidgee wilds had stalked the kangaroo
And killed the cassowary on the plains of Timbuctoo.
And now the Arctic fox he meant to follow to its lair,
And it was also his intent to beard the Artic hare...
Which facts concerning Major Brown I merely tell because
I fain would have you know him for the Nimrod that he was.

Now Skipper Grey and Deacon White were sitting in the shack,
And sampling of the whisky that pertained to Sheriff Black.
Said Skipper Grey: "I want to say a word about this Brown:
The piker's sticking out his chest as if he owned the town."
Said Sheriff Black: "he has no lack of frigorated cheek;
He called himself a Sourdough when he'd just been here a week."
Said Deacon White: "Methinks you're right, and so I have a plan
By which I hope to prove to-night the mettle of the man.
Just meet me where the hooch-bird sings, and though our ways be rude
We'll make a proper Sourdough of this Piccadilly dude."

Within the Malamute Saloon were gathered all the gang;
The fun was fast and furious, and the loud hooch-bird sang.
In fact the night's hilarity had almost reached its crown,
When into its storm-centre breezed the gallant Major Brown.
And at the apparation, whith its glass eye and plus-fours,
From fifty alcoholic throats responded fifty roars.
With shouts of stark amazement and with whoops of sheer delight,
They surged around the stranger, but the first was Deacon White.
"We welcome you," he cried aloud, "to this the Great White Land.
The Artic Brotherhood is proud to grip you by the hand.
Yea, sportsman of the bull-dog breed, from trails of far away,
To Yukoners this is indeed a memorable day.
Our jubilation to express, vocabularies fail...
Boys, hail the Great Cheechako!" And the boys responded: "Hail!"

"And now," continued Deacon White to blushing Major Brown,
"Behold assembled the eelight and cream of Dawson Town,
And one ambition fills their hearts and makes their bosoms glow -
They want to make you, honoured sir, a bony feed Sourdough.
The same, some say, is one who's seen the Yukon ice go out,
But most profound authorities the definition doubt,
And to the genial notion of this meeting, Major Brown,
A Sourdough is a guy who drinks ... an ice-worm cocktail down."

"By Gad!" responded Major Brown, "that's ripping, don't you know.
I've always felt I'd like to be a certified Sourdough.
And though I haven't any doubt your Winter's awf'ly nice,
Mayfair, I fear, may miss me ere the break-up of your ice.
Yet (pray excuse my ignorance of matters such as these)
A cocktail I can understand - but what's an ice-worm, please?"
Said Deacon White: "It is not strange that you should fail to know,
Since ice-worms are peculiar to the Mountain of Blue Snow.
Within the Polar rim it rears, a solitary peak,
And in the smoke of early Spring (a spectacle unique)
Like flame it leaps upon the sight and thrills you through and through,
For though its cone is piercing white, its base is blazing blue.
Yet all is clear as you draw near - for coyley peering out
Are hosts and hosts of tiny worms, each indigo of snout.
And as no nourishment they find, to keep themselves alive
They masticate each other's tails, till just the Tough survive.
Yet on this stern and Spartan fare so-rapidly they grow,
That some attain six inches by the melting of the snow.
Then when the tundra glows to green and nigger heads appear,
They burrow down and are not seen until another year."

"A toughish yarn," laughed Major Brown, "as well you may admit.
I'd like to see this little beast before I swallow it."
"'Tis easy done," said Deacon White, "Ho! Barman, haste and bring
Us forth some pickled ice-worms of the vintage of last Spring."
But sadly still was Barman Bill, then sighed as one bereft:
"There's been a run on cocktails, Boss; there ain't an ice-worm left.
Yet wait . . . By gosh! it seems to me that some of extra size
Were picked and put away to show the scientific guys."
Then deeply in a drawer he sought, and there he found a jar,
The which with due and proper pride he put upon the bar;
And in it, wreathed in queasy rings, or rolled into a ball,
A score of grey and greasy things, were drowned in alcohol.
Their bellies were a bilious blue, their eyes a bulbous red;
Their back were grey, and gross were they, and hideous of head.
And when with gusto and a fork the barman speared one out,
It must have gone four inches from its tail-tip to its snout.
Cried Deacon White with deep delight: "Say, isn't that a beaut?"
"I think it is," sniffed Major Brown, "a most disgustin' brute.
Its very sight gives me the pip. I'll bet my bally hat,
You're only spoofin' me, old chap. You'll never swallow that."
"The hell I won't!" said Deacon White. "Hey! Bill, that fellows fine.
Fix up four ice-worm cocktails, and just put that wop in mine."

So Barman Bill got busy, and with sacerdotal air
His art's supreme achievement he proceeded to prepare.
His silver cups, like sickle moon, went waving to and fro,
And four celestial cocktails soon were shining in a row.
And in the starry depths of each, artistically piled,
A fat and juicy ice-worm raised its mottled mug and smiled.
Then closer pressed the peering crown, suspended was the fun,
As Skipper Grey in courteous way said: "Stranger, please take one."
But with a gesture of disgust the Major shook his head.
"You can't bluff me. You'll never drink that gastly thing," he said.
"You'll see all right," said Deacon White, and held his cocktail high,
Till its ice-worm seemed to wiggle, and to wink a wicked eye.
Then Skipper Grey and Sheriff Black each lifted up a glass,
While through the tense and quiet crown a tremor seemed to pass.
"Drink, Stranger, drink," boomed Deacon White. "proclaim you're of the best,
A doughty Sourdough who has passed the Ice-worm Cocktail Test."
And at these words, with all eyes fixed on gaping Major Brown,
Like a libation to the gods, each dashed his cocktail down.
The Major gasped with horror as the trio smacked their lips.
He twiddled at his eye-glass with unsteady finger-tips.
Into his starry cocktail with a look of woe he peered,
And its ice-worm, to his thinking, mosy incontinently leered.
Yet on him were a hundred eyes, though no one spoke aloud,
For hushed with expectation was the waiting, watching crowd.
The Major's fumbling hand went forth - the gang prepared to cheer;
The Major's falt'ring hand went back, the mob prepared to jeer,
The Major gripped his gleaming galss and laid it to his lips,
And as despairfully he took some nauseated sips,
From out its coil of crapulence the ice-worm raised its head,
Its muzzle was a murky blue, its eyes a ruby red.
And then a roughneck bellowed fourth: "This stiff comes here and struts,
As if he bought the blasted North - jest let him show his guts."
And with a roar the mob proclaimed: "Cheechako, Major Brown,
Reveal that you're of Sourdough stuff, and drink your cocktail down."

The Major took another look, then quickly closed his eyes,
For even as he raised his glass he felt his gorge arise.
Aye, even though his sight was sealed, in fancy he could see
That grey and greasy thing that reared and sneered in mockery.
Yet roung him ringed the callous crowd - and how they seemed to gloat!
It must be done . . . He swallowed hard . . . The brute was at his throat.
He choked. . . he gulped . . . Thank God! at last he'd got the horror down.
The from the crown went up a roar: "Hooray for Sourdough Brown!"
With shouts they raised him shoulder high, and gave a rousing cheer,
But though they praised him to the sky the Major did not hear.
Amid their demonstrative glee delight he seemed to lack;
Indeed it almost seemed that he - was "keeping something back."
A clammy sweat was on his brow, and pallid as a sheet:
"I feel I must be going now," he'd plaintively repeat.
Aye, though with drinks and smokes galore, they tempted him to stay,
With sudden bolt he gained the door, and made his get-away.

And ere next night his story was the talk of Dawson Town,
But gone and reft of glory was the wrathful Major Brown;
For that ice-worm (so they told him) of such formidable size
Was - a stick of stained spaghetti with two red ink spots for eyes.

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail: A Masterpiece of Narrative Poetry

Robert W. Service, the famous poet of the Yukon, wrote numerous ballads and poems inspired by his experiences living in the rugged wilderness of the Canadian north. Among his most famous works is "The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail," a humorous and satirical poem that pokes fun at the absurdities of human behavior in the face of the unknown and the exotic.

In this 4000-word literary criticism and interpretation, I will explore the themes, imagery, and structure of this masterpiece of narrative poetry, and show how it reflects the author's wit, style, and unique perspective on life.

Overview of the Poem

First published in 1907 in Service's collection "The Spell of the Yukon," "The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail" tells the story of a group of men who set out to find the legendary ice-worm, a mythical creature said to live in the glaciers of the Yukon. The men are motivated by a desire to capture the ice-worm and sell it to a museum for fame and fortune.

The poem is written in ballad form, with an ABAB rhyme scheme and a regular meter that gives it a catchy, sing-song quality. The narrative is divided into twelve stanzas, each of which tells a different part of the story. The tone of the poem is humorous and ironic, with a subtle but sharp critique of human greed and folly.


The primary theme of the poem is the quest for the unknown and the exotic, and the human fascination with the strange and the mysterious. The ice-worm, a creature that is never seen or described, represents the ultimate mystery, and the men's hunt for it is a metaphor for the human desire to explore, conquer, and possess things beyond our understanding.

Another theme of the poem is the power of myth and legend, and the way in which stories and rumors can shape our perceptions and beliefs. The ice-worm is described as a creature that "the Indians knew, and feared, / But white men scoffed and doubted," suggesting that different cultures have different ways of seeing and interpreting the world.

A third theme of the poem is greed and ambition, and the way in which these drive people to take risks and pursue impractical goals. The men in the poem are willing to risk their lives and health for the chance to catch the ice-worm and make a fortune, even though they have no idea what it looks like or whether it really exists.

Finally, the poem touches on the theme of human folly and the ways in which we can be blinded by our own desires and illusions. The men in the poem are comically ignorant and naive, believing in the most absurd superstitions and myths, and failing to see the obvious dangers and absurdities of their mission.

Imagery and Language

One of the most striking features of "The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail" is its vivid and evocative imagery, which brings to life the rugged landscape of the Yukon and the bizarre creatures that inhabit it. The poem is full of colorful descriptions of the men's equipment and clothing, as well as the animals and plants they encounter on their journey.

For example, in the opening stanza, the men are described as being "clad in furs and armed with guns," while in later stanzas we learn about their "snowshoes, packs and Hudson's Bay tarpaulin," and their "haversacks of grub and gear." The animals they encounter are equally vivid, including the "gyrfalcon" that "wheel[s] and screech[es]" in the sky, the "grizzly bear" that "stand[s] and sniff[s]" in their path, and the "ice-worm" that is "a thing of mystery and fear."

The language of the poem is also notable for its use of colloquial and humorous expressions, which give it a folksy and down-to-earth tone. For example, the men are described as "a bunch of roughnecks," and their mission is referred to as a "long-shot gamble." The poem is full of puns and wordplay, such as the line "They'd like to find this wiggly, squiggly, / Elusive, secretive, wily thing," which plays on the alliteration and assonance of the words.

Structure and Narrative

The structure of "The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail" is both simple and effective, with each stanza advancing the narrative and building suspense. The poem begins with a description of the men's mission and their motivation, and then moves on to their journey into the wilderness, their encounters with various obstacles and dangers, and their eventual arrival at the glacier where the ice-worm is said to live.

Along the way, the poem introduces a cast of colorful characters, including the "half-breed cook" who prepares their food, the "gigantic Swede" who carries their gear, and the "dude" who is the most naive and foolish of the group. These characters add humor and personality to the narrative, and help to create a sense of camaraderie and adventure.

The climax of the poem comes when the men finally reach the glacier and begin their hunt for the ice-worm. This scene is filled with tension and excitement, as the men dig through the ice and snow, hoping to find the creature. The final stanza of the poem is a humorous twist, revealing that the men have not found the ice-worm at all, but instead have discovered a "decoction" of ice-worms in a bottle, which they drink as a cocktail.

This twist ending is a masterstroke of irony, and serves to underscore the poem's themes of human folly and the power of myth and legend. The men have risked their lives and gone to great lengths to capture a creature that does not exist, and in the end they are rewarded only with a drink that is both absurd and disgusting.


"The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail" is a masterpiece of narrative poetry, combining vivid imagery, colloquial language, and a clever twist ending to create a humorous and satirical critique of human ambition and folly. Through the story of the men's hunt for the ice-worm, Service explores themes of the unknown and the exotic, the power of myth and legend, and the dangers of greed and ambition. The poem's catchy rhythm and sing-song quality make it a pleasure to read aloud, while its subtle humor and irony make it a work of art that rewards repeated readings and study. As such, it remains one of Service's most enduring and beloved works, a testament to his wit, style, and unique perspective on life.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail: A Classic Poem by Robert W. Service

If you're looking for a poem that's both humorous and thrilling, then look no further than Robert W. Service's "The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail." This classic poem tells the story of a group of men who venture into the Alaskan wilderness in search of the elusive ice-worm, and the strange cocktail they create from its body. In this analysis, we'll take a closer look at the themes, structure, and language of this poem, and explore why it has remained a beloved classic for over a century.


At its core, "The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail" is a poem about adventure and the thrill of the unknown. The men in the poem are driven by a desire to explore the wilderness and discover something new and exciting. This theme is reflected in the poem's opening lines, which describe the men as "bold and hardy men" who are "seeking gold and glory." The ice-worm, with its mysterious and elusive nature, represents the ultimate challenge for these adventurers.

However, the poem also explores the darker side of adventure. As the men become more obsessed with finding the ice-worm, they begin to lose sight of their original goal and become consumed by their own desires. This is reflected in the lines "They'd lost their love of gain and greed, / They'd lost the lust for strife; / They'd lost their hate, they'd lost their creed, / They'd lost the joy of life." The pursuit of adventure has taken a toll on these men, and they are left feeling empty and lost.


"The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail" is written in ballad form, with a regular rhyme scheme and meter. This gives the poem a musical quality that adds to its sense of adventure and excitement. The poem is divided into six stanzas, each of which tells a different part of the story.

The first stanza sets the scene and introduces the men and their quest for the ice-worm. The second stanza describes their journey into the wilderness and their encounter with the creature. The third stanza details the strange cocktail they create from the ice-worm's body. The fourth stanza describes the effects of the cocktail on the men, and the fifth stanza explores the aftermath of their adventure. The final stanza brings the poem to a close with a reflection on the nature of adventure and the human spirit.


One of the most striking things about "The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail" is its use of language. Robert W. Service was known for his ability to create vivid and memorable images through his poetry, and this poem is no exception. From the "frosty peaks that towered high" to the "gleaming, wriggling, sinuous thing" that is the ice-worm, the poem is full of rich and evocative language that brings the Alaskan wilderness to life.

The poem also uses humor to great effect, particularly in its description of the ice-worm cocktail. The idea of drinking a cocktail made from the body of a worm is both absurd and disgusting, and Service plays up this absurdity with lines like "It tasted like a corpse a week / Had lain in sewer-pipe slime." This humor helps to lighten the mood of the poem and adds to its sense of adventure and fun.


"The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail" is a classic poem that has stood the test of time. Its themes of adventure and the human spirit continue to resonate with readers today, and its vivid language and humor make it a joy to read. Whether you're a fan of poetry or simply looking for a thrilling and entertaining story, this poem is sure to delight and inspire.

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