Every now and then I read a poem that I love. Sometimes I read poems that bore me. Sometimes I read poems that are so incredibly lousy it makes me wish that I couldn’t understand English. But other times I read poems that totally resonate. This is one of them. “The Men That Don’t Fit In”, by Robert W. Service is a stellar portrait of that wayfaring soul that I’ve always related too. It’s full of a sense of mad abandon in a man’s quest for “the next big thing.” But what really struck me about this poem lies in the final lines of the last stanza.
“He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;
He’s a man who won’t fit in.”
He’s a rolling stone! I have done a little research regarding this popular phrase. According to Wikipedia, “The conventional English translation appeared in John Heywood’s collection of Proverbs in 1546. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable also credits Erasmus, and relates it to other Latin proverbs, Planta quae saepius transfertus non coalescit, or Saepius plantata arbor fructum profert exiguum, which mean that a frequently replanted plant or tree (respectively) yields little fruit. It appears that the original intent of the proverb saw the growth of moss as desirable, and that the intent was to condemn mobility as unprofitable.
The contemporary interpretation of equating moss to undesirable stagnation has turned the traditional understanding on its head: Erasmus’s proverb gave the name “rolling stone” to people who are agile (mobile) and never get rusty due to constant motion.”
In music we have heard it over and over again from James Brown to Don McLean; Muddy Waters to Hank Williams, and obviously, THE Rolling Stones! This might be an overlooked “first use” of the term in American History as relating it to a wandering, gypsy-hearted man. I’ve always attributed its first use to the Muddy Waters reference in the tune, “Rollin Stone.” But you know, I guess he had to get it from somewhere. Also according to Wikipedia, the earliest recorded reference in American Culture is: The union activist Joe Hill’s last will, written in the form of a song in 1915 states: “My kin don’t need to fuss and moan, Moss does not cling to rolling stone.” But I can’t find any other references attributing the term “a rolling stone” to a person. For example, HE is a rolling stone.
So buried in the final lines of this trite little poem, a phrase and an attributed meaning that may well have influenced the entire soul of American Music, from Blues to Country to Folk to Rock and Roll.
See, poets ARE cool! Heck, they may be the great grand-daddy of cool.
The Men that Don’t Fit In
There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.
If they just went straight they might go far,
They are strong and brave and true;
But they’re always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
They say: “Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!”
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.
And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It’s the steady, quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that’s dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.
He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life’s been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;
He’s a man who won’t fit in.