Nearly everyone, once in a while, finds themselves feeling overwhelmed by their lives. Every once in a while, the bustle and hassle of the modern world, of all of the things going on in our lives, becomes too much to properly handle, and in those times, the best thing to do is usually to get away, if possible. This is true of the present day; it is also true of 1912, the year in which Robert Service published Rhymes of a Rolling Stone, and the poem that likely inspired its title, A Rolling Stone, in which Service reflects on the simple idea of getting away from the convoluted machinations of the modern world.
A Rolling Stone Analysis
There’s sunshine in the heart of me,
My blood sings in the breeze;
The mountains are a part of me,
I’m fellow to the trees.
My golden youth I’m squandering,
Sun-libertine am I;
Until the day I die.
A Rolling Stone begins with the introduction of the narrator of A Rolling Stone describing themselves to the reader; to say things such as that their heart is made from sunshine and their blood sings in the breeze suggests that either literally or metaphorically, the narrator is incredibly attuned to the natural world. The phrase “golden youth” suggests that the narrator is mortal (that is, not a natural phenomenon or a natural element personified) and therefore likely human. They are described as “sun-libertine,” suggesting that they feel morally free from human responsibility, and that their freedom is granted to them by the sun, which is to say by the bringer of light and life to the natural world. The rest of the verse would suggest that the narrator is a nomadic figure, one who delights in the natural world and prefers mountains and trees to human company.
There is no rigid pattern for the structure of each line — while the syllable count of each pair of lines alternates with the first one having more than the second one, there is no set number of syllables per line that holds true for the entirety of the poem. The verses do follow a rhyming pattern in an ABAB style, but this is largely the extent to which the verses follow a particular structure.
I was once, I declare, a Stone-Age man,
And I roomed in the cool of a cave;
I have known, I will swear, in a new life-span,
The fret and the sweat of a slave:
For far over all that folks hold worth,
There lives and there leaps in me
A love of the lowly things of earth,
And a passion to be free.
Now that we have learned of the narrator’s present, we are given a lens through which to examine their past. The narrator describes a past as a “Stone-Age man,” which is likely a metaphor used to describe being a person of technological adaptation, rather than having been literally been born in the Stone Age (which would be a period of around 3,400,000 years that ended sometime between 6,000BCE and 2,000BCE). Although the next line describes living in a cave, the next few lines describe the narrator feeling like a slave to societal values; “for far over all that folks hold worth” suggests that money was the thing the narrator was a slave to. The picture painted is one of a person who feels trapped in a society that they feel functions through the workings of unimportant, abstract concepts, while they feel a love for “the lowly things of the earth,” and wish to be freed from that society. This description does not suggest that the narrator literally lived in the Stone Age, as while currency did exist at around 2,000 BCE, the actual economic and financial systems and institutions that are alluded to in the verse did not exist until hundreds, and possibly thousands of years later.
To pitch my tent with no prosy plan,
To range and to change at will;
To mock at the mastership of man,
To seek Adventure’s thrill.
Carefree to be, as a bird that sings;
To go my own sweet way;
To reck not at all what may befall,
But to live and to love each day.
The last verse ended with the narrator’s declaration that they had a passion for freedom — this verse accurately describes what freedom means to the speaker. Much of the verse speaks for itself; the first few lines describe a nomadic existence, a live lived without particular planning, changing by the whim of the person living it. They want to live in the present, and enjoy each day as it begins for them. It is interesting to note at this point that the tense of the poem has changed completely; from the first verse the reader is given a description of a nomadic traveller; now the focus is entirely on their live before becoming nomadic, and the situations and dreams they held at that time.
To make my body a temple pure
Wherein I dwell serene;
To care for the things that shall endure,
The simple, sweet and clean.
To oust out envy and hate and rage,
To breathe with no alarm;
For Nature shall be my anchorage,
And none shall do me harm.
This verse continues the desires that began with the descriptions of freedom in the previous one. The speaker seeks not only freedom from their physical world, but from the mental state that accompanies it. They recognize that the cares they have in the world are simply not very practical or useful cares; to them, something like wanting more money in life is a wasted desire, and something that leads to such emotions as envy, hate, and rage, things that should generally be avoided were one to desire a “serene,” “simple,” “sweet,” and “clean” life. For the narrator, freedom is a physical and mental aspect of being.
To shun all lures that debauch the soul,
The orgied rites of the rich;
To eat my crust as a rover must
With the rough-neck down in the ditch.
To trudge by his side whate’er betide;
To share his fire at night;
To call him friend to the long trail-end,
And to read his heart aright.
The lines, “To shun all lures that debauch the soul, / The orgied rites of the rich” continue the suggested theme of trying to get away from superficial aspects of modern life. The narrator feels that money is a useless desire, and doesn’t want to live in a society where it is all that is desired. The “him” referenced in this verse is vague; it’s possible that the narrator might seek other nomads or rovers to share company with, or it’s also possible that certain elements of nature are being personified. If the narrator is the “rolling stone” from the title, then it could be that “him” refers to the earth itself, since a stone needs land to roll. In this verse, the rhyming structure that follows the rest of the poem is modified slightly — because the first and third lines do not rhyme with each other, the third line is made to rhyme with itself — “to eat my ‘crust’ as a rover ‘must.’ The choice of the word “crust” is likely a necessary effect from this, and so “crust” can be read as referring to eating off of the land, or eating whatever is available to be eaten.
To scorn all strife, and to view all life
With the curious eyes of a child;
From the plangent sea to the prairie,
From the slum to the heart of the Wild.
From the red-rimmed star to the speck of sand,
From the vast to the greatly small;
For I know that the whole for good is planned,
And I want to see it all.
This next verse adds a theme of innocence to the story. The narrator wants “to view all life / With the curious eyes of a child,” indicating that they don’t necessarily want to know or understand the “greater mysteries” of life on earth, and simply wants to enjoy them. They want to ask questions and be awed by the answers, without having to be cynical, or necessarily even realistic about their own perspective. For them, leaving society means believing and accepting that the whole of the natural world was designed with a specific purpose in mind, and does not require human intervention; it only needs to be observed, and the speaker wishes to be the observer.
To see it all, the wide world-way,
From the fig-leaf belt to the Pole;
With never a one to say me nay,
And none to cramp my soul.
In belly-pinch I will pay the price,
But God! let me be free;
For once I know in the long ago,
They made a slave of me.
The not-so-subtle theme of freedom returns in this verse, as well as a repetition of the concept of being a slave to a larger society. The narrator wants to see the entire world as it is, without human intervention, to not be restrained by other people’s warnings or logic, and to keep an “un-cramped soul,” suggesting they feel as though their very nature is being suppressed where they live. The line “In belly-pinch I will pay the price” suggests that they are being realistic about their desires as well — they know they won’t eat very well, nor be taken care of, and that the price of their freedom may well be malnourishment. They feel, however, that it is better to be malnourished than to be a slave in any way, shape, or form, and want to leave whatever the cost.
In a flannel shirt from earth’s clean dirt,
Here, pal, is my calloused hand!
Oh, I love each day as a rover may,
Nor seek to understand.
To enjoy is good enough for me;
The gipsy of God am I;
Then here’s a hail to each flaring dawn!
And here’s a cheer to the night that’s gone!
And may I go a-roaming on
Until the day I die!
The penultimate verse returns the reader to the present, in which the narrator has become a rover, and in this verse, a lot of the previous themes of A Rolling Stone are highlighted. Mention of a “calloused hand” suggests that the way has been difficult, and not necessarily just for hunger. “Nor seek to understand. / To enjoy is good enough for me” returns to the theme of innocence, the idea that “greater knowledge” may not be so great, and a simple appreciation of the world can have long-lasting benefits to the soul. Day or night, there is a theme of strong happiness flowing through this verse, indicating that even with the hardships that callous the speaker’s hand, their life now is preferable by far to the life they once led, and they hope to be able to sustain it for the rest of their life.
Then every star shall sing to me
Its song of liberty;
And every morn shall bring to me
Its mandate to be free.
In every throbbing vein of me
I’ll feel the vast Earth-call;
O body, heart and brain of me
Praise Him who made it all!
A Rolling Stone ends with an interesting, and different perspective. The narrator considers that nature itself is demanding his freedom; that the stars and the sun themselves are essentially asking for the freedom of everything beneath them. It is then stated that the call of the Earth, another demand for freedom, permeates the speaker’s body, heart, and mind, suggesting that when they left their old life, they discovered a new aspect of their own self, a true calling and a feeling of peace, a return to home, a sense that they are where they belong. They praise God, the Creator of the natural world, and feel as though they have found true peace, a strong theme through which to close the light-hearted poem.
Robert Service published Rhymes of a Rolling Stone in 1912, and this poem was included in the work. After his first publication, Songs of a Sourdough, in 1907, Service found himself an immediate success, earning significant sums of money in a very short period of time. A year later, he published Ballads of a Cheechako, another book of verse, and another immediate success. At around the same time, he was given a three-month respite from his job (a mandatory “vacation” afforded to bankers in the Yukon at the time). After the three months were over, Service decided to quit his job and work full-time as an author.
For Service, this meant something other than what it might have meant for others. It meant long walks in the wilderness, and it meant not leaving his cabin for days on end. It meant using his newfound wealth to travel to Europe, and it meant keeping his own pace and his own hours. During the period in which he was writing A Rolling Stone, Service would have very much been living the life of his own “rolling stone” character. Although he himself did not withdraw from his society, it is possible he viewed life in the Yukon as being the freedom described above, so far removed it was from the rest of the world. At the same time, it is possible that A Rolling Stone reflects the thoughts of an individual who came as close as one could to achieving this lifestyle as he could without actually leaving the modern world behind altogether.
Whether A Rolling Stone was a fantasy of Service’s or the way he looked at the world itself is difficult to say. It is clear, however, that he knew how he felt about the modern and natural worlds, and that this verse is a strong indication of that passion and desire that drove him in so many of his other famous works of artistic expression.