Cover image featuring Robert W. Service for The Men Who don't fit in

The Men Who Don’t Fit In by Robert W. Service: Complete Analysis

Known as the “Bard of Yukon”, Yukon being one of the least populated and one of the remotest settlements of Canada, Robert Service had an interesting career story as a poet. For the people wondering, the “W” in the middle stands for ‘William’, after his uncle. 

Later. Robert Service decided to drop the middle name after his uncle refused to mention him in his will. It was in his days in Yukon that perhaps influenced Service to write the poem “The Men Who Don’t Fit In.”

Perhaps the idea of an adventurer on the horseback who did not care about what happened to the people after he left them was once an exciting idea for him, but when he got to taste the life this practice would bring, he took his pen and paper out. 

Service was never considered as a true poet by many readers and critics of his time, and some of his peers. His works were considered more of a verse than poetry, something people also did with Rudyard Kipling.

“The Men Who Don’t Fit In” is a very interesting poem that tells the story of people who cannot rest at one place, the people who constantly need the urge to change everything around them, until life shows them the truth. Let’s take a look at the poem first and then at the meaning and analysis. 

The Men Who 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.
-Robert W. Service

Meaning and Analysis of the Poem

“The Men Who Don’t Fit In” is a poem about, you guessed it, the men who do not fit into societal norms. They are not made to be rooted and planted in one place, swaying but never moving. 

These adventurous men have a taste for the wind in their air, and through instability, they get their stability. But is it something desirable? Are they happy with their lives?

Robert W. Service has done a wonderful job in first introducing this class of men and then gradually describing how this tendency of being unable to hold on to one place and find comfort in repetition is a curse. 

There are four stanzas in the poem. The first two talk about these men who are like square pegs in round holes. How they decide to live their lives, and what goes in their heads. But the next two stanzas offer a completely different view. 

In the last two stanzas, the tone of the poem changes completely. What seemed praises for these adventurous souls at first becomes something completely different. Instead of praises, the poet starts showing why such a life would be pitiful at best. 

Let’s take a closer look at each of the paragraphs to understand the poems in a better way. 

Analyzing “The Men Who Don’t Fit In” Poem

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.

The first stanza describes who these restless men are. Robert W. Service talks about the “race” of men who do not fit or who cannot stay still. It means that these people cannot live a stable, planted life, the way most of the people want to. 

These adventurous men want everything; they want to ride the waves, do things that many would consider very risky, climb mountains, and do everything to race their hearts and get a dose of adrenaline. 

These men cannot stay still, and that is the reason why they end their relationship with kith and kin, meaning they cannot hold any relationship with their friends and family for they cannot stay in one place long enough to form one. 

Note that at the end, the poet does mention that “Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood.” It is a curse to be a wanderer, to not know how to rest in one place. 

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.

The second stanza is where the praises begin to shower. But at the same time, it is contrasted with a lack of direction in their lives. Their tendency to never find rest and stop and look where they are headed makes all their efforts a waste. 

If they went straight they could go far because they are strong, brave, and true, but they never can look at where they are going. Robert Service than uses a brilliant metaphor to explain these people’s situation;

They are always looking for that “right” and perfect groove on the tree so that they can chop the tree at once, but all they do is they hit the tree with an ax and then move to a new spot. Only to do the same thing again.

These wanderers are always looking for that one perfect place, or one perfect moment that would make them stop wandering and settle down. But there is no such thing as that. You have to keep hitting the tree at the same spot to get some results. 

Instead of learning and mending their mistakes, they keep repeating it only in a new spot. 

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.

The line “each forgets, as he strips and runs” means that these people strip off all the things that get attached to them; all their relationships, connections, moments worth remembering, etc., all for that “brilliant, fitful pace.”

Yes, stripping the “weight” off will give them the pace to run ahead. But in the lifelong race of life, it is not the fastest who wins, but the one who is the steadiest. The next line states that the steady, quiet, and plodding ones win the race.

As time starts taking its toll, and the weight of age starts becoming heavier while the bones become fragile, they soon realize that both their youth and hope has abandoned them. Youth is fickle, and it lasts the shortest. 

When youth fades out, these adventurous people can see the truth that life cannot be lived at such a fast pace forever. Settling down and living a stable life becomes not an option, but a necessity.

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

The final stanza is about the big mistake committed by this man who chose to live a wandering life. While at first it was not apparent to him, it did come later with a painful realization. Life has been a joke on him, and now everyone laughs. 

The man who chose not to fit in the society, the society views him as a failure, someone who can never win. Note that the poet never mentions that this is the realization that comes to the wanderer. 

The man is a rolling stone, who will always find a new place to live, new people to meet, new connections to form, but what good is any of that if after a few days or years, all of it is gone? 

Meaning of the Poem

The poem is drawn from experience, from the stories Robert Service heard from the veterans of the Gold Rush. The life of a wanderer who explores the world but never explores anything around him might sound exciting, and would be exciting for many. 

But it comes with a cost, and this cost requires to be paid back when the age rises. As youth leaves, the person finds out that there is no one he/she can talk to, connect, be with. The old ways of running around can no longer be practiced. 

Hence, the poet puts out this poem as a warning to anyone who thinks of living a wandering life. Do not let life play a joke on you. The ones who have the steadiest step wins the race of life, not the ones who runs the fastest. 

Literary Devices

The literary devices used in the poem are:

Repetition– The poet has repeated the line “the man who don’t fit in” and “he has failed” in the poem revealing the importance of these lines.

Irony– Irony plays a very important role in the poem as the Poet explains in the beginning of the poem, what is so good about this man who doesn’t fit in, until the readers come to the conclusion that the life of the man as an outcast is not really a good thing.

End-stopped lines– End-stopped lines signify the end of a thought or line in the poem, it also rhythm to the poem. For example:

A race that can’t stay still;

And they roam the world at will.

If they just went straight they might go far;

    They are strong and brave and true;

He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;

    He’s a man who won’t fit in.

Alliteration– A few examples of alliteration from the poem include:

 A race that can’t stay still;

They range the field and they rove the flood,

But they’re always tired of the things that are,

    And they want the strange and new.

He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;

Onomatopoeia– Onomatopoeia is a figure of speech that uses words to describe the sounds made by all living things including people, animals, birds and all inanimate objects. For example:

Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;

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