"The Roman Road": A Poem by Thomas Hardy
Setting of the Poem
“The Roman Road” is a short poem by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) that was published in his 1909 collection “Time’s Laughingstocks and Other Verses”. A number of these poems look back to the poet’s childhood, and this poem is one such. The poem may well have been written around 1900 (possibly a few years either way) when Hardy would have been aged about 60.
Thomas Hardy was born and grew up in a remote Dorset cottage on the edge of a large area of heathland that he was later (particularly in his novels) to feature as “Egdon Heath”. Much of the heathland has been forested since Hardy’s time, although some parts have more recently been cleared and allowed to return to their original state.
As a child, Hardy would have walked across the heath many times, sometimes accompanied by his mother, with whom he was very close. Not far from the cottage was a stretch of trackway that formed part of the ancient road built by the Romans in about 60 AD to connect London to Exeter. Although much of the route can no longer be traced, some parts are easily found, including the stretch that is the subject of the poem. It is still possible to walk the route that Hardy would have known, and the current writer has done exactly that.
The Roman Road runs straight and bare
As the pale parting-line in hair
Across the heath. And thoughtful men
Contrast its days of Now and Then,
And delve, and measure, and compare;
Visioning on the vacant air
Helmed legionaries, who proudly rear
The Eagle, as they pace again
The Roman Road.
But no tall brass-helmed legionnaire
Haunts it for me. Uprises there
A mother's form upon my ken,
Guiding my infant steps, as when
We walked that ancient thoroughfare,
The Roman Road.
The poem comprises three stanzas of unequal length (five, four and six lines respectively). The rhyme scheme runs throughout the poem, as follows: AABBA / AAB* / AABBA*. The asterisks mark the repeated half-lines “The Roman Road”, which also comprise the opening words of the poem. The focus is therefore upon the road itself, with the implication that it runs continuously in terms of both space and time. It is the thread that connects Hardy with what is the true subject of the poem, namely his memory of his mother.
The first stanza introduces the road as it “runs straight and bare”. The second line contains the simile “As the pale parting-line in hair”, which immediately conveys an image of the perfect parting that a mother might insist on placing in a child’s hair before taking him for a walk (possibly, in this case, to meet some relative of hers who lived across the heath). This is an image that would not strike the reader immediately, because Hardy does not introduce his mother until the poem is nearly ended.
There might also be a private joke here, as one can imagine Hardy smiling to himself as he wrote this line, given that his own hair was well beyond needing a parting at the time he wrote the poem!
Instead, Hardy refers to the interest being shown in the road by “thoughtful men”, the archaeologists and historians of his day, who “delve, and measure, and compare” in their attempts to discover the facts about Dorset’s ancient history and how the Romans built their roads.
The second stanza is therefore a vision of the road in use when first built, being paced by “Helmed legionaries, who proudly rear / The Eagle”.
However, Hardy is only imagining the thoughts of the historians, because the third stanza makes clear that his own thoughts are not about “tall brassed-helmed legionnaire[s]”. The image that haunts him is that of “a mother’s form … / Guiding my infant steps”. It is reasonable to assume that Hardy’s mother would have told him what she knew about the legends associated with the road, but the significance that the road now holds for him is all to do with his childhood memories of being loved and guided by his parent.
It would have been quite possible for a Victorian/Edwardian poet to have treated this subject in a sentimental fashion, with much gushing about parental love and its value that was so much greater than the might of the Roman legions. However, although this is the message of the poem, it is noticeable that Hardy avoids this temptation. Just like the road, his thoughts run “straight and bare”, leaving it up to the reader to add as much sentimentality as he or she wishes.