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"The Roman Road": A Poem by Thomas Hardy

John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.

The Roman Road near Hardy's childhood home

The Roman Road near Hardy's childhood home

Setting of the Poem

The Roman Road is a short poem by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) published in his 1909 collection Time’s Laughingstocks and Other Verses. Many 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 about 60 years old.

Thomas Hardy 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.

"Egdon Heath"

"Egdon Heath"

The Poem

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.

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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.

Hardy's Cottage

Hardy's Cottage


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.


Liz Westwood from UK on May 11, 2019:

We have stayed in a hotel in Eastleigh a few times when making the trip diwn south. At least now you avoid the A31 trail along to Poole. I often make the mistake of thinking I am nearly there when I hit the M27. Depending on the time of year and roadworks, the time from the end of the M3 to Poole can stretch out.

John Welford (author) from Barlestone, Leicestershire on May 11, 2019:

I can sympathise with that, now that I also live in the rural Midlands! We only have to go as far as Eastleigh now, as Mother has moved to a care home very close to where my sister lives.

Liz Westwood from UK on May 11, 2019:

My 95 year old mother lives in Poole. She always wanted to live by the sea and has enjoyed retirement years there. No doubt she will soon be swimming again once the weather warms up. Visiting Poole from the rural Midlands in the school holidays was a shock to the system for us with the congested roads around Poole.

John Welford (author) from Barlestone, Leicestershire on May 11, 2019:

Poole is where I grew up, and where my 103-year-old mother lived her whole life until very recently - I therefore know it very well! If you insist on going to Sandbanks or Poole Quay in the high summer, then you will hits the crowds. However, step into the back streets - or hop on the ferry across to Shell Bay - and you will find yourself with much more space to breathe in! As for Lyme Regis - it is a small place which cannot cope with vast crowds of people. If you can walk far enough along the beach in either direction - the crowds thin out considerably!

Liz Westwood from UK on May 11, 2019:

I was speaking to someone who lives in Lyme Regis yesterday. They said similar. They head into the countryside for walks away from the crowded Dorset tourist hotspots. They haven't been into Poole yet as a result of avoiding the crowds.

John Welford (author) from Barlestone, Leicestershire on May 11, 2019:

It all depends on which parts of the county you visit. If you are prepared to walk a bit, you can soon escape the crowds! Hardy would still recognize many of the places he knew, although the Heath is much smaller than it once was.

Liz Westwood from UK on May 11, 2019:

Dorset is a scenic part of the country. Sadly it can get a little overcrowded with tourists at popular times of the year. I wonder what Hardy would nake of it now?

John Welford (author) from Barlestone, Leicestershire on May 11, 2019:

It was interesting to be able to visit the exact place that Hardy was writing about - which is possible with quite a number of his poems.

Liz Westwood from UK on May 11, 2019:

I studied Hardy's work many years ago. Since then, close relatives have moved to Dorset and I have visited the area several times. It has shed a new light on his writing for me.

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