The Roman Road by Thomas Hardy

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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.

 

Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928) was that unique writer, rare now but more common in his lifetime, who was equally adept in both verse and prose. More well known for his novels, but perhaps an even better poet. Either way, Hardy was a master of describing the natural world, especially the south-west countryside of England.

 

Take, for example, The Roman Road, one of his shorter poems. The essence of his poetry – maybe even of all poetry – is captured in the simplicity of the opening two lines:

 

The Roman Road runs straight and bare

As the pale parting-line in hair

 

What a wonderful metaphor (though technically a simile but you get the idea). I’ve never seen a Roman road, those ancient, dead-straight trackways that still run through and over the English countryside, but I know what a parting-line in hair looks like: pale indeed, yet also ever so slightly sunken below the hair – much as a track through a field (the English ‘heath’ of the poem), worn down by walkers over the span of two millennia would be. This is the power of poetry and of great poets: the ability to equate something unexperienced with something familiar, often in unexpected ways, so that the result is something you never would of thought of in a thousand years (or two thousand, as is the time frame here) and yet it is completely obvious, and you wonder why you hadn’t thought of it also.

 

‘Visioning on the vacant air’ is just a fancy way of saying ‘imagining’, but it also incorporates another trick of the poet: alliteration, the repetition of letters in the first syllable of a word. Some ‘thoughtful men’ (Hardy perhaps being self-deprecating here) can still see Roman soldiers marching along that track, carrying in front of them the eagle standard, the symbol of the Roman Empire. They ‘delve, and measure, and compare’ – literally archaeologists. It’s all quite academic to them, with their (adult) knowledge of history.

 

But not to Hardy. He sees his mother, her ‘form’ ‘uprising’, like a ghost, upon his ‘ken’ (to mean one’s range of understanding or knowledge, a term still common in Scotland and Northern England). And we often associate parting-lines in hair with young boys, so in that the poem comes full circle. The point is, we bring to the memories of a place what is most important and resonant to us. Hardy doesn’t care that the might of the Roman Empire once ruled these lands, but that his mum used to take him walking there.

 

Further

Though Thomas Hardy is considered one of the greats of English poetry, his poems were not first published until he was in his fifties. He endured an unhappy marriage to his first wife Emma, spending many years apart, and after she died in 1912 spent the rest of his life writing poetry to her to deal with his remorse.

 

A detailed description of the Roman road

 

 

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