The best road poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Roads often feature in poetry, as symbols for our lives (the ‘journey’ we are travelling on, whether on our way to something, or heading away from it), or as markers of mankind’s interaction with nature. Below are ten of the greatest poems about roads in all of English literature, each of which does something rather different with the road or track it presents to us.
John Clare, ‘On a Lane in Spring’.
A Little Lane, the brook runs close beside
And spangles in the sunshine while the fish glide swiftly by
And hedges leafing with the green spring tide
From out their greenery the old birds fly
And chirp and whistle in the morning sun
The pilewort glitters ’neath the pale blue sky …
The title of this poem by one of Romantic literature’s overlooked greats, John Clare (1793-1864), says it all: Clare describes the things he sees on a country lane during springtime, his observations tumbling out into the poem in gleeful abandon and apparent spontaneity.
Walt Whitman, ‘Song of the Open Road’.
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.
The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them …
First published in Whitman’s landmark 1856 collection Leaves of Grass, ‘Song of the Open Road’ celebrates the open road as a democratic place bringing people together from all walks of life: the road, we might say, is the great leveller.
A. E. Housman, ‘White in the moon the long road lies’.
White in the moon the long road lies,
The moon stands blank above;
White in the moon the long road lies
That leads me from my love.
Still hangs the hedge without a gust,
Still, still the shadows stay:
My feet upon the moonlit dust
Pursue the ceaseless way …
In this poem, the king of lugubrious English verse writes about leaving his beloved, with the road lying ahead of him that ‘leads me from my love’. And although he trusts that the same road will eventually lead him back to his love, first he must travel far, far away.
Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Way through the Woods’.
They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
So begins this classic Kipling poem about an abandoned road in the woods, which turns into an almost haunted road in the final stanza, as Kipling suggests that the road ‘remembers’ the men and horses who used to pass through it.
Charlotte Mew, ‘The Forest Road’.
The forest road,
The infinite straight road stretching away
World without end: the breathless road between the walls
Of the black listening trees: the hushed, grey road
Beyond the window that you shut to-night
Crying that you would look at it by day –
There is a shadow there that sings and calls
But not for you. Oh! hidden eyes that plead in sleep
Against the lonely dark, if I could touch the fear
And leave it kissed away on quiet lids –
If I could hush these hands that are half-awake,
Groping for me in sleep I could go free …
Another woodland road poem, but in this 1916 poem, Mew – a poet associated with the ‘Georgian’ school though also sometimes seen as proto-modernist – offers an altogether more macabre take on the road, as the poem’s speaker imagines her lover’s corpse rotting on a hillside.
G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Rolling English Road’.
Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head …
‘A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread’: written in opposition to the prohibition of alcohol, this is one of Chesterton’s most famous poems. The poem celebrates having a few drinks and then merrily staggering home as almost a national pastime: ‘Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode, / The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.’
Robert Frost, ‘The Road Not Taken’. Is this the most misinterpreted poem of the twentieth century? Frost’s speaker recalls how he came to a fork in the road and opted to pursue ‘the one less travelled by’. Yet this isn’t quite true: both possible roads were equal, and Frost’s speaker admits that the idea that he chose to tread a less popular path is a bit of retrospective mythmaking. No list of great road poems could be without this.
Edward Thomas, ‘Roads’.
I love roads:
The goddesses that dwell
Far along invisible
Are my favourite gods …
So begins this paean to roads by one of the great English poets of the early twentieth century. The shadow of the First World War (Thomas enlisted in 1915) can be seen in this poem, with its reference to ‘all roads’ now leading ‘to France’.
Wilfred Owen, ‘The Roads Also’.
The roads also have their wistful rest,
When the weathercocks perch still and roost,
And the looks of men turn kind to clocks
And the trams go empty to their drome.
The streets also dream their dream …
Written for the Sitwells’ anthology Wheels in summer 1918, ‘The Roads Also’ begins with the statement ‘The roads also have their wistful rest’, with Owen going on to reflect on the way the many lost lives in the war have impacted upon people back home.
Philip Larkin, ‘No Road’. A poem called ‘No Road’ in a list of the best road poems? Well, yes, given how Larkin uses the metaphor of the road to describe a break-up, this is a fine example of how roads have been used (in countless songs as well as poems) to denote the distance between two lovers (or would-be lovers).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.