Three archaeological poems by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy was one of my favourite authors as a teenager (my friend and I had a challenge to try to read all of his novels, which we didn’t quite manage). I never read much of his poetry, probably because 15-year-old me was more interested in stormy Victorian romances, but I was revisiting some of it recently. Like so many other poets of his time, Hardy had a deep engagement with Classics, and combined with his well-known love of the West Country, I rediscovered several poems which spoke directly to things I have been thinking about this year.

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Rome at the Pyramid of Cestius Near the Graves of Shelley and Keats (1887)

Who, then, was Cestius,
         And what is he to me? –
Amid thick thoughts and memories multitudinous
         One thought alone brings he.

         I can recall no word
         Of anything he did;
For me he is a man who died and was interred
         To leave a pyramid

         Whose purpose was exprest
         Not with its first design,
Nor till, far down in Time, beside it found their rest
         Two countrymen of mine.

         Cestius in life, maybe,
         Slew, breathed out threatening;
I know not. This I know: in death all silently
         He does a kindlier thing,

         In beckoning pilgrim feet
         With marble finger high
To where, by shadowy wall and history-haunted street,
         Those matchless singers lie . . .

         –Say, then, he lived and died
         That stones which bear his name
Should mark, through Time, where two immortal Shades abide;
         It is an ample fame.

The pyramid of Cestius was one the students’ favourite funerary monuments in my Roman Death course last term. I’m not sure why it became such a favourite. Maybe it’s that the Cestius family is known only for this pyramid – presumably having bankrupted themselves so badly fulfilling the terms of this Cestius’s will that they disappeared from public life altogether. This makes the monument so much more intriguing than a huge tomb for, say, Augustus, whose huge tomb seems more accurately to reflect the significance of his life.

Maybe it’s that the shape and size of Cestius’s monument is so unexpected (and, frankly, so un-Roman), drawing as it does on the Egyptian art that was popular at the time, or that it’s outside the normal tourist route around Rome. Very little has changed since Hardy’s day – the vast majority of the tourists who visit are there for Shelley and Keats, not Cestius.

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The Roman Road

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.

I love this poem for capturing the palimpsest of human activity at an ancient site, particularly the ones that I have visited many times with different people. For Hardy, the Roman Road was not just about Romans, but about his own childhood too. And also, it seems, about archaeologists looking studious and busy.

When I think of a Roman road, I always think of Stane Street near Chichester (above), where I have family, and which inspired a poem by Kipling about a Roman legionary who doesn’t want to leave Britain. The main road follows the line of Stane Street at some points, but in some places you can walk down it in complete peace. This handy site has a picture of the actual road Hardy probably had in mind, in Dorset. It says, “A phantom legion of Roman soldiers is said to appear in times of national crisis and march along this stretch of track at Ridgeway Hill, between Dorchester and Weymouth.” Hardy, it seems, saw quite different ghosts there.

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In a Museum (1915, Exeter)

I

Here’s the mould of a musical bird long passed from light,
Which over the earth before man came was winging;
There’s a contralto voice I heard last night,
That lodges with me still in its sweet singing.

II

Such a dream is Time that the coo of this ancient bird
Has perished not, but is blent, or will be blending
Mid visionless wilds of space with the voice that I heard,
In the full-fugued song of the universe unending.

This last one is cheating – it’s not actually archaeological but palaeontological. Instead, it’s about one of my favourite dinosaurs, archaeopteryx or “ancient bird” (perhaps the Greek name allows me to include it?). There is, however, an Exeter connection. This poem was inspired by a visit to Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum. Here’s their description of the circumstances of the writing of this poem.

Hardy’s poem was inspired by the cast of a fossil Archaeopteryx. When the fossil was first found in the late 19th century it caused quite a stir. Having many features in common with both dinosaurs and birds, for example teeth and feathers, it provided evidence for the missing evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds and became a key specimen in the debate about evolution.

RAMM has a cast of the Berlin specimen of 1877, one of only seven good specimens found worldwide. It is a truly inspirational object and can be seen in the In Fine Feather gallery.

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