Nancy Fotheringham Cato’s ‘The Road‘ depicts an exhilarating, high-speed car journey in which the narrator feels in control of both their surroundings and time itself. The narrator is heading in the direction of the sun while pondering their position in the cosmos. Ultimately, the poem is a symbolic journey towards hope and away from despair, typified by the narrator’s sense of agency in the face of the infinite universe.
‘The Road‘ offers the reader the passenger seat in a high-speed journey towards the sunrise and the promise offered by the dawn.
The poem begins with epic pronouncements from the narrator, including the claim that they mastered the moon and controlled the passage of time. It quickly becomes apparent that the narrator is moving at great speed and that it is the distorted view of their surroundings through the windows and windscreen that are creating these sensations of control.
The poem continues to depict the narrator’s journey and establishes a dichotomy between the darkness they are leaving behind and the light before them. This emphasizes the fact that, like all journeys, this drive is a temporal voyage as well as a geographical one. The poem ends by reaffirming the narrator’s final goal, the sun, and reminds the reader that the journey is never complete, as the narrator is chasing something that is perpetually beyond their reach.
You can read the full poem here.
The poem is taken from Fotheringham Cato’s second collection, The Dancing Bough, which was published in 1957. Like ‘The Road,’ many of the collection’s poems are concerned with existential questions pertaining to mortality and humans’ relationship to the natural world.
Fotheringham Cato is perhaps best known for her trilogy of historical novels, All the Rivers Run; Time, Flow Softly, and But Still the Stream, as well as for her work in raising awareness for conservation issues. She was also highly active in Australia’s post-war literary scene, co-founding the Lyre-Birds Writers group and helping promote literature that challenged global perceptions of Australian culture.
I made the rising moon go back
behind the shouldering hill,
I raced along the eastern track
till time itself stood still.
The poem begins with the use of the personal pronoun “I” which establishes one of the poem’s primary concerns: the individual’s relationship to the geographical and temporal world. The hyperbolic claim that the narrator “made the rising moon go back” emphasizes the notion that the moon and its surrounding darkness are adversarial figures. Furthermore, by forcing the moon to retreat, the narrator suggests they can control not only celestial objects but the passage of time, which is so closely associated with the moon and its movements.
This preoccupation with time continues into lines three and four, as shown through the paradoxical juxtaposition between the stillness of time and the rapid movement of the narrator. This juxtaposition suggests the narrator does not see themselves as bound to the laws of time. The final line’s use of both alliteration and sibilance forces the reader to slow their reading pace in order to pronounce each word clearly, which mirrors the narrator’s claim that the passage of time is malleable.
The stars swarmed on behind the trees,
and night turn back to day.
The writer uses zoomorphism when likening the stars to a group of swarming insects. This could suggest the narrator feels a degree of dominance over nature. However, it could also indicate how overwhelmed they felt by the stars on account of their seemingly incomprehensible number. The stanza furthers the narrator’s claim that they can control and even reverse the passage of time by metaphorically stating they could “turn [night] back to day.” This distortion of linear time could be intended to embody the experience of a driver traveling at high speed due to the way their surroundings blur in their peripheral vision as though they were moving through time.
And like a long black carpet
behind the wheels, the night
unrolled across the countryside,
but all ahead was bright.
Stanza three begins by using a simile to describe the night as “like a long black carpet.” This is significant as it reaffirms the association between night’s darkness and the forces of evil due to the negative connotations of the adjective “black.” Perhaps more interestingly, though, the decision to liken night to a carpet implies the narrator can traverse it like they would a physical space. This strengthens the narrator’s assertion that they can move through time as freely as their car moves along the road.
The stanza’s final line establishes a dichotomy between the light that lies ahead of the car and the darkness behind it. Therefore, the car and its driver occupy a liminal space that is neither light or dark, thereby showing the narrator to be beyond their control or influence.
The fence-posts whizzed along wires
and slipped into the past.
The poetic gaze begins to linger on fleeting details that are visible through the windscreen as the car moves at great speed. The use of alliteration in the first line evokes a sense of speed which is reinforced by the onomatopoeic verb “whizzed.” The poet also makes a point of embodying lengths of time within the objects, as shown through a simile when the “telephone poles loomed up like years.” This could be intended to showcase the narrator’s conflation of their geographical journey with a temporal one, as they can no longer distinguish between physical objects and abstract concepts.
And light and movement, sky and road
I drove towards the sun.
The final stanza makes the aforementioned conflation explicit by metaphorically blurring the boundaries between the narrator’s surroundings and the concepts of life and time themselves. This conflation serves to simplify the narrator’s journey by implying it to be a spiritual transition from darkness to light rather than merely a journey that begins during the night but continues into the following day. There is perhaps a level of irony to the focus on the dawn ahead, given the dangers of driving so fast at night. It could be that the light ahead of the narrator represents an afterlife they might soon journey to if their reckless behavior has fatal consequences.
The significance of the dawn is complicated by the fact that the rising sun already possesses many connotations before its usage in the poem. Ordinarily, one might associate dawn with new beginnings and therefore view it as a hopeful symbol. However, given the narrator’s disregard for the linear passage of time, in this poem, the dawn may serve as a warning that humanity is running out of new beginnings.
Another connotation of the rising sun that is pertinent to this poem is the enduring association between light and the divine, particularly heaven. This is important as the driver’s behavior is reckless and the rising sun could foreshadow their death.
The poem is written in the style of a lyric ballad, a form of narrative poetry that helps elevate the literal journey and allows it to take on existential significance. The first stanza has an ABAB rhyme scheme, while subsequent stanzas have an ABCB rhyme scheme. This shift could mark the moment that the narrator assumed control of time or symbolize the gradual collapse of the world around them.
Nancy Fotheringham Cato was born in Adelaide in 1917 and, despite traveling extensively in her lifetime, lived most of her life in Australia, where she died in 2000. Her relationship with her native country informed much of her work, as its geography influenced much of her writing. She was also motivated to dispel the view that Australia had not produced a great deal of meaningful literature. Finally, the geography of her country, where one can drive for hours between conurbations, clearly forms the backdrop of ‘The Road.’
Ordinarily, when one uses the phrase “to shoulder”, it means that they are taking on a burden of some kind, either literal or figurative. Therefore, it could suggest that the hill must bear the weight of the moon or, perhaps more interestingly, the responsibility for the passing of time. Given Fotheringham Cato’s enduring interest in environmental and conservation issues, it could imply that nature has been overburdened by some force, possibly caused by human actions.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Road‘ might want to explore similar poetry. For example:
- ‘We Are Going‘ by Oodgeroo Noonuccal – A fascinating contrast to ‘The Road,’ Noonuccal’s poem centers on the experience of aboriginal Australians in the face of sudden and unwelcome change.
- ‘The Sacred‘ by Stephen Dunn – This poem similarly elevates the experience of driving a car from a mundane activity to a meditation on life and its meaning.
- ‘Comes the Dawn‘ by Jorge Luis Borges – Another poem that uses the oncoming dawn as a symbol of their contemplation about life and relationships.