Torch Race     

By the ruined barn above the shore

Where someone thought that Caesar may have landed,

Driving at nightfall down the curling road,

We came along the former village strand;

On one side mounds and marshes towards the sea,

A nearer rivulet with ducks and geese;

And on the other scattered lightless houses.

Suddenly I saw a runner just in front,

A youth in racing shorts who held a flame-tipped

Torch, its scarlet smoke against the dusk

Burning again from all the darkened windows.

We came abreast: he still ran headlong on.

We moved ahead: he followed at his speed.

We drove beyond the common and the pub,

That lighted figure distant and alone.

We passed the headland; he had gone from view.

I wondered then, have sometimes wondered since,

What made that young man race against the dark.

Perhaps he also was bemused by Greece

And thought to try a strange Athenian sport -

The torch-race, held at night, a mile or more,

Which, starting at the playing-fields where Plato

Taught, ended at the high Dipylon Gate,

And took the running torchmen past the graves

Of warriors and athletes, where the calm

Sculptures made death very like to life.

Perhaps it was the thought of ancient youths,

Their flame-tipped torches streaming towards that gate,

With all of Athens cheering from the walls,

That brought him out to race along the strand.

If so, then none but he could be in doubt

That only runner must be winner too,

Though nowhere then were crowds to urge him on.

He ran that race at least ten years ago,

And now may be a humdrum business man.

But should he see these lines, he will discover

That here he always wears the olive crown.


August 5th,1974