Classic Poetry: "Pheidippides" (Robert Browning, 1812-1889)


Robert Browning

First I salute this soil of the blessed, river and rock!

Gods of my birthplace, dæmons and heroes, honour to all!

Then I name thee, claim thee for our patron, co-equal in praise

Ay, with Zeus the Defender, with Her of the ægis and spear!

Also, ye of the bow and the buskin, praised be your peer,

Now, henceforth, and forever, O latest to whom I upraise

Hand and heart and voice! For Athens, leave pasture and flock!

Present to help, potent to save, Pan, patron I call!

Archons of Athens, topped by the tettix, see, I return!

See, 'tis myself here standing alive, no spectre that speaks!

Crowned with the myrtle, did you command me, Athens and you,

"Run, Pheidippides, run and race, reach Sparta for aid!

Persia has come, we are here, where is She?" Your command I obeyed,

Ran and raced: like stubble, some field which a fire runs through,

Was the space between city and city: two days, two nights did I burn

Over the hills, under the dales, down pits and up peaks.

Into their midst I broke: breath served but for "Persia has come!

Persia bids Athens proffer slaves'-tribute, water and earth;

Razed to the ground is Eretria. but Athens? shall Athens, sink,

Drop into dust and die, the flower of Hellas utterly die,

Die with the wide world spitting at Sparta, the stupid, the stander-by?

Answer me quick, what help, what hand do you stretch o'er destruction's brink?

How, when? No care for my limbs! there's lightning in all and some,

Fresh and fit your message to bear, once lips give it birth!"

O my Athens, Sparta love thee? did Sparta respond?

Every face of her leered in a furrow of envy, mistrust,

Malice, each eye of her gave me its glitter of gratified hate!

Gravely they turned to take counsel, to cast for excuses. I stood

Quivering, the limbs of me fretting as fire frets, an inch from dry wood:

"Persia has come, Athens asks aid, and still they debate?

Thunder, thou Zeus! Athene, are Spartans a quarry beyond

Swing of thy spear? Phoibos and Artemis, clang them 'Ye must'!"

No bolt launched from Olumpos! Lo, their answer at last!

"Has Persia come, does Athens ask aid, may Sparta befriend?

Nowise precipitate judgment, too weighty the issue at stake!

Count we no time lost time which lags thro' respect to the Gods!

Ponder that precept of old, 'No warfare, whatever the odds

In your favour, so long as the moon, half-orbed, is unable to take

Full-circle her state in the sky!' Already she rounds to it fast:

Athens must wait, patient as we, who judgment suspend."

Athens, except for that sparkle, thy name, I had mouldered to ash!

That sent a blaze thro' my blood; off, off and away was I back,

Not one word to waste, one look to lose on the false and the vile!

Yet "O Gods of my land!" I cried, as each hillock and plain,

Wood and stream, I knew, I named, rushing past them again,

"Have ye kept faith, proved mindful of honours we paid you erewhile?

Vain was the filleted victim, the fulsome libation! Too rash

Love in its choice, paid you so largely service so slack!

"Oak and olive and bay, I bid you cease to en-wreathe

50Brows made bold by your leaf! Fade at the Persian's foot,

You that, our patrons were pledged, should never adorn a slave!

Rather I hail thee, Parnes, trust to thy wild waste tract!

Treeless, herbless, lifeless mountain! What matter if slacked

My speed may hardly be, for homage to crag and to cave

No deity deigns to drape with verdure? at least I can breathe,

Fear in thee no fraud from the blind, no lie from the mute!"

Such my cry as, rapid, I ran over Parnes' ridge;

Gully and gap I clambered and cleared till, sudden, a bar

Jutted, a stoppage of stone against me, blocking the way.

Right! for I minded the hollow to traverse, the fissure across:

"Where I could enter, there I depart by! Night in the fosse?

Athens to aid? Tho' the dive were thro' Erebos, thus I obey

Out of the day dive, into the day as bravely arise! No bridge

Better!" when, ha! what was it I came on, of wonders that are?

There, in the cool of a cleft, sat he, majestical Pan!

Ivy drooped wanton, kissed his head, moss cushioned his hoof;

All the great God was good in the eyes grave-kindly, the curl

Carved on the bearded cheek, amused at a mortal's awe

As, under the human trunk, the goat-thighs grand I saw.

"Halt, Pheidippides!", halt I did, my brain of a whirl:

"Hither to me! Why pale in my presence?"! he gracious began:

"How is it, Athens, only in Hellas, holds me aloof?

"Athens, she only, rears me no fane, makes me no feast!

Wherefore? Than I what godship to Athens more helpful of old?

Ay, and still, and forever her friend! Test Pan, trust me!

Go bid Athens take heart, laugh Persia to scorn, have faith

In the temples and tombs! Go, say to Athens, 'The Goat-God saith:

When Persia so much as strews not the soil, Is cast in the sea,

Then praise Pan who fought in the ranks with your most and least,

Goat-thigh to greaved-thigh, made one cause with the free and the bold!'

"Say Pan saith: 'Let this, foreshowing the place, be the pledge!'"

(Gay, the liberal hand held out this herbage I bear

Fennel, I grasped it a-tremble with dew, whatever it bode),

"While, as for thee..." But enough! He was gone. If I ran hitherto,

Be sure that the rest of my journey, I ran no longer, but flew.

Parnes to Athens, earth no more, the air was my road;

Here am I back. Praise Pan, we stand no more on the razor's edge!

Pan for Athens, Pan for me! I too have a guerdon rare!

Then spoke Miltiades. "And thee, best runner of Greece,

Whose limbs did duty indeed, what gift is promised thyself?

Tell it us straightway, Athens the mother demands of her son!"

Rosily blushed the youth: he paused: but, lifting at length

His eyes from the ground, it seemed as he gathered the rest of his strength

Into the utterance "Pan spoke thus: 'For what thou hast done

Count on a worthy reward! Henceforth be allowed thee release

From the racer's toil, no vulgar reward in praise or in pelf!'

"I am bold to believe, Pan means reward the most to my mind!

Fight I shall, with our foremost, wherever this fennel may grow,

Pound, Pan helping us, Persia to dust, and, under the deep,

Whelm her away forever; and then, no Athens to save,

Marry a certain maid, I know keeps faith to the brave,

Hie to my house and home: and, when my children shall creep

Close to my knees, recount how the God was awful yet kind,

Promised their sire reward to the full, rewarding him, so!"

Unforeseeing one! Yes, he fought on the Marathon day:

So, when Persia was dust, all cried "To Akropolis!

Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due!

'Athens is saved, thank Pan,' go shout!" He flung down his shield,

Ran like fire once more: and the space 'twixt the Fennel-field

And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through,

Till in he broke: "Rejoice, we conquer!" Like wine thro' clay,

Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died, the bliss!

So, to this day, when friend meets friend, the word of salute

Is still "Rejoice!" his word which brought rejoicing indeed.

So is Pheidippides happy forever, the noble strong man

Who could race like a god, bear the face of a god, whom a god loved so well,

He saw the land saved he had helped to save, and was suffered to tell

Such tidings, yet never decline, but, gloriously as he began,

So to end gloriously, once to shout, thereafter be mute:

"Athens is saved!" Pheidippides dies in the shout for his meed.

1968 Olympics: John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania Finishes the Race


It was almost 7 pm in Mexico City, October 1968. One hour earlier the winners of the 26 mile Olympic marathon had crossed the finish line. It had been a grueling hot day as the high altitude affected all the athletes. The sky was beginning to darken and most of the stadium was empty. As the last few spectators were preparing to leave, police sirens and flashing lights caught their attention. A lone runner, wearing the colours of Tanzania had just emerged through the stadium gate. Limping, with his leg bandaged he found the last of his endurance to step up his pace and finish the race. His name was John Stephen Akhwari." Give everything, and then find a little more to finish the race.


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