Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. II. Love
Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume II. Love.  1904.
III. Love’s Beginnings
Atalanta’s Race
William Morris (1834–1896)
From “The Earthly Paradise”

  AND there two runners did the sign abide
Foot set to foot,—a young man slim and fair,
Crisp-haired, well knit, with firm limbs often tried
In places where no man his strength may spare;
Dainty his thin coat was, and on his hair        5
A golden circlet of renown he wore,
And in his hand an olive garland bore.
  But on this day with whom shall he contend?
A maid stood by him like Diana clad
When in the woods she lists her bow to bend,        10
Too fair for one to look on and be glad,
Who scarcely yet has thirty summers had,
If he must still behold her from afar;
Too fair to let the world live free from war.
  She seemed all earthly matters to forget;        15
Of all tormenting lines her face was clear,
Her wide gray eyes upon the goal were set
Calm and unmoved as though no soul were near;
But her foe trembled as a man in fear,
Nor from her loveliness one moment turned        20
His anxious face with fierce desire that burned.
  Now through the hush there broke the trumpet’s clang
Just as the setting sun made eventide.
Then from light feet a spurt of dust there sprang,
And swiftly were they running side by side;        25
But silent did the thronging folk abide
Until the turning-post was reached at last,
And round about it still abreast they passed.
  But when the people saw how close they ran,
When half-way to the starting-point they were,        30
A cry of joy broke forth, whereat the man
Headed the white-foot runner, and drew near
Unto the very end of all his fear;
And scarce his straining feet the ground could feel,
And bliss unhoped for o’er his heart ’gan steal.        35
  But midst the loud victorious shouts he heard
Her footsteps drawing nearer, and the sound
Of fluttering raiment, and thereat afeard
His flushed and eager face he turned around,
And even then he felt her past him bound        40
Fleet as the wind, but scarcely saw her there
Till on the goal she laid her fingers fair.
  There stood she breathing like a little child
Amid some warlike clamor laid asleep,
For no victorious joy her red lips smiled,        45
Her cheek its wonted freshness did but keep;
No glance lit up her clear gray eyes and deep,
Though some divine thought softened all her face
As once more rang the trumpet through the place.
  But her late foe stopped short amidst his course,        50
One moment gazed upon her piteously,
Then with a groan his lingering feet did force
To leave the spot whence he her eyes could see;
And, changed like one who knows his time must be
But short and bitter, without any word        55
He knelt before the bearer of the sword;
  Then high rose up the gleaming deadly blade,
Bared of its flowers, and through the crowded place
Was silence now, and midst of it the maid
Went by the poor wretch at a gentle pace,        60
And he to hers upturned his sad white face;
Nor did his eyes behold another sight
Ere on his soul there fell eternal night.
  Now has the lingering month at last gone by,
Again are all folk round the running place,        65
Nor other seems the dismal pageantry
Than heretofore, but that another face
Looks o’er the smooth course ready for the race;
For now, beheld of all, Milanion
Stands on the spot he twice has looked upon.        70
  But yet—what change is this that holds the maid?
Does she indeed see in his glittering eye
More than disdain of the sharp shearing blade,
Some happy hope of help and victory?
The others seemed to say, “We come to die,        75
Look down upon us for a little while,
That dead, we may bethink us of thy smile.”
  But he—what look of mastery was this
He cast on her? why were his lips so red?
Why was his face so flushed with happiness?        80
So looks not one who deems himself but dead,
E’en if to death he bows a willing head;
So rather looks a god well pleased to find
Some earthly damsel fashioned to his mind.
  Why must she drop her lids before his gaze,        85
And even as she casts adown her eyes
Redden to note his eager glance of praise,
And wish that she were clad in other guise?
Why must the memory to her heart arise
Of things unnoticed when they first were heard,        90
Some lover’s song, some answering maiden’s word?
  What makes these longings, vague, without a name,
And this vain pity never felt before,
This sudden languor, this contempt of fame,
This tender sorrow for the time past o’er,        95
These doubts that grow each minute more and more?
Why does she tremble as the time grows near,
And weak defeat and woful victory fear?
  But while she seemed to hear her beating heart,
Above their heads the trumpet blast rang out,        100
And forth they sprang; and she must play her part;
Then flew her white feet, knowing not a doubt,
Though slackening once, she turned her head about,
But then she cried aloud and faster fled
Than e’er before, and all men deemed him dead.        105
  But with no sound he raised aloft his hand,
And thence what seemed a ray of light there flew
And past the maid rolled on along the sand;
Then trembling she her feet together drew,
And in her heart a strong desire there grew        110
To have the toy; some god she thought had given
That gift to her, to make of earth a heaven.
  Then from the course with eager steps she ran
And in her odorous bosom laid the gold.
But when she turned again, the great-limbed man        115
Now well ahead she failed not to behold,
And, mindful of her glory waxing cold,
Sprang up and followed him in hot pursuit,
Though with one hand she touched the golden fruit.
  Note, too, the bow that she was wont to bear        120
She laid aside to grasp the glittering prize,
And o’er her shoulder from the quiver fair
Three arrows fell and lay before her eyes
Unnoticed, as amidst the people’s cries
She sprang to head the strong Milanion,        125
Who now the turning-post had wellnigh won.
  But as he set his mighty hand on it,
White fingers underneath his own were laid,
And white limbs from his dazzled eyes did flit.
Then he the second fruit cast by the maid;        130
But she ran on awhile, then as afraid
Wavered and stopped, and turned and made no stay
Until the globe with its bright fellow lay.
  Then, as a troubled glance she cast around,
Now far ahead the Argive could she see,        135
And in her garment’s hem one hand she wound
To keep the double prize, and strenuously
Sped o’er the course, and little doubt had she
To win the day, though now but scanty space
Was left betwixt him and the winning place.        140
  Short was the way unto such wingèd feet,
Quickly she gained upon him till at last
He turned about her eager eyes to meet,
And from his hand the third fair apple cast.
She wavered not, but turned and ran so fast        145
After the prize that should her bliss fulfil,
That in her hand it lay ere it was still.
  Nor did she rest, but turned about to win
Once more an unblest, woful victory—
And yet—and yet—why does her breath begin        150
To fail her, and her feet drag heavily?
Why fails she now to see if far or nigh
The goal is? Why do her gray eyes grow dim?
Why do these tremors run through every limb?
  She spreads her arms abroad some stay to find        155
Else must she fall, indeed, and findeth this,
A strong man’s arms about her body twined.
Nor may she shudder now to feel his kiss,
So wrapped she is in new, unbroken bliss:
Made happy that the foe the prize hath won,        160
She weeps glad tears for all her glory done.

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