The Poetry of Running

After yesterday’s horrific event in Boston, I looked for something inspirational and worthy to put up today. I found this story on Running Times and thought that the power, spirit, and meaning of running was beautifully written. It’s something someone can read and think “So that’s what running is all about”  -because to most,  running is more than exercise. In my own description I would call it a “Healing Spirit.” If you haven’t discovered this in running,  I’d recommend to give it a go!  In this read, I highlighted areas that stood out to me 🙂  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Adapted from The Literature of Running

By Roger Robinson
Published January 1, 2004

Running is like music, capable of infinite varieties of mood. We can run in zestful joy, or in somber meditation. Running can be about freedom of movement in contact with Nature; or it can be about the discipline and willpower of competitive effort on a road or track. It can give the rich companionship of running with friends, or the equally rich solitude of running alone. It is a significant part of the lives of millions of people worldwide. Surely it deserves a literature to express and celebrate these different moods and meanings.

Poets have written about running ever since Homer and Pindar in Ancient Greece nearly 3,000 years ago, and have sought to make running as memorable and vivid in words as it is in action. The following poem is from the early 20th century, it’s about the liberty and self-expression that running can bring in a tragic time.

Many runners will be familiar with the lines that ends the poem:

And we run because we like it
Through the broad bright land.

The full poem and the story behind it are even more resonant and evocative. The poem was written by a 19-year-old English army officer, Charles Hamilton Sorley, during World War I.

The Song of the Ungirt Runners

We swing ungirded hips
And lighten’d are our eyes,
The rain is on our lips,
We do not run for prize.
We know not whom we trust
Nor whitherward we fare,
But we run because we must
Through the great wide air.

The waters of the seas
Are troubled as by storm.
The tempest strips the trees
And does not leave them warm.
Does the tearing tempest pause?
Do the tree-tops ask it why?
So we run without a cause
’Neath the big bare sky.

The rain is on our lips,
We do not run for prize.
But the storm the water whips
And the wave howls to the skies.
The winds arise and strike it
And scatter it like sand,
And we run because we like it
Through the broad bright land.

Although the poem is quite well known and included in several anthologies, there has been little discussion of it. For many readers, I found, the image of runners “ungirt” suggests a vaguely idealized vision of Ancient Greece. But beneath its eternal images of rain, wind, sea and movement, there are meanings that are immediate and personal, linked closely to the terrible time in which the poem was written.

During his high-school years at Marlborough College in England, Charles Sorley loved to walk and run on the hills around the town, and as an aspiring young poet he wrote several poems, impressive for such a young writer, about these outings. The weather in the poems is often wet and windy because on those days regular sports like rugby football were cancelled, and to Sorley’s delight the students were sent out on cross-country runs that they called “sweats.” Other poems express his dislike of school discipline (“O come and see, it’s such a sight / So many boys all doing right”) and of the competitiveness of the world they were being prepared for.

When World War I was declared only a few months after he left school, Sorley put aside these dislikes, volunteering for training as a junior officer. “The Song of the Ungirt Runners” was written during this period of training early in 1915. When Sorley reached the front line later that year, he had time only to write a few powerful poems that angrily condemn the slaughter of the trenches. “Ungirt Runners” is not a war poem in this direct way, yet it is full of the tumult of catastrophe, the storm, and tearing tempest of that time.

With its images of troubled, stormy nature and disoriented, distrustful humans, it catches perfectly the sense of anxiety, doubt and doom suffered by that unlucky generation of young men who came to adulthood between the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and marching up the line to death in the trenches after 1914.

Yet through the storm and howling waves and troubled weather, the swinging rhythm of the runners pulses onward. They run forward through the tearing tempest lightly, determinedly, and almost joyfully, without purpose other than the compulsion to run. The opening of the movie Chariots of Fire, with the athletes loping along the seashore in the wind and spray, was perhaps inspired by Sorley’s poem. The poem affirms that running is an act of nature, and like other acts of nature it needs no motive or explanation:

Does the tearing tempest pause?
Do the tree-tops ask it why?
So we run without a cause
’Neath the big bare sky.

It is, for a soldier, a poem defiant of authority and reward. They do not run for cause or prize, in a war not of their making, but to find freedom, contact with nature, release from that world of strife and loss, and some personal pleasure in a time of imposed control.

And why “ungirt?” The British army then wore coarse heavy khaki, encumbered with belts and cross straps, and bound their legs in tight wrap-around “puttees.” Runners hate such cumbersome binding. Sorley wrote from the front a few weeks later to his old school principal, “O for a pair of shorts and my longloose coloured jersey … once again.” The poem expresses the defiant joy of moving “ungirt,” free, instead of marching all day in uniform and in step to someone else’s shouted commands.

The repeated “We” also expresses a human bond among the runners at a deeper level than the world of cause and prizes can forge. The troops in training were encouraged to play sports, with running especially important. Sorley, with his background as a good schoolboy runner, helped train the men of his Suffolk Regiment, mostly farm workers. He prepared them especially for the divisional cross country championship in Kent against other regiments. The favorites were a formidable Royal Fusiliers team that contained (Sorley wrote in a letter) several experienced cross country runners (“ex-harriers”).

There were 400 starters and 12 teams. Afterward the young officer/coach reported with glee that on “a heavy course over the rich Kentish soil. … The Suffolks came in an easy first. This has been one of many triumphs.”

It’s good to know that a poem that has been taken to be about runners in a remote and idealized world in fact derived from real training for a particular race, when his guys got up and beat the favorites. It is no stretch of the imagination that a 19-year-old who loved running so much, and who was well liked by his men, would run with them in training instead of just holding the watch. The poem’s “We” surely includes the poet. It expresses a group unity more fundamental than the military separation between lieutenant and infantrymen.

So “The Song of the Ungirt Runners” is both timeless and very much of its time—as the best poems are. It affirms the elemental, its runners swinging through a nature of primordial power, yet it also reflects on its moment in history. Its condemnation is implied, not spelled out. But imagine writing of men who were about to be ordered to march in step into the narrow dark pit of the trench that:

And we run because we like it
Through the broad bright land.

Charles Sorley was killed by a sniper’s bullet a few weeks after arriving at the front in France, aged 20. In his pack was found the draft of a poem that has become his most famous, beginning with the lines:

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go …

Within days of writing these lines, this talented young poet was himself among the mouthless dead. It is some consolation that he found pleasure in his last weeks by running and had time to put that pleasure into life-affirming words that still retain their resonant simplicity.

There is a crossing of two foot-tracks high on the Marlborough Downs, about three miles from the town and the College. It is a spot mentioned in one of Sorley’s poems, and thanks to one of the school’s English teachers, is now marked by a memorial stone, inscribed with the initials “C.H.S.” and the dates of his short life, “1895–1915”. In September, on a holiday after completing my book, I ran there, with my wife and two English running friends, Bruce and Sue Tulloh. After quietly paying our respects, we ran together back across the Downs to the Tullohs’ home, not for cause or prize, but running because we like it, through the broad bright land.

Boston Marathon Explosion

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