The Races of Poetry

Gray, Erik I.

The image of racing is endemic to poetry. Homer’s Iliad, the cornerstone of the Western poetic tradition, culminates in a race: at the climax of the narrative, in book 22, Achilles chases Hector three times around the walls of Troy, in a pursuit that Homer specifically likens to a foot-race or a chariot-race. The image then returns in the following book, at the funeral games for Patroclus, which are dominated by actual races. Similar games, again with races as their most prominent feature, appear in both the Odyssey and the Aeneid. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses the same motif – one character running after another – becomes not just an incident in the plot, as in earlier epics, but in a sense the main plot itself: of the different types of recurrent episode in Ovid’s poem, the most conspicuous involves (typically) a male god chasing a nymph across the countryside. And in Dante’s Inferno – to look no further – the motif becomes so central as to be nearly invisible. Almost every canto of the Inferno features sinners running, or trudging, after each other, round and round in a perversely endless, unwinnable race. The racing motif is central to the meaning of epic, just as it serves, at a broader level, as one of the representative tropes of all of poetry.


Also Published In

Essays in Criticism

More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Oxford University Press
Published Here
February 16, 2016


[Note: This is a pre-copyedited, author-produced PDF of an article published in
Essays in Criticism following peer review. The version of record is “The Races of
Poetry,” Essays in Criticism 65.1 (January 2015), 75-99.]