The Wrestlers

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The Wrestlers
by Wilfred Owen

So neck to neck and obstinate knee to knee
Wrestled those two; and peerless Heracles
Could not prevail nor catch at any vantage;
But those huge hands which small had strangled snakes
Let slip the writhing of Antaeas' wrists;
Those clubs of hands that wrenched the necks of bulls
Now fumbled round the slim Antaeas' limbs
Baffled. Then anger swelled in Heracles,
And terribly he grappled broader arms,
And yet more firmly fixed his grasping feet,
And up his back the muscles bulged and shone
Like climbing banks and domes of towering cloud.
Many who watched that wrestling say he laughed,-
But not so loud as on Eurystheus of old,
But that his pantings, seldom loosed, long pent,
Were like the sighs of lions at their meat.
Men say their fettered fury tightened hour by hour,
Until the veins rose tubrous on their brows
And froth flew thickly-shivered from both beards.
As pythons shudder, bridling-in their spite,
So trembled that Antaeas with held strength,
While Heracles, - the thews and cordage of his thighs
Straitened and strained beyond the utmost stretch
From quivering heel to haunch like sweating hawsers -
But only staggered backward. Then his throat
Growled, like a great beast when his meat is touched,
As if he smelt some guile behind Antaeas,
And knew the buttressed bulking of his shoulders
Bore not the mass to move it one thumb's length.
But what it was so helped the man none guessed,
Save Hylas, whom the fawns had once made wise
How earth herself empowered him by her touch,
Gave him the grip and stringency of winter,
And all the ardour of the invincible spring;
How all the blood of June glutted his heart;
And the wild glow of huge autumnal storms
Stirred on his face, and flickered from his eyes;
How too, Poseidon blessed him fatherly
With wafts of vigour from the keen sea waves,
And with the subtle coil of currents -
Strange underflows, that maddened Heracles.
And towards the night they sundered, neither thrown.
Whereat came Hylas running to his friend
With fans, and sponges in a laving-bowl,
And brimmed his lord the beakerful he loved,
Which Heracles took roughly, even from him.
Then spake that other from the place he stood:
'O Heracles, I know thy fights and labours,
What man thou wert, and what thou art become,
The lord of strength, queller of perilous monsters,
Hero of heroes, worthy immortal worship,
But me thou canst not quell. For I, I come
Of Earth, and to my father Poseidon,
Whose strength ye know, and whose displeasure ye know.
Therefore be wise, and try me not again,
But say thou findst me peer, and more than peer.'
But Heracles, of utter weariness,
Was loath to answer, either yea or nay.
And a cruel murmur rankled through the crowd.
Now he whose knees propped up the head of him,
Over his lord's ear swiftly whispered thus:
'If thou could'st lift the man in air - enough.
His feet suck secret virtue of the earth.
Lift him, and buckle him to thy breast, and win.'
Up sprang the son of Perseus deeply laughing
And ere the crimson of his last long clutch
Had faded from that insolent's throat, again
They closed. Then he, the Argonaut,
Remembering how he tore the oaks in Argos,
Bound both his arms about the other's loins
And with a sudden tugging, easily
Rooted him up; and crushed his inmost bones.
Forth to the town he strode, and through the streets,
Bearing the body light as leopard-skins,
And glorious ran the shouting as he strode -
Some say his footfalls made an earthquake there
So that he dropped Antaeas: some say not:
But that he cast him down by Gea's altar
And Gea sent that earthquake for her son,
To rouse him out of death. And lo! he rose,
Alive, and came to Heracles
Who feasted with the people and their King.
And fain would all make place for him
But he would not consent. And Heracles,
Knowing the hate of Hylas for his deeds,
Feasted and slept; and so forgot the man,
And early on the morrow passed with Hylas
Down to the Argo, for the wind was fair.