The athlete, or any victor, dying young


A.E. Housman

My wife was hanging out with a friend and former colleague, Edward Norton (not the actor, but his father), and they talked about my forthcoming book. The underlying idea of the book, remember, comes from a line in a poem by Rudyard Kipling: that triumph and disaster are impostors.

That made Ed think of another poem, written only 15 years earlier by another Brit, Alfred Edward Housman. It’s called To An Athlete Dying Young:

THE time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

Just imagine, for a moment, that Hannibal had died just after his last great victory at Cannae, at the age of 32? Or that Meriwether Lewis had died just after his victorious return from the Lewis & Clark Expedition at that same exact age, 32?

Both of them would forever have joined the likes of Housman’s young athlete, of James Dean and JFK, of all those who are plucked prematurely at their peak and thus remain eternally youthful and victorious, successful and triumphant.

Instead, both Hannibal and Meriwhether Lewis ended up comitting suicide in rather different circumstances.

In another post, why I think Housman (who was a classicist) might have got his idea from Herodotus.

And thanks, Ed!

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10 thoughts on “The athlete, or any victor, dying young

  1. The poem is moving as a tribute to one who loses his life at the moment of glory. It overlooks what your choices are if you live on after fame has gone, and the possibility of more fame has also gone. Is such a life not worth living? Are we only great or good or admirable if others find us so? Don’t overlook Brownings tribute to “the last of life for which the first was made.”

    • Ah, yes, Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra:

      GROW old along with me!
      The best is yet to be,
      The last of life, for which the first was made:
      Our times are in his hand
      Who saith, “A whole I planned,
      Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!” …. (long poem)

      In my book, these are the stories of Eleanor Roosevelt, Morihei Ueshiba, Cezanne, Truman, Carl Jung…. A different arc of life, with a different idea of success. The one to strive for!

  2. Houseman’s poem helps to draw out the meaning of Keats Ode on a Grecian Urn, especially the over- analyzed two lines Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know

    The paradox of vibrant young life taken with Keats’ youthful beauty and imagery trapped on an urn for eternity (or the life of the urn) is a mediation in itself.

    I miss James Dean.

  3. The theme of this posting being poetry, and men of promise dying young, here’s a most poignant poem from Leslie Coulson, who died, when only twenty-five or so, in the trenches of World War One (I think the Somme), and who obviously sensed that his time time on earth would be short. His poem, though, applies to all of us, even if old:

    Our little hour – how swift it flies
    When poppies flare and lilies smile;
    How soon the fleeting minute dies,
    Leaving us but a little while
    To dream our dreams, to sing our song,
    To pick the fruit, to pluck the flower,
    The Gods – They do not give us long, –
    One little hour.

    Our little hour – how short it is
    When love with dew eyed loveliness
    Raises her lips for ours to kiss
    And dies within our first caress.
    Youth flickers out like wind-blown flame,
    Sweets of today to-morrow sour,
    For Time and Death, relentless, claim
    Our little hour..

    Our little hour – how short a time
    To wage our wars, to fan our hates,
    To take our fill of armoured crime,
    To troop our banner, storm the gates.
    Blood on the sword, our eyes blood-red,
    Blind in our puny reign of power,
    Do we forget how soon is sped
    Our little hour.

    Our little hour – how soon it dies;
    How short a time to tell our beads,
    To chant our feeble Litanies,
    To think sweet thoughts, to do good deeds,
    The altar lights grow pale and dim,
    The bells hang silent in the tower –
    So passes with the dying hymn
    Our little hour.

  4. And as Andreas knows, Kipling has his reference to the unforgiving minute in sixty seconds’ worth of distance run or something like that…

    Is life an unforgiving minute?

    Lately, I have been feeling as if it is.

  5. Andreas:

    I am interested in how Morihei Ueshiba will be treated in your forthcoming book. He, of course, transformed from a more in your face style of martial arts to Aikido, which seeks to show the aggressor the way or by harmonizing the energy. It will be interesting to see how the life of this type of warrior relates to your story of Hannibal, Scipio, etc..



    • In my book, Steve, we follow the story of Hannibal and Scipio throughout their lives, and in each chapter I “pair” them with a couple of other lives that fit the particular theme in that chapter. The pairing can be a comparison or a contrast. Since the context of the main story (Hannibal), is military, the context of the other lives is non-military.

      I’d love to tell you ALL right now, but I’ve been advised to keep mum just a bit longer. But I will give you this: This chapter is about styles of winning, and Hannibal is paired with Ueshiba and Cleopatra.

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