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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