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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Kipling’s If

Rudyard Kipling’s If:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream–and not make dreams your master,
If you can think–and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And–which is more–you’ll be a Man, my son!

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Do you Poegle?

My friend and colleague Justin Hendrix and his co-author have just started their Poegle site.

And I am shocked–shocked!–that you don’t know what a Poegle is. A Poegle is, of course, a poem made with the input of Google. It is apparently the most avant-garde form of poetry, but one with a long heritage.

They’re running a contest on the site, so you can submit your own Poegles. If you win, you get a plastic segmented jump rope, which is essential.

Eventually, the Poegles will be published as a book. Have fun.

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