If you watched Meryl Streep in Out of Africa (circa 1985) or Krusty the Clown’s retirement speech on the Simpsons, then you’ve heard this poem.
It’s a classic English poem titled To an Athlete Dying Young by A. E. Housman.
In a way, it is controversial as it can be interpreted as “better to die in the glory of youth, rather than resting your laurels” which eventually wither away (as stated in the last stanza). I am sure Jesse Owens can relate as he struggled to find a job after a huge ticker tape parade in NYC!
That’s a pretty strong message to today’s youth!
One of the books that draws a similar parallel to youthful innocence and adulthood is The Catcher in the Rye, written by J.D. Salinger who died on January 27, 2010. That book is all about Holden Caulfield not wanting to grow up, and for good reasons. The events that take place in NYC is the reason many schools ban this book. For me, growing up in Canada, it was required reading in the 9th Grade.
The Original Marathon
There’s a lot of literature that runs parallels between Victory and Death. A good example is Pheidippides and the Marathon. Run 40 km (24 miles) in the heat with no shoes, say “Rejoice, We Conquer” to the King, and die. Legends are made from stories like this.
By dying young, you never grow up and stay in eternal life forever.
Several decades ago, there was a survey study done by Dr. Gabe Mirkin asking over 100 athletes “Would you take a magic pill to guarantee an Olympic gold medal, but it could kill you in a year from now?” The number of “YES” will absolutely shock you. Over half said “yes”. (Source here, pages 88-89)
Then there was Flo-Jo. 4 medals in 1988 (3 Golds and one silver, but barely missing out on a 4th Gold in the 4x400m relay) and dies suddenly 10 years later. Now we have no proof if her drug allegation has any co-incidence to her early death. I feel terrible for her husband and children… no one should lose a life that early.
But the questions surrounding her controversy never goes away… along with faulty wind reading meters.
Here is that poem:
To an Athlete Dying Young by A. E. Housman (1859-1936)
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 were 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.