Week 199: To An Athlete Dying Young, by A.E.Housman

The Olympic Games are with us again, and as a one time runner myself of rather modest accomplishment – as many a poet must come sadly to accept, it is quite possible to be passionately devoted to a pursuit while having no great talent for it – I take as much pleasure as anyone in watching the world’s young strut their hour upon the global stage, bringing to mind those lines of Marlowe’s: ‘Is it not passing brave to be a king/And ride in triumph through Persepolis’ (or, as the case may be, Rio de Janeiro). And yet, how brief that hour really is, and how quickly our heroes and heroines must come to terms with physical decline and the anonymity of oblivion. For which of those golden lads and lasses, I wonder, will be remembered in a hundred years’ time, or even fifty? The mighty Bolt, maybe, in the way that some fabled racehorse is remembered. But all those others, now for a short while instantly recognisable by forename alone, Jess and Mo, Laura and Jason, Max and Adam, Alistair and Johnny? Almost certainly not. Well, as usual A.E.Housman has the words to match a mood tinged with rue.

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.

A.E.Housman

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