Runner Whom Renown Outran
April 16, 2014
“…And the name died before the man” -A.E. Housman, “To An Athlete Dying Young”
There is always mourning when a human being is forced, by nature or accident, to give up living. The grief is immeasurably greater when the dead are young and those left behind are older. The world regrets the loss of those who had futures ahead of them, futures holding limitless possibilities and promise. It is generally believed that they missed out on so much life – people they may have met, places they might have traveled to, work they might have done – and it is their misfortune to have passed away before reaching their thirtieth birthday.
The names of those who died too soon, names like John Keats and James Dean, live on in endless fame. They left only a fraction of achievement behind them, yet their work is prized, for its own merit as well as for the mystery and intensity of the artist’s existence. Men like Keats, who did not live to see their twenty-fifth birthday, startle us by the insight and depth that their creations communicate. They are remembered for their genius, their spark, their brilliance and energy. James Dean made only a handful of films in his lifetime, yet he is remembered as one of Hollywood’s greatest actors. He won no awards for his work and is known to have been quite unhappy with himself most of the time. Keats, in a similar manner, died believing himself a failure and yet his poetry is considered to be some of the best produced in the Romantic period. Both young men didn’t know how brief their time would be – would they have done anything differently? Would they have given up glory for another fifty years on this planet? Perhaps they would have desired to see their fame, to see the crowds show appreciation for their art. Instead, the crowds mourn that the dead did not hear the praise of the world.
Yet is death truly the great tragedy of such stories? Is it the worst possible end that these young could have met? Surely it is not. The poet A. E. Housman did not think so. In “To An Athlete Dying Young,” he presents a more terrible outcome than untimely death – outliving one’s “renown.” While men like Keats did not live to see the heights of their fame, they also did not live to see that fame fade away. Instead of experiencing the heartbreak that comes from being forgotten, their hearts stopped beating completely before the brilliance of their lives tarnished. There is a sense of beauty in the “cruel” fate of dying young because the laurels of life have not diminished.
Outliving one’s “renown” is not merely living long enough to see glory fade. Most men do not set records, make millions, or create priceless art. They do not find glory on a grand, celebrity scale. Instead they have “made a name” for themselves with a family, a career, a home. Their “name” is a sense of accomplishment, a belief that they have been of value to those surrounding them. This “renown” is more easily lost than a world record or celebrity. Loved ones die, jobs are lost, homes are sold to strangers. Time, a power merciless by nature, gradually strips down the lives of these men until their existence is a bare skeleton of what it once was. Spiritual health often decays along with the physical. The will to live is lost before life is. Those who do not die young endure the great tragedy of growing old. Though many enjoy fullness of life in their latter years, no such happiness is guaranteed for all and those who die young escape the crushing reality that the future may hold.
In his poetry, Housman pays tribute to those “lads that will die in their glory and never be old” (“The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair…”). It is those who are lucky enough to depart from the earth in their youth that “will carry their looks or their truth to the grave.” They will die in physical bloom and convinced of their “truth,” whatever it may be. They will never suffer from watching their faces change for the worse in the mirror. More importantly, they will not be forced to compromise themselves for the sake of existence. Keats could write his poetry as he wanted and not worry about the consequences of his poverty because of his fatal tuberculosis. Those who die young do not have to sacrifice their dreams on the altar of the reality. While they may not experience what people call a “full life,” the fortunate dead will not outrun their “renown.” Physical defeat builds their spiritual strength, creating inspired existence that leaves a vivid impression on the human memory. The taken youth such as James Dean and Keats are celebrated to such an extent that even they could not have imagined such fame. Instead of being beaten up by the long years of living and ruined dreams, they were conquered in one swift motion and rest peacefully while the world treasures their work forever.
Death is not the great tragedy. Existence that is not life is. The young still have life, while many of those who grow old settle for mere existence, giving up “truth” and inspiration for survival. Housman watched as the young men returned home from the First World War with broken bodies and shattered ideals. Instead of dying in their golden youth, these men endured such darkness and despair that life would never hold the same charm for them. Would it have been better for them to die in battle, defending their country? Many returned to live in a world of brokenness that conquered their souls before they physically departed from it.
The deceased young, those runners whom renown did not outrun, are in many ways more fortunate than those who linger. They miss out on life, perhaps, but they also do not experience the long, painful decay of human life. There is a sense of greater peace in the idea that one can leave this world in a state of purity, to have a heart and soul for the most part untainted by the cruelty of the human existence. The world may save its grief for those who, while still living, watched their name die and become numb to the blessing of survival. Those are the men that Housman pitied. Those who die too soon may be gone, but their death makes their lives more full of splendor and their glory more enduring.