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A.E. Housman and John Updike’s Unlucky Athletes

Both A.E. Housman and John Updike have written poems celebrating athletic skill by showing the athlete as a special being, set apart from the general population and much admired by them. However, they also show that the athlete’s life is a short one, and that after his skills disappear he finds himself without any other abilities and therefore becomes less admired than the average person. These two poems describe the athlete who was unlucky enough to die young and the one who was unlucky enough to outlive his athletic skills and taken together the poets seem to suggest that the first one is luckier than the one who did not die young.

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Housman recalls the time the athlete won a race for his town and was carried home “shoulder-high” in triumph but the second time that happened he was brought home in a coffin, to settle in a “stiller town.” The contrast between being carried home as the victorious hero and to his new home, the grave, is shocking because it is based on the similarities of both rituals. He praises the former athlete for being smart enough to escape from a life where the laurel leaves traditionally given to the winner wither “quicker than the rose,” where records are made only to be broken and where the applause that was once so loud, suddenly stops. The dead man will not have to face a time when he has outlived his fame and when he has to accept that “the name died before the man.” His youth, his accomplishments and his laurels are now immortal because he will live in his townsmen’s memory as he was at the peak of his strength and skill; or, as Housman puts it, they will “find unwithered on its curls / The garland briefer than a girl’s.”

His opposite number is Flick Webb in Updike’s “Ex-Basketball Player,” the sad relic of a more glorious time. Now he has found a place among the most inglorious of places, a working class area where Flick finds himself “standing tall among the idiot pumps” with their hoses “hanging loose and low” as if they are mocking the former athletes, especially the pump without a head which is “more of a football type.” The pumps also have brand names instead of names on their jersey so that he has gone from being singled out to anonymous.

Once Flick was the best in the county, setting records that still stand, and “His hands were like wild birds.” Whatever skills he still has are concentrated in his hands which are “fine and nervous on the lug wrench. / It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though,” meaning that those skills are now redundant. These days the former athlete plays pinball in Mae’s Luncheonette, rarely talking, just passing the time remaining to him on earth because when the athlete in him died he himself ceased to take an interest in his life.

Implied in both poems is the fact that talented athletes are often content to rest on their laurels, rather than developing other skills that will make them socially useful. They let their celebrity go to their heads and believe they are doing all that the world can expect of them. It is the self-centered little world they occupy that makes them so short-sighted, Housman and Updike suggest; but there is also the suggestion that that little world is far more exciting than the regular one. The poets’ attitude toward the athlete is ambivalent: they would like to be like him so they can experience that excitement and yet they see how limiting that life is.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, November 4). A.E. Housman and John Updike’s Unlucky Athletes. https://studycorgi.com/a-e-housman-and-john-updikes-unlucky-athletes/

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"A.E. Housman and John Updike’s Unlucky Athletes." StudyCorgi, 4 Nov. 2021, studycorgi.com/a-e-housman-and-john-updikes-unlucky-athletes/.

1. StudyCorgi. "A.E. Housman and John Updike’s Unlucky Athletes." November 4, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/a-e-housman-and-john-updikes-unlucky-athletes/.


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StudyCorgi. "A.E. Housman and John Updike’s Unlucky Athletes." November 4, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/a-e-housman-and-john-updikes-unlucky-athletes/.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "A.E. Housman and John Updike’s Unlucky Athletes." November 4, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/a-e-housman-and-john-updikes-unlucky-athletes/.

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'A.E. Housman and John Updike’s Unlucky Athletes'. 4 November.

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