For better or worse, pride and competition often go hand in hand. In "To an Athlete Dying Young," pride plays an important role. The speaker suggests that, by dying young, the athlete will never have to suffer the humiliation and wounded pride that comes along with defeat and eventual waning athletic ability. The bottom line: better dead than second best. Boy, our coaches told us it wasn't about winning or losing. Somebody has this all wrong.
Questions About Pride
How do think the athlete would feel about the speaker's position—that he's better off dead than losing face in defeat? Do you think the athlete would agree, or would he tell the speaker to go take a prideful jump in the lake? Why?
What are the some good aspects of pride? What are some bad ones? How do the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of pride show up in the poem?
If the poem wasn't about an athlete, could it still have had pride as one of its main themes? Is so, how? Instead of an athlete, what would the deceased figure be?
Chew on This
Pride is what drives the athlete to achieve victory (after, you know, the athlete drives to the competition in his car). In "To an Athlete Dying Young," Housman attempts to demonstrate this significance by suggesting that the fact that the young athlete dies with his pride intact somehow alleviates the tragedy of his untimely death.
Housman's suggestion that the athlete's memory would have been tarnished or forgotten had he suffered a defeat is wrong. A.E. needs to revisit the lessons taught to kindergarteners around the land: it doesn't matter whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.