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What a great idea to compare these two poems! I hadn't thought of that before! Of course, one poem supports the central idea of the other completely, as the fate of the athlete in "Ex-Basketball Player" strongly suggests that it would have been better for him to die in his moment of glory rather than be allowed to fade away gracelessly into old age.
"To An Athlete Dying Young," then, is all about how the athlete is "smart" to leave a world where glory does not remain and can only vanish. It is far better to die young, the author suggests, than to join the many who had enjoyed glory but now have "worn their honours out." Dying young has meant that he will avoid lots of disappointments that life and age will bring:
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.
This fate will not occur to the athlete; he will not "outrun" renown through his early death and has ensured he will be remembered in his glory days.
Of course, "Ex-Basketball Player" features a life that has come to nothing, whatever former glory Flick Webb once enjoyed, jus tlike Pearl Avenue is described in the first stanza as being "cut off" in its prime, "Before it has a chance to go two blocks." Flick is shown to be haunted by his former glory days, which stand in sharp contrast to his life now. He "never learned a trade" and "just sells gas." He will show off his former talent, but only "as a gag." The last few lines are perhaps most poignant as it shows how Flick lives in a dream world recalling his former days of triumph and fame:
Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods
Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers
Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.
In this excellent implied metaphor the stands that hold candy are compared to the bleachers where the applauding and adoring fans stay. Flick cannot escape his past and uses it as a retreat to escape his present.
So, comparing both poems. Flick Webb gives us an example of what would have happened to the Athlete in Houseman's poem if he had not died. Flick Webb is indeed an athlete who "outran renown" and has joined the ranks of those whose glory has faded, and lives a sad, barren life as a result.
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