“Whom the gods love, die young.”

“Whom the gods love, die young.” I first heard this aphorism as a boy of ten. I can’t recall whether it was spoken by a family member or by a neighbor sharing in our grief. It was spoken in reference to my cousin Gerald, who died at the age of twenty-one. It had been a terrible year, especially for my mother, who had, just a few months earlier, separated from my father, then lost her own mother, and now lost a nephew whom she loved as a younger brother. Gerald was what we call in Yorkshire “a strapping lad.” A strikingly handsome young man, he was athletic, charming, witty, and compassionate. My mother loved him not merely for his own Olympian virtues, but also because he was the embodiment of her own father; the grandfather that I never knew as he, too, died young. But not quite so young as Gerald, whose sudden death from a mysterious heart condition cast a pall of gloom over everyone in our small Yorkshire town who knew and loved him. Most believed in a “God” who was both loving and just. But, as is so frequently the case when considering Judeo-Christian theology, it was hard to reconcile notions of God’s “love” with such seemingly senseless evil as the premature loss of a fine young man like my cousin Gerald. And so, instinctively perhaps, we invoke the wisdom and justice of the pagan gods. It makes sense that they would want Gerald to sit with them on Mount Olympus.
We owe the aphorism “quem di diligunt, adolescens moritur,” to the Roman playwright Plautus, who flourished around the end of the 3rd century BCE. But, like many Roman authors, Plautus was invoking and distilling an earlier Greek idea. This one can be traced to the 5th century historian Herodotus, who describes the early deaths of two strapping lads, Cleobis and Biton. The events revolved around a festival of the goddess Hera, which the young mens’ mother was keen to attend. However, the oxen typically used to draw her carriage were “not available.” So these stalwart youths put themselves to the yoke and drew the carriage for “forty-five furlongs to the temple of Hera,” after which, understandably rather jaded from their strenuous labors, “they made a most excellent end of their lives.”  “And thus,” continues Herodotus, “the gods showed by these men how it was better for a man to die than to live.” Therefore, the earlier the death, the better the man.
The sentiment in praise of an early death for the noble and the virtuous crept into post-Christian, western culture. There are distinct elements of it expressed by Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” who contemplates his own early death as “a consummation devoutly to be wished,” though he hesitates under the sway of the Christian “canon,” which makes it difficult for him to bring about that “consummation” by his own hand; a knotty theological problem that did not inhibit the classical Greeks and Romans. But it was the calling of the classical-inspired Romantic poets of the late 18th and early 19th century to turn the ancient idea into a cult. We hear it in Wordsworth, who, in Book I of The Excursion, says “the good die first.” We see it as a lifelong obsession for Goethe, whose first literary hero “Werther” outdoes “Hamlet” and commits suicide as a gesture not merely of his sufferings but also of his virtue. In 1824, fifty years after the publication of The Sufferings of Young Werther, Goethe reflected on his earlier creation with the bittersweet meditation:
“I have chosen to stay, you to depart; you went ahead, and did not lose much. You smile, friend, with deep feeling, as is proper: a gruesome parting made you famous; we celebrated your wretched misfortune, you left us behind for weal and woe.”
It’s as if the aged genius - perhaps at that moment in time the most eminent man in Europe – is envious of his youthful hero for escaping the world so early, while leaving his creator to relive Werther’s suffering over and over again.
Without question, it was Lord Byron – the greatest Romantic “hero” – who gave clearest voice to the idea, linking it most firmly with the ancient tradition and also reaffirming it as a model and an inspiration for the future, right up to our own time. Byron’s life was guided by this sentiment, and his death ensured him the best possible welcome among the gods on Mount Olympus. In Don Juan, his rambling, satirical and semi-autobiographical epic, he creates some of his finest poetry to elaborate on the ancient Greek idea:
                        Happy they,
        Thrice fortunate who of that fragile mould,
        The precious porcelain of human clay,
        Break with the first fall. They can ne’er behold
        The long year linked with heavy day on day
        And all which must be borne and never told,
        While life’s strange principle will often lie
        Deepest in those who long the most to die.

        ‘Whom the gods love, die young’ was said of yore,
        And many deaths do they escape by this:
        The death of friends and that which slays even more,
        The death of friendship, love, youth, all that is,
        Except mere breath. And since the silent shore
        Awaits at last even those whom longest miss
        The old archer’s shafts, perhaps the early grave,
        Which men weep over, may be meant to save.

                        (Canto IV, stanzas 11 & 12)

These words may have given some comfort to my mother, to my aunt and uncle, and to Gerald’s younger brother, though I doubt if anyone in my family would have embraced them as part of a systematic philosophy of life. But for some, especially those whose chief motives are aesthetic, Byron’s words speak to the very core of human existence, “life’s strange principle,” as he calls it.  In his own life and in his poetry, Byron created a powerful model of a young hero; a natural aristocrat, who is both an artist and a rebel, all the more so if he dies young. The Byronic Hero flourished throughout the 19th century, went into a slightly disillusioned quietude during the first half of the 20th century, but then came back with renewed energy after World War II. Whether they knew it or not, the rock ‘n roll icons of the 1960s were all inheritors of the Byronic legacy.
I’ve decided to confine my own survey to musicians and writers, in honor of Apollo, the god of music and poetry. With only a minimum of shuffling, I’ve come up with an impressive list of fifteen in each category, and I’m only sorry that I could not come up with more than three women, each one a writer. All died before they were forty, with one monumental exception, whose death, just a few weeks after his fortieth birthday, was like “the death of friendship, love, youth, all that is.”


                                                     Died in               Age

1.    Chidiock Tichborne                    1586            28
2.    Sir Phillip Sydney                        1586            32
3.    Christopher Marlowe                  1593            29
4.    George Herbert                          1633            39
5.    Henry Purcell                             1695            36
6.    Thomas Chatterton                    1770            18
7.    Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart       1791            35
8.    Robert Burns                            1796            36
9.    Mary Wollstonecraft                 1797            38
10.    John Keats                             1821            25
11.    Percy Bysshe Shelley              1822            29
12.    George Gordon Byron            1824            36
13.    Jacobo Antonio Arriaga          1826            19
14.    Franz Schubert                       1828            31
15.    Felix Mendelssohn                  1847            38
16.    Emily Brontë                           1848            30
17.    Frederic Chopin                      1849            39
18.    Arthur Rimbaud                      1891            37
19.    Wilfred Owen                        1918            25
20.    George Gershwin                   1937            38
21.    Charlie Christian                    1942            22
22.    Dylan Thomas                       1953            39
23.    Charlie Parker                       1955            35
24.    Sylvia Plath                           1963            30
25.    Brian Jones                           1969            27
26.    Jimi Hendrix                          1970            27
27.    Jim Morrison                        1971            27
28.    John Lennon                         1980            40
29.    Bob Marley                          1981            36
30.    Kurt Cobain                         1994            27