A. E. Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young"

Updated on May 9, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

A. E. Housman

Source

Introduction and Text of "To an Athlete Dying Young"

A. E. Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young" has been widely anthologized through the decades since its first appearance in his autobiographical collection, A Shropshire Lad. The poem offers an unusual way of viewing and accepting death. The thought that what might otherwise be deemed a tragic occurrence is turned on it head, positing that the young athlete is better off to have died young. This notion contrasts with the traditional and more ordinarily experienced view of death.

The speaker is praising the young deceased athlete for dying before he had to contend with the humiliation of seeing his record broken. The young athlete had won a race for his town. The proud people of the town had carried him on their shoulders through the thoroughfare celebrating his victory.

The setting of the poem is young man's funeral procession wherein the townspeople are again carring the athlete on their shoulders, but this time he lies in a coffin. After musing on the loss of the young man, the speaker begins to take comfort in believing that his death was fortuitous for the young athlete who now would be spared seeing his record broken.

Of course, every human being has his/her own view regarding the desirability of dying, but in general, no one ever welcomes it. And while Housman’s speaker is not advising young athletes to commit suicide to achieve this same desired outcome that he did, the speaker, nevertheless, has decided that death, at least in this case, was not an unwelcome turn of events.

In the Housman poem, readers cannot know what the young athlete’s thoughts were. Readers do not even know how he died, whether by accident or illness. The audience of the poem is never told, because the speaker does not wish to focus on that incidental. The main issue with which he deals is simply the young man's death, and the speaker then suggests this unique way for mourners to find solace after the fact.

A. E. Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young"

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

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.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

Reading of "To an Athlete Dying Young"

Commentary

This non-traditional way of looking at death was, no doubt, hatched to provide solace at the death of a young man in his prime.

First Stanza: Addressing the Deceased Athlete

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

The speaker is addressing the young athlete, reminding the young man of the time the athlete won a race for the citizens of his town. The cheered and were merry as they carried the young winner on their shoulders "through the market-place." All the people stood by watching the parade, cheering him on, no doubt puffing with pride for their race winner.

Second Stanza: A Change of Scene

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Immediately, the cheering scene of happiness and excitement shift to one of somber sadness. Again, the townspeople are carrying the young athlete "shoulder-high," but now instead of cheering they are mourning for the young man has died. They are bring him to his final resting place that the speaker colorfully calls, "a stiller town."

Third Stanza: Smart for Dying

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

The speaker then calls the young man "smart lad." And the lad is smart for dying and leaving this place where as soon as one finds glory, the next minute that glory is gone. The "laurel" may grow early but it vanishes faster than roses do. The speaker is making an interesting analogy comparing the natural blooming of two flowers to the natural earthly events of human experience.

Fourth Stanza: Launching a Novel Idea

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

The speaker then launches his novel idea that by dying the young athlete will not see his "record cut." Death thus becomes a kind of savior providing a soundless atmosphere that surely is not worse than the cheers the young man will no long experience. And now he will not have to experience cheers for someone else after his winning race has been exceeded.

Fifth Stanza:

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.

Instead of becoming just another old athlete to see himself be replaced, he will not "swell the rout." The lads who continued to live "wore their honors out." The renown achieved by athletes is always "outran." Their "name" died before they did, a painful experience that this dying runner will not have undergo.

Sixth Stanza: Holding the Winning Cup

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

The speaker then commands the young dead lad to metaphorically hold up his winning cup and feel the pride that he had engendered. For him the cheering had not begun to fade, and he will not have to experience that fading. In fact, he can continue to hold his cup and it will remain unchallenged.

Seventh Stanza: Keeping the Laurel

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

The speaker then paints an extremely odd picture of many ghost-like creatures gathering around the young deceased lad, where they find his head still garlanded with the winning laurels of victory. Those laurels will remain "unwithered" for his lad despite the fact that on the earth-plane they are always "briefer than a girl's."

Questions & Answers

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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      3 months ago from U.S.A.

      Thank you for sharing your personal story, David. And thank you for your service as teacher. Have a blessed day! And continued good fortune with your writing .

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 

      3 months ago from United States

      This was a most poignant work and one that has a personal meaning to me. I was an athlete of much renown and at the top of my champion's course, only to be broken down by a severe spinal injury in the final analysis. I felt as though I was to die and go away for good. Later I summoned my inner strength and went on to achieve 4 degrees in college and became a teacher of the disabled for twenty-five years. I did not perish from the earth, but got up, shook off the dust and made my life have more meaning. Sadly, those who do die, have no chance to prove to themselves that they are made of sterner stuff. Thank you for sharing this author and his work, my friend. Blessings. whonu

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