Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.
Introduction and Text of Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young"
A. E. Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young" has been widely anthologized through the decades since its appearance. It offers a different way of viewing and accepting death. What might otherwise be deemed a tragic occurrence, the speaker, in this poem turns that thought on its head, making it seem that the young athlete is better off to have died young.
This notion contrasts not only with the traditional and more ordinarily experienced view of death, but it also contrasts greatly with the view expressed in Paramahansa Yogananda's "The Dying Youth's Divine Reply."
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 Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young"
Commentary on Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young"
In A. E. Housman’s poem " To an Athlete Dying Young," the speaker praises the young deceased athlete for dying before he had to face the humiliation of seeing his record broken. The young athlete had won a race for his town, and the proud townspeople had carried him on their shoulders through the thoroughfare celebrating his victory.
The poem’s setting is the funeral procession wherein they again carry the athlete on their shoulders but this time in a coffin. The speaker muses about the loss of the young person but ultimately finds comfort in thinking that it is good that the young man died before he could see someone else break his record.
Death Not Usually Welcome
Of course, everyone has a different perspective on the desirability of death, but generally no one welcomes it. And while Housman’s speaker would not have advised the young athlete to commit suicide to achieve the outcome that he did, the speaker, nonetheless, decides that death, in the case, is not an unwelcome event.
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In the Housman poem, we do not know what the young athlete’s thoughts were. We do not even know how he died. Was it by accident? Or an illness? We are never told, because the speaker does not deem that the important focus. The point is the young man died, and the speaker wishes to suggest a unique way for his mourners to solace themselves.
Introduction to, Paraphrase of, and Excerpt from Paramahansa Yogananda's "The Dying Youth’s Divine Reply"
Paramahansa Yogananda's "The Dying Youth's Divine Reply" appears in his collection of spiritually inspired poetry, Songs of the Soul. While reading the poem itself is best, copyright concerns prevent placing the entire poem on the site.
The following is a useful prose rendering or paraphrase of the poem that can help the reader gain insight into the poem as it aids in comprehending the commentary about the great Guru's poem, "The Dying Youth’s Divine Reply."
Paraphrase of "The Dying Youth’s Divine Reply"
A happy, charming young lay on his death bed in his family's hut, but sickness could not tarnish his smiles. Doctors gave him only one day to live.
His family was inconsolable. Yet the young man remained as happy and charming as ever. He narrated his joy and the reasons for it to his family. Fears had left his soul.
He had prepared his soul to be released into the Infinite. He had strengthened his will and dispensed with the forces that would cause him doubt and pain. He had entered a kingdom of Peace.
He was, in fact, joyous to be leaving this "mortal prison," where the body is apt to be assaulted in all uncertain and obnoxious ways. He looked upon Death as a kind of savior who would help liberate him from this dirt ball of a planet.
He begged his dear family to rejoice with him that he would transcending this earth into freedom. Again, he catalogued all the calamities that those living with a physical encasement might meet.
He asserted vehemently that he would be free and would feel sad for those whom he would leave behind in the "mortal prison." They are ones for whom tears are needed not he who would be traveling to the astral world of beauty and delight, where no fire can burn, no water drown, no gas choke.
He continues to rejoice that he is going to the Infinite, where music is sweet, where he will be singing always. He is rejoicing that now it is less than a day that he must remain bound in this troublesome physical body. He is bound to bliss in a world far superior to this kingdom of death and destruction.
The youth then gently chastises his loving family again, reminding them that he will be able to prepare a place for them when they finally have to move from the finite to the Infinite. The youth tries to help his loved ones understand that he knows he is only going to be with his "Only Beloved," and he knows that same Beloved belongs to his beloved family.
Excerpt from "The Dying Youth’s Divine Reply"
In his laughter he had often heard
The echo of God's merriment.
This laughing youth of many charms
Lay dying in a hamlet,
They the bias of illness was unable to wither his smiles.
The doleful doctors can and said, "But da day,
But a day we give you to life."
The dear ones of his family cried aloud:
"Leave us not, poor you of your hearts!
Ou souls are bursting with pity for thee, for they plight."
Commentary on Paramahansa Yogananda’s "The Dying Youth’s Divine Reply"
The dying youth in the Yogananda poem has the special understanding and ability to know that his dying simply means that his soul will inhabit a beautiful astral world, and therefore, he admonishes his mourners not to mourn.
In the opening stanza, readers learn that the doctors have said the young man has but one day to live. But the readers are also made aware that the young man has been close to God: "In his laughter he had often heard / The echo of God’s merriment."
The young man's family grieves at such news and begs the young man not to leave them. But the young man, who has seen visions of the astral world, is not disheartened by the news of his coming demise, quite the contrary.
The youth answers, "The smiles of the youth grew /brighter, / And he joyously spoke, in a voice that sang: / ‘Ah, just a day; yea, but a day / Between me and my long-lost Beloved’." His happiness of entering into a level of being that he deems will draw him closer to God motivates his joyous voice to sing his delight.
The poem continues for six more stanzas, longest poem in Songs of the Soul. The youth continues to paint scenes of his expectations after his soul has left its body: "My light has plunged into His Light / And is playing over the splendors of eternity. / The shadows of fanciful fears have slipped away / And His Light has spread over the dark nooks of my soul."
Finally, the dying youth is the one who comforts his mourners: "You weep for me dark tears, / Crying for your loss in me; / But I weep for you joyous tears." Different purposes, different perceptions of death.
The two poems display fascinating differences between mortal perceptions of death. The Housman poem is clever but ultimately a rationalization and not a very convincing one. Of course, the reader did not hear from the dying athlete, but might guess that he would have preferred to be able to experience knowing that he record was broken.
The dying youth in the Yogananda poem, however, has no qualms about dying, because he has a strong faith that he is going to be closer to God. He has intuited that his soul lives on, and therefore, he has no fears about what God will have in store for him after leaving the "prison" of his physical body.
In Paramahansa Yogananda’s "The Dying Youth’s Divine Reply," the reader encounters two similarities with the Housman poem: both dying persons are young, and both poems portray ways of reconciling death.
Two minor differences between the poems are that in the Housman poem, the youth is already dead; in Yogananda’s poem, the speaker has not yet died. In the Housman poem, the speaker is a mourner, who does the reconciling, while in Yogananda’s poem, the dying youth is the speaker, who does the reconciling.
The speaker in Housman’s poem remains focused on the earthly plane. He does not portray the world into which the youth has entered; he does not speculate about that world, except in the first two lines of the last stanza when he says, "And round that early-laurelled head / Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead."
The speaker suggests that the dead are weak, and yet they will gaze on the youth’s "early-laurelled head" "And find unwithered on its curls / The garland briefer than a girl's." So there is not much here to look forward to, and the only reconciliation is the fact that his victorious record will not be broken while he is alive.
Unlike this poor youth, the dying youth in the Yogananda poem has the special understanding and ability to know that his dying simply means that his soul will inhabit a beautiful astral world, and therefore, he admonishes his mourners not to mourn.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes