to an athlete dying young


"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.

To-day, 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.


Dying young is considered by most to be one of the most tragic of fates. The specter of deeds not accomplished and a life unlived haunts the funeral "?set you at your threshold down" (Housman l. 7), and causes the grief to reach a higher level. Most people desire to live to a ripe old age and they would be aghast to have a premature death viewed through a positive light. Yet a "positive funeral" is exactly the driving force behind A.E. Housman?s "To an Athlete Dying Young." The poem states outright that it is better to die in the glory of youth than to rest too long on one?s laurels, only to see those laurels wither "From fields where glory does not stay and early though the laurel grows, it withers quicker than the rose" (ll. 10-12).
The poem takes place at the funeral of a young champion runner. Rather than join the others in mourning, the speaker is instead reflecting on how lucky the young athlete was to have died when he did, instead of lingering on outlasting the glory of his victories, "From fields where glory does not stay and early though the laurel grows, it withers quicker than the rose" (ll. 10-12). Speaking of how quickly the laurels die, the narrator projects himself onto the young runner with a knowledge that suggests he, too, once knew these glories. Through the writer?s thoughts, the reader gets a glimpse of what the poet?s life may have been since his youth: his own records broken, his skills diminished, his name forgotten "The time you won your town the race we chaired you through the market-place? Smart lad, to slip betimes away from fields where glory does not stay? silence sounds no worse than cheers" (ll. 1-2, 9-10, 15). Instead of being a poem about the death of the athlete, the poem becomes a statement about the life of the speaker as well as all of us. As one of "the lads who wore his honors out" (18), the speaker seems to be also mourning ones own special kind of death.
The speaker is "happy" that the athlete died at such a young age because he sees much of himself in the young champion. The details in the poem are too vivid and clear for a bystander to have written this poem "Silence sounds no worse than cheers? before its echoes fade, the fleet foot on the sill of shade, and hold to the low lintel up the still-defended challenge-cup" (ll. 15, 17-20). In all this process, the reader shifts pity from the dead to the living, mourning not what was never to arrive but what did arrive and was never received.
Housman truly followed what he felt. Housman believed that poetry should have a physical effect on the reader, a sensation akin to love or fear. "To an Athlete Dying Young" is interpreted differently by people yet everyone feels something when reading this exemplary poem. Fear is the most common sensation; fear of accomplishing too little in life and "wearing" out honors "early though the laurel grows it withers quicker than the rose? the time you won your town the race" (ll. 1, 11-12).
Housman?s simple diction, lyric beauty and gentle