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

A discussion of A. E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young”, providing the reader with an idea of the author’s views on death.

“Dying Young” A. E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young,” also known as Lyric XIX in A Shropshire Lad, holds as its main theme the premature death of a young athlete as told from the point of view of a friend serving as pall bearer. The poem reveals the concept that those dying at the peak of their glory or youth are really quite lucky.

The first few readings of “To an Athlete Dying Young” provides the reader with an understanding of Housman’s view of death. Additional readings reveal Housman’s attempt to convey the classical idea that youth, beauty, and glory can be preserved only in death. A line-by-line analysis helps to determine the purpose of the poem. The first stanza of the poem tells of the athlete’s triumph and his glory filled parade through the town in which the crowd loves and cheers for him.

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As Bobby Joe Leggett defines at this point, the athlete is “carried of the shoulders of his friends after a winning race”. In Housman’s words: 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. Stanza two describes a much more somber procession.

The athlete is being carried to his grave. In Leggett’s opinion, “The parallels between this procession and the former triumph are carefully drawn”.

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The reader should see that Housman makes another reference to “shoulders” as an allusion to connect the first two stanzas: Today, the road all runners come, Shoulder high we bring you home, And set you at the threshold down, Townsman of a stiller town. In stanza three Housman describes the laurel growing “early” yet dying “quicker than a rose.” This parallels “the ‘smart lad’ who chose to ‘slip betimes away’ at the height of his fame”. Leggett’s implication of this parallel is “that death, too is a victory”. He should consider himself lucky that he died in his prime and will not out live his fame. Housman says: Eyes the shady night has shut Cannot see the record cut, And silence sounds no worse than cheers After earth has stopped the ears. Leggett feels that “death in the poem becomes the agent by which the process of change is halted”.

In the next stanza symbolism is used as the physical world is in Leggett’s terms, “The field where glories do not stay”. “Fame and beauty are represented by a rose and the laurel, which are both subject to decay,” Leggett explains. The athlete dying is described here by Housman: And round that early-laurelled head Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead, And find unwithered on its curls The garland briefer than a girls. Any biography read on Housman should reveal that he was an big student of Latin, a very dense language in which much meaning can be condensed into a small word. F. W. Batesman states, “He edited volumes of poetry for the poets Juvenile and Lucan” . Housman tried to write in the same form as the poets who he also edited by employing “a concentration of monosyllables to provide an English equivalent to the verbal density that Latin possessed ready-made in its system of inflection”.

However, this was not always employable. Housman uses condensed, and choppy words to express his ideas, an obvious imitation of the Latin poets. A good example is that barely a word contained in “To an Athlete Dying Young” consists of more than two syllables. Because of Latin emulation, many hold Housmans’ works to be too easy. As Batesman notices, “English monosyllables, on the other hand, because of their familiarity and trivial associations, tend to vulgarize and sentimentize whatever experience they are trying to describe” . Housman’s attempt to reproduce a Latin-patterned verse posts the problem Dr. Samuel Johnson referred to in his “Life of Dryden”: Words too familiar or too remote defeat the purpose of a poet.

From sound which we hear on small or coarse occasions we do not easily receive strong impressions or delightful images; and words to which we are nearly strangers, whenever they occur, draw attention on themselves which they should transmit to things.  As well as old time structure, Housman takes advantage of many old time ideas and concepts in his writings. He conveys the classic idea that beauty, glory, and all things that are held in esteem soon outlive that fame which they once possessed in “To an Athlete Dying Young.” So, in the premature death, the athlete is spared the sorrow of seeing his records be broken and him losing his talent. He will never outlive his moment in glory. He will always be remembered as a winner at the peak of his career.

An excellent example of this is the retirement of Michael Jordan who did retire at the peak of his career and will probably be remembered as the greatest basketball player to ever live. This is the concept the poet has in mind rather than trying to escape from life. Many would have to think the young athlete was lucky because he didn’t have to go through the rest of lifes miseries and one would hope the young athlete is in a better place. Leggett offers in his book Land of Lost Content: It would be easy to oversimplify the attitude toward death in this poem and regard death merely as an escape from a miserable existence, as many of Housman’s critics have insisted. But, viewing the poem in relation to the theme of the whole work, one must conclude that here, as elsewhere in A Shropshire Lad, the point not that these lads have escaped some sort of evil inherent in all of life, but they, instead, have escaped the change and decay of time; and as Housman’s coin image suggests, they have preserved something which in itself is valuable.”

The classical idea held by Housman is, “the perfect” does exist, this perfection, can be destroyed by time though. B. J. Leggett says that “the poem illustrates a conception of death as metaphorical agent for halting decay”. A question, who is speaking in the poem, is often asked in and about Housmans poem on death. Is it Housman himself, are these his views of death, or is he assuming a personas voice in this poem? Many say that the voice and view of death is one of the athlete’s friends and not Housman presenting the story. Legggett, the author of The Poetic Art of A. E. Housman, says: Housman achieves the effect of the assertion of two contradictory attitudes gaiety and grief, triumph and defeat in a number of poems about death. Although the ‘philosophy’ of death in “To an Athlete Dying Young” has been discussed as an instance of Housman’s perversity, no commentator, to my knowledge has sufficiently emphasized that the attitude toward death taken in the poem is that of the dead athlete’s friend, not that of the poet.

Housman clues us in that the speaker is a friend in several ways. First, he is telling the story as one of the people who witnesses the athlete’s victory and cheered him through the town. Then he is pictured as one of the pall bearers, close to the dead athlete, who helps him into his grave. Leggett says, “The poem is thus a kind of graveside oration delivered by one of the lads who, presumably, ‘wore his honours out'”. Housman’s poem says: 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.

The conceit of the poem seems to be that, no matter what, death is the final victor. This is made from the character of the persona, his imagined relationship to the dead young athlete and the occasion of the poem. To be able to understand Leggett’s view with that of Housman’s is to confuse a technique by which the poet conveys a hard to understand reaction to death with a philosophy, which has no meaning outside the poem. The sixth stanza may not seem as important as the other stanzas in the poem, yet it still plays a major role in the play. In Housman’s words: 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.

This along with the last stanza “Completes the comparison in the light of what has been said in the three middle stanzas and finish off the poem with the reference to the athlete’s glory as being shorter lived than a girls” (186). By dissecting this poem line-by-line, a reader can understand the meaning Housman has behind it. Anyone who reads Housman’s material has to read it very carefully the first few times and really analyze what the meaning really is. When Housman uses the small, short, and choppy words to illustrate or explain something, he is trying to explain it elaborately. That is very effective for this poem because the athlete lived a short choppy life, yet, be it for only a moment, he lived elaborately.

Dying Young A. E. Housman’s poem, “To an Athlete Dying Young,” is about an athlete who dies in the prime of his athletic career and will always be cherished for dying that way. In the poem Housman’s view of death is shown in that if you die young, and at a pentacle of success you die lucky. In the first stanza the athlete had just won his race and was brought home on the shoulders of his “townsmen.” In the second stanza the athlete is being carried on the shoulders of his townsmen but this time in a casket. “Shoulder-high we bring you home, / And set you at your threshold down, / Townsman of a stiller town.” Before the crowd was “cheering by” now the reader can see that he is dead because of the “stiller town.” Read about the management of Grief symbolism

Housman than moves in the next two stanzas and talks of how the athlete is smart for dying young because Housman knows that glory does not remain forever. One would believe that Housman was a man that believed that all records were made to be broken. In the fourth stanza Housman says: Eyes the shady night has shut Cannot see the record cut, And silence sounds no worse than cheers After earth has stopped the ears: In that, we can see that housman sees the athlete as lucky because any athlete would hate to see his record broken so this one is lucky because he does not have to see all the glory and fame that was his be taken away from him probably as he took it away from another person. With fame, it is an ongoing process, the next guy is going to do something that is better than you, and then that guy will be out done by someone else, and so on. Well, this athlete was lucky. He did not have to see his record broken, nobody took the fame that he had earned, and he will always be remembered as one of the best in his event. Another thing about his glory is that his fans will always have the questions about how good he could have been, thus will always be preserved as one of the best that ever participated in the sport.

Works Cited

  1. Bache, William. “Housman’s To an Athlete Dying Young.” The Explicator, 1951. (185)
  2. Henry, Nat. “Housman’s To an Athlete Dying Young.” The Explicator, 1954. (188-189)
  3. Housman, A.E.. “To an Athlete Dying Young.” The Bedford Introduction To Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford Books Of St. Martin’s Press, 1993. (967)
  4. Leggett, Bobby Joe. Land of Lost Content. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1970.
  5. Leggett, Bobby Joe. The Poetic Art of A. E. Housman. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978.
  6. Ricks, Christopher ed.. A. E. Housman. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1968.
  7. John S. Ward Dr. Larry Brunner English Composition II November 9, 1994

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A. E. Housman's Poem 'To an Athlete Dying Young'. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-e-housmans-poem-to-an-athlete-dying-young-essay

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

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