To An Athlete Dying Young by A.E. Housman is an elegy in which the poet laments the death of a young athlete. An elegy is a poem written for the dead, usually as a lament. This poem is directed toward an athlete who, unfortunately, met his demise at a young age. The poem deals with themes like honoring the dead, the transience of youth, glory, and fame, as well as the acceptance of death.
This 28-line poem is divided into 7 quatrains, with the rhyme scheme AABB. That is, the first two lines of a stanza rhyme with each other, as do the last two lines. The poem was published in 1896.
To An Athlete Dying Young | Summary And Analysis
To An Athlete Dying Young | Analysis, Lines 1-4
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 referring to an athlete from a small town, who won a race that was held in the town. The townspeople celebrated him and carried him around the market on a chair balanced over their shoulders. Everybody around cheered for the athlete, and they brought him home to the town high up on their shoulders.
This stanza shows us that the townspeople were a close-knit group that took one person’s victory as everyone’s victory and thus celebrated joyfully. This stanza shows the liveliness and exuberance of victory, and the resultant joy it brings to everyone around.
To An Athlete Dying Young | Analysis, Lines 5-8
Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
Now, there is a different procession. They bring him home again on their shoulders and put him at his front door, but the town is silent. Some elements of this stanza are the same as the previous stanza but portray a completely different meaning.
This stanza gives off a more sombre feeling. The speaker repeats “shoulder-high”, but this time, it is not lively or celebratory, but sadness. It implies the carrying of a coffin on the shoulders of a set of people. They bring him “home”, another sad reference to the first stanza, as he has passed on, and this physical home is no longer the home of the athlete. The town is still and quiet, as the loss of one man is everyone’s loss, and their exuberance has been replaced by silence.
To An Athlete Dying Young | Analysis, Lines 9-12
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 seems to be searching for a silver lining, and thus says that the young boy is smart to have died early. He has escaped the Earth, and so escaped the place from whence his glory will fade over the years. Though fame and victory can be received early in life, it also leaves very quickly.
The speaker bemoans the transience of glory and feels it is good that the athlete will no longer be in a place where he will see his glory fade. A “laurel” is a wreath that symbolises victory, and this victory is impermanent.
To An Athlete Dying Young | Analysis, Lines 13-16
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.
Death has closed the eyes of the young boy, and he will no longer be able to see the events that take place on earth after his departure. He will not witness his victory being taken from him, or his record being surpassed. He will never lose his honour as he died in the state of being honoured.
The silence at his funeral the silence that follows his death is of the same value to him as that of cheers, because he can hear neither. His ears have been stopped as his life on earth stopped, so it makes no difference whether people cheer or remain silent. He is completely detached from anything that goes on, and the speaker says that is for his own good, in the end.
Here, alliteration is used in “silence sounds”.
To An Athlete Dying Young | Analysis, Lines 17-20
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 speaker mentions that the boy will not be part of the hordes of bygone winners who find themselves defeated as life goes on, and as younger athletes surpass their talent. There are many people whose fame and fortune dissipate faster than they would like, and they are left as nothing, or as part of the “old generation”
In the last two lines of this stanza, the metaphor of a runner is used to show how glory overtakes a person and moves away from them as their life goes on. Yet, this boy will never feel the loss of his earthly glory, as he will not be alive to be part of the group of people who feel that loss.
To An Athlete Dying Young | Analysis, Lines 21-24
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 boy is urged to take his place among the dead and to do it before the vestiges of his fame vanish. The speaker tells him to hold his head high, as he is st8ll the defending winner of the trophy he will never lose.
The speaker is revealing the anxiety that he has when it comes to death, that is, the permanence of death. He refuses to allow the boy to lose his fame and wants to preserve his glory even in death. Thus, the boy’s death is accepted and he is asked to step into the peacefulness of the afterlife, and leave the glory on Earth unchanged.
“The fleet foot” is in reference to the fact that the athlete is a runner. This uses the literary device synecdoche. A synecdoche is a figure of speech, and this is used when a part is described but represents the whole. Here, the foot is spoken of as he will step into the afterlife, but this foot is a representation of the athlete himself.
Here, alliteration is used in “fleet foot” and “sill of shade”
To An Athlete Dying Young | Analysis, Lines 25-28
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 goes on to hypothesize what the athlete’s life would look like after his death. His demise came too early, in the midst of his glory, so his head is “early-laurelled”. The dead that he meets will throng around him, and they will find a fresh laurel on his head.
This stanza has a call-back to the third stanza, where the poet says that laurels wither quicker than a rose. Here, he says that the boy’s laurel will remain unwithered, in fulfilment of his wish to maintain the boy’s success even after his death.
In this poem, we can see that there are three main sections that it can be split into. The poet portrays the speaker talking about the past, present, and future. In the first stanza, the speaker describes the joyous victory of the boy in the past. In the next five stanzas, he details how death may actually be preferred over living through one’s own glory fade. That is the present – the time when the boy is dead. In the final stanza, he thinks about the future, and what the afterlife would look like for this young athlete.
This poem deals with the fear and uncertainty of death, but also the acceptance of it. It shows how the speaker is afraid of the permanence that this unknown brings, but can see it in an ostensibly positive light for the young boy. Fame and fortune do not remain with man, but man cannot see his glory leave him if he is the one who leaves behind his glory as his legacy.
To An Athlete Dying Young | About The Poet
A.E. Housman, or Alfred Edward Housman, was an English poet born on 26 March 1859, in the United Kingdom.
He is known for his collection of poetry “A Shropshire Lad”, in which the poem discussed here is published. His style was mainly lyric poetry, in a Victorian and slight Edwardian Nature. He was a classical poet and also a scholar. His style was greatly influenced by Shakespeare and Heinrich Hein.
Some of his notable works are “When I was One-and-Twenty” and “With Rue my Heart is Laden”.
He died on 30 April 1936, in Cambridge