To an Athlete Dying Young by A.E. Housman Dying young is thought to be one of the most tragic of circumstances. The thoughts of lives wasted, dreams unattained, memories never conceived. It is sad fate uncontrollable by any earthly being. Most people desire to live to a ripe old age as to take full advantage of their time on earth, to experience as much as they can, and would be aghast to have premature death be viewed in a positive light.
Yet this thought is the driving force behind “To an Athlete Dying Young” by A.E. Housman. Housman, the speaker of the poem, implies in an ironic tone that it is better to die in one’s prime, at the height of glory, as to not suffer from the pain of seeing their accomplishments fade and become meaningless in the eyes of the masses. The setting of the poem is the funeral of a young champion runner. Rather than mourn, Housman reflects on how lucky the athlete was to have died in the height of glory. Housman recalls the time the athlete won a race, gaining him public appreciation, “Man and boy stood cheering by; And home we brought you shoulder-high”.
The speaker relates this joyous time to the present, where “Shoulder-high we bring you home; And set you at your threshold down”. With the phrase “shoulder-high” he connects the race to the funeral procession. The honor of this treatment was endowed the first time for victory, and the final time for homage. The “threshold” symbolizes the grave of the athlete, his entry into the afterlife. The ironic tone of the poem becomes forlorn, almost envious as the speaker ponders upon his own past. Satire presents itself in the line “Smart lad, to slip bedtimes away; From fields where glory does not stay”.
Here Housman expresses that the athlete was in a way lucky to miss watching himself slip from fame, becoming again just another face in the crowd. He implies that he himself experienced the fate of watching his glories die. “And early though the laurel grows; it withers quicker than the rose”. This couplet reflects on the fleeting existence of glory. The laurel represents accomplishments, and the rose life. It is simply saying that although the athlete’s glory came early in life, it will not remain memorable in the eyes of society for a long period of time.
The records will be broken, new individuals will steal the spotlight. However, Housman proposes that the athlete has escaped this. “Eyes the shady night has shut; Cannot see the record cut”. The glory may fade, but this line suggests that it will never die inside of the runner; his glories outlived him. “And silence sounds no worse than cheers; After earth has stopped the ears.” Here Housman implies that death is not worse than being in the height of glory, as in both circumstances one perceives invulnerability; they are unaffected by anything outside of their system.
Housman reiterates his earlier implications of lament with the fifth stanza of the poem. He suggests that he was one of the “Lads who wore their honors out”. In time, his own accomplishments became meaningless to the public. “Runners whom renown outran; And the name died before the man.” If around long enough, the prestige will fade, leaving only lost feelings behind. This applies to a person of any status, whether writer or runner.
Through his death, the athlete’s status as a champion was set. “So set, before its echoes fade; The fleet foot on the sill of shade.” The stanza containing this couplet continues on to insinuate that his status will never diminish in his perception. He will never see his records broken. He will not be outdone, as he never falls from the top. Many will come to mourn the young athlete, as his physical being has departed.
“And find unwithered on its curls; The garland briefer than a girl’s”. Although the body is deteriorated, the garland, which symbolized his glories, remains unwithered. Death is not the fall of the man, yet the end of mortality.