Dying Young


John S. Ward
Dr. Larry Brunner
English Composition II
November 2, 1994
"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. As Bobby Joe Leggett defines at this
point, the athlete is "carried of the shoulders of his friends
after a winning race" (54). 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. (Housman 967).
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"
(54). 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. (967)
In stanza three Housman describes the laurel growing "early" yet
dying "quicker than a rose." (967) This parallels "the \'smart lad\'
who chose to \'slip betimes away\' at the height of his fame"
(Explicator 188). Leggett\'s implication of this parallel is "that
death, too is a victory" (54). 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. (967)
Leggett feels that "death in the poem becomes the agent by which
the process of change is halted" (54). In the next stanza
symbolism is used as the physical world is in Leggett\'s terms, "The
field where glories do not stay" (54). "Fame and beauty are
represented by a rose and the laurel, which are both subject to
decay," Leggett explains (54). 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. (967)
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" (Ricks 144).
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" (144). 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"
(144). 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. (145)
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