Housman\'s "To An Athlete Dying Young"


John S. Ward
Dr. Larry Brunner

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