To an Athlete Dying Young
A Poem by A. E. Housman (1859-1936)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2009
"To an Athlete Dying Young" is a lyric poem. Because it praises an athlete who died young, the poem may be further classifed as an elegy.
The London firm of Kegan Paul, Trench, Treubner & Company published "To an Athlete Dying Young" in 1896 in A Shropshire Lad, a collection of sixty-three of Housman's poems.
The poem is set in a town and cemetery in nineteenth-century England during the funeral and burial of a young athlete, a runner.
Athlete: Running champion who died at the the peak of his athletic ability after becoming a champion.
Glory is fleeting. The only way a person can capture it and make it last is to die young after achieving greatness. In this way, the person can live forever in the minds of people who remember him at the the peak of his powers. Although Housman does not wish his readers to take this message literally, the undercurrent of cynicism in the poem suggests that life in later years is humdrum and wearisome. Consequently, he praises the young athlete for dying before his glory fades: “Smart lad, to slip betimes away / From fields where glory does not stay. . . .”
In the last century, the early deaths of baseball player Lou Gehrig (age 37), aviator Amelia Earhart (39), actor James Dean (24), actress Marilyn Monroe (36), female athlete Babe Didrickson Zaharias (42), U.S. President John F. Kennedy (46), civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (39), singer Elvis Presley (42), singer John Lennon (40), singer Janis Joplin (27), and Princess Diana of Great Britain (36) all seem testify to the validity of Housman’s thesis. By taking away their lives when they were still relatively young, death gave them eternal life in the minds of their admirers.
Housman’s cynical view of life may have a certain perverse appeal for young people disenchanted with life. These are the youths who sometimes act on their “death wishes” by taking dangerous risks in fast cars, by experimenting with drugs, or by committing acts of violence that end in suicide. Housman himself was troubled as a youth as a result of
his shyness and the fact that his mother died when he was only twelve. At Oxford University, he was a brilliant student but failed his final examinations, and he ended up accepting a humdrum job as a civil servant.
Yes, dying an untimely and early death can earn headlines and television eulogies for the deceased person. But long-lasting fame depends more on compiling a record of accomplishments than on “going out in a blaze of glory.”
The poem has seven stanzas. Each stanza consists of two pairs of end-rhyming lines, or couplets. Many of the lines are in iambic tetrameter, having four feet that each consist of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Lines 1 and 2 are examples of iambic tetrameter:
.......1.................2..................3.................4Some lines are in trochaic tetrameter with catalexis at the end. Lines 13 and 14 are examples of trochaic tetrameter with catalexis:
The TIME..|..you WON..|..your TOWN..|..the RACE
.......1............. .. ..2............. ....3..................4
.......1..............2................3................4Notice that in the second example the fourth foot of each line has only one syllable (catalexis).
EYES the..|..SHA dy..|..NIGHT has..|..SHUT
CAN not..|..SEE the..|..REC ord..|..CUT
Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem.
AlliterationLine 1:....The time you won your town the raceLine 5:....road all runnersLine 8:....Townsman of a stiller townLine 22:...fleet foot (line 22)ApostropheApostrophe is a figure speech in which the speaker of a poem, the writer of another literary work, or an actor in a play addresses an abstraction or a thing, present or absent; an absent entity or person; or a deceased person. In "To an Athlete Dying Young," the speaker addresses the deceased athlete. MetaphorLine 8:...stiller town................Comparison of a cemetery to a town
Line 10: fields where glory does not stay
Line 13: Eyes the shady night has shut
Line 19: Runners whom renown outran
It was customary in ancient Greece to crown champion Olympic athletes with a wreath woven of the large, glossy leaves of the laurel tree. Orators and poets also received laurel wreaths for outstanding achievements. Over the years, other nations and cultures adopted this custom. Today, the phrase to win one's laurels is often used figuratively to indicate that an athlete, scholar, or stage performer has earned distinction in his or her field.
To an Athlete Dying Young
By A.E. Housman (1896)
Study Questions and Essay Topics
Text of the Poem
Summaries and Notes
The time you won your town the race
After the athlete won a race, the townspeople carried
We chaired you through the market-place;
him home on their shoulders while a crowd stood by
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
To-day, the road all runners come,...............................5
Today, the athlete is on the road to the cemetery in a coffin
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
which the townspeople carry and set down at the threshold of
And set you at your threshold down,
the tomb (and of eternity), where he will occupy a quiet town,
Townsman of a stiller town.
road . . . come: After all human beings run the race of life, they
must travel the road of death.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
The athlete was smart to die young before his glory had a chance
From fields where glory does not stay,.............................10
to fade as he grew older. The laurel, a symbol of victory, withers
And early though the laurel grows
faster than the rose, a symbol of an average life span.
It withers quicker than the rose.
betimes: early, promptly
Eyes the shady night has shut
Now that his eyes are closed forever, he cannot witness
Cannot see the record cut,
the breaking of records he set. Also, because he can no longer
And silence sounds no worse than cheers........................15
hear, silence and cheers "sound" the same to him.
After earth has stopped the ears:
shady night: death
Now you will not swell the rout
He will not be among the multitude (swell) of athletes who lived
Of lads that wore their honours out,
long and were forgotten when they could no longer perform.
Runners whom renown outran
Fame and glory outran these athletes, so their names died
And the name died before the man....................................20
before their bodies.
So set, before its echoes fade,
Let us set his coffin down on the threshold of the tomb before
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
the echoes of his running feet can fade. Let us also hold up his
And hold to the low lintel up
trophy, a challenge cup, before the crossbeam atop the entrance
The still-defended challenge-cup.
to his tomb. sill of shade: entrance to death
And round that early-laurelled head...................................25
The cemetery denizens (the dead) will come to look at the
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
athlete, who is crowned with a laurel wreath as a sign of victory.
And find unwithered on its curls
They will find him and his laurel wreath well preserved.
The garland briefer than a girl's.
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