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To an Athlete Dying Young
A Poem by A. E. Housman (1859-1936)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Publication Information
Setting
Characters
Theme
Commentary
Rhyme and Meter
Significance of the Wreath
Annotated Text of the Poem
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Index of Study Guides
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2009

Type of Work

"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.

Publication Information

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.

Setting

The poem is set in a town and cemetery in nineteenth-century England during the funeral and burial of a young athlete, a runner. 

Characters

Athlete: Running champion who died at the the peak of his athletic ability after becoming a champion. 
Narrator (Speaker): The poet, Housman, who assumes the persona of a resident of the town in which the athlete lived.
Townspeople: Neighbors and admirers of the athlete. They carried him on their shoulders after he won a race. 

Theme

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.

Commentary

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.

Obviously, “To an Athlete Dying Young” is a thought-provoking poem of considerable merit. It makes the reader think about life and its meaning, and its beautiful imagery and rhyme scheme please the eye and the ear. And, though Housman is right when says people tend to remember public figures of great promise who die young, he neglects to mention that people also remember important men and women who lived well beyond middle age, including Sophocles, the greatest playwright of antiquity, who was 91 when he died; Augustus Caesar, the emperor of ancient Rome during its Golden Age, who was 77 when he died; Michelangelo Buonarroti, the extraordinary Renaissance artist and sculptor, who was nearing 89 when he died; Victoria, queen of the British Empire at the height of its power in the nineteenth century, who was 81 when she died; Pablo Picasso, perhaps the most influential artist of the twentieth century, who was 91 when he died; Albert Einstein, developer of the revolutionary Special and General Theories of Relativity, who was 76 when he died; and Mother Theresa of Calcutta, the Nobel Prize-winning nun famous for her work among the poor, who was 87 when she died. And who will ever forget Mahatma Gandhi, the "father of modern India," who was 79 when he was assassinated, and Pope John Paul II, who helped topple Soviet communism and promoted ecumenism with Jews and other non-Catholics. He was a few months short of his 85th birthday when he died.

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.” 

Format: Rhyme and Meter 

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.................
    The TIME..|..you WON..|..your TOWN..|..the RACE

      .......1.............      ..  ..2.............  ....3..................4
    We CHAIRED..|..you THROUGH..|..the MAR..|..ket-PLACE

Some lines are in trochaic tetrameter with catalexis at the end. Lines 13 and 14 are examples of trochaic tetrameter with catalexis:
    .......1..............2................3................4
    EYES the..|..SHA dy..|..NIGHT has..|..SHUT
    .......1.............2...............3............4

    CAN not..|..SEE the..|..REC ord..|..CUT

Notice that in the second example the fourth foot of each line has only one syllable (catalexis).

Figures of Speech

Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem.

Alliteration

Line 1:....The time you won your town the race
Line 5:....road all runners
Line 8:....Townsman of a stiller town
Line 22:...fleet foot (line 22)
Apostrophe
Apostrophe 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. 
Metaphor
Line 8:...stiller town
................Comparison of a cemetery to a town

Line 10: fields where glory does not stay
................Comparison of glory to a person or thing that leaves the fields

Line 13: Eyes the shady night has shut
................Comparison of death to night

Line 19: Runners whom renown outran
................Comparison of renown to an athlete

Oxymoron
Line 14: silence sounds 
Simile
Line 12: It withers quicker than the rose
................Comparison of the endurance of a laurel, a symbol of glory and victory, to the endurance of a rose
................(Some similes use than instead of as or like.)
Synecdoche
Fleet foot on the sill of shade (foot represents the entire body)
Significance of the Laurel Wreath

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. 

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To an Athlete Dying Young
By A.E. Housman (1896)
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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, cheering
And home we brought you shoulder-high. chaired: carried


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. the cemetery.

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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Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • Write an essay arguing that many young people ruin their lives in a quest for glory. Be generous with examples of young people who sought or achieved glory but learned too late that they overestimated its importance.
  • Write an essay arguing that the idea of achieving glory motivates people to do their best. 
  • In your opinion, do lines 9 and 10 mean that the young athlete killed himself? Or do they simply mean that he was the victim of a disease, an accident, a crime, or perhaps battlefield combat?
  • Explain the meaning of "before its echoes fade" (line 21)?



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