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Housman's "To An Athlete Dying Young"

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Poetry & Poets

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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 soon outlive that
fame which they once possessed in "To an Athlete Dying Young." So, in the
premature death, the athlete is spared the sorrow of seeing his records be
broken and him losing his talent. He will never outlive his moment in
glory. He will always be remembered as a winner at the peak of his career.
An excellent example of this is the retirement of Michael Jordan who did
retire at the peak of his career and will probably be remembered as the
greatest basketball player to ever live. This is the concept the poet has
in mind rather than trying to escape from life. Many would have to think
the young athlete was lucky because he didn't have to go through the rest
of lifes miseries and one would hope the young athlete is in a better place.
Leggett offers in his book Land of Lost Content:

It would be easy to oversimplify the attitude
toward death in this poem and regard death
merely as an escape from a miserable
existence, as many of Housman's critics have
insisted. But, viewing the poem in relation
to the theme of the whole work, one must
conclude that here, as elsewhere in A
Shropshire Lad, the point not that these lads
have escaped some sort of evil inherent in
all of life, but they, instead, have escaped
the change and decay of time; and as
Housman's coin image suggests, they have
preserved something ...

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