Housman's To An Athlete Dying Young

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Housman's "To An Athlete 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:

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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 which in itself is
valuable." (64)

The classical idea held by Housman is, "the perfect" does exist, this
perfection, can be destroyed by time though. B. J. Leggett says that "the poem
illustrates a conception of death as metaphorical agent for halting decay" (64).
A question, who is speaking in the poem, is often asked in and about Housmans
poem on death. Is it Housman himself, are these his views of death, or is he
assuming a personas voice in this poem? Many say that the voice and view of
death is one of the athlete's friends and not Housman presenting the story.
Legggett, the author of The Poetic Art of A. E. Housman, says:

Housman achieves the effect of the assertion
of two contradictory attitudes--gaiety and
grief, triumph and defeat--in a number of
poems about death. Although the 'philosophy'
of death in "To an Athlete Dying Young" has
been discussed as an instance of Housman's
perversity, no commentator, to my knowledge
has sufficiently emphasized that the attitude
toward death taken in the poem is that of the
dead athlete's friend, not that of the
poet. (54)

Housman clues us in that the speaker is a friend in several ways. First,
he is telling the story as one of the people who witnesses the athlete's victory
and cheered him through the town. Then he is pictured as one of the pall
bearers, close to the dead athlete, who helps him into his grave. Leggett says,
"The poem is thus a kind of graveside oration delivered by one of the lads who,
presumably, 'wore his honours out'" (54). Housman's poem says:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man. (967)

The conceit of the poem seems to be that, no matter what, death is the final
victor. This is made from the character of the persona, his imagined
relationship to the dead young athlete and the occasion of the poem. To be able
to understand Leggett's view with that of Housman's is to confuse a technique
by which the poet conveys a hard to understand reaction to death with a
philosophy, which has no meaning outside the poem.
The sixth stanza may not seem as important as the other stanzas in the poem,
yet it still plays a major role in the play. In Housman's words:

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup. (967)

This along with the last stanza "Completes the comparison in the light of what
has been said in the three middle stanzas and finish off the poem with the
reference to the athlete's glory as being shorter lived than a girls" (186).
By dissecting this poem line-by-line, a reader can understand the meaning
Housman has behind it. Anyone who reads Housman's material has to read it very
carefully the first few times and really analyze what the meaning really is.
When Housman uses the small, short, and choppy words to illustrate or explain
something, he is trying to explain it elaborately. That is very effective for
this poem because the athlete lived a short choppy life, yet, be it for only a
moment, he lived elaborately.

Works Cited

Bache, William. "Housman's To an Athlete Dying Young."
The Explicator, 1951. (185)

Henry, Nat. "Housman's To an Athlete Dying Young."
The Explicator, 1954. (188-189)

Housman, A.E.. "To an Athlete Dying Young." The Bedford
Introduction To Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston:
Bedford Books Of St. Martin's Press, 1993. (967)

Leggett, Bobby Joe. Land of Lost Content. Knoxville:
University of Tennessee Press, 1970.

Leggett, Bobby Joe. The Poetic Art of A. E. Housman. Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press, 1978.

Ricks, Christopher ed.. A. E. Housman. Englewood Cliffs:
Prentice Hall, 1968.John S. Ward


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