Dying Young


Dying Young Essay, Research Paper

John S. Ward

Dr. Larry Brunner

English Composition II

November 2, 1994

“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


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


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.

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

Dr. Larry Brunner

English Composition II

November 9, 1994

Dying Young

A. E. Housman’s poem, “To an Athlete Dying Young,” is about an

athlete who dies in the prime of his athletic career and will

always be cherished for dying that way. In the poem Housman’s view

of death is shown in that if you die young, and at a pentacle of

success you die lucky.

In the first stanza the athlete had just won his race and was

brought home on the shoulders of his “townsmen.” In the second

stanza the athlete is being carried on the shoulders of his

townsmen but this time in a casket. “Shoulder-high we bring you

home, / And set you at your threshold down, / Townsman of a stiller

town.” Before the crowd was “cheering by” now the reader can see

that he is dead because of the “stiller town.”

Housman than moves in the next two stanzas and talks of how

the athlete is smart for dying young because Housman knows that

glory does not remain forever. One would believe that Housman was

a man that believed that all records were made to be broken. In

the fourth stanza 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:

In that, we can see that housman sees the athlete as lucky because

any athlete would hate to see his record broken so this one is

lucky because he does not have to see all the glory and fame that

was his be taken away from him probably as he took it away from

another person.

With fame, it is an ongoing process, the next guy is going to

do something that is better than you, and then that guy will be out

done by someone else, and so on. Well, this athlete was lucky. He

did not have to see his record broken, nobody took the fame that he

had earned, and he will always be remembered as one of the best in

his event. Another thing about his glory is that his fans will

always have the questions about how good he could have been, thus

will always be preserved as one of the best that ever participated

in the sport.

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