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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: