Many people fear dying at a young age. Along with that come fears of not being able to fulfill all their dreams, not being able to live a prosperous life and take full advantage of their time on earth. It is a sad fate that is uncontrollable by any human, and to view a young and premature death in a positive light would be horrendous to many. However, Alfred Edward Housman does exactly that in his poem “To an Athlete Dying Young.” Housman implies in his poem that it is better to die in one’s prime rather than to live to a rip old age just to see all their accomplishments fade and become meaningless to everyone.
“To an Athlete Dying Young” takes place at a young champion runner’s funeral or possibly before the funeral at the memorial service. In the first stanza, the poem starts by the speaker reflecting on the time the champion runner won the town race, and he was greatly celebrated and carried home “shoulder-high.” The tone of the poem starts as one of pride and celebration in the remembrance of the great win, but the tone shifts quickly in the transition from the first stanza to the second to a more solemn and depressing tone.
In line five, “Today, the road all runners come,” (5) the speaker is painting the picture of the funeral. The whole town, which is probably small, is in grief and mourning and in attendance to the funeral. In the first stanza the whole town was there to celebrate the young athlete, but now the whole town is there to mourn him. Also, instead of “and home we brought you shoulder-high,” (4) it becomes “we bring you home, and set you at your threshold down” (7) which symbolizes the runner’s grave.
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The speaker says a lot about himself in the third stanza in lines nine through twelve. The speaker is or probably was an athlete himself and knows that glory fades quickly. This is apparent in lines eleven and twelve: “And early though the laurel grows It withers quicker than a rose” (11-12).
Laurel was a decorative wreath used in the ancient times to distinguish honored people. Therefore, the laurel represents the glory and fame of an athlete, but the speaker is saying that the glory of being a winner will fade quickly, as it probably did with him.
The speaker feels it is better to die young with the thought of still being a champion rather than growing old and have it forgotten in lines fifteen and sixteen. He even goes as far as calling the young athlete, who’s “eyes the shady night has shut,” (13) a “smart lad” (9) for leaving “fields where glory does not stay” (10) which is the mortal life. In other words, the speaker expresses that the athlete was lucky to miss watching himself slip away from fame by growing old.
The speaker is reiterating his point in the fifth stanza by saying “now you will not swell the rout of lads that wore their honors out” (17).
He’s saying that by dying, the young athlete will never have to see his accomplishments wither away and become forgotten. The speaker again shares a bit of his past history in the fifth stanza by referring to “lads that wore their honors out” (18).
The speaker, who has already seemed to refer to himself as an athlete with past accomplishments, now is referring to himself saying that his past accomplishments have withered away. “Runners whom renown outran And the name died before the man” (19) is another point given to prove the statement that fame and glory are only temporary, and it is better to perish while they are still evident.
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Through his death, the athlete’s status as champion was set: “So set, before its echoes fade, The fleet foot on the sill of shade” (21).
This stanza continues to insinuate that the athlete’s status will never diminish in his mind. In other words, the athlete will never have to see his records broken or see himself outdone by anybody else.
The last stanza in lines twenty five and twenty six, “And round that early-laureled head Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead” (25-26) portrays that many will come to mourn the young athlete who has died and been early-crowned a champion. The athlete’s body had deteriorated, however the “garland,” which can symbolize his accomplishments and glories, remains “unwithered.” In other words, death is not the end of man, rather just the end of mortality. His name will live on.
This poem paints a vivid picture of everything that has happened: a champion being paraded down the streets through the market-place and his early death with the whole town attending the funeral. However, A.E. Housman takes a horrid event, an athlete whose time has come too soon, and rearranges it into something that is seen in a good light, whereas by dying young the athlete will always be a champion and never have to see his glories fade.