Analysis of “To an Athlete Dying Young” In his poem “To an Athlete Dying Young”, A. E. Housman makes a quite different approach on death. People have different perspectives on death, but more often than not, it is viewed as an undesirable event that people wish to avoid. The speaker in the poem, however, praises a young and famous athlete for dying before he became old and forgotten. This can be interpreted two very different ways. One can assume Housman believes that the only way for athletes to capture the glory is to die when at the peak of their careers.
One might criticize him for having such a pessimistic view of life, but we must realize that we are among many people who give those athletes the feeling of disgrace as they are no longer praised for being people’s heroes. On the other hand, the poem can simply be considered as elegy which mourns the premature death while also praising the youth lived to the fullest. Regardless of the interpretation, “To an Athlete Dying Young” is definitely a thought-provoking poem that allows the readers to think about the meaning of life and death.
Housman achieves this by using form and rhyme scheme, sound, and figurative languages such as metaphors and similes. The poem has seven stanzas and each stanza consists of two pairs of end-rhyming lines. This form is known as a couplet, an alternating rhyme scheme ABAB. For example, “race” and “place” rhyme in first two lines and “by” and “high” rhyme in last two lines of the first stanza. The couplet theme used throughout the poem adds rhythm as well as a sense of repetition, which not only keeps the poem interesting to read, but also reinforces the idea of death.
Many of these lines are in iambic tetrameter, meaning they have four feet each consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. In lines 13 and 14, however, Housman uses trochaic tetrameter in order to mark the turnover from the mourning of the deceased to the celebration of his forever glory since he “cannot see the record cut” (line14). Trochaic tetrameters allow the readers to read more in spirit as the first syllable is stressed and thus give more upbeat tone to the poem. After lines 13 and 14, the lines again follow iambic tetrameter, providing a calm tone, which seems appropriate for remembering deceased.
The poem progresses from mourning of the deceased to praising of his achievements and fate to die before his glory withered. Therefore, the tone shifts from somber and quiet to upbeat and positive. Such shift of tone is achieved by Housman’s use of sounds. In first two stanzas, Housman describes the funeral procession as he remembers the time when the young athlete was proudly brought home after he won a race. Then, he solaces the mourners by reminding them it is better that the athlete “slip betimes away from fields where glory does not stay” (lines 9 and 10) because the laurel “withers quicker than the rose” (line 12).
The soft “s” sound stands out especially in second and third stanza and it creates a sense of calm and quiet tone and evokes an image of townspeople mourning the death of their “hero”; Consonance of “s” sounds is present in words “shoulder, set, threshold, townsman, stiller, smart, slip, betimes, fields, does, stay, grows, withers, and rose. ” In addition to consonance, soft sound alliteration in “road all runners” (line 5) helps to create a quiet tone. As the poem progresses into praising of the young athlete in stanzas four through seven, the consonance of hard “c”, “t”, and “f” sound become prominent.
Readers can immediately detect changes in sounds when they read the first line of fourth stanza that says “eyes the shady night has shut” (line 13), then hard consonance sound continues in words “cannot, record, cut, rout, out, and flock. ” In line 22, “fleet floot”, which is an alliteration of “f” sound adds on to creating a upbeat tone. Interesting aspect is that continued iambic tetrameter as previously discussed still gives the poem somewhat calm tone even when the hard sounds do the opposite.
Here we can see the author’s intention to achieve both somber tone as he mourns the death and positive tone as he praises the death, which makes his poem an appropriate elegy. Last, but not least, metaphors and simile play significant role as they reference the relationship between the death and glory, which is the major theme in this poem. The death is compared to “shady night” (line 13) that shut the athlete’s eyes and a cemetery that the young athlete is being buried is compared to “a stiller town” (line 8).
Description of a cemetery as a town implies the idea of afterlife in which the deceased athlete can live peacefully because “earth has stopped [his] ears” (line16) and the night has shut his eyes. In other words, he can live in a forever glory since he cannot see or hear his record broken. He also personifies glory when he says “from fields where glory does not stay” (line 10) in order to emphasize the idea that glory is a difficult thing to achieve, but it is easily lost or “withers quicker than the rose” (line12). Athletes who lived a long life “wore their honours out” (line 18) and “the name died before the man” (line 20).
Therefore, Housman praises an athlete who died young. In conclusion, Housman successfully achieves two very different aspects in his poem “To an Athlete Dying Young”: mourning the death of a young athlete while praising him for dying before he became too old for glory and honor. He also presents a theme of death that can be interpreted very differently. One is a cynical view that an honor can only be maintained by dying soon after the achievement and the other is a rather optimistic view that premature death is not always unfortunate.
This essay, however, puts more emphasis on the latter because the first theme seems more or less irrelevant to me. Even though people tend to remember public figure of great promise who died young, they also remember important men and women who lived long. Death is what we all wish to avoid, but unfortunately, it is inevitable. Housman’s poem which introduces us to a positive aspect of death is a great solace to all of us who fear death more than anything.
Kim 5 Works Cited Housman, A. E. “To a Young Athlete Dying” Literature: The Human Experience. Ed. Richard Abcaria and Marvin Klotz. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.