To an Athlete Dying Young
To an Athlete Dying Young
A. E. Housman 1896
A. E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young” was published in his first collection, A Shropshire Lad, in 1896 and is generally considered one of his best poems. Like much of the poet’s work, its themes include the preciousness of youth and the nature of early death. It is a speaker’s narrative, or dramatic monologue, that tells the story of an athlete, a runner, who has died at the peak of his youthful and abundant athleticism. The lyrically presented images contain the irony that the same crowd of townspeople who once carried the runner on their shoulders after he had won a race now carry him to his place of final rest.
The poem holds a tension—inherent in many of Housman’s poems—between the concept of worldly life being a place where vibrancy exists, especially in youth, and the idea that it might be better to die at the peak of life rather than grow old and exist when one’s achievements or honors will not be remembered. “To an Athlete Dying Young” is characteristic of Housman’s work in that the youthful speaker is experiencing the paradox of the situation. The poem is also thought by some to reflect the influence of Housman’s classical Greek scholarship, because it evokes images of the Greek runner wearing the classic laurel wreath and also makes associations with esteem and love for the young male at his peak of beauty and athleticism.
A. E. Housman was born in 1859 in Fockbury, Worcestershire, England. The eldest of seven children in a family that would produce a famous dramatist (Housman’s younger brother, Laurence) and a novelist and short story writer (his sister Clemence), Housman attended Bromsgrove School, a notable institution that emphasized Greek and Latin studies. Though successful academically, Housman was a small and frail boy who did not easily form friendships. When he was twelve, Housman’s mother died; this was the first of a number of events that would affect him profoundly and erode his religious faith. (Years later he would write that he “became a deist at thirteen and an atheist at twenty-one.”) He also developed a pronounced facial tic that he never entirely overcame.
Housman earned a scholarship to St. John’s College, Oxford, which he began attending in 1877. He immersed himself in the study of classical languages, particularly Latin and Greek, and he also helped to found Ye Round Table, an undergraduate magazine featuring humorous verse and satire (a skill in which he excelled, though critics would later condemn his poetry for being stark and humorless). While at college, Housman established a friendship with a classmate, Moses Jackson, that would have an enormous impact upon his life. Jackson was a good-looking, athletic young man with whom Housman fell hopelessly and permanently in love. Jackson rebuffed his friend’s affections, and Housman was heartbroken; many of his subsequent poems speak of unrequited love and refer to the rejection he suffered when he was “one-and-twenty.” Initially, Housman excelled at his studies at Oxford. However, in 1879 he failed his final examinations; not only did he fail, he turned in answer books that were nearly blank but for seemingly random scribblings. The reason for this is generally attributed to some sort of nervous breakdown, though its origins are cause for speculation: some feel it may have been the result of overconfidence, others speculate that it was caused by his pining over Jackson, while still others conjecture that Housman failed deliberately, if subconsciously. Regardless of the cause, Housman returned home ungraduated and disgraced; though he returned to Oxford a year later and obtained a “pass” degree, it seemed the door to a career in academia was closed.
In 1882 Housman passed the civil service examination and took a position in a London patent
office—a career decision that was influenced, no doubt, by the fact that Jackson was employed at the same office. For the first four years of his ten-year stay at the patent office, he shared a West End apartment with Moses Jackson and his younger brother, Adalbert Jackson. Housman spent his evenings at the British Museum library, studying Greek and Latin. When, in 1888, Moses Jackson left England for a teaching position in Karachi, India, Housman withdrew into a monkish seclusion, occupied only with his studies and scholarly writing. A number of his articles were published in journals such as the Classical Review and the Journal of Philology, and they began to earn for Housman a reputation as a brilliant and meticulous scholar. When the Chair of Greek and Latin at University College, London, became available in 1892, the institution overlooked Housman’s academic falterings and appointed him to the vacant position. In November of 1892, Adalbert Jackson—who, since the departure of Moses, had been Housman’s closest friend—died of typhoid. This trauma created an emotional explosion that resulted in Housman’s composing A Shropshire Lad, a collection of sixty-three poems addressing the themes of unrequited love, the oblivion of death, and idealized military life. Because of the 1895 persecution and imprisonment of poet Oscar Wilde, Housman was careful to distance himself from the homosexuality depicted in A Shropshire Lad, often adopting the persona “Terence Hearsay.” The first printing of Housman’s collection, published in 1896, was done so at the poet’s own expense; neither it nor a second edition, published two years later by a different publisher, sold particularly well. However, when the Boer War broke out in 1899, readers rediscovered the numerous patriotic military poems in the volume, and sales were quickly booming. After the publication of A Shropshire Lad, Housman’s writing efforts were restricted to scholarly publications—and those limited chiefly to the study of a single classic Roman author of questionable skill and influence, Manilius. The reason for this somewhat odd choice of subject matter was simple: the decidedly shallow nature of Manilius’ text allowed Housman to showcase his own editorial and critical Tatents, thus earning him greater professional distinction. He completed a total of five volumes on Manilius.
Housman’s poetic output, which had previously gushed from him in a torrent, was reduced to a trickle. Thus, it was not until 1922 that he produced his second collection of verse, the aptly titled Last Poems. Though more than a quarter century had elapsed since the publication of A Shropshire Lad, the poems contained in Last Poems were nearly identical in theme, form, and diction to those in the earlier volume. In 1923 Moses Jackson died, and with him went much of Housman’s inspiration; he wrote only a few more lines of prose before his death in 1936. Housman continues to be a popular and frequently read poet despite the fact that since the initial publication of his verse, his work has been intermittently praised and rebuffed for what has been called its “obvious limitations.” While his overriding morbidity of theme is often described as tedious and adolescent, Housman’s open investigations of the mysteries of death and the dual nature of humankind have earned him acknowledgment as a precursor to the development of modern poetry.
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.
Today, the road all runners come, 5
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay, 10
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers 15
After earth has stopped the ears:
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honors out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man. 20
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.
And round that early-laureled head 25
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.
In the first stanza of “To an Athlete Dying Young,” the speaker presents a remembered image of a young athlete, a runner, on a day when he had won a race for his town. That the athlete is a runner might evoke an association with the Greek Olympiad, an ancient athletic competition. Lines 2 through 4 establish the reaction of the townspeople to their competitor’s victory. It is clear that the athlete was much lauded, and he was placed on a emotional/psychological pedestal as well as a physical one, wherein he was brought home “shoulder-high” through the town’s marketplace. Line 3 singles out the admirers as men and boys. This could suggest the classical Greek concept of the love of males for the physical beauty of the perfected young male body.
These lines tell us that the athlete is again being carried “shoulder-high” by the townspeople; this time, however, pallbearers are carrying him in a casket to his grave. The phrase “The road all runners come” signals the speaker’s awareness of the mortality of all people. Line 7 continues the narrative by telling us that the body is lowered and “set” at a “threshold.” The “threshold” may literally be the physical edges of a grave, but it could also refer to the boundary between earthly reality and the world of the dead. The “threshold” thus becomes the entryway to the place where the dead athlete will spend eternity.
Here, the diction, or language, of the poem begins to change subtly from the simple words and direct statements of the first two stanzas to a more lofty or lyrical manner of expression. This coincides with the speaker’s shift from simply relating the plot of his story to his philosophical interpretation of events. In lines 9 and 10, the speaker suggests that the athlete was “smart” to die and leave the natural world, where “glory does not stay.” The speaker implies that, as the athlete had grown older, or as time progressed, the townspeople would not remember his victory and, perhaps, other runners would supplant him as victor of the town race. This potential outcome points to the idea that the world, in general, is made up of people who are fickle, with feelings so changeable that they might hold someone up as a hero or as an object of love at one point in time, only to later forget them.
In these lines, Housman introduces the laurel as a symbol of victory, but also of victory’s ephemerality and of the delicate shortness of life, especially youthful life. The laurel wreath was traditionally worn by victorious Greek athletes; it is also a symbol for poets, who, in ancient times, would receive “laurels” for winning poetry competitions. The idea of a laurel leaf representing the brevity of physical beauty and strength is furthered by its comparison to the feminine and delicate rose, which grows early in the season and withers and dies quickly (but not as quickly as the laurel). The speaker continues to express the concept of glory fading early and of youthful male beauty being short-lived.
In this stanza, the speaker reinforces the idea that it is wise to “slip” away into death at the peak of youthful athleticism, while still lauded as a hero. The athlete will not have to see his record being “cut” (broken) nor wait for the inevitable time when the cheering stops.
- In 1996, Listen for Pleasure produced an audio cassette of A Shropshire Lad, Housman’s first book of poetry, in which “To An Athlete Dying Young” was initially published.
- “To An Athlete Dying Young” plays a central role in the film version of Isak Dineson’s novel Out of Africa (1985, directed by Sydney Pollack). In that story, Karen Blixen (a.k.a. Dineson, played in the film by Meryl Streep), a Danish Baroness who has built a farm in Africa, reads the poem at the funeral of her lover, Denys Finch-Hatton (played in the film by Robert Red-ford).
These lines emphasize, and perhaps intensify for us, the speaker’s observation that all athletes, at some point, fade in their ability to perform and to win. Their “renown” eventually outruns them: because they can no longer uphold their athletic reputation by sustaining their peak performance, their reputation, or “name,” dies before they do. Since the hero-athlete of this poem has died while at his peak, he will not have to become part of this “rout” (crowd) of has-been athletes.
The action progresses in these lines, and the persona speaks to his fellow townspeople, directing them to place the athlete’s body down at its grave quickly before his record or reputation and the townspeople’s memories of his victory fade. Housman’s choice of the word “set” in line 21 not only poetically echoes his use of the same word in line 7, but it makes us feel that a permanence can occur in the dead athlete’s reputation and glory—that the swift running foot can be “set” like concrete to remain just the way it was when the beautiful young man died. The fact that the speaker hurries the townspeople to “set” the “fleet foot” down at the edge of the world of the dead (“the sill of shade”) before the foot’s “echoes fade” emphasizes how quickly our youthful lives pass. In lines 23 and 24, we are given the image of the victor’s challenge-cup still being celebrated as it is held out toward the “low lintel,” or ornament over the door to the world of the dead. This stanza particularly demonstrates the tension between the idea that life is full of vibrancy and energy and the concept that it might be advantageous to die young. The images of this section of the poem are, on the one hand, those of the “fleet” foot of the athlete, representative of all that life can offer in terms of vitality and celebration of physical being, and, on the other hand, the image of the challenge-cup forever belonging to the victor after death, something that could not happen in life.
The last stanza of “To an Athlete Dying Young” presents the image of the dead athlete having passed through the threshold into the world of the dead. He is wearing the laurel wreath of victory, and in the phrase “early-laureled” we are reminded that both his victory and death occurred during his youth. The dead who come to gaze at him are “strengthless,” seemingly in contrast to the athlete, who is still depicted as young and strong because he was “smart” enough to die in his youth. The garland is expressed as “unwithered,” reiterating Housman’s theme of the permanent victory an early death might provide. The garland is “briefer than a girl’s,” meaning, perhaps, that the garland usually (in the natural world) withers more quickly than the rose Housman introduces in line 12, but that here it will live forever as a symbol of a glory that will not fade as it would with the passage of earthly time. If we accept that Housman is also using the laurel-leaf garland as a symbol of poetry, or the poet, then we might interpret these last lines to mean that the poem itself, as a garland of words, represents the only permanence—that art alone can transcend death.
“To an Athlete Dying Young” addresses a youth who epitomized glory by winning a race and earning the acclaim of his townsmen. After dying young, he is again hailed by his townsmen, this time through earnest mourning. The poem’s narrator celebrates the athlete’s glory still further: as if
Topics for Further Study
- Read “To An Athlete Dying Young” aloud, then listen carefully as someone else reads it aloud. The four-beat-per-line (tetrameter) metrical pattern used by Housman is sometimes avoided by poets who worry that it is too singsongy. Is this a fair description of this poem? If not, think about the way the rhythm breaks, bringing in your attention. If so, read the poem again as if it had no line breaks and see what difference that makes. In either case, when you are done hearing the poem, try to hum its rhythm, as if it were a song.
- Write a paragraph or a stanza in which you describe something you feel strongly about—something you find extremely beautiful, or noble, or something you find deeply unjust, or ugly Follow this with a paragraph or a stanza in which you add irony to your description—perhaps something beautiful is treated as something ugly, or something noble feels like something vile, or something unjust seems fair, or something ugly is so ugly that it has become beautiful.
- Consider Housman’s claim that poetry should be “more physical than intellectual” and try to create in whoever reads your piece the same physical sensations your subject creates in you.
- Think about rituals or occupations that grant glory to young people who succeed in them, but only the young—like some Olympic sports or fashion modeling. What does that kind of glory say about our values for our peers and for ourselves? Must something be short-lived in order to capture glory? Think of some exceptions, and, if you can, try to formulate the rules of what makes for glory in your ideal world.
the lad had calculated when and how to die best, the narrator calls him “smart” to select a death that beats his inevitable fall from grace. This lad will never wear out his honor by surviving the peak of his powers; having enjoyed simultaneous youth and accomplishment, he bows out, while the cheers still ring. The poet also envisions a preternatural glory, where the crowds of the dead gather around the youth in admiration of his unwithered garland, while his beauty is still intact. For the narrator, then, the youth’s glory is multifold: the living celebrated him when he lived; the townspeople sincerely mourned him when he died young, a tragedy put in question by the narrator, who casts youthful death as glorious in its wresting love for the youth from his early death; and, finally, even the dead celebrate him. The living celebrate the youth for his tragic death, while the dead celebrate him for his robust vigor.
Change and Transformation
The youth’s glory resides in his escape from worldly transience. Having achieved a state of greatness, the runner stills it with death, thereby immortalizing it rather than living it down. This glory is in contrast to the nature of the world as described in the poem. There, are the “fields where glory does not stay”; “early though the laurel grows, / It withers quicker than the rose.” On one hand, these flora are the equipment of a world locked in transformation—with the passage of seasons we see fields, laurels, and roses flourish and then dry up; beautiful life does not remain. On the other hand, we can take the laurel as a symbol of accomplishment or fame—it is a word that signifies both a bushy plant and an honor (in ancient times, heroes and scholars were crowned with wreaths made of laurel leaves). If we also take the rose to symbolize beauty, we can interpret Housman’s line as emphasizing that glory and beauty are both subject to decay. Life in the world, then, is seen as a process of decay.
Death, the enemy of life, is viewed—with deep irony—as offering occasion for joy, particularly when the dead one is still adored. Between the first and second stanzas, the triumph of the youth’s winning of a race is matched by the ironic triumph of his death. Death at a moment of youthful vigor and accomplishment is a victory, a kind of death that is a triumph over time and dissolution. But since the poem is an address to the dead one in the voice of someone who seems to have loved and admired him, we can also read the poem in a different way—as the expression of someone so bereaved, so deeply entrenched in mourning over the death of a loved one, that he has come to envy the youth who does not have to witness such tragedy. We can understand the speaker to bestow sour ironic congratulations on someone who has died, leaving the speaker to live alone, and refusing to survive the inevitable change that would come if he stayed at risk because fully alive.
“To an Athlete Dying Young” is written in the form of a lyric ballad, or narrative song, and is, like most of the poems in A Shropshire Lad, a dramatic monologue wherein a persona tells a story. The poem is composed of seven quatrains, or stanzas of four lines each. The rhyme scheme is aabb, which means that in each stanza, the words at the ends of the first two lines rhyme, and the words at the ends of the second two lines rhyme; this is called end rhyme. They are all full or identical rhymes, except for lines 5 and 6, which is a slant or near rhyme, the sounds following the last consonant not being identical.
There is a musicality in the poem that can be attributed to the influence Housman himself acknowledged of Shakespeare’s songs, Scottish border ballads, and German lyric-balladist Heinrich Heine. If the poem is read aloud, its beat, or meter, can be heard. Of the poem’s 28 lines, most of them (20) are octosyllabic, meaning they contain 8 syllables, and they hold four segments, or feet of iambs, which is called iambic tetrameter. Iambs are segments of two syllables where the first is unstressed and the second is stressed. For example, look at the first line:
The time / you won / your town / the race
Now look at the lines containing 7 syllables (lines 3, 6, 8, 13, 14, 16, 17, 19). Most of these lines are stressed in a different way; rather than the stress falling on the second syllable in a segment, the stress falls on the first syllable. This is called a trochee, rather than an iamb. It can be scanned as follows:
Man and / boy stood / cheering / by
These seven-syllable lines contain four segments of trochees and are called trochaic tetrameter. (The last segment, though made up of only one word, is counted as a segment because it is stressed.) Although it is possible to discuss this poem in terms of its feet and meter, the poem is generally referred to simply as a lyric ballad and dramatic monologue.
A deeply private, even secluded personality, A. E. Housman rarely wrote autobiographically or about events current in his day. During an era when poets such as William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot attempted to encompass the world, religion, politics and literary history in their verse, Housman’s poetic focus was precise and narrow. While other of Housman’s poet peers, like Ezra Pound and H.D., had ambitions to modernize poetry by cutting away the conventions of rhyme and meter and streamlining poetry to simple, direct expression, Housman employed the same strict standards for poetic phrasing that had been used by his predecessors. He also insisted that he did not belong in his own literary time. After refusing to see his work printed in an anthology of poetry of the 1890s, Housman wrote: “to include me in anthology of the Nineties would be just as technically correct, and just as essentially inappropriate, as to include Lot in a book on Sodomites.” In many senses cut off from the history and culture of his time, Housman was notoriously abstracted—he spent his days writing impeccable notes for classical literature in his capacity as a scholar and professor of classics, and he focused on timeless emotions and sensations in his work as poet, an avocation that earned him greater public acclaim than suited him. Indeed, the worldly inspiration for his self-labelled emotional poetry came early, then dried up. “I did not begin to write poetry in earnest until the really emotional part of my life was over,” he declared (as noted in George L. Watson’s A. E. Housman). The apparent timelessness of “To an Athlete Dying Young” is typical of Housman’s verse. Though the poem deals with familiar topics—such as town spirit, sport, glory, and futility—it does so unlatched from any discernible time, and it employs a symbolism of garlands and laurels that evokes ancient Rome or Greece and could also apply to any town, any youth, and any race since that time. Similarly, Housman’s language was sometimes antique, even in his day, an antiquity that seems not so much to date the poem as older than it is, as to make it seem free of time and expressive of permanent sentiments.
Nonetheless, Housman’s lifetime, from 1859 to 1936, spanned years of extraordinary cultural transformation, and his work cannot be understood free of such influence—even if that influence was most remarkable for giving him cause to withdraw from active involvement in events outside of the academic sphere of his profession. The year of Housman’s birth, 1859, saw the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, a volume that has probably done more than any other to supplant a religious view of the world with an equally compelling, and more rationally tenable, world-view. As Housman was to become an avowed atheist, he was perhaps allowed to publicize this conviction more than his predecessors would have been. That is, he was able to espouse an unconventional opinion of God and religious worship because a general receptiveness to such opinions was on the rise. Other of Housman’s predilections and opinions are less clear, both because he was silent on many matters central to his day, and because his world greeted him with powerful incentives to remain mute and inactive, should other of his opinions have been as unconventional as his religious ones. In Housman’s lifetime, he witnessed not only World War I, but the colonial wars of the British Empire, including the two Boer Wars, in the second of which Housman’s brother, Herbert, fought and died. We may take Housman’s regular satires of war as vain and senseless as commentary on the wars of his day, but if we do so, we depart from his explicit consent: war in his poems is abstracted from any one war in particular. Nevertheless, had Housman ever thought of publicly protesting World War I, he can be expected to have been discouraged by the example of a man within his sphere who did: Bertrand Russell, Housman’s friend and colleague at Cambridge, was convicted in 1916 for his antiwar activities, and his lectureship was revoked.
In a parallel uncertainty, this one concerning Housman’s personal life, he may or may not have fallen in love with his longtime friend from Oxford, a man who apparently did not return the degree of Housman’s affection. Picking up on his professed deep friendship with this man and on Housman’s lifelong bachelorhood, many have attributed Housman’s steady theme of impossible love to this early heartache, as well as to the impossibility of open homosexuality in an era when any homosexual behavior was punishable by law and regarded as abhorrent. Housman’s example from within his social sphere of the damages dealt to those who publicly diverged from convention was writer Oscar Wilde, who was tried and imprisoned on charges of indecent (e.g. homosexual) behavior in 1895. But in both his politics and his personal affairs, Housman remains a mystery, and he wanted it that way. We can fill in the blanks with speculation based on clues, but we cannot know much about him or many of his responses to
Compare & Contrast
- 1890s: In England, homosexuals were in legal danger. Although there was no concept of homosexuality there until 1869, sodomy warranted a death sentence between 1533 and 1861, and men found guilty of attempted sodomy could be arrested and sentenced to the pillory, where they were pelted by angry crowds while police looked on. The circulation of the term homosexuality did not improve things; in 1885 a new law made any homosexual act between men punishable. In a highly publicized application of this law, famous writer Oscar Wilde was convicted on a charge of homosexuality in 1895 and was jailed for two years.
1973: Alongside religious condemnations of homosexuality, psychiatric theorists and therapists had long contended that homosexuality was a disease in need of a cure and sought to “cure” those gays and lesbians they treated. These condemnations regularly enjoyed a patina of scientific fact—diagnoses and therapies were laid out like algorithms for the mind. In 1973, however, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.
Today: Homosexuality is increasingly visible and increasingly accepted—its visibility, in great part connected with gay civil rights activism, has led to greater acceptance; the acceptance, in turn, has led to less disincentive for gays and lesbians to keep their sexual preferences hidden. Legally, however, homosexuals are still at risk: in many countries and U.S. states, homosexual behavior remains illegal.
- 1896: L. Starr Jameson, a revolutionary who unsuccessfully lead a raid against the Boer government in South Africa, was sent to England for trial. He was found guilty but received an unusually light sentence, raising the suspicions of the Boers, who were the white descendants of Dutch settlers from the 1830s; they believed that the British wanted to rule South Africa because gold had been discovered there in 1884.
1899–1902: The Boer War between Great Britain and residents of Transvaal and Orange Free State in what is now South Africa ended with an uneasy peace settlement recognizing British sovereignty.
1948: The Republic of South Africa, populated mostly by Afrikaners (a modern name for Boers), voted for a system of racial segregation known as apartheid, which denied black Africans full social recognition and privileges.
1990: Finally succumbing to international pressure, the apartheid system was abolished in South Africa.
Today: Nelson Mandela, a black African who spent nearly thirty years in prison for his opposition to apartheid, served as president of South Africa from 1994 to June of 1999.
- 1896: In Plessy v. Ferguson, one of the most influential legal cases in U.S. history, the Supreme Court ruled that states could provide separate facilities for black citizens to use, creating a legal basis for “Whites Only” drinking fountains, public transportation, hospitals, rest rooms, etc.
1954: Ruling in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the Supreme Court ruled by a margin of 9 to 0 that “separate could never be equal,” and, therefore, that separate schools for blacks and whites violated the U.S. Constitution.
1955: Rosa Parks refused to leave the section of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus that was designated for white use only and was arrested. The yearlong boycott of the bus system following her arrest showed the power of blacks as consumers and helped bring an end to segregation.
Today: States and municipalities around the country are questioning whether “affirmative action” programs that are supposed to bring employment situations into racial balance are doing more harm than good.
his social and historical milieu. Perhaps his silence was ideal to him; perhaps it was caused by his well-warranted fear of the repercussions of publicizing his views. Perhaps his were unpopular opinions and feelings that he thought best, considering the climate, to suppress; perhaps he was merely indifferent. Perhaps his seclusion was forced on him by an age that demanded either a conformity or a public skewering—like those of Russell and Wilde—that Housman equally could not abide.
Morton Dauwen Zabel wrote in a 1940 The Nation article that “To an Athlete Dying Young” is one of the poems in which Housman triumphs. “He succeeds best of all,” the critic states, “when the repressed emotion becomes externalized, released from an iron-clad vigilance, adopts a dramatic mask or situation, and so takes on the life and pathos of genuine lyric realism,” as when, in ‘“To an Athlete Dying Young,” the author “resolves the hostilities of his nature to their finest delicacy and harmony.” In a 1973 essay in the Colby Library Quarterly, Gordon B. Lea remarked, “Ironically, death, which is literally inescapable in Housman’s poetry, is not necessarily a curse. Indeed, there are indications that death can be desirable, and few modern poets dramatize so persuasively the appeal of non-being.” Lea points out that while many of Housman’s poems, including “To an Athlete Dying Young,” imply that life is a kind of cruel curse and that oblivion is preferable, the choice is not that simple for Housman. Lea says, “those poems that laud death, particularly early death, simultaneously pay tribute to life.” He calls this paradox “intriguing and disturbing.” The paradox means, on the one hand, that death brings peace and the end of life’s sufferings, but, on the other hand, is a hollow victory because it is “paralysis.” Lea states: “This conflict between the different appeals of being and non-being is at the heart of Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.”
Critic Robert K. Martin, in a 1984 The Victorian Newsletter essay, has another interpretation of what he calls Housman’s “most famous single poem.” The critic presents and discusses the concept that “To an Athlete Dying Young” “touches on Housman’s recurring theme that art, or the poem itself, preserves love.” Martin writes: “The idea that art preserves by transforming love from the transitory realm of the real into the eternal world of the imagination ... is one of his most persistent themes,” and one that is also found in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Martin notes that “To an Athlete Dying Young” is based upon early Greek poetry, which “celebrates the beauty and grace of the athlete at the moment of his perfection,” and, therefore, the poem should not be thought of in terms of a mourning countered by “an assurance of compensating life,” but, rather in “the aesthetic terms of Shakespeare”—where love lost in the real world lives forever in the imagination. Martin demonstrates how Housman’s use of the figure of the laurel in this poem produces this effect. The laurel, he writes, is a symbol of victory for both athlete and poet and, in this poem, remains “unwithered” even after death because it is a garland of words; “the poem itself is the laurel wreath ... which guarantees a life beyond death.” This is, Martin states, Housman’s “assertion of the permanence of art (and memory).”
Bruce Meyer is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universities and is the author of three collections of poetry. In the following essay, Meyer considers “To an Athlete Dying Young” as a hymn in the tradition of heroic elegy.
The poetry of A. E. Housman stands as a bridge between the pastoral Romanticism of poets such as John Clare (to whom he owes a debt of both lyricism and directness) and the early-twentieth century phenomenon of The Georgians (with whom he shares a love of elegantly crafted rhyme and an eye for the fragile and fleeting beauty of nature). Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young” is a marker of his status in the English canon. On the one hand, he glories in the hymnal stanza structure, the fluid and musical sense of rhyme that he applies to a simple but heartfelt tribute; and on the other hand, he engages the great tradition of the heroic elegy that locates the dead or dying hero in the contexts of nature and society. The poem is a mixture of the simple and the complex, of the immortal and the temporal, and of the social and the natural.
The poem tells the story of a young athlete, the hero of his community, whose life has been cut
What Do I Read Next?
- Tom Stoppard, who wrote Shakespeare in Love—which became a multi-Oscar-winning film—also wrote a play about A. E. Housman. Called “The Invention of Love,” the play jokes about Housman’s notorious morbidity by envisioning the poet as a man who at last is truly dead, and glad of it. But in death, Housman is haunted by life, just as in life he was half in love with death, and he must confront his younger self as well as his memories of the man he long loved. This is a funny, passionate, excellent read.
- Lyric poet John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is another salute to triumph over death, in this case through reference to a piece of pottery, on which are painted human figures who are “For ever warm and still to be enjoyed / For ever panting and for ever young.” Keats himself was something of a tragic youth of the kind that Housman favored: he died at age twenty-six, having already established himself as a stupendous poet.
- Other of Housman’s poems deal with similar themes as does “To an Athlete Dying Young.” Of particular relevance are “1887,” comparable for its irony; “Bredon Hill,” which tells of another envied death of a young person; and “Twice a Week the Winter Through,” which also uses sport as a metaphor for life. The subjects of love, death, and the unkind transience of life are taken up in “This Time of Year a Twelvemonth Past,” “Along the Field As We Came By,” and “Is My Team Ploughing.”
- Now printed in essay form, “The Name and Nature of Poetry” is an affecting statement of poetics; Housman delivered it as a lecture late in his career. It enchanted many, and prompted T. S. Eliot to write his own essay in response to Housman’s call for a poetry that leaves explanation to prose writers and concerns itself instead with “transfusing” emotion from writer to reader.
short for unknown reasons. The dichotomy within the poem is the gap between life and death. When the young hero was the town’s athletic champion “We chaired you through the market-place; / Man and boy stood cheering by, / And home we brought you shoulder-high.” The triumphant procession of the athlete’s moment of glory is contrasted with his funeral procession: “To-day, the road all runners come, / Shoulder-high we bring you home, / And set you at your threshold down, / Townsman of a stiller town.” The repetition of the phrase “shoulder-high” creates a contrast between life and death and triumph and tragedy. The tension within that contrast is not just the simple semantic difference between carrying the young man aloft in a moment of triumph and a coffin being borne to its final resting place, but also the great gap in which grief transforms the vitality and exuberance of nature into the “The garland briefer than a girl’s.”
The “garland” in the final line is a peculiar image, because, in the context of Housman’s poem, it has many meanings. In the first sense, the “garland” is the laurels, the traditional reward for triumphant athletes—a badge of honor dating back to classical Greece. As tradition suggests, the victors in athletic competitions at the early Olympic games were not presented with medals but with “garlands” of laurel leaves, a tribute symbolic of the god Apollo, whose favored attributes included both athletic pursuits and poetry. In the second sense, the “garland” is a gathering of poetic verses, usually hymns in praise of life, a term that was applied to popular anthologies and collections of verse in the nineteenth century. The difference between the two crownings of garlands is the irony at the heart of the poem. The hero’s crown of laurels, the esteem and tribute that the town pays the athlete on his victory, withers away like the floral headgear of a young girl. The message is that death is the ultimate victor.
What death takes away is not simply a hero but the joys and sorrows of life. In the opening of
“The difference between the two crownings of garlands is the irony at the heart of the poem.... The message is that death is the ultimate victor.”
the third stanza, Housman remarks ironically that it may have been a smart move to die so young: “Smart lad, to slip betimes away / From fields where glory does not stay ...” The first echo in this line is the famous phrase from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” The suggestion on Housman’s part is a traditional one—that all glory is fleeting, especially glory attained through physical beauty or skills. Sic transit gloria mundi as the Romans would say, or “so passes the glory of the world.” This statement encapsulates the nature of memorial elegy where the poet is apt to muse not on the death of an individual but on the entropy of the world and the intransigence of society, civilization, and reality. Allen Tate, another poet who works “the graveyard shift” in his elegizing, does much the same thing in his poem “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” where he observes the passing of an entire society (that of the antebellum American South) by musing on the decay of a graveyard. Housman, like Gray before him and Tate after him, feels compelled to locate part of the poem’s imagery in a graveyard. But unlike his predecessors, Housman takes the reader inside the grave where “earth has stopped the ears” and a “silence sounds no worse than cheers.” The mockery death makes of the athlete by transmuting the aspects of glory into the aspects of tragedy is part of the overwhelming sense of irony that these “graveyard” poems convey. What the reader is meant to see in these works is not merely an expression of grief, but also a close rendering of death, so that the awareness that comes from the poem is an awareness of life’s frailty and the solemn seriousness and finality that effects the ultimate closure.
The second echo in those important lines “Smart lad, to slip betimes away / From fields where glory does not stay ...” is the resonance of the problems of life. The poet seems almost to be addressing the woes of aging in much the same way that Yeats addressed the problems of growing old in “Among School Children.” In what seems like a poignant and almost late-Romantic gesture, aging is perceived as something that is without glory or value—the same sort of fear of growing old that is often echoed in rock lyrics, such as Neil Young’s phrase “Better to burn out than fade away.” What underlies Housman’s statement is the classical notion of the physical ideal—that human beings have a moment of ripeness and excellence that once passed can only haunt the individual with its loss. The fate of the athlete who lives beyond his prime, Housman speculates, is the fear of outliving one’s glory or having “the name” die “before the man.” The athletic ideal, of which the young athlete is a paragon, is a moment that must be seized and celebrated. Life for an athlete, Housman seems to imply, is about personal glory. Or is it?
In the opening stanza of the poem, the towns-people “chaired” the athlete “through the market-place” during his moment of victory. He was their champion, the embodiment of the aspirations of the group, the society. When the young athlete dies, he takes with him those aspirations, so that a large part of what the town is spiritually dies with him. In this sense, Housman’s athlete is not just a dead hero or even a moribund protagonist from a pastoral elegy; instead, he is a symbol in much the same way that Sir Galahad, the pure and perfect knight of The Quest for the Holy Grail, is a symbol of the perfection and idealism that society craves. For Housman, the young athlete is an object onto whom aspirations are projected. His success, by vicarious means, becomes the townspeople’s success. And, by corollary, his death becomes their death as well. Like Sir Galahad, whose sacrificial death brings life to the wasteland of the Arthurian quest Romances, (or like Christ, whose death and harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday in the mythos of the Christian tradition is a moment when the gates of the underworld are flung open for the release of the faithful), the young athlete is expected to perform a nekusis, or journey to the underworld. In classical epics, such as Homer’s The Odyssey or Virgil’s The Aeneid, the champion or hero goes down into the underworld to glean information about the future in order to bring about a just reward for his society. In the Christian tradition, the death of Christ and his journey to the underworld (before he rose, on the third day) is for the sake of the salvation of the community of believers. Housman, in the penultimate stanza of “To an Athlete Dying Young” connects the death of a local sports hero to this broader tradition: “So set, before its echoes fade, / The fleet foot on the sill of shade....” What is expected of the young man is that in the “sill of shade,” that world beyond this one, he will still maintain his speed and his athletic prowess. Even in death, he is the defender of the “challenge-cup” and is the people’s champion.
What “To an Athlete Dying Young” appears to be is more than an elegy; it is a Romance. In Romance literature, the focus is upon the hero, the champion, who is the embodiment of the total society. Housman does not lament a fall in nature as much as he attempts to celebrate and pay tribute to an individual on whose shoulders rode the hopes of the community. The loss, though it now rests on the community’s shoulders, is an opportunity to focus communal attention on what is “ideal” in the common mind to the point that the young man’s celebrity will continue even after death. In the final stanza, Housman implies that the dead will find in the hero the admirable qualities that the living celebrated: “And round that early-laureled head / Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead....” Perhaps, Housman tries to tell us, glory is greater than the grave, and that the point of existence is to achieve something memorable, whether it be a moment of physical prowess or the creation of an intriguing poem. After all, the poem is written in a hymnal stanza, and the point of a hymn is that it should be recited and sung by a group of supplicants, those who believe in an idea or an individual.
Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Sean Robisch teaches composition and literature at Purdue University and holds a Ph.D. in American literature. In the following essay, Robisch defends Housman against critics who would belittle his work.
A. E. Housman was the quintessential British “man of letters”: he was educated at Oxford; a professor of classics; author of a multivolume work on Roman poet and mathematician Marcus Manilius; a social recluse at times while seeking the fame of a writing career—Housman even wrote in the way we might consider characteristic of the turn-of-the-century poet/scholar. He considered his poetry from an apartment overlooking the Shropshire hills, took long while walks ruminating about his verse, and then produced several poems in a flurry of work. Twenty-three of the poems in A Shropshire Lad, the book in which “To An Athlete Dying Young” appears, were written in five months with little revision. The poems are formal in construction and follow relatively simple rhyme and metrical schemes. But in some ways, their simplicity is deceptive, and despite Housman’s only having produced three works of poetry during his lifetime (a fourth appeared posthumously), he wrote several of the most memorable poems of the last century.
Critics since Housman’s time have been divided over whether he was a major or minor poet, though such verdicts are always a bit artificial. He was a contemporary of Oscar Wilde, a significant fact for more than literary reasons. Though nearly Wilde’s opposite in personality (Housman was, publicly, cool and aloof), he similarly sought fame and suffered in an era during which persecution for homosexuality was severe. Housman was the kind of person who may well have risked being ostracized because of his particular combination of reclusive misanthropy and compassion for the individual; when A Shropshire Lad was published, Housman gave his royalties to the publishers in order to keep the cost of the book down so that the poor might read it. Wilde went to prison for his flair as much as for his sexuality, and some critics speculate that Housman withheld some of his own poems, to be published after his death, for fear of being oppressed as well. He sent Wilde a copy of A Shropshire Lad during Wilde’s imprisonment, and many of his poems express the similar sentiment of the older gentleman as mentor to the younger man of whom he is enamored.
All of this biographical background is important to understanding “To An Athlete Dying Young” and many other of Housman’s poems—but not because they act as sexual metaphors. On the contrary; many of the poems are examples of transcending cultural oppression and mere physical attraction. They grow out of the Greek ideals of purity in love and admiration and complexity of thought about what it means to be great. Housman often writes about the ideal man—the athlete/soldier at the beginning of his intellectual apprenticeship. It is one of the most exciting times in life and is a popular subject matter for poetry. The American figure that best embodies this impulse to write as mentor to the younger man is Walt Whitman; in Great Britain it was people such as Tennyson, Wilde, and Housman.
His subject matter has therefore subjected Housman to the criticism of readers who see his
“His subject matter has ... subjected Housman to the criticism of readers who see his poetry as ‘adolescent’ rather than as only regarding adolescence.”
poetry as “adolescent” rather than as only regarding adolescence. Especially during the modern era, when the thinking regarding poetic form was experiencing drastic changes, Housman’s work seemed anachronistic to some; his verse from 1936 seems very much the same as that from 1896. Forty years hardly dented his choice of style—the short stanza, long sustainment of theme in consecutive poems, and accessible rhyming verse.
But rather than judge Housman as being limited in his poetic range, we should perhaps view him as simply consistent, stalwart, and committed. Instead of reading his work as the efforts of an adolescent thinker in adulthood, we would do better to see him as someone acquainted with the complexity of adolescence. This perspective is important when we are first learning to appreciate poetry; the critic is often far more guilty of criticizing youthful thought than is the writer of fiction and poetry (who perhaps better remembers that time and mindset). When Housman looked out at the Shropshire Hills, he imagined a young man growing up as a lower-middle-class laborer, an athlete, and a local hero, who would then find the lasting payment for his greatness only in death.
Here, then, is another criticism of Housman’s work—that it is depressing. In 1898, William Archer wrote that Houseman had “three main topics: a stoical pessimism; a dogged rather than exultant patriotism; and what I may perhaps call a wistful cynicism.” He went on to list Housman’s major themes: “the mutability of human feeling, the ease with which the dead are forgot, the anguish of love unrequited, and the danger that long life may mean slow degradation.” This is a good list; it sums up quite a bit of Housman’s work, and it was written long before the rest of his poems appeared. But Archer also says that Housman deals with these themes “compassionately,” a distinction that is important.
Housman struggled to balance a number of contradictory emotions in his poetry, just as he did in his own life. When his mother died and he was left to the limited affection of his father, he turned to his studies. When his affection for his closest friend, Moses Jackson, was rejected, he turned again to his work and maintained their friendship. When he failed a major exam at Oxford that kept him from achieving honors and resulted in his working as a patent clerk instead of a professor (for a while), he wrote poetry about the working class and the hero of the local people. He referred, in one of his lectures, to the pleasure of poetry that is inspired by pain. Housman once wrote of the physical excitement that comes to a poet from writing a good line, even while the inspiration for such a line is a “passive and involuntary” condition—an acceptance rather than something forced. War, too, received Housman’s bittersweet treatment. He thought of it as a combination of “glamour and waste.”
Critic Guy Boas thought that this lack of closure and attention to paradox was a deficiency of Housman’s. “At the end,” Boas writes, “we have learnt from [the poems] no more of the meaning of life and nature than when we began.” This perspective seems a bit short sighted and is indicative of the misinterpretation of Housman’s deceptive simplicity. Emily Dickinson had been accused of the same failure to “close” a poem, but over time, many critics have come to realize that lurking beneath rhyme, meter, and the clever turn of phrase, may be truly emotional and challenging subject matter. The same considerations can be afforded ‘To an Athlete Dying Young.”
The poem is the nineteenth in a series of sixty-three related ones—some of which are titled and some of which have only numbers. This means that “To An Athlete Dying Young” needs to be accepted in the context of A Shropshire Lad; it is very similar to other poems in the volume (such as “When I Was One-and-Twenty” and “The Day of Battle”). And A Shropshire Lad needs to be seen in context with the rest of Housman’s poems as well; the case may be made that all of Housman’s work—the full forty years’ worth—may be read as a continuous volume that episodes toward his Collected Poems. Housman, as with many poets who write formal verse, is best read one poem at a time over an extended period. Upon the second, third, or fourth readings, his work may be taken in larger doses, with many poems read at a time. For now, I’ll consider “To An Athlete Dying Young” as a piece that stands alone.
You might consider whether or not you think sports are a training ground for war. Housman gives us a disturbing image of their similarity: after a race in which the local Shropshire Lad is a hero, the town carries him on their shoulders (“We chaired you”). In the next stanza, they carry him “shoulder-high” again, but this time in a casket. He is the “townsman of a stiller town,” a town of the dead. We see Housman’s “stoical pessimism” here; in his estimation, all runners take the road to that stiller town.
The third stanza functions as a cynical eulogy, with the narrator declaring to the dead runner that he was wisest when he turned his attention away from glory and toward what lasts longer. In the fourth stanza, the narrator explains his pessimistic outlook. The fifth stanza is an admonishment against “glory days” thinking. Some lads, the narrator tells us, outlived their glory. The line “And the name died before the man” tells us that the fame of many other men was forgotten before they died, and they lived to see this loss. In the young athlete’s case, his reputation will outlive him, because the townspeople remembers the race even as it buries him. Here again is a deeply complex emotional paradox—the kind of stuff Housman liked to demonstrate. Is it better, he seems to ask, to outlive your fame or to have it outlive you?
The label for this sentiment is “carpe diem,” which translates from the Latin as “seize the day.” Many writers who influenced Housman saw youth as the moment of glory, during which we must live brightly and greatly as the Greek ideal, for tomorrow we may die. Stanza six expresses this sentiment directly, but with some sadness. The athlete our narrator envisions is just about to die, and, at the moment of his death, he holds up to the lintel (the cross beam to the top of a door in this case, the door to the “stiller town”) his award.
We are not told that the athlete has died in a battle; most critics assume this based on the context of the volume’s other poems. But, by any means, the death comes “early.” When the rest of the dead come to view the new arrival in their town, they find “a garland briefer than a girl’s” on the athlete’s head. Housman compares the laurel, the traditional Greek honor given to the winner of an athletic event, to mere fashion. What a young girl might put in her hair for an occasion outlasts the honor of a young man who ran well but who died too soon.
“To An Athlete Dying Young” is a sad poem. It is important to note that the concept of carpe diem, while on the surface seeming like a rally or a slogan of encouragement, is, instead, a mixture of emotions. It encompasses the passionate intensity and strength in the moment, but also the pain of understanding one’s own mortality. Sadness, even cynicism, can ignite us to think more carefully about what we consider to be important about such subjects as glory and finality. Housman’s own disappointments and the poetry that came out of them, even while he was playing the part of the effete scholar, testify that his commitment—to a philosophy that was both dark and instructive, both simply constructed and deeply resonant, written for youth in the memory of what it meant to him to be youthful—would remain undaunted and would be remembered even beyond his lifetime.
Source: Sean Robisch, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Kristina Zarlengo, who holds a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University, taught literature and writing for five years and regularly publishes articles on modern American literature. In the following essay, Zarlengo praises “To an Athlete Dying Young” despite claims that it and other of Housman’s works are brooding, with a “stubborn preoccupation with pain.”
A. E. Housman was first and always a rigorous scholar of classics; that he is more famous for his verse has to do, first, with poetry’s wider audience than that for translated and annotated Greek and Latin works and, more important, with the almost instant accessibility of Housman’s poems. Formal in style, his rhymed and strictly metered poems are dotted with phrases sometimes made awkward or remote to modern ears. Nevertheless, Housman’s fans are many and various, and they have been so since the publication, in 1896, of his first book of poems, A Shropshire Lad. (By 1902, this volume was in its fourth edition.) Housman’s popularity is most easily attributable to his impressive ability to capture poignant feelings of a particular sort—impressions of the sad transience of the world and what beauty or virtue it holds. The pitter-patter of his style assists greatly in this task, in that his often merry rhythms cut the doom with something lighter. Certainly in “To an Athlete Dying Young,” he is able to fully draw out, in all of its permutations, the tragic irony of young death. Housman began writing poetry in the face of loss. Moses Jackson, his great friend (whom some believe Housman loved romantically, and who he had come to know as a classmate at Oxford College), had early spurned Housman’s desire to become more intimate. The two had remained friends, but in the space of a few years, Jackson married and moved to India. During the same, brief period in Housman’s late youth, Jackson’s younger brother, Adalbert, died of typhoid. After this sad time, Housman began writing and publishing his poems. In the two volumes of poetry published in his lifetime (as well as in a third, published posthumously), Housman proves himself a poet of small scope: he never much diverges, in theme or style, from concentrated, emotional autopsies of tragic death, tragic love, and tragic life.
That Housman’s is a poetry lush with the minutia of pain—pretty songs of woe—has attracted much disapproval of it as too narrow and “adolescent” in its stubborn preoccupation with pain. In a poem written as a commentary on Housman, titled “A.E.H.,” Kingsley Amis labels him “one who nightlong curses / Wounds imagined more than seen, / Who in level tones rehearses / What the fact of wounds must mean.” American poet Ezra Pound, who was a contemporary of Housman’s, but who, in poetic sensibility, was thoroughly remote from him, disliked Housman enough to parody his poetry in an unaffectionate poem of his own:
Mr. Housman’s Message
O woe, woe,
People are born and die,
We also shall be dead pretty soon
Therefore let us act as if we were
The bird sits on the hawthorn tree
But he dies also, presently.
Some lads get hung, and some get shot.
Woeful is the human lot.
Woe! Woe, etcetera ....
London is a woeful place,
Shropshire is much pleasanter.
Then let us smile a little space
Upon fond nature’s morbid grace.
Oh, Woe, woe, woe, etcetera ....
But even though Amis’s and Pound’s emphasis that a little brooding goes a long way is well taken, and Housman’s poetry, taken as a whole, is indeed manifestly preoccupied with self-similar themes of woe, such judgments do not easily stick to individual poems. Taken by themselves, many of Housman’s poems are in fact jewels—careful, dense, thorough expressions of familiar, wresting sentiments. Though Housman’s poetic output was not great, and his range was limited, many of his poems are perfect.
“To an Athlete Dying Young” is another of Housman’s many cries of “woe, woe, woe.” Its subject is one of unambiguous tragedy: the death of youth. In describing it, Housman squeezes from it still more woe, for the death comes out looking fortunate; the lad is “smart” for dying. In so celebrating tragic death, the world and life itself are made to seem woeful. Nevertheless, there is great craft in how Housman goes about phrasing his message. More important, the poem brings tragic irony so far—doubling it, then doubling it again—that a much greater range of suggestiveness comes through than in Pound’s limp “woe, etcetera.” Housman’s fierce concentration and refined turns of phrase involve us readers.
The poem begins a little awkwardly, and simply, describing the cheers of townspeople who celebrate their local representative in a footrace after he has won it. In a familiar ritual of victory, they carry the youth home, “chaired” at their shoulders. In the second stanza is a perfect parallel to that victory: again the townspeople carry the youth at their shoulders and again he is brought home. This time, however, he travels not the road of the race, but “the road all runners come”—the passage to death—and he is carried in a coffin, borne by pallbearers. Already the poem has surprised us; quickly, the person addressed as “you” by the poet has gone from being celebrated alive to being celebrated dead. But the next stanza’s beginning holds a further shock by proclaiming the victim a “Smart lad.” Prepared by the irony of the second stanza to think upon the athlete’s death as the opposite of natural or good, we then learn, from the speaker of the poem, that an escape into death is a wise choice—an evasion of fields where a fall from glory is inevitable. Yet this message, too, is undercut—this time by the mounting rhythm of the poem, which is extremely regular. Each quatrain (or stanza of four lines) is formed of two rhyming couplets (an aabb rhyme scheme), and most lines are composed of iambs, so that each sounds like ta-TA, ta-TA, ta-TA, ta-TA, over and over. It is not a mournful rhythm, and it grants the speaker distance from his subject matter, a tone of formal control over what is described. The following three stanzas elaborate on the third. Why is the lad smart? Because he has managed to avoid the possibility of being bested in future races; he will never “see the record cut.” He need never worry himself about regaining the kind of applause he already earned once, because he is insensate. Never will his life beat him in another race—that between his life’s span and his good reputation. In other words, he has cheated life before life could cheat him. And cheat him, it seems, it would have done, since the ranks of men who outlive their own selves by outliving their honor or their good name is swollen. Here, Housman suggests yet another race. First was the footrace the youth won; then the mournful “race” of the funeral procession. The third, a race between the lad and life, is teased out of the athlete’s death. Life wanted to see his reputation decayed and his victory reduced to a memory, but by dying when his triumph is fresh, the youth has beaten life and stolen away its threat. The runner wins this race by remaining perfectly still, frozen in rigor mortis, his quick feet “set.” But like a photograph of a runner that freezes vivid motion mid-stride, life has been stilled at the moment of its greatest intensity; this, in an instance of acute irony, is a vigorous death. As if this now tripled race were not enough, Housman gives another metaphor still one more variation. In the final stanza, the speaker envisions a second crowd applauding and admiring the youth: the dead. They will flock to him, the speaker claims, and will discover on him a fresh garland, that of honor and beauty, undisturbed by decay. So again, the youth will be hailed, and again he will triumph.
That the poem insists so heavily, ironically, and regularly on the good fortune of this lad begins to seem too insisted upon to be quite true. This brings into question the speaker’s situation. Who was this lad to the speaker? Is the speaker as controlled as his speech? Might that control be an armor against the tragedy of this death? Some will read Housman’s insistence on the happy fact of youthful death literally; others will read it as a sign that the speaker is so greatly bereaved that he considers his dead loved one to be the luckier one, as the world without him is no world at all. In either case, Housman has drummed on tragedy all the more loudly for his regular beat and light touch. Just when you think he has exhausted his exploration of the dimensions of this death, he develops a new one. Even if of limited scope, this is a poem of perfectly thorough exploration of its subject. The poem folds together three races (the footrace, the funeral march, the race against decay); three youthful triumphs (over the other runners, over those whose glory dies, over life); and two worlds (the
“Even if of limited scope, [‘To an Athlete Dying Young’] is a poem of perfectly thorough exploration of its subject.”
living and the dead). It is happy and tragic all at once that this athlete, still celebrated by the living, is now celebrated by the dead.
The situation of “To an Athlete Dying Young” makes little sense—this land of the dead is a nebulous place, and why should there be any joy at all in tragedy? But, here, Housman is true to poetic principles he later articulated in what has become a notorious 1933 lecture, at Cambridge University, called “The Name and Nature of Poetry.” The function of poetry, he claimed, is “to transfuse emotion—not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer”; and “Meaning is of the intellect, poetry is not.” He asked (as noted in Richard Perceval Graves’s A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet),
What is it that can draw tears, as I know it can, to the eyes of more readers than one? What in the world is there to cry about? Why have mere words the physical effect of pathos when the sense of the passage is blithe and gay? I can only say, because they are poetry, and find their way into something in man which is obscure and latent, something older than the present organization of his nature, like the patches of fen which still linger here and there in the drained lands of Cambridgeshire.
While poetry was for Housman more an avocation than a vocation, and while the poems he worked over were always patches of what has been shown by other poets to be the wide range of verse, Housman succeeded beautifully in the poetry that counts most by his own estimate: passionate, lyrical verse, and phrases which, like “Runners whom renown outran,” are impossible either to ignore or to forget.
Source: Kristina Zarlengo, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Amis, Kingsley, “A.E.H.,” in A. E. Housman: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Christopher Ricks, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
Eliot, T. S., “A Review of ‘The Name and the Nature of Poetry,’” The Criterion, Vol. XIII, 1933.
Graves, Richard Perceval, A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979.
Haber, Tom Bums, A. E. Housman, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1967.
_____, The Making of A Shropshire Lad: A Manuscript Variorum, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966.
_____, The Manuscript Poems of A. E. Housman, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1955.
Hamilton, Robert, Housman the Poet, Exeter: Sydney Lee, 1953.
Hoagwood, Terence Allan, A. E. Housman Revisited, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.
Housman, A. E., The Collected Poems, London: Jonathan Cape, 1939.
Housman, Laurence, My Brother, A. E. Housman: Personal Recollections Together with Thirty Hitherto Unpublished Poems, New York: Charles Scribner, 1938.
Lea, Gordon B., “Ironies and Dualities in ‘A Shropshire Lad, “’ in Colby Library Quarterly, Series X, No. 2, June 1973, pp. 71-9.
Leggett, B. J., The Poetic Art of A.E. Housman: Theory and Practice, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978.
Martin, Robert K., “A.E. Housman’s Two Strategies: ‘A Shropshire Lad’ and ‘Last Poems’,” in The Victorian Newsletter, No. 66, Fall 1984, pp. 14-17.
Pound, Ezra, “Mr. Housman’s Message,” in A. E. Housman: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Christopher Ricks, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
Ricks, Christopher, “The Nature of Housman’s Poetry,” in A. E. Housman: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Christopher Ricks, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
Robb, Nesca A., Four in Exile: Critical Essays on Leopardi, Hans C. Andersen, Christina Rossetti, A. E. Housman, Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1948.
Sparrow, John, “A Shropshire Lad at Fifty,” Independent Essays, London: Faber and Faber, 1954.
Symons, Katharine E., et al., Alfred Edward Housman: Recollections, New York: Henry Holt, 1937.
Watson, George L., A. E. Housman, London: Cambridge University Press, 1957.
Zabel, Morton Dauwen, “The Whole of Housman,” in The Nation, Vol. 150, No. 22, June 1940, pp. 123-29.
Graves, Richard Perceval, A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979.
A biography of Housman that asserts a historical neglect of his poetry, this book details Housman’s classical scholarship and academic work as well as his verse.
Haber, Tom Bums, A. E. Housman, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1967.
A biography of the poet, written despite Housman’s disenchantment with being memorialized in biography. In a discussion of Housman’s notorious social remoteness, Burns argues the poet had an equally powerful desire to be known and admired.
Hamilton, Robert, Housman the Poet, Exeter: Sydney Lee, 1953.
An evaluation of Housman’s poetry only, this study steers itself free of discussion of his scholarship and personal life, focusing somewhat peevishly on Housman’s inspirations, but celebrating the poems.
Hoagwood, Terence Allan, A. E. Housman Revisited, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.
This more recent biography studies Housman’s cultural and historical influences on the hundredth anniversary of the publication of A Shropshire Lad. It also includes commentary on the poems.
Housman, Laurence, My Brother, A. E. Housman: Personal Recollections Together with Thirty Hitherto Unpublished Poems, New York: Charles Scribner, 1938.
A sometimes biographical account of Housman and his poetry, written with personal insight by his brother. Includes some of Housman’s family correspondence, as well as some poems the poet had, in his will, asked never to be published.
Leggett, B. J., The Poetic Art ofA.E. Housman: Theory and Practice, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978.
A review of Housman’s poetry as well as of how it has been handled by critics, this book argues for greater applause than Housman had previously received. This is criticism well suited to fans of the poet.
Ricks, Christopher, ed., A. E. Housman: A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
This volume includes poems on Housman written by fellow poets (including Ezra Pound’s savage parody), as well as disapproving and approving literary critics; it is, therefore, an excellent sampling of the range of opinions on Housman’s craft.