Dying young is considered by most to be one of the most tragic of fates. The specter of things undone and a life unlived haunts the funeral and colors the grief to an even darker shade.
Most people desire to live to a ripe old age and would be shocked to have a premature death viewed in a positive light. Yet, this is exactly the driving force behind A. E. Housman s To an Athlete Dying Young.
In the poem, dying young and at the height of your career is looked upon as fortunate. Living and watching your laurels wither away is worse than death.The setting is the funeral of a young champion runner. The speaker begins by talking of when the young athlete won the town race and was carried home shoulder-high (line 4).
He then makes a reference to the young athlete being carried shoulder-high (line 6) down the road all runners run (line 5) home. The phrase shoulder-high is an expression of irony. The first time it is used in line 4 of the poem it refers to an exciting happy occasion. The second time it is used in line 6, it refers to a casket being carried on the shoulders of others, a sad and mournful time.
Rather than join the others in mourning, however, in the third stanza the speaker is instead reflecting on how lucky the young athlete was to have died when he did: Smart lad, to slip betimes away From fields where glory does not stay And early though the laurel grows It withers quicker than the rose. Dying was better than lingering on outlasting the glory of his victories. He speaks of how lucky the young athlete was to have died before anyone could break his records or before his accomplishments were forgotten. Speaking of how quickly the laurels die, the speaker seems to put himself in the place of he young runner with a knowledge that suggests he, too, once knew these glories.
Through the speaker s thoughts and from the sound of experience, the reader gets a glimpse of what the speaker s life may have been like. You also get to see the runner s life compared to the speaker s life. He speaks of having records broken, skills diminished, and a name forgotten. It draws your sympathy away from the young dead athlete and places it on the speaker.
Instead of being a poem about the death of the athlete, the poem becomes a statement about the life of the speaker.As one of the lads who wore their honors out, (line 18) the speaker seems to be also mourning his own special kind of death. The speaker talks of experiencing defeat, having your records broken, and seeing the glory fade away the name died before the man (line 20). He talks of these things as if he was talking about himself.
The speaker is speaking in a positive light about the young athlete s death because he sees much of himself in the young champion. The speaker knows what would have awaited the young athlete if he had lived to be old. He also assumes everyone will see life the way he oes. In all this process, the reader shifts pity from the dead to the living, mourning not what was never to arrive but what did arrive and was taken away.
Housman’s poem “To an Athlete Dying Young” suggests that life is short and glory is even shorter. A way out of this trap is to do a great deed and then slip away from this world unnoticed. Glories have a short duration and records are quickly broken. So the only alternative is to depart before glories wither and records are bettered.
Housman, A. E. To an Athlete Dying Young. An Introduction to Literature.