Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Sport in Poetry: A.E. Housman's "To An Athlete, Dying Young"

“To An Athlete, Dying Young” by A.E. Housman

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.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
An set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

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.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
Afer earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

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-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl's.

What do we have in this poem, a message given from the poet to a dead athlete?

In the first two stanzas, we have an unexpected parallel. The first stanza describes a victory parade for the victorious athlete, with townspeople lined up in the streets to cheer. The second stanza describes a funeral procession for the very same athlete, with townspeople lined up to mourn. The parallel tells us of the unlasting quality of earthly athletic achievements—and by extention all our earthly achievements.

And what’s this? In the third stanza we find we’re not reading a conventional elegy. The poet tells the dead athlete that he is a “smart lad” to die early. Why? Because he “slip[s] betimes away/From fields where glory does not stay.” The athlete died in his glory; had he lived a long life, he would certainly not have died in his glory. Nobody expects a record to last; no man stays champion forever.

The fourth stanza lines “And silence sounds no worse than cheers/
After earth has stopped the ears” has a modern resonance. We see aging athletes hanging on past their prime. Why? They don’t want to give up the cheers, the competition. There’s a pain in the silence. Or, if you prefer to think of it another way, when you play, you might hear silence, or boos, or cheers. But when you’re dead, what do you care? It doesn’t matter anymore. Silence, cheers, who cares? You can’t hear anyway. There's also the implicit meaning that silence or cheers don't matter for much in life, either, since you'll die eventually anyway and they'll be pointless.

By dying early, we learn in the fifth stanza, the athlete will not wear his “honours out”; he will not be one of the “Runners whom renown outran/ And the name died before the man.” If he lives a long life, he will be forgotten—his fame will fade before his body will, his name will die before his body does. It’s better, says the poet, to die young, in your prime, when everybody still respects, honors, and knows you, than to live a long life and be forgotten for your youthful athletic exploits.

The strong motif is the “laurel,” the award for victory. It is a plant; it will wither and die. So too will the athlete’s exploits; so too will all our exploits. And in the last two stanzas, the poet reminds the athlete (and other athletes, and other people) to die early, to die with “The still-defended challenge-cup” (could we also compare this to an athlete retiring as champion—John Elway retires as Super Bowl winner, and he never again has to suffer losing or failure on the athletic field? Think of the earlier line "Eyes the shady night has shut/
Cannot see the record cut"). And all the people will flock to the grave of an athlete who died young; will a lot of people flock to the grave of an old retired athlete who’s prime was long, long ago (does the NFL even care for it’s retired athletes by covering medical expenses for broken-down football players)?

The subject is athletics and death, but the message is for all of us. Fame is fleeting, glory is temporary, time is punishing, and death ultimately wins every game.


  1. As a Knicks fan who briefly misread the title of this poem as A. Houston, I can easily internalize the idea of death winning every game.

    That said, I would have figured a poetic gentleman like yourself would have saved the Housman for Feb. 27.

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