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A.E. Housman’s poem, “To an Athlete Dying Young,” reflects the life of a young athlete’s victory not only in a small town race, but also a victory in his death. Housman uses short and choppy words to express his ideas. The simplicity of this poem is the best quality the poem possesses. A good example of the poem’s simplicity is the fact that barely any words contain more than two syllables. The reader must carefully analyze the poem in order to realize the poem’s true meaning. Even though Housman uses choppy words in his poetry, he is really trying to explain his poetry more elaborately. Housman’s writing style is extremely effective in this poem because the athlete lived a short life, yet, he lived his life elaborately.
The first stanza describes the athlete’s victory in a town race where “man and boy stood cheering by” for the special occasion. In the second stanza, however, the athlete has come to “the road all runners come,” referring to his death. The parallel between the first two stanzas is very close and most readers seem to miss the paradox between the athlete being carried shoulder-high after the race, and the athlete being carried shoulder-high after his death. Also by the end of the first two stanzas, the reader starts to wander who is actually speaking throughout the poem. Through much deliberation, I have come to the conclusion that the persona is a friend of the athlete who is also helping carry the athlete’s casket.
The third and fourth stanzas refer to the deceased athlete as a “smart lad” to have died before his records were broken. The speaker describes an athlete’s life as “fields where glory does not stay,” meaning that someone will always come along who is faster or smarter than the person before them. Housman uses the laurel to symbolize the athlete’s victory in the race, but he also uses the rose to symbolize how fast his glory will die. The athlete, being in his youth, is probably naive and does not realize that his records will eventually be broken, but the speaker knows the athlete’s record will be broken and is glad the athlete will not be alive to witness the fall of his own glory.
The fifth stanza describes the typical athlete who is usually forgotten before he or she dies and how hard it would be to go from a well-known athlete to a nobody. The speaker again praises the athlete for quitting at the height of his career. Michael Jordan, for example, is a famous basketball player who retired at the apex of his career, and even though he returned to the game, he had already carved his name in the hearts and minds of people around the world. Since Housman wrote this poem during World War I, another example could be the soldier who is thought of as a hero by his fellow people for his bravery, but most soldiers who survive the war are not recognized nearly as much as the soldiers who die during the war. The speaker emphasizes the advantages of dying young so much that is seems as if he is trying to convince the reader to die in his or her prime so that he or she too, can preserve his or her truth and beauty.
In the sixth and seventh stanzas, the speaker declares the memory of the athlete preserved in the town forever. The town will not only remember the athlete because of his victory in the
race, but also because of his death. A tragic incident such as a young man’s death is not easily forgotten in a small town, especially since he has already made a name for himself as runner.The athlete does not only win the race; he also wins the sympathy and sorrow of the townspeople by dying.
Housman’s simple diction in this poem causes the reader to search beyond the actual words for the meaning. Housman’s simplistic style also allows more varied types of people to read his literary works, and more important, understand his works. During his time period at the end of the nineteenth century, particularly when the lower and middle classes began to move to the city in masses and were exposed to a variety of literature never before available on their comprehension level. Housman’s theme of death in his poetry was appropriate for his day due to World War I and has been just as appropriate for every generation after him because of the continuous wars throughout the world. His open curiosity of death has caused many to acknowledge him as a precursor to modern poetry.
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