Friday, November 09, 2007

To An Athlete Dying Young by A.E. Housman

To An Athlete Dying Young is A.E. Housman's best-known poem, and there's a good chance you've come across it before. On the surface, the poem is an elegy with a straightforward theme: one should take solace in the fact that a young man died at the height of his glory. For me, the poem's real power is beneath the surface, where the struggle and emotional restraint that typified Housman's life is palpable.

It's remarkable that despite the poem's sing-songy form--iambic tetrameter is the standard meter of nursery rhymes--Housman conveys the sense of barrenness and deep sorrow that permeated so much of his work. His life was, by all accounts, melancholy and reclusive. He was gay (they probably didn't teach you that in school) in a world where it was far less accepted than it is today. He spent his life in love (unrequited) with a heterosexual friend. The first line of the third stanza gives me chills. That's where the man who lived and wrote so buttoned up starts letting his guard down.



To An Athlete Dying Young

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,
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,
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
After 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.



A.E. Housman (1859-1936) was born in Fockbury, England, the oldest of seven children. A brilliant student, he won a scholarship to study Classics at Oxford. There, he fell in love with his heterosexual roommate Moses Jackson, a man who would become his lifelong friend. Housman worked as a professor of Latin at University College, London and translated many of the great Roman poets. He published only two books of poetry in his lifetime, the first, A Shropshire Lad, with money from his own pocket.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This one gets me everytime.

10:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This poem is featured at the end of a great movie, "Out of Africa."

Karen Blixen (pseudonymous author "Isak Dinesen"), played by Meryl Streep, reads this poem aloud at the burial of her lover, Dennis Finch-Hatton (played by Robert Redford).

Makes me sob out loud every time I see it.

Mrs. K8

6:20 PM  
Blogger Bishop said...

For those interested in Housman (and for me the source of my interest in Housman), I recommend Tom Stoppard's biographical play "The Invention of Love" in which Stoppard interweaves the lives of Housman and his classmates with those of the Oxford dons and Oscar Wilde.

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