Please explain the poem "To an Athlete Dying Young" by A. E. Housman including figures of speech, the theme, and meaning.

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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A. E. Housman takes an alternative look at dying in "To an Athlete Dying Young." Speaking directly to the young man who has died, the narrator tries to help not only himself but the other people who are grieving. 

The poem has seven stanzas written as quatrains.  Each quatrains has two couplets that rhyme.  Therefore, the rhyming scheme is AABB.

Several literary devices are used to bring the poem to life. The entire idea for the poem is an extended metaphor comparing the race that the boy won to the life that he lived. 

The time you won your town the race...

Today, the road all runners come,

Townsman of a stiller town.

Literally, the boy won a race which brought glory for him and his town. Now, figuratively, he is traveling another road that all men must travel to his grave.

Other metaphors are employed by the poet:

  • the road all runners come--death
  • And set you at your threshold down--the edge of the grave
  • Townsman of a stiller town--the cemetery

Another literary device that the poet uses is the apostrophe. This  figure of speech  addresses someone absent or dead as though they were alive and present and were able to reply. The entire poem applies the apostrophe because the person addressed is the young athlete who has already died. 

Alliteration enhances the rhythm of the lines in the poem. 

  • Today, the road all runners come
  • Smart lad, to slip betimes away.
  • The garland briefer than a girl's.

The poet has a particular message in each verse:

Stanza 1- The view of the poem is to say that the young boy won a race and  was carried through town with the crowds cheering for him and showing their pride in him.

Stanza 2-Now, the boy has run his final race and has passed away.  They have already taken him  to the cemetery and left the casket at the edge of the grave.

Stanza 3-Here is the unusual stance toward this death.  The boy is lucky that he died when he was still wearing his laurel wreath of victory.  Glory does not last, but he died in the midst of his.

Stanza 4-Since you have died, you will not have to endure someone breaking your records or the cheers of the crowds lost forever.

Stanza 5-Fame is fleeting. You will not be added to the list of boys who outlived their glory--the runners whose names were no longer famous before they died.

Stanza 6-How will you be remembered--Fleet of foot and holding up the trophy that you won.

Stanza 7- Your laurel wreath will never wither.  When we think of you, your laurel will be just as fresh as ever.

The theme of the poem speaks to a young person dying in his prime and being remember like that forever.  Compare the boy in this poem to Marilyn Monroe.  Today, she would be 85 years old.  That is not how we remember her. In our minds, she is still 34, slim and sexy, blonde, and beautiful.  She will never lose her youth because like the young lad she died too soon, still  in her prime. 


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