Explain the meaning of "shoulder-high" in the 1st and 2nd stanzas of "To an Athlete Dying Young" by A. E. Housman.

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

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"To an Athlete Dying Young" by A. E. Housman approaches the topic of death in an unusual way. The point of view is third person with the narrator speaking as though he is one of the friends of the young man who has died.

The poem tells the story of a young athlete who won a race and was heralded by the people of his town.  Each verse tells a little more of the story:

The time you won your town the race...

And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Stanza 1:

The young man won the race. The boy's friends and possibly the other athletes either actually place him in a chair raising it to shoulder height, or they  just hoisted him up on their shoulders and carried him through the town as the victor of the race.  Everyone standing alongside the road cheers him and his success.

Today, the road all runner come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home,

Stanza 2:

On this day, sometime after the race, the young athlete dies. [The poet employs a beautiful metaphor for death = the road all runners come] This time his friends are carrying him in his casket shoulder high.  The bearers of the casket take him to the graveyard [stiller town] and place his casket beside the grave [threshold]. 

Stanza 3:

In this stanza, the narrator expresses a different approach to death.  He calls the boy who died smart. The young man was applauded for his win.  Everyone stills remembers his victory. The laurel bush flowers early in the spring and in history is always represents winning. 

To die, when his accomplishments are remembered by everyone, to the poet, this is best time.  The old saying is "He is resting on his laurels"   speaks to the idea that if he died at an older age, everyone would have forgotten his victories.

The best example of this idea comes from looking at the pictures of Marilyn Monroe or John F. Kennedy.  Any person on earth can visualize both of these people at the top of their games.  Marilyn was about 35 when she died, and Kennedy was 46 years old. 

Today, Marilyn would be 85 and President Kennedy would be 95.  But how do we remember them? Beautiful and handsome...because they died in the prime of their lives.  Of course, that  was not their choices to die at an early age; however, those images of them as young and attractive will be forever implanted in the public's eyes.

That is the point that Housman is making.  This young athlete will never have to face the heartbreak of losing or having someone break his record. His name will live on as a winner:

Runner whom renown outran

And the name died before the man.  

This will not happen to this athlete. Death will have no victory over the athlete's records or his cheering fans.


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