Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“To an Athlete Dying Young” is clearly not about a particular teenager or even about athletes in general but about life. In Housman’s bitter experience, life is a series of disappointments. (Probably the greatest disappointment in his own life came at the conclusion of his college years when, in part distracted by an unfortunate love affair, he did poorly on terminal examinations and had to struggle in obscurity for years before achieving the recognition as a scholar that he unquestionably deserved.) In other poems in A Shropshire Lad, Housman more explicitly rebels against the supposed Maker of this world for having designed a cagelike “home” for humanity that is so inhospitable to human well-being and so unlikely to fulfill human desires. Typically, Housman advocates a kind of stoic endurance (often fortified with good English ale) in the face of the wretched uncertainties and predictable disappointments that are the lot of all humankind.

The beauty of dying young is that all the disappointments of adult life can be avoided, and the Maker who seemingly (through design or indifference) inflicts them can be thwarted. In this poem, however, Housman finds no one to blame and seemingly accepts the human condition—one falls into oblivion even before death—as if it were the law of gravity. It is surely not in the nature of fame to endure, any more than it is natural for roses to exist forever. Oblivion follows fame as night follows day or silence follows applause. Paradoxically, then, one can perhaps achieve fame, but only at the expense of life—and only by accident, never by design.