Compare and contrast A.E. Houseman's poem "To an Athlete Dying Young" and D.H. Lawrence's "The Snake" addressing content and structure.

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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A.E. Houseman's "To an Athlete Dying Young" argues that it is better to die young and strong—while one will be praised for those things accomplished that others can still remember. The alternative (the speaker notes), to live long and die sick and weak, is a pitiful way to end one's life—when the memories of the accomplishments of life have dimmed. We can safely conclude that the theme here is something that is generally counter to modern society's view of a successful life: to live long is something to be valued. The poem's message conflicts with society's belief that the death of someone young is tragic.

Thematically, D.H. Lawrence's "The Snake" also offers a sentiment with which society might not agree because of the way most people feel about snakes. The poet's first response is one with which most readers might agree:

The voice of my education said to me


He must be killed,


For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.

The speaker knows the snake is poisonous and believes it should be killed because it poses a serious threat to him. However, after throwing a log at the snake and missing it, the speaker feels regret that he let what he has been taught by society influence him enough to try to end its life.

I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.

Then he wishes the snake would return—"my snake," he calls it. And, inexplicably, he praises the snake:

For he seemed to me again like a king…

Like Houseman's poem, Lawrence expresses an viewpoint that is unusual and non-traditional.

Structurally, Housman's poem's...

...simplicity of form and style combine to make the poem a classic celebration of release from the difficulties of life.

The rhythm (meter) of the poem is concise: there are four stressed beats in each line. The lines are written as rhyming couplets, which means that the first and second lines rhyme with each other, and the third and fourth lines rhyme. Take note of the poem's first four lines:

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.

When read aloud, this structure mimics the swaying motion that would have taken place as the speaker and others carried the athlete in excitement over his win. Many times the structure supports some aspect of the poem—in this case, the lively movements of celebration create a feeling of youthful exhilaration through the written words. The structure also supports the poet's opinion of the value of dying young and at the peak of health, rather than held up by a cane, struggling in a hospital room or living in a nursing home. 

Lawrence's poem "The Snake" is not structured in such a precise way. In fact, it is written in free verse, seeming more like a narrative than a poem. Perhaps this structure lends itself more to the movement of a snake, writhing and coiling freely through the landscape.

In structure, the two poems are dissimilar. However, both present ideas contradictory to the norms of society.

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