To an Athlete Dying Young

by A. E. Housman

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What is the tone of "To an Athlete Dying Young"?

The tone of "To an Athlete Dying Young" is a skillful mixture of the elegiac and the ironic. It's elegiac in that it pays tribute to the recently departed young athlete. It's ironic in that it appears at the same time to be subtly critiquing the values of a society that places so much emphasis on the attainment of earthly glory.

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At first, it seems that the tone of "To an Athlete Dying Young " is straightforwardly elegiac, the kind of tone one would expect from a poem written to commemorate the life of someone recently departed. As the early stanzas make clear, the young man was a local hero...

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At first, it seems that the tone of "To an Athlete Dying Young" is straightforwardly elegiac, the kind of tone one would expect from a poem written to commemorate the life of someone recently departed. As the early stanzas make clear, the young man was a local hero whose winning of a race brought immense joy to the people of his hometown.

But it isn't very long before a subtle change in tone can be observed. The day of the young man's funeral is described as celebratory, in much the same way as the town celebrated his remarkable feats of athleticism. The reason for this is that, because the athlete died young, his glory was never able to fade, and so can be preserved and celebrated by the local townsfolk.

Further irony can be observed in the third stanza, where the speaker strongly implies that the young man made a smart move in dying, by removing himself from the earth, a place where glory is fleeting. The further implication here is that the young man committed suicide before his glory, his looks, and his athleticism all started to fade.

In an ironic twist on the traditional elegy, Houseman appears to be celebrating the young man's premature death—as it will spare him immense pain, suffering, and decline later on—rather that commemorating his short, glorious life. In dying, the young man has been further spared having to live in a society which places too much importance on the attainment of ephemeral worldly achievements.

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The tone of “To an Athlete Dying Young” is Housman’s characteristic combination of nostalgia, melancholy, and bitterness. The self-reflective quality of the verse is accentuated by the poet addressing one who cannot reply or even hear him. He is essentially talking to himself as he reflects on the futile and fleeting nature of glory. The triumphant shoulder-high progress of the athlete in the first stanza is followed immediately by his coffin, held at similar height along “the road all runners come.” There is barely even a moment for him to enjoy the glory of victory.

The nature of the poet’s bitterness, however, is made explicit in the third stanza, when the poet does not even mourn the athlete but commends him for abandoning life so early. Laurels whither quickly, Housman tells him. Glorious youth turns to obscure old age, a fate the athlete has avoided. The classical image that ends the poem returns the tone to melancholy again, but the overall tone is one of embittered age, envying rather than lamenting a young man’s death.

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This poem is basically an address to a young athlete who once received the praise and glory of his town because of his victory. However, now he is being remembered in a different way, because he is being held high in his own funeral procession. The speaker however argues that the athlete was lucky to have died, as he went out at his best moment in life and will not live to see his name forgotten with time. Because he died at his strongest, he will be able to amaze the dead with his beauty that will never fade.

The tone, therefore, of this great poem is one of sadness and sombre reflection as the speaker remembers the life of this athlete who was snatched away in his prime. Arguably, the poem ends on a hopeful note, as the speaker contemplates how he will be able to receive eternal glory and adulation through his death.

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