To an Athlete Dying Young Questions and Answers
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 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...

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Imagine that the speaker in the poem has returned from the funeral of this popular, record-holding athlete who is a greatly admired resident of his town. The funeral has impacted him deeply, and he seeks an outlet for his inconsolable sense of loss. In his attempt to make sense of this loss, he recalls the day when the deceased was joyfully “chaired” through the marketplace “shoulder high”. Immediately, the picture in his mind switches to the more recent “shoulder high “scene, that of the athlete’s funeral procession that had taken place earlier in the day. The sheer contrast in the mood of the two occasions produces within him such stinging pain that he must find catharsis.  

The poet finds catharsis in transforming death into a victory, thus removing its emotional “sting”. Troubled reflection becomes calculated celebration of the athlete whom he now congratulates for his wit “to slip betimes away”/ From fields where glory does not stay”. Indeed, at this point, the deceased is doubly esteemed by the poet: first, for being an athlete with an unbroken record; and second, for outwitting “glory” by dying before it fades. His celebration of the youth merges into a celebration of death, diminishing the initial sting of the loss so that death is now euphemistically referred to as the “shady night “that shuts the eyes and the “earth” that stops the ears, two very harmless elements.

The climax of the celebration is as the poet projects to the welcome of the athlete among the spirits of the dead. There is no doubt that the spirits of the dead share the poet’s wonder at the superior intelligence of the athlete to exit the “fields where glory does not stay” before he is forced to join the ranks of “runners renown outran”. Like the poet in his new celebration of death, they “flock to gaze” in amazement at the “early-laurelled head”. Not only is the athlete a champion in the eyes of the living, but he is also a champion in the eyes of the dead for his genius in outwitting short-lived “glory”. In the course of the seven stanzas, the tone evolves from being sore and reflective to being triumphant and confident.

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