The controlling metaphor of A. E. Housman’s poem “To an Athlete Dying Young” compares the running of a race to the living of a human life. Some people succeed in their races; others fail. Some people run lengthy courses; for others the course in short. Paradoxically, the central figure in Housman's poem experiences death while still young; his race ends before his race has barely begun. Like a “metaphysical poet” developing and elaborating a “metaphysical conceit,” Housman fastens on his metaphor and draws out its various aspects and implications.
In the first stanza, the young athlete who had won a race on behalf of his home town is celebrated by the citizens of the community, who both literally and figuratively lift him high and honor his achievement. This event, the speaker suggests, is comparable to any early success in life, especially any success that seems to benefit others.
In the second stanza, the speaker alludes, in contrast, to the inevitable trip that all persons must make to the grave and to the cemetery. Now the young man is raised up in a different sense than in the first stanza: he is hoisted up in a coffin borne on shoulders. He will now take up permanent residents in the “stiller town” of the cemetery.
In stanza 3, the speaker commends the youth for having had the good sense to die while his athletic glories were still fresh in the minds of his fellow citizens. Life, the speaker suggests, is a process of mutability in which everything precious and valuable, such as glory, fades even faster than a beautiful flower.
In stanza 4, the speaker suggests that since the young man has dies young, he will not live to see his athletic record broken. Now that he is dead, he will not miss the applause his victories once evoked.
In stanza 5, the speaker suggests that by dying young, the athlete now will not have to watch other young champions lose their early fame and glory. Such people, the speaker suggests, see their reputations die even before they themselves pass away.
In stanza 6, the speaker urges the dead young man to take pride in his achievements before those achievements have been forgotten. The speaker imagines that the young athlete, in the after-life, will be surrounded by the admiring dead, who will see in him, perhaps, a symbol of their own brief lives and of their own brief triumphs:
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl's. (25-28)
In this stanza as throughout the poem, the use of a couplet rhyme-scheme (AABB, et.) helps reinforce the idea of brevity.