To an Athlete Dying Young by A. E. Housman

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

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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.

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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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