The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“To an Athlete Dying Young” is written in seven quatrains of rhymed iambic tetrameter. Each line, therefore, normally contains eight syllables, with the even-numbered syllables stressed. In each quatrain, the first and third, and second and fourth lines rhyme on the final syllable.

A. E. Housman was an Englishman by birth and a classical scholar (mostly of Roman poetry) by profession. In many of his poems, these two aspects of their author combine to create a paradoxically unchanging world of human vicissitudes. In this poem, for example, there is no clearly defined setting, either in space or time. Having a universal theme, it could take place anywhere at any time, whether in ancient Greece or modern England. Housman, therefore, is not describing a particular situation (or an actual life), but a universal condition of humankind. The “athlete” of the title is entirely fictitious, having been created by Housman to exemplify his unorthodox religious view that humanity has been thrust by someone or something into a world alien to its desires.

The first quatrain recalls an event in the recent past (less than a year before, presumably) when the unnamed young athlete had won a track meet sponsored by competing municipalities. In recognition of his feat, the people of his own town (to whom he had brought this much-desired victory) honored him profusely by parading him through the marketplace to his home in a sedan chair (mounted on poles and...

(The entire section is 434 words.)