“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 carried on the shoulders of either two or four men).
The second quatrain, starkly juxtaposed to the first, similarly describes the young runner’s funeral. Once again, he is being carried “shoulder-high,” but this time in a coffin rather than a sedan chair. Both are rectangular boxes of approximately the same size and therefore look rather alike. The “home” to which the runner is brought this time, however, is his grave. The “threshold” is the edge of the grave pit, and the “stiller town” is the cemetery. How, when, or why he died the reader does not know.
Quatrains 3 through 7 are the unidentified (but clearly older) narrator’s comments on the runner’s seemingly tragic death; they represent thematic development rather than narrative. The comments are addressed directly to the dead runner—presumably able to hear them—who is praised for having chosen the right time in life to die. Thus, he will never be around to see how temporary his fame was. Nor will he ever know the agony of being beaten in another running of the same race another year. Among the dead, if not among the living, his fame will endure forever.
The form of the poem is deliberately simple, as if chiseled in stone, and appropriate to the generality of its theme. Descriptive elaboration is minimal throughout, so as not to distract the reader from more general considerations or to suggest that the runner’s death is merely a tragic incident rather than a universal symbol. Knowing that the runner is fictitious, one then sees that the race is metaphoric. In line 5, specifically, all humans become “runners” in the inevitable race toward death that they are powerless to avoid. Similarly, everyone runs a race to be remembered for one thing or another, competing for the prize of fame, but time destroys whatever reputation a person can build. The course of life, then, leads not only to death but also to oblivion.
“Smart lad,” at the beginning of line 9, is deliberately abrupt—both syllables are stressed—so as to emphasize the paradoxical nature of the poet’s assertion that it is more intelligent to die than to live. “Glory”...
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in the same stanza means both fame and light, the implied sunset being death. Wreaths made of laurel were normally awarded to winning athletes (and poets) in the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome. The laurel in Housman’s poem is therefore another reference to fame or recognition. The rose has long been a symbol of beautiful ephemerality; it represents a fine moment that cannot survive the passage of time. In the fourth quatrain, “shady night” invokes not only darkness but also the similarly obscure abode of departed spirits (shades) of Greco-Roman mythology. Housman’s references to the afterlife are only poetic devices, however, as he did not actually believe in survival after death of any kind. In the fifth quatrain, “renown” and “name” are personifications.
The “So” of line 21 tells the reader that the last two stanzas together form the conclusion of the poem. Housman’s image of fading echoes (derived from footsteps no longer heard) is another reference to the ephemerality of fame. Both the sill and lintel of that quatrain refer to an imagined window between the world of the living and the dead. The narrator urges the dead runner to look back through the window toward the world of the living and to display to it the “still-defended” (because no one will ever beat him) challenge cup that he received for winning the race. On the death side of the window (quatrain 7), other shades will then gaze in wonder and admiration at the runner to find that his seemingly temporary fame is now destined to endure among them for eternity. The “garland” of the last line suggests the one given to the Queen of May in traditional English festivities on the first of that month, when she reigned for that day only.