To an Athlete Dying Young

by A. E. Housman

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Analysis of A. E. Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young"


A. E. Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young" reflects on the fleeting nature of fame and the benefits of dying at one's prime. The poem suggests that the athlete's early death allows him to be remembered at his peak, avoiding the decline and obscurity that often follow prolonged life. It juxtaposes the glory of youthful achievement with the inevitability of time's passage.

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What are the figures of speech, theme, and meaning in A. E. Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young"?

A. E. Housman takes an alternative look at dying in "To an Athlete Dying Young." Speaking directly to the young man who has died, the narrator tries to help not only himself but the other people who are grieving. 

The poem has seven stanzas written as quatrains.  Each quatrains has two couplets that rhyme.  Therefore, the rhyming scheme is AABB.

Several literary devices are used to bring the poem to life. The entire idea for the poem is an extended metaphor comparing the race that the boy won to the life that he lived. 

The time you won your town the race...

Today, the road all runners come,

Townsman of a stiller town.

Literally, the boy won a race which brought glory for him and his town. Now, figuratively, he is traveling another road that all men must travel to his grave.

Other metaphors are employed by the poet:

  • the road all runners come--death
  • And set you at your threshold down--the edge of the grave
  • Townsman of a stiller town--the cemetery

Another literary device that the poet uses is the apostrophe. This  figure of speech  addresses someone absent or dead as though they were alive and present and were able to reply. The entire poem applies the apostrophe because the person addressed is the young athlete who has already died. 

Alliteration enhances the rhythm of the lines in the poem. 

  • Today, the road all runners come
  • Smart lad, to slip betimes away.
  • The garland briefer than a girl's.

The poet has a particular message in each verse:

Stanza 1- The view of the poem is to say that the young boy won a race and  was carried through town with the crowds cheering for him and showing their pride in him.

Stanza 2-Now, the boy has run his final race and has passed away.  They have already taken him  to the cemetery and left the casket at the edge of the grave.

Stanza 3-Here is the unusual stance toward this death.  The boy is lucky that he died when he was still wearing his laurel wreath of victory.  Glory does not last, but he died in the midst of his.

Stanza 4-Since you have died, you will not have to endure someone breaking your records or the cheers of the crowds lost forever.

Stanza 5-Fame is fleeting. You will not be added to the list of boys who outlived their glory--the runners whose names were no longer famous before they died.

Stanza 6-How will you be remembered--Fleet of foot and holding up the trophy that you won.

Stanza 7- Your laurel wreath will never wither.  When we think of you, your laurel will be just as fresh as ever.

The theme of the poem speaks to a young person dying in his prime and being remember like that forever.  Compare the boy in this poem to Marilyn Monroe.  Today, she would be 85 years old.  That is not how we remember her. In our minds, she is still 34, slim and sexy, blonde, and beautiful.  She will never lose her youth because like the young lad she died too soon, still  in her prime. 

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What are the figures of speech, theme, and meaning in A. E. Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young"?

I generally always analyze a poem along two main pathways.  You can take them in either order too. One way to analyze a poem is to analyze the plot, meanings, and themes.  The second way to analyze a poem is to break down its structure, rhyme scheme, rhythm, and meter.  I like doing the latter first, because I think that understanding the structure of the poem can highlight theme and tone shifts.  

Stanza wise, "To an Athlete Dying Young" is very straightforward.  The poem is made of 7, four line stanzas.  In poetry, a four line stanza is called a quatrain. Together, all of the quatrains of his poem form an elegy.  An elegy is a poem that has been written for the occasion of someone's death.  It's not a happy type of poem, which is why Housman's poem is so disconcerting at times.  

"To an Athlete Dying Young" is a disconcerting read because it sounds happy.  The reason that it sounds happy is because it has some very standard, comforting poetry techniques.  First is the rhyme scheme.  It has a rhyme scheme and the scheme is consistent throughout the poem. The first two lines of each stanza rhyme with each other and the second two lines of each stanza rhyme with each other.  That makes the rhyme scheme AABB.  

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high
The second thing that helps with the poem's happy, sing song feeling is the rhythm and meter of the poem.  The poem is written with an alternating unstressed, stressed syllable repetition.  In poetry, that is called an iambic foot.  Each line in the poem has eight total syllables, which means that four iambic feet can fit per line.  That makes the poem's rhythm and meter iambic tetrameter.  
Let's transition to the poem's content.  Based on the title, it's clear that the poem is about the death of a young athlete.  That's sad.  What adds to poem's strange feeling about such a sad title is stanza one.  It's a really happy stanza.  It feels happy by its rhyme, rhythm, and meter, and it's about winning a race in front of a large crowd.  That's a happy event.  
But then Housman hits his readers hard with the second stanza.  The athlete is dead and being carried in a casket for his funeral.  
Today, the road all runners come, Shoulder-high we bring you home, And set you at your threshold down, Townsman of a stiller town.
That shift in tone and content is the shift that your question initially asks about.  But then stanza three offers up another shift.  This time the shift suggests that it is a good thing that the athlete died young.  What?  Housman says that it's a good thing, because now the athlete will never have to have the eventual feeling of defeat.  He will never have see his name slowly fade away from the public eye.  In other words, Housman is suggesting that the athlete has been blessed to go "out on top."    
Smart lad, to slip betimes away From fields where glory does not stay, And early though the laurel grows It withers quicker than the rose.
All in all, it appears that the general attitude is a positive and cheery outlook on death.  I see the poem's point, but I disagree.  I currently still hold one high school track record.  I held two others, and I was lucky enough to see those two records broken ten years later.  I wasn't sad.  I was incredibly proud of those athletes, because I know how hard they worked to achieve that goal.  I would not trade an early death for thinking that I had gone out on top of my game.     Thematically, death is a definite theme of the poem.  It questions the timing of death, and it forces the reader to examine when a death might be beneficial to someone.  That's morbid.  Pride is also a theme of the poem, because Housman is suggesting that it might be better to die happy, young and proud instead of as an old man who might not be proud of his past achievements that nobody remembers.     Hope it helps!  
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What is the plot of A. E. Housman's poem "To an Athlete Dying Young"?

Since enotes only allows one question at a time, yours was edited.

A. E. Housman was a poet who felt keenly the disappointments of life.  Reflecting his sense of the contradictions of life, his poem "To an Athlete Dying Young" presents the paradoxical situation of an athlete's death being treated with praise.  For, the athlete, who was once carried on the shoulders of men as the hero of a race is now lauded as "Smart lad" for having won the race of life by dying young.  Having defeated time by dying young, the athlete has died "before its echoes fade" while his name yet brings cheers.  The "chair" that he is carried in is his coffin.  Once buried, he will be remembered as young and vital and a champion in contrast to those who live longer lives and are defeated by time's aging and the ephemeral condition of fame.

That Housman's poem contains a truth has evidence in history.  In America such people as Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Elvis Presley, John F. Kennedy and the like have become iconic legends because they possessed the "wisdom" to "slip betimes away/ From fields where glory does not stay."

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What are the poetic elements in A. E. Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young"?

One of the tragic fates in life is the death of young person in the prime of his life.  Most people want to live a long life and would not wish a premature death on anyone.  Yet, this is the impetus of the poem “To an Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman.  The poet puts a different slant on dying too young.

Literary Elements

The setting of the poem is the funeral of a young runner who won a championship which pleased the entire town.

The narration is first person with one of the dead young man’s friends as the speaker.

The theme of the poem is the death of the speaker’s reflection on the young athlete’s death serving a positive purpose. 

The tone initially seems sad and mourning but as the poem progresses, it becomes celebratory for the early death of the boy.

Figurative language-


  • “the road all runners come…” This is the road to the cemetery.
  • “Townsman of a stiller town.” The young athlete is now a member of the graveyard or cemetery.


“It withers quicker than a rose.” This compares the life of the laurel plant to the life of the rose.

Poetic Devices

Alliteration- the repetition of consonants

  • “Today, the road all runners come…”
  • ‘Townsman of a stiller town…”
  • “Smart lad, to slip betimes away…”

The purpose of alliteration is to create a consistent pattern that catches the mind's eye and focuses attention.

Allusion-a reference to other piece of literature or mythological reference

And round that early-laurelled head

From Greek history, when the champion of a race or sporting event was crowned, the laurel wreath was the crown that was used.

Personification-giving an inanimate object or abstract idea human qualities

“Eyes the shady night has shut”-The night does not have the ability to shut anything

“After earth has stopped the ears”-The earth cannot stop the ears.

Apostrophe-the direct address of an inanimate object, absent person, or concept

The time you won your town the race

We chaired you through the market-place;

Man and boy stood cheering by,

And home we brought you shoulder-high.


This is a narrative poem.  It has seven quatrains which follow a set rhyme scheme.  The pattern is AABB. The quatrain divides into two couplets that provide a present and future or past meaning. In addition, each quatrain is one lone sentence.   Each line has eight syllables which when read aloud makes it feel like the pace of a runner. 


The narrator addresses the boy in these lines and throughout the poem as though he is still alive. He reminisces about the boy’s life, reassuring him that it is better to die young. The narrator speaks to the young man who has died.  He reminds him of the race that he won and how the entire town celebrated his victory.  Today, he is going down the path that all runners run.  The men are putting him to rest in the graveyard. 

The glory of an athlete does not last forever.  Most of the time, this success fades faster than it comes.  Now that he has died, he cannot lose that fame.  That is how he will always be remembered because the glory achieved can be more short-lived than the youth’s life. He feels the young athlete deserves compliments because by dying early he has escaped the possible unhappiness of witnessing his athletic records being broken by some other athlete in the future.

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What are the poetic elements in A. E. Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young"?

The speaker of "To an Athlete Dying Young" by A.E. Housman talks directly to a young athlete, offering advice and reflections on living, dying, and fame. 

In the first stanza, the speaker recalls the time the young athlete, a runner, won a race for his town, and the people were so thrilled with his victory that everyone stood by and cheered as some people hoisted the runner on their shoulders and brought him home. 

Stanza two has many parallels to the first stanza, though this time the race is different. The athlete is now traveling "the road all runners come," as the same men bring him home on their shoulders and set him down, "[t]ownsman of a stiller town." The young athlete is being carried in a coffin and laid to rest in a cemetery, the "stiller town" which the speaker mentioned.

For the rest of the poem, the speaker tells the dead young athlete why he is better off having died young. He calls him a "smart lad" for escaping his earthly life, a place where "glory does not stay," and any earthly rewards for winning wither "quicker than the rose." He assures the young, fallen athlete that he is fortunate because he will never have to see someone beat his record, and he will not miss the cheers of the crowds once the "earth has stopped [his] ears."

Because he is dead, this young athlete will never be one of those 

...lads that wore their honours out,

Runners whom renown outran

And the name died before the man.

So, says the speaker, the young man chose a good time to die, before he can become someone who once won a race--a man who was once famous but has since faded into obscurity. He comforts the boy with the knowledge that he will remain famous among the "strengthless dead, and his crown of laurels will never wither. 

The speaker clearly believes that life is full of such disappointments that dying young is preferable to living out a normal lifespan, and the theme centers around this idea. Because fame fades quickly, even before one dies; the only way to really hold on to fame is to die young. It is a pessimistic view, of course, but it is the view of this speaker (and Housman himself). 

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