To an Athlete Dying Young

by A. E. Housman

Start Free Trial

Student Question

How can you compare and contrast the poems "Out, Out" by Robert Frost and "To An Athlete Dying Young" by A.E. Housman?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Robert Frost's poem "Out, Out—," and A.E. Housman's poem, "To an Athlete Dying Young" are similar in that they deal with two men dying young, but the tone is very different for each poem.

There is a sense of tragedy present in Robert Frost's "Out, Out—" that does not overtly appear in Housman's poem. Frost has written this poem based on true events that occurred to his neighbor's son, when the boy was cutting wood with a buzz saw and accidentally cut his hand. His loss of blood was so swift, that the boy's worries over losing is hand disappeared when he died from heart failure on the operating table. The tale is very sad, though Frost attempts to remain distant enough to share the events, not so sorrowful in his writing that the audience misses his allusion to Macbeth's famous speech, or the response of human nature to move on with life in the face of death.

Frost's poem receives its title from Frost's allusion to Shakespeare's Macbeth, and Macbeth's response when he learns of his wife's suicide. In the play, Macbeth remarks that death is inevitable coming sooner to some than others: he seems to easily come to terms with this.

There would have been a time for such a word...[death]
Out, out, brief candle!...It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth's sentiment seems to be echoed in the poem's ending.

And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

However, the poem's title also bears out the suddenness of this death: how unprepared anyone was for it with the "Out, Out—." The dash indicates the abrupt manner in which life ended for the boy, changing his family forever—how quickly one error in judgment took the boy's life.

However, even while the author maintains some distance to report the incident, Frost does not completely hide his sense of the tragedy as he speaks of the "boy:"

Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man's work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled.

On the other hand, Housman's poem is very different. Here, too, a young man dies, a young athlete: a runner. We are not sure what has caused his death, but this is not the focus of the poem. There is a sadness at his passing; the speaker tries to impart a sense of relief that he died while still young while he is still remembered for his accomplishments.

Whereas the town had "chaired him high" cheering for his success, now the men gather to carry him to his final resting place.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Housman calls the young man "smart lad" in coming home this way, but as the poem continues, the comments he makes are probably written more to comfort the speaker having seen a life ended so quickly:

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields were glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Housman says it is difficult grow older watching one's achievements overshadowed by another, younger man's triumphs, but I sense beneath all this that Housman recognizes that being passed by others is a part of aging; however, young death is unnatural—and all the reasons the poet lists that make this a "good death" are merely his rationalizations to attempt to make sense of a young person dying so early.

Additional Source:

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial