To an Athlete Dying Young

by A. E. Housman

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Discussion Topic

Metaphors and imagery in "To an Athlete Dying Young"

Summary:

"To an Athlete Dying Young" employs metaphors and imagery to convey themes of fleeting glory and the ephemeral nature of life. The poem uses the metaphor of a race to symbolize life's journey and the athlete's early death as a means to preserve his fame. Imagery of victory and funeral rites further underscores the contrast between youthful triumph and the finality of death.

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What are some metaphors in "To an Athlete Dying Young"?

In A.E. Housman's poem "To an Athlete Dying Young," the poet uses the metaphor of the runner, an athlete, to represent all those who have died young while still in their prime and glory. Furthermore, the image of the athlete as he wins the race and is carried home "shoulder-high" as he is cheered by the townspeople is juxtaposed to the image of the same young athlete being carried home "shoulder-high" in his coffin. The metaphor of the "stiller town" represents the deathly quiet of the grave where the athlete will rest.

In stanza five, the "lads that wore their honours out" become a metaphor for those who do not die young, while still in their glory days, and go on to live a life perhaps filled with regret for the past. Interestingly enough, this poem was recited by Isak Dinesen Blixen, played by Meryl Streep in the movie Out of Africa, when Denys Finch Hatton, played by Robert Redford, was killed while still in the prime of his life. Again, this emphasizes the metaphor of the athlete dying while he is still young, fit, and able, comparing this to anyone who is killed while still in the bloom of life rather than withering away through old age and sickness. The poet emphasizes that it is better to die when one has the "early-laureled head"—laurel being a symbol of victory—rather than waste away when glory has faded.

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What are some metaphors in "To an Athlete Dying Young"?

The entire poem does not refer to a specific athlete or a particular sports event but to a universal condition. The condition of the athlete becomes, therefore, metaphoric of the entire human existence and its inevitable progression towards death. Significantly, in line 5, humanity is defined as formed by different "runners". This second stanza is highly metaphorical, describing the experience of death with terms such as "home" (grave) and "stiller town" (cemetery) that usually refer to our everyday lives.

In addition to the progression towards death, the characterization of humans as runners could also refer to the equally inevitable competition among humans for fame. Such competition, as the following stanzas make clear, may seem futile with hindsight as death is not simply the culmination of physical decay but also of oblivion ("Runners whom renown outran/And the name died before the man"). The paradox of the poem is that oblivion and disappointments can be avoided through death, so that the dead person does not realize the transitory nature of fame.

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Where is imagery used in the poem "To an Athlete Dying Young" and are there any metaphors?

Houseman's poem features a great deal of figurative language in its description of an athlete's accomplishments and the inevitable failure that awaits.  The second stanza is a wonderful use of imagery of praise:  "Shoulder high we bring you home."  There are other examples of this notion of praise, in the first and third stanzas.  These images are wrapped with the idea of the athlete enjoying praise from fans.  These pictures are contrasted with the silence that results from the results of not winning, or not participating in activities that illicit praise:  "From fields where glory does not stay."  The overall metaphor in the poem is the idea of the praise of the athlete.  The poem suggests that each athlete endures two forms of death.  There is one type of death to which all humans must succumb.  Yet, another type of death, spoken to in a loud and resounding manner throughout the poem, is the idea of an athlete who no longer enjoys the praise of the fan, the adulation from their audience.  Perhaps, this is the larger metaphor for everyone who enjoys appreciation from others as a part of their chosen craft, for at some point, this will disappear and leave a void, similar to the athlete in Houseman's poem.

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