Literary Analysis Of To An Athlete Dying Young By A.E. Housman

November 3, 2020 by Essay Writer

The poem “To An Athlete Dying Young” by A.E. Housman, is an overall melancholy poem that expresses the notion that a premature death can be beneficial to successful athletes. The speaker utilizes a rhyme scheme, tone and symbolism to imply that it is better to die in one’s heyday rather than to live to a ripe old age just to see all their achievements diminish and become inconsequential to everybody.

Housman utilizes a simple AABB rhyme scheme throughout the poem. For example in stanza one, the lines one and two end with “…race” and “…place” while lines three and four end with “…by” and “…high”. By providing this easy to recognize rhyme scheme, the reader can quickly identify it and know what to expect from the poem form wise. This presents the reader with the sense of certainty because they know that every two consecutive lines will have a rhyme. It also serves to give comfort to the reader by giving them this certainty because the topic of death is an unpleasant thing to think about due the uncertainty of it. The runner had died unexpectedly at a young age. Life is uncertain. One does not know when or how they will die. No one knows if they will be remembered after they have passed or if anybody would care. The form reflects our desire to have certainty in such an uncertain world.

Housman uses a tone shift from stanza one to stanza two. In stanza one, there is a joyous, nostalgic tone as an athlete is being celebrated when the townspeople “chaired the runner through the market-place”. Stanza two starts with “To-day, the road all runners come”, meaning the runner has gone to meet his maker. The runner is once again being carried on the shoulders of the townspeople, but this time the runner is in a casket being carried to his grave. Not only does the situation shift between the stanzas one and two, but also the tone. The tone shifted from jubilant to melancholy. This shift occurred so that the speaker could go on to make his point about how glory can only be attained perpetually by dying after achieving it.

The laurel wreath is a prominent symbol in “To An Athlete Dying Young.” A laurel wreath is usually placed on the heads of victorious athletes back in ancient Greece and it is an important symbol of triumph in this poem. By asserting in the third stanza that the laurel grows early, the speaker suggests that the peak of a runner’s success is achieved when they are in their youth. However, once picked, the laurel “withers quicker than the rose”. This symbolizes how brief fame and glory is after achieving it. But because the runner died at a young age, his glory and fame will remain intact, and the laurel will remain ‘unwithered on the runner’s curls’.

“To An Athlete Dying Young” provides a strong theme that dying at the peak of one’s achievements allow their greatness to live on through the memories of their admirers. The early deaths of people like Bruce Lee, Tupac, Aaliyah, and Steve Irwin all seem to support the validity of Housman’s perception of glory. Because they lost their lives when they were still considerably young, death gave them everlasting life in the minds of their fans and they are still being honored and celebrated today.

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