By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
One of the most famous and best-loved poems in A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, ‘To an Athlete Dying Young’ is a powerful eulogy for a man who is the human embodiment of physical fitness and prowess, but who faces an early death owing to illness.
To an Athlete Dying Young
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.
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.
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.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
So set, before the echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.
Housman had a personal fondness for athletes: it was a young athlete, named Moses Jackson, who was the love of his life. When Housman met Jackson when they were both studying at Oxford in the late 1870s, it soon became apparent that Jackson did not return Housman’s affections. But Housman loved Jackson, with a hopeless and unrequited passion and devotion, until the day Moses Jackson died in 1923.
‘To an Athlete Dying Young’ combines two themes of Housman’s poetry, which are particularly prevalent in his first volume of poems, A Shropshire Lad (1896), from which ‘To an Athlete Dying Young’ is taken. Those themes are the idea of dying young (whether by one’s own hand or, as is the case here, through some incurable illness) and the admiration for youth and beauty – and in particular, masculine youth and beauty – which sprang from Housman’s own homosexuality.
Like many of Housman’s poems, the early death of the athlete is not treated simply as a tragedy: indeed, in keeping with the sentiment Housman expresses elsewhere, he sees the athlete’s decision to ‘slip betimes away’ (i.e. to die early) as a good thing, although we know really that it is not the athlete’s conscious decision to do so.
But Housman’s wording in this stanza grants the athlete a sense of agency and control over his early demise, arguing that if the athlete had lived on and grown old and grey, he would have lived to see his glory fade. The laurel grows early, Housman says – in other words, awards for athletic prowess are given to the young, when they are at the peak of their fitness – but such physical excellence cannot last, and indeed even beauty (embodied here by the rose) outlasts it. Before your looks fade, your athletic skill goes.
The couplet ‘And early though the laurel grows / It withers quicker than the rose’ is technically inaccurate: the laurel is a far more hardy plant than the rose, and as Tom Burnam points out in his excellent , even when the laurel and rose are cut and used for rosettes or garlands (the implication in Housman’s lines), the laurel far outlives the rose, which would wither far ‘quicker’.
But given that Keats confused Cortes with Balboa in one of his famous poems, and Tennyson got the number of men in the Light Brigade wrong, we can overlook Housman’s slight inaccuracy.
Written in quatrains comprising rhyming couplets and in iambic tetrameter (four beats, or eight syllables, per line), ‘To an Athlete Dying Young’ is in keeping with the other poems from A Shropshire Lad in being metrically regular and formally polished. The poem, like the rest of Housman’s poetry, is taut, concise, sharp.
But the sentiment expressed in the poem is loaded with emotion, which is barely concealed by the concision of the verse. Such is most of Housman’s best poetry: like the poetical embodiment of the British stiff upper lip, ‘To an Athlete Dying Young’ is an emotional, but emotionally restrained, piece of poetry.