To an Athlete Dying Young, by A. E. Housman, gives the reader an alternate view of death. Rather than death in youth being a sad and mournful time, the speaker sees it as an escape from seeing your life's work forgotten and faded. The speaker of this poem takes the form of one of the deceased's friends. This can be seen from the line, "shoulder-high, we bring you home" (6) because in a funeral, it is custom for the deceased's closest friends to carry the casket. The speaker plays an ironic part in this poem, seeing life ended early as a great and lucky thing. The speaker views an early death as an escape from seeing his accomplishments forgotten and faded. The line "And early though the laurel grows/ It whithers quicker than the rose."(11-12) is a clear description of the speakers view. A laurel is an evergreen tree that is the emblem of victory, distinction, and accomplishments. Knowing this, it becomes obvious that the speaker is saying that accomplishments happen early in life and because of this, it is better to die in the glory of youth then to rest too long on one's laurels only to see them fade, beaten out, and forgotten. To the speaker, being forgotten is the worst thing that can happen to man saying, "Now you will not swell the rout/ Of lads that wore their honors out,/ Runners whom renown outran/ And the name died before the man." (17-20). The speaker is clearly envious of the deceased, and one gets the feeling that he is reflecting on his own life in this poem, on his accomplishments and how they were overshadowed by the accomplishments of others. The speaker wishes that he could have died in his prime so that he did not have to feel the pain of becoming another nameless forgotten blob in a sea of nameless blobs.
The rhyme and meter are also very important in this poem. The rhyme scheme is in AA BB format, producing a then and now feel. This is how it once was, and now this is how it is and how it will be. The meter is also important. Each line has eight syllables and when reading this poem, it seems to set a pace, much like the footsteps of a runner. This is important not only because the poem is about the life and death of a runner, but because it also shows the pace of life and life after death. It shows that life still goes on, and that life does not stop because of a death. In fact, life can erase any evidence of a deceased person's life.
There are two prominent literary devices used in this poem, personification and apostrophe. Personification can be seen in the lines "Eyes the shady night has shut" (13) and "After earth as stopped the ears" (16). Night cannot shut, and earth obviously cannot stop one's ears, it has no hands. Yet in this poem these two lines provide the reader with the feeling that death is a natural and peaceful bliss for this man, protecting him from seeing his glory fade and his fame forgotten. Apostrophe can be seen in the opening stanza "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 speaker here is speaking to the runner as if he is still alive. By speaking in this manner throughout the poem, it feels as if he is reminiscing on the young man's life, and then reassuring him that dying young is better then dying after one's prime. This brings the reader into the poem, and makes them feel a connection to both the speaker and the young man.
When i first read this poem, I literally got tears in my eyes. I found it to be such a sad, yet beautiful poem, focusing on the life and death of a beloved athlete. I think this is why it caught my attention. But then, upon further inspection i realized that it is about one man's jealousy over the death of another, which I thought to be a bit strange. People usually want to live long happy lives, not short ones where they are cut down in their prime. Yet in a way it made sense, who wants to live to see all their records smashed and their name forgotten? No one. From the line "Smart lad, to slip bedtimes away" (9) I got the sense that the speaker was reflecting also on his own life, and how he has lived to see his fame tarnished. He views the athlete as smart because he died before he was able to feel the pain of his hard work gone to waist. Even though I may not agree with the speaker and his view of death, I still find this poem to be extremely touching and well written, a reflection on the glory of life, and the 'luxury' (as the speaker would call it) of eternal slumber.