I’ve worked with the poetry of 1939 (my current Pulitzer year) for a month at this point, and thought it was time to step away from it into a theme that’s in the news right now, as I sometimes do. I’ll confess to being an Olympics nut—I even watch the sports I don’t understand…I watch them even in preliminary rounds between two countries I feel no personal connection to—but I don’t think it will take an international sports fanatic to appreciate today’s poem. When I thought of choosing a poem that would touch on the theme of athletic competition, my mind went to one poem immediately—one that may already have occurred to you, depending on how much late Victorian poetry you’ve read. This verse comes from a collection published in the year of the first modern Olympic Games, 1896, by A. E. Housman. The collection’s title is A Shropshire Lad, and the poem I offer for your consideration today is entitled “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 its 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.”
This Victorian style is, of course, now much out of fashion—the tetrameter rhythm and the rhyming couplet don’t make many appearances in lists of great modern poems. They are more reminiscent of Hallmark greeting card verse, for many folks. And yet Housman’s elegant command of this poem, from start to finish, reminds me how powerful this kind of writing can be—yes, he’s losing any sense of “realism” in his phrasing, but the combination of sound and sense makes this a better poem every time I come back to it.
The composition is beautiful. Housman juxtaposes two images in the opening stanzas—in the one, a young man held aloft by cheering friends, raised above the crowds in exultation. In the other, the same young man, borne to the last rest on the shoulders of those who loved him. The similarities and differences wash over me simultaneously, and I can stay in that emotional moment for quite a long time, asking myself what these mirror images (and polar opposites) mean. There’s a lot of resonance in the idea of being carried—it’s a maternal image, an image often associated with the human relationship to the divine. We carry the very old and the very young. And, as Housman reminds us, we pick up our friends in our moments of most intense joy—think of the gymnast leaping into her coach’s arms after a medal-winning performance—and in our moments of most intense sorrow and loss. I love the phrase “townsman of a stiller town” because of the split that runs right through it: the athlete is both still a citizen of this earthly town, which has been silenced by grief, and now a citizen of another realm that is quieter yet. There are more intense ways for a poem to bring the reader inside mourning (I think of Lorca’s poem, which is of course a very different experience), but something about Housman’s restraint here makes the emotion I’m tapping into all the more moving.
The central three stanzas put forward Housman’s basic thesis—although the poem invites us into the sadness of the bereaved, it is addressed really to the dead athlete, and it tells him that a young death is best. There are different ways to take this section of the poem: we can, I think, read Housman as being very sincere in believing that it’s better than the man die before his “name”. Achilles struggles with this very question on the banks of the wine-dark sea, and his fellow Achaean princes would have told him much the same thing. But I think Housman is doing something just a little subtler—he is finding the only consolation he can in the death of a talented young man. The “smart lad” is addressed ruefully: Housman is glad, at least, that this death leaves the vision of his early glory untarnished. He is soothing the loss with the knowledge that “he died happy”, as we sometimes say.
And he closes by urging him away to Elysium, with deft word choice (“the fleet foot on the sill of shade” strikes exactly the right tones and sounds) and one last grasp at solace with the image of the young man’s hands raising aloft “the still-defended challenge-cup”. Housman does not explore the Christian imagery he might here (“O grave, where is thy victory?” would have been an easy tack to take, if he’d wanted), but there is still something comforting in the idea of an honor that death cannot claim from him. Death has robbed the athlete and those who love him of almost everything, but unexpectedly it has given something back—the lasting image of the man who left the world at the height of his talents, with the brief garland wreathing his head. Housman stops there because he can take it no further. This consolation will not last if he examines it too long—like Achilles in the Odyssey, the athlete will discover in the underworld the limited satisfaction that earthly glory brings. Like the athlete’s life itself, he stops short.
I suppose it is a strange choice—to reflect on this kind of somber imagery in the midst of an international competition that celebrates (among other things) life and health and peace and strength. But that’s the reflection Housman is undergoing, himself, examining the one in the light of the other. It would be easy to condense the poem into a platitude—carpe diem, we might say, or “dance like no one’s watching”, or “life every day as if it were your last”. But I don’t think it really means those things exactly, and I think it loses a lot of its wisdom if I try to step back and paraphrase. Part of its success for me is how it works in specific—these specific words and scenes, unfolding as Housman designs them to. He would have been raised on the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, whose burial rite includes the phrase “in the midst of life we are in death”, and I think his poem explores this idea more fully than most I’ve read.
So I am reminded of how complicated life is, and how hard it is to summarize or paraphrase. I think of these talented young people in London, cheering their victories (Housman reminds me of the importance of lauding these brief moments of accomplishment and joy), and remembering how quickly they fade from view—how few moments from past Olympics I really remember, and how quickly I am likely to forget much of what I see now. It makes them seem at once not very significant, and very significant. For all of these reasons, Housman’s poem humanizes me—brings me back to a better understanding of what it feels like for me to be human, and to be a part of humanity writ large—and that, above all, is what I go to poetry to find.